For John McInnis, it's been cars and bikes as long as he can remember. It’s also been art and mechanics for as long as the 30-year-old San Francisco native can remember. Always drawing cars and bikes, always tearing stuff apart. In high school he pushed a broom and ran parts for Roy Brizio Hot Rods in South San Francisco, probably the best after-school job one could ask for.

McInnis started out in engineering because he thought that was the only way to create a life full of all the things he loved. But it just didn’t stick. He was constantly dreaming and doodling and sketching out ideas for motorcycles he wanted to build, and for some reason, inspiration always hit hardest during calculus class, to his teacher’s disapproval. A documentary about the design and development of the Mazda Miata roadster rerouted him to industrial design, and four years at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. Through one of his teachers, a connection was made with Lightning Motorcycle where he was hired a day after graduating.

McInnis led a tour of Alta Motors for my Sunday Moto Club in late July. A couple of weeks earlier he joined our Evel Live posse to watch Travis Pastrana in Las Vegas, where I got to know more about him and his love for motorcycles.

We spoke again recently when I began my Westward Ho! Adventure from Wisconsin.

Tell me about your experience at Lightning.

I was a surface designer and mold maker for its LS-218 electric superbike. That bike is absolutely insane. Directly next door to Lightning was A & A Racing, owned and operated by Ray Abrams, a prominent name in local and national flat-track racing history. Ray's shop oozed with all the coolness and sincere legitimacy you'd expect, and I'd spend countless hours after work there listening to his stories. One of the coolest moto moments of my life to date was helping Ray push-start his TZ750 flat-tracker. I wanted badly to work for Ray, but he wasn't in a position to hire. He instead directed me to Alta Motors. Turns out there were a number of mutual contacts I had directing me to Alta, and I just kept sending them drawings until they hired me. Now I'm working on some of the coolest stuff in motorcycling. It's a dream job.

Alta sketches
From the pen of John McInnis.John McInnis

When and how did motorcycles enter the picture?

Milwaukee iron
McInnis loves Milwaukee iron in all shapes and sizes.John McInnis

It all stems from one moment. I was 4 or 5 years old and clutching my dad’s jacket riding around the block on the back of his Dover White 1967 BMW R27. He rode it rarely, but I was always sitting cross-legged in the driveway watching him perform the start-up ritual after a long stint in the garage. Even more rare was letting me ride on the back, but when I did, I couldn’t get enough. After that it was minibikes and mopeds and chainsaw-powered bicycles. Anything cheap and easy to hack together with two wheels, an engine, and no money. My first bike with a transmission was a 1994 Suzuki RM125.

What bikes have you owned, and what’s cluttering your girlfriend Audrey’s space these days?

All air-cooled, all twins or singles, mostly vintage, mostly Harleys. I have a tendency to latch onto specific models and just accumulate as many as possible as I need parts. Three Sportsters (two Ironheads, one Evo 883R), two BMW air-cooled singles, a few BSA 441 Victors (all in parts), a Ducati 250 short tracker from a local builder, Jared Smith.

My long-term project right now is a 1949 Harley-Davidson WL that's been bobbed a bit. I have a Shovelhead in pieces on the bench as well. I ride an Alta every day though.

“We all know that a motorcycle is much more than the sum of its parts, and designers have a large part in the story that’s being told.”

Audrey actually decorates our home with motorcycle parts I’m not using. We have a 900cc Sportster engine with its trans cut off sitting in a corner of our living room. As a joke, I put it there and declared it a “statement piece.” She stared at it a bit, rotated it slightly, and then nodded in approval. She knows I need this stuff in my life to feel normal. I’m a lucky guy.

Shovelhead engine
Future Shovelhead.John McInnis

Who are your artistic and design influences? Describe your moto design approach.

My grandfather was an art teacher and almost made it to Detroit as an automotive designer. I have piles of his sketchbooks and notes. He did almost everything in ballpoint pen on basic white paper, and that’s how I start basically every project.

While it’s difficult, being so heavily biased by what I think I know about motorcycles and all, I think it’s very important to find inspiration for my work in mediums other than transportation. I typically turn to architecture. Louis Kahn is my absolute favorite.

Alta concept
Alta street tracker concept.John McInnis

I love being able to disassemble something in my head and put it back together. I believe that to be an incredibly important attribute of a designed object. The motorcycle is an extreme example of how important this is because of how much of an impact it can have on our lives.

Triumph concept
Triumph Thruxton 1200 concept.John McInnis
Harley cafe concept
Harley-Davidson café racer concept.John McInnis

We all know that a motorcycle is much more than the sum of its parts, and designers have a large part in the story that’s being told. It starts with proportions and material choices and goes all the way down to the type of fasteners used to hold the thing together.

The more easily we’re able to understand how a mechanical object works, the more likely we’re to accept it into our lives. This is obviously a greater challenge when it comes to the electric moto because so much of its magic happens in ways that cannot be easily dissected this way.

Street hot-rod concept
Harley-Davidson street hot-rod concept.John McInnis
Ultralight concept
Alta Ultralight concept.John McInnis

Our design department here at Alta is committed to making the electric motorcycle an object that you enjoy looking at as much as you do riding it. I’m beyond happy to have landed with an organization that believes in the same design fundamentals.

You have your feet firmly planted in both motorcycle segments, ICE and electric. What led you to the voltage world?

I rode an Alta. Seriously, it’s amazing. I love my cantankerous old relics, but the electric riding experience is just different. It’s like discovering the motorcycle all over again.

There’s also a lot of excitement surrounding electric bikes. It’s a fresh and exciting segment to work in with a lot of “roll your sleeves up” work, a lot of ground to cover, and a ton of possibilities.

Alta Crapshoot
The Alta Crapshoot was designed and built by McInnis and fellow Altan Vinnie Falzon.Jason Hansen

We aren’t working in the incremental advancement world like ICE. Every new development is a big one.

One of my favorite things is watching people come back from their first ride on one of our bikes with the biggest grin on their faces, claiming it’s the most fun they’ve had on a motorcycle in a while.