Did you see the 1965 film Flight of the Phoenix
? It’s the adventures of a group of oil workers who crash their cargo plane in the Libyan desert. To fly to safety, they build another plane from the wreckage. It’s a good flick, and pretty realistic — famed stunt pilot Paul Mantz died during filming. Any gearhead will identify with the struggle to build something just good enough to barely get the job done.
The closest thing the motorcycle community has to Flight of the Phoenix
is San Francisco’s Dirtbag Challenge
, now in its 13th year. The rules are simple: build your bike in 30 days, don’t spend more than $1,000, and no Harley-Davidsons. The icing on the cake of custom-show unorthodoxy: To qualify for the judging, contestants must first ride their creations 100 miles.
It’s no surprise that this is not a custom hot-rod show. It’s not an event where you eat hotdogs while strolling along row after row of shiny, chromed, stretched-out showpieces with expensive paint, custom parts, and hand-tooled leather. This is about celebrating all kinds of enthusiasts, enthusiasts with mechanical aptitude ranging from NASA to nada
. The process is chaotic, as is the resulting event.
Nobody knows when the event will be held until an email is fired out announcing the date 30 days prior, starting the clock. Participants can revive old projects and solicit donated parts, but they can’t spend more than a grand on the bike. It’s not like Price and Waterhouse are going to come in and audit but event organizer Pol Brown and the other judges will know if you’ve been cheating.
As you may expect, the result has been some of the most dangerously unrideable deathtraps known to motorcycledom. You will see things that would give an AMA event official a massive aneurysm. Motorcycles with steel utility poles made into frames, tricycle contraptions with barely functioning brakes from a 1932 Model A Ford, or a double-decker CL350 that I won’t post a photo of because you’ll accuse me of photoshopping it (yes, it finished). Chopper builders are criticized for building unrideable showboats. Dirtbag buildersrevel
in their machines being comically unrideable.
Take my good friend Alan Lapp, a man who is so into comfort and practicality that he owns many, many pairs of overalls and what may be California’s largest collection of Airhawk inflatable seat cushions. He enlisted the help of his friend, an inventive fabricator, and designer named Julius Farnum and built his oddball contraption, a DR650-powered thing with an alternative front suspension. It’s as close to unrideable as you can get and still be rideable, reported Al. His bike is bizarre, tough on the eye and so loud and impractical it might as well be an ornithopter, not that Al needs any more ideas.