Photos by Michael Lichter
If you’ve been to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, you’ve already seen Jeff Decker’s work. His 16-foot, 5000-pound bronze Dynamic Hill Climber—a soaring sculpture depicting a 1930 H-D DAH-mounted hill-climber at the apogee of his ascent—occupies the place of honor on the museum grounds. Whether or not you’re a motorcycle person or an art person, it’s an awesome piece of work. If you are a motorcycle person, the level of detail and accuracy is amazing. If you’re a sculptor, you might appreciate that the final piece is, in fact, 200 castings welded together. After sculpting something that complex, piecing together a custom, even a Vincent custom, is Romper Room work. We sat down with Decker to find out how it all came together.
How does a guy who grew up in the Southern California suburbia of Thousand Oaks get to be a sculptor in bronze, anyway?
My dad was always building race cars, and we always had a shop that was bigger than our house. I was surrounded by a father and uncles who always worked with their hands: chassis, body, motor and machine work. It was really blue collar, but I was in a neighborhood where everybody was a doctor or lawyer. And I didn’t really appreciate how privileged I was. I drove a 356 Porsche to school that my dad and I restored, and people thought, “Oh, gee, poor Jeff can’t afford a new car.” I tried to explain how my car was better than their new BMW, but that’s how it was: The Deckers drove old clunkers. To this day, we’ve never owned a new car.
When I came to Brigham Young [University], they had a pretty weak art program. I studied art history and Spanish, and I found art pretty boring. Art programs today, whether prestigious art school or appendage of a university, they don’t really dig representational art. They see Norman Rockwell as an illustrator, not an artist. When I expressed interest in, you know—“I want to capture man’s quest for speed! I wanna synergize organic with mechanical!”—my teachers were like, it’s silly, you’re not expressing yourself. Well, for them, it’s silly. For me, it’s honest and sincere. I couldn’t throw up some silly abstract thing in front of a building in New York. That wouldn’t be me. You might not think I’m the greatest sculptor in the world, but what I do really does come from the heart, from the soul; it’s what I eat, breathe and live.
When you think about it, guys on motorcycles are the most natural progression in the world from sculptures of guys on horses, which has been an art staple from Roman times, right? Or before then…
Absolutely. That is the quintessential theme of what I do, and it’s the paradigm shift it represents. When Frederic Remington did all these cowboys and Indians, he was glamorizing a chunk of American history with about only 20 years relevance. I mean, Roy Rogers was “realler” than Wyatt Earp. When the Transcontinental Railroad came through, that hybrid of the European cow and the Texas Longhorn, they just loaded them on the train. The cowboy became obsolete. Americans lost their identity but continued to want something “American” instead of the old world so many of them came from. So we fabricated the cowboy, and Remington helped do that.
What I think is more real is the synergy between America and the Industrial Revolution, that paradigm shift. For 4000 years, there was the man on the horse. That animal was transportation, wealth, power, food—suddenly it’s completely a pet, glue, the Kentucky Derby and women in silly hats. And the motorcycle replaced it. The motorcycle literally replaced the horse in the American psyche. We call it an iron horse, we use the same clichés about the wind in your face, the freedom—and it’s even realer, because a horse can eat and sleep and sh_t on its own. It doesn’t need man. The motorcycle is a useless piece of junk until you fill it with fuel, unless we tend to its needs.
How did your Vincent come about?
I did a sculpture in 1999 of Rollie Free laid out on his Vincent at Bonneville (“Flat Out at Bonneville”). When I began researching it, we were listening to an audio tape of Rollie, and he mentioned this mechanic named Mel Helde and Farmington, Utah—that’s an hour-and-a-half away from where I live. I looked in the phone book and there’s a Mel Helde, Jr., so I called this dude and asked him about Rollie Free, and he says, “Yeah, you’re talking about the scrapbook in the basement. I can’t really get to it today, can you come by tomorrow?”
So I get there, and this guy was a teenager out there on the salt, helping his pops wrench with Rollie. He turns this shoebox full of info over to me, and [Vincent aficionados/restorers/collectors] Herb Harris and Jay Leno and Mike Parti and Marty Dickerson and I all pooled our information to come up with a great body of work that helped Jerry Hatfield write his book [Flat Out! The Rollie Free Story]. Meanwhile, I’ve been collecting DNA, from patches that were on his jacket to original photos to bike insurance policies. Herb would pull stuff off his shelves and say, “This is the tire he set the speed record on.”
“I want it, Herb.”
“Well, Jeff, you can’t really run it. It’s not safe.”
“No, but I can take pictures of the bike with it on there.”
Then I’d say, “I want these motors,” and he’d say, “Well, these are Marty Dickerson’s cases. He was such a tightwad he’d never buy a Lightning bottom end because the factory would upcharge you. He’d buy a standard Shadow bottom end and ‘Lightningize’ it with the big cams, use the two front heads.” So, in fact, my bike’s got more racing history than 90 percent of the Lightnings out there.
What about purists who don’t believe Vincents should be customized?
I’d say, “Herb, I don’t want to be president of the Vincent Owners Club; give me a bastard—just give me the best DNA you can find.” So this bike really is a cobbled-together Frankenstein that I’m not ashamed of. Of course, these highbrow Brits look at it like, “Oh, how dare you,” and I’m like, “What? Mine starts up and rides, yours gathers dust in your living room.”
One of the things I don’t like about stock Vincents—I’m not a huge Vincent fan—is that I think once you strip about 100 pounds off of one, you find it was kind of like an overweight woman with a beautiful face: Once you take the red meat out of her diet, she transforms. When you take that horrible seat off, and those mudguards—when you throw away about 100 pounds of Vincent bulls__t—all of a sudden, that sexy broad comes out. And that’s what I wanted to do, strip it down to the bare necessities. If it did not need it absolutely, it went away.
Comparing your bike to a Lightning, it doesn’t really look like you changed all that much besides the seat.
Well, the Lightning, there are 31 of those left, we think, and they were sexy from Day One. But they were never street-legal; they were factory-prepped beauties. When I say strip one down, I mean a Rapide or Shadow, which had these big, clunky traveling packages, about three gauges more than they need, four levers on the handlebars, risers, all these kinds of things. The fact that you say mine doesn’t look that much different than a Lightning is a huge compliment, because that was my goal—to make a street-legal Lightning.
In fact, the greatest Black Lightning in existence is the Rollie Free bike [now owned by Herb Harris], and it’s a B Rapide; technically speaking, Lightnings were all C models, which came later. The factory did all the posters and photos and promo talking about Rollie Free’s Vincent Black Lightning [Free’s bike was the first to go 150 mph, at Bonneville in 1948.], and it’s a B, which is a contradiction.
My bike, if you do the numbers, it doesn’t fit into that “31” category. But when you show it to a guy who owns a Lightning, it bums him out. He says, “Wow, where’d you get those carbs?” or “Oh, you’ve got two front heads,” and “Jeez, are those real cams in there?” He goes through there and finds out most of this damn thing is Lightning.
So I registered it as a Black Lightning. Herb and I giggled about that. He says I should call it a Black Lightning all I want, since it’s a prepped racer—plus the Vincent motorcycle club’ll go nuts; they’ll sh_t! How dare you call it that?! So I call it a “Lightning” in a very sarcastic, politically incorrect way.
Of course, I still wanted to be respectful to the Lightning; I wanted it to look like one. But next to a Lightning, mine’s tinier and sexier, there’s even less on it. If you see it from the side, the profile of the tank is stock, but when you look down on it, it’s 4½ inches narrower. When you park it next to another Vincent, you say, “Wow, look how big and fat and dumpy that stock one is…”
Give us a rundown of some build specifics.
Mine’s got the GP racing Amal carburetors and two front heads, so there’s no manifold. The hubs are specifically Lightning, with 21/20-inch rims, an impossibility to find and specifically Lightning. The brakes have heat sinks I fabricated from scratch. I exposed the springs under the seat and in front of the fork and built my own inner shock absorber because it bounced around too much. The tank’s actually 2½ inches narrower in front, 4½ inches in the rear: I took the widest measurement, at the cases, and wouldn’t go beyond that. The only things that stick out beyond the width of the motor are the pegs and handlebar. I put three-quarters of a front mudguard on the rear. And I kept all the quick-change elements: You can literally pull this thing apart—the front and rear end, the wheels—without tools. It’s all meant to be kicked apart; it’s all hand-break-downable.
You sit about 12 or 18 inches lower on mine than you would a stock Vincent—you’re down in it. I deliberately ran the exhaust pipes in front of the motor, protecting the magneto, then ran them into a heat-sink exhaust system that also acts as a skidplate, which kind of gives the illusion of it being a tighter bike. Then the gas tank is just sunk in and squeezed as tight as it’ll go—to really emphasize the bulk and the massiveness of the motor.
On the fringes of the bike, I just went as light as I humanly could. I wanted to exaggerate the freakness of, the massive nature of, the Vincent motor. The kickstand’s in a weird place, the seat’s off a Schwinn Sting-Ray, the rear fender struts are homemade.
The headlight on a Vincent weighs about four pounds and belongs on a Mack truck. I was digging through some stuff and found a beautiful little headlight from a 1970s Honda ATC; we cut a little dimple in it so it would fit tight down over the front spring, and the headlight’s actually smaller than the speedo. That speedometer is really ostentatious. I debated putting it on the bike—it sticks up like three inches. It’s really funny. That 150-mph gauge that came on Lightnings or Shadows was a very expensive upgrade, really a show-off piece. “Look! Our bikes go 150 mph, the record books show it!” It was really a bragging-rights piece. So I said, okay, I’ll play the Vincent game with the one big clunky item I probably would’ve skipped. In the end, it was just so vain, I had to go for it.
And going for it on his Vincent is no problem, Decker tells us. The old beast torques right up to 100 or so and bombs along nicely with a lot of throttle left to twist—just not with Rollie Free’s tires. Those are stashed safely away at Decker’s Springville, Utah, compound, along with a couple of Crockers, an original-paint 1914 Harley he did the Cannonball on (CW, March, 2011), another dozen or so collectible motorcycles and a warehouse or two full of whatever needs keeping, sculpting, driving or riding at the time. Leather helmets off to Jeff Decker. We don’t know anyone else who can cast a thing in bronze, blast down the road on rolling sculpture and thumb his nose at several sets of conventions simultaneously. Hard to argue with that kind of cool.