Cell phones don’t work in rural New Hampshire, which is fine with Walt Siegl after 20 years of living and working in New York City. He’s nearly off the grid—and out of the hubbub where he founded Walt Siegl Motorcycles—but hardly out of the limelight. His career arc is definitely unique, from art-school dropout in Austria, to part-time endurance racer in France, to tool-making engineer in Germany, to project manager in the Soviet Union, to Austrian cultural attaché in NYC, finally landing on two wheels as a career, after decades of building bikes for fun. His was a long journey from the center of the world to a quiet 18th century mill complex, and his life story makes Siegl a fascinating and worldly character, carrying a lifetime of experience into his work designing motorcycles.
Growing up in Austria, both his father and grandfather were daily riders on Puchs, Horexes, NSUs, and Harley-Davidson flatheads. Young Walt absorbed their talk about how bikes looked and how they made them feel. “When I was six, a local chimney sweep bought a purple Triumph 500 with polished aluminum fenders,” he says. “I was completely blown away. It killed me. I would run across a bridge to see him after school—I knew his schedule.”
By 14 he rode a Puch dirt bike and started art school, but his schoolmates scorned his interest in bikes. Says Siegl: “They thought I was not a real artist because I had motorcycles. I couldn’t see a conflict.” But there was conflict at home, as his father, an electronics engineer, pressured him to think about making a living. He left home six months before graduating, rode his Honda 550 to Marseille, and took a job loading trains at the port. “I was a skinny longhair artist, my co-workers were North Africans, and my boss was a Legionnaire. It was tough!”
There were bright spots in Marseille. He raced time trials on weekends and caught the eye of a privateer endurance racing team. “I did 18 months of racing with a Swiss guy, on a bus with room for two bikes,” he says. “It was really fun, but we were not very competitive.”
A crash in Belgium ended Siegl’s race career, and he took an apprenticeship with a German toolmaker who taught him everything from how to hold a file to running a milling machine. “That knowledge allows me to do what I do now,” Siegl says. “There’s nothing I don’t know about machining, how to work a lathe, welding, et cetera.” A job as an industrial welder in Padua, Italy, led to a gig in 1980 with an Austrian firm managing a huge project in the Soviet Union. Siegl was fascinated with the changes happening in the USSR: “It was all very volatile and exciting and sometimes really scary.”