NorCal native Jay Ward burned through more motorcycles than most kids did comic books by the time he was 20. After managing the parts department at an Oakland Harley-Davidson dealership, he chucked a comfortable salary to ply his fine arts degree at Pixar just three years after Toy Story caught the world by storm.

Jay Ward and Hugo Eccles
Pixar’s Jay Ward (left) chats with Hugo Eccles about his Untitled Motorcycles Moto Guzzi Fat Tracker V9 Pro Build at the 2018 Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel, California.Gaz Boulanger

With a rockabilly attitude and a devotion to cars and motorcycles, young Ward quickly worked his way up the Pixar ladder, starting as a production assistant making photocopies and sharpening pencils for Monsters, Inc. before catching the attention of Cars director John Lasseter. We caught up with Ward after he completed his judging duties for The Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel, California.

Jay, it’s my understanding that Pixar has been your career focus for nearly 20 years, and Cars is what many people know you for. But Cycle World is about motorcycles and the people who enjoy them, so let’s talk bikes for now.

You mentioned getting an Indian MM5 Mini Mini when you were six and a Honda CL100 at 15. Who was most influential in getting you on two wheels?

My parents were divorced, and one day my dad brought me that MM5 out to Las Vegas. It was such a little bike; we put gas in it, fired it up, and I fell over immediately in the field. I started crying, and he said, “Get up, you’re not hurt.” I had it for a while then sold it to buy a BMX bike when they became popular. I graduated to dirt bikes (RM80, Suzuki PE250, all sorts of two-strokes), which got me into trouble riding knobby tires on the street and into juvenile court. When I turned 15 my dad—who always had bikes and took me to bike shops when we were together—got me the CL100, which was street legal and opened up a whole new world of trouble. A year later I bought an RD400 [Yamaha]—a rather dangerous wheelie-popping two-stroke. I went to Laguna Seca every year from 1985 to 1988 to see Eddie Lawson, Wayne Rainey, and Randy Mamola compete.

From what you mentioned in a previous email, your motorcycle tastes have included an Aprilia Mille RSV, a BMW R90S, a Ducati Darmah SS and F1 750, a pre-unit Triumph T110 Tiger, plus lots of two strokes, some Harleys, Guzzis, and vintage scooters. How do you decide which bike to buy and when to move on to another machine?

I had to flip bikes when I was younger. I had a Suzuki Water Buffalo for a while, a GT550 Sebring, a T500 Titan. I loved bikes, and would buy, ride, flip, and buy more. Most of them were pretty cheap; I worked at an auto parts store and saved money to buy bikes. I wasn't smart with with my money in hindsight; I was living in the Bay Area by this time, having attended California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, now called California College of the Arts.

“I ride a bike every day to work if it’s not raining or if I have to take something big to work. My commute is only 15 miles from home, so it’s a really nice distance.” —Jay Ward

I just loved bikes so much, and kept flipping through to try as many as I could. There was a salvage yard called Urban Ore in Berkeley where you could buy a motorcycle from an estate sale for $200–$300. I bought an RZ350 for $1,500 that was missing a fairing and was wrecked, but it had a Kenny Roberts pedigree. I was a pretty good wrench by this time. I enjoyed working on bikes with friends.

I rode a motorcycle to art school, which was kind of rare at the time. I was usually broke, and I joined the Navy reserves out of high school at 17 because I needed money for school. When I got out they gave me a bonus of $3,000 or $4,000, so I bought a Harley Sportster! But I realized I wasn’t really into it, so I decided to build a bobber/chopper. Living in Oakland, I naively knocked on the door of the Hells Angels clubhouse. How stupid is that! A guy answered the door with a brusque “What?!” and I asked to buy Harley parts. He told me to see the guys at Oakland Custom Motorcycles, owned by Hells Angels and run by Jim “The Guinea” Colucci, while Sonny Barger was in prison.

I told him what I was looking to do, and he asked me what I had. I offered him $1,500 and the Sportster. He said, “Pick out what you want,” so I found a rigid frame and a Shovel motor, and he wrote out in pencil what he’d give me on trade. When I was missing something I’d go back and he’d let me grab what I needed. I built the bobber in my apartment living room and rode it everywhere.

“Living in Oakland, I naively knocked on the door of the Hells Angels clubhouse. How stupid is that! A guy answered the door with a brusque ‘What?!’ and I asked to buy Harley parts. He told me to see the guys at Oakland Custom Motorcycles, owned by Hells Angels and run by Jim ‘The Guinea’ Colucci, while Sonny Barger was in prison.” —Jay Ward

The bike looked cool but it was painful to ride. It was a teeth-rattling bike, but to be 21 or so riding a bobber was kinda cool back then. Former Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones once had a video where he was riding an FLH, and I thought that was cool, so I bought a four-speed FLH Shovelhead that was once a City of Richmond police bike.

By then I was managing a Harley shop parts department; I sold that bike four years ago. I kept that bike because it had been through so much with me; I got into a really bad wreck and almost lost my foot. I rebuilt the bike and kept riding it. Probably the one bike I had the longest so far.

It was such a big bike you couldn’t really lane-split with it, and it wasn’t really valuable. When I worked at Bob Dron Harley 20 years ago, it was during Arlen Ness’s heyday. One of our customers brought in a praying mantis-style Ness with really long forks and racist graphics, but it was so ’70s and wild, which would turn heads at Born-Free now.

Does being a famous car guy crowd your time to be Jay the Motorcyclist? I noticed you currently favor a customized Triumph Thruxton R.

I ride a bike every day to work if it’s not raining or if I have to take something big to work. My commute is only 15 miles from home, so it’s a really nice distance. I bought the Thruxton last summer; I bought a smoke gray 2003 Moto Guzzi V11 Sport in 2004 from the Orange County Guzzi dealer for a nice deal. I put 30,000 miles on that bike, and the only reason I sold it was boredom; I simply wanted something different after 13 years. I bought a Griso but didn’t care for the ergonomics and the mushy rear brake.

Back to animation. How did you get involved in the movie-making business? What was your educational and vocational training?

I did freelance illustration once I got my degree, and after a few years realized it was a hard way to make a living as computer graphics were coming into the scene. I was still managing the Harley parts department, but didn't want to be there my whole life. My vocation was art, and I didn't want to end up like some of my co-workers, bitter and leaning on a parts counter. I asked God for a more creative environment; I had the hard work and grit to succeed. I went to art school for a reason. A former classmate and sculptor got a job at Pixar in 1996, and invited me to check them out. This was right after Toy Story came out, and Pixar was located in scrappy Point Richmond. The place had a way different vibe than it does now.

I started as a production assistant, getting photocopies, sharpening pencils, getting coffee. The pay was horrible compared to the Harley job, but I was finally in a creative environment: no wife, no kids, no house. I could ride my Harley to work from my rent-controlled Berkeley apartment where I paid $675 a month. How about that?

The first Pixar movie I worked on was* Monsters, Inc*. I quickly became a coordinator because I had work experience and a slight salary bump. I was happy, and have never been wired to strive for more money. My next movie was Cars, and the producer said I should be a manager. "Do you want to own a house someday?" she said. Well, of course! She wanted me to manage the character team, which is the technical side. By then I was 28 or 29.

Because I knew more about cars than most people my age at the time, the director John Lasseter took notice and started asking me more questions. I became his car soulmate, and moved on to manage art for Ratatouille. By this time I bought a house.

When you make more money you tend to buy more things; with time being so precious these days with a wife and two kids I have to pay others to work on some of my bikes and cars. I’d love to tinker with my old 911, and it’s hard parting with $100 an hour, but the work needs to be done even though I’m more than capable of doing it myself.

Tell me about your fact-finding missions to prepare for a Pixar film. How early in the production process does it begin, and where does it usually take you?

It's one of my favorite things about moviemaking. In the early development phase it can take me all over the place; for Cars it was Route 66, assembly lines at several car manufacturers in Detroit, several auto shows, Pebble Beach, and the Petersen Automotive Museum because I wanted to learn as much as possible for a reason. I met several helpful and nice people along the way.

The car studios were enamored with animation, and we are enamored with car design. There are several parallels, especially production timelines. With movies it takes about four to five years from the initial sketches to final movie production, just like a new car model. Creativity, beauty, and design come before technology has to come together, kinda left brain/right brain. In the car world, it’s the same thing, trying to find that sweet spot in the middle. That’s why concept cars are so cool; no rearview mirrors!

Preparations for Cars 2 took us to five countries in 11 days; we flew into England, drove around London taking photos for research, took the Chunnel to Paris where we got on the back of motorcycles to take more photos as we wove through traffic. We took the train into Stuttgart for the opening of the Porsche museum, rented an Audi A6 wagon to drive to the Black Forest and other villages before going into Switzerland and visiting Montreux. We then went to Portofino in Italy, and into Nice before watching F1 in Monaco and flying back to California. It was an amazing trip for a film; hard to top that!

Do you ever rent or borrow a bike when you’re traveling for research?

It’s something I’d like to do more, mainly when I travel with family. Work is work, and as I mentioned it’s pretty action packed already. It used to be hard to rent bikes, but now that it’s easier my availability to ride while traveling has shrunk.

You were recently a judge at The Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel, California. What did you think of this year’s entries? Which bikes stood out the most and why?

I judged café racers, which is a bit subjective. I mean, what is the quintessential café racer? It’s not a highway bike, it’s a city bike, meant to go café hopping. Race inspired, usually British, so starting from that the baseline changes. A Triton was a hot rod, which is what a true café racer was and should be.

Café racer
One of several authentic café racers in the category judged by Ward at The Quail recently.Gaz Boulanger

In my class there was a Norton Dominator that I loved. You don’t see many early Dominators, and it had all the right bits on it. It was worn and ridden with an open primary so you can see the chain; it was genuine and cool. It didn’t feel like someone just worked something up to look old and cool.

With your bike-owning track record, there must be another on the near horizon. If so, what have you been thinking about lately?

If money were no object, I’d like to get a 1939 Harley EL Knucklehead traditional bobber to go with my ’39 Mercury. I love that era, and both my worlds would collide.

1939 Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead
This 1939 Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead is a Special Sport Solo, which was been restored to an AMCA Winner’s Circle standard in 2005, and sold at auction by Mecum in Las Vegas in late January 2017.Mecum Auctions

There are so many new bikes that catch my eye, but now that my kids are old enough I’d like to get them into dirt bikes. My wife rides a Lambretta 125, and and I have an old Vespa GS. It came full circle when an old Indian Mini came available from Chip Foose, who gifted me the bike when he heard that it was the first bike I ever rode. He’s very generous. I would’ve paid him whatever he wanted, and sent him a nice gift!

Ratatouille
Motorcycles appear in Pixar films now and then, as seen in Ratatouille.Pixar

Last question. Will we ever see a Pixar movie about motorcycles? If anyone can pull it off, it’s Jay Ward.

Every Pixar film starts off as a great story, so if you have a great story, you have a great film. If you begin with the question "What could be a great story about motorcycles?" you're starting off on the wrong foot. We included scooters and motorcycles in Ratatouille, because it's natural to see them in Paris, but in animation there's nowhere to put the eyes and the mouth on a motorcycle. You can't make a motorcycle come to life the same way you can a car.

There was a Disney short called Susie the Little Blue Coupe that came out in 1952, and the eyes were up in the windshield of the car. It predated our film by 40-plus years, and we went, "That's what you do!" When the eyes are in the headlights it becomes a snake, low to the ground. The grille becomes the mouth like a dog or house, which is what we did with Cars. Doesn't work on a motorcycle.

Because I personally love motorcycles, I'm working on a film project called Board Track Grace about racing in the 1920s. When daughter was born 11 years ago, a very strong-willed kid from the get-go. Didn't like to be cuddled; not a girlie-girl, with spunk and spirit, which I love. I've always been fascinated with the boardtrack era of motorcycles, and I realized there hasn't been a feature film about boardtrack racing. It was such a huge sport, and when I started working on this project 10 years ago many people had never heard of it. Now it's getting popular since that Cyclone sold for a ton of money.

I started writing a father/daughter story. I’m a rider, and what if my daughter became a rider as well? I don’t want her to get hurt, but my parents couldn’t have stopped me from riding no matter what, and I was conflicted. My story is set in the 1920s, when women just got the right to vote during the suffragette and flapper movement. They’d get pulled over and ticketed for wearing pants, because they didn’t want women riding. It inspired my story to examine what it would be like for a young women to not only ride but race during the boardtrack heyday.

The story goes where the father was a champion racer who gets hurt, and the daughter continues the family tradition years later by hiding the fact that she’s a young woman participating in a man’s dangerous sport, tucking her hair under a leather helmet and her face behind goggles.

I kept the story going and shared it with several excellent storytellers who I work with. I developed it, and about 18 months ago received development funding from someone I’ve known for years. I pitched the script to several writers I liked, and found Alison Kroger who wrote Hidden Figures, which was recently nominated for an Oscar. She wasn’t a known entity yet, so I got her before she became a household name, and she wrote my script. Now I’m getting interest from the movie community.

We just did location scouting in North Carolina, where there’s an actual abandoned racetrack that we plan to convert to a boardtrack. The facility is ideal, void of modern distractions. We’re talking to Indian about possible building bikes for the movie, so things are starting to happen. What they did with the Burt Munro 50 was fantastic. Gary Gray is pretty excited to be involved. The world needs more father/daughter stories!