AUTOS

Deus Ex Machina makes high-end motorcycles and loses money on each one

'Artisan' craftsman has given Deus Ex Machina a reputation for selling nation's finest custom-made motorcycles

In a narrow workshop off a Venice alley, Michael Woolaway uses a wooden mallet to shape an aluminum bracket for a motorcycle.

The metal part is one of dozens the craftsman known as Woolie will spend an estimated 400 to 500 hours hand-shaping for the custom-built bike. This one's for actor Orlando Bloom.

When it's done, the V-twin street racer will cost Bloom $60,000. It will lose money for Woolie's employer, the lifestyle brand Deus Ex Machina.

That's what happened with custom bikes Woolie built for actor Ryan Reynolds and singers Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen and Jason Mraz.

"That's why we make clothing," said Deus founder and owner Dare Jennings. "Otherwise, we'd go broke."

Deus isn't the only company selling expensive motorcycles.

A high-end Harley-Davidson — by far, the country's bestselling brand — costs $40,000. Locally, Arch Motorcycles, co-owned by actor Keanu Reeves, offers a KRGT-1 for $78,000. A newly minted version of the Los Angeles-born classic Crocker can cost $175,000.

FOR THE RECORD: 2:00pm: An earlier version of this story said a new Crocker would cost $55,000.

But Deus may be the only company making high-end bikes and losing money on them.

The company was born in 2006 from the riches of Jennings' piece of the reported $75-million sale of the Australian surf apparel company Mambo.

From humble beginnings with a single storefront in Sydney, Deus now boasts retail outlets at ritzy addresses in Tokyo and Milan, and on the island of Bali, with a new shop set to open shortly in Paris.

The artful retail spaces are part cafe, part music club, part hip urban haberdashery. In Venice, locals and tourists buy Deus jeans at $259 and hoodies at $220, and spend hundreds more on Deus-branded surfboards, wetsuits, motorcycle helmets, boots and gloves.

The Venice shop, which calls itself an "Emporium of Post Modern Activities," hosts a monthly Sunday "Mass," which draws hundreds of "sinners, winners and hodads" — translation: motorcycle riders and enthusiasts — for a half-day of free music and food.

On a typical weekday, the shop is busy with young men and women who bring their laptops, dogs and children to hang out and drink high-priced java from Handsome Coffee Roasters. Julia Roberts is a regular.

"It's a lifestyle experience," says Deus General Manager Julian Heppekausen. "If we build a strong community, sales will come with that."

The privately-held company does not release sales figures.

The Hawaii-born, California-raised Woolie is a surfer, motorcycle veteran and card-carrying gaffer, a member of Local 728, the union that supplies lighting technicians for Hollywood movies and TV shows.

Soft-spoken, light-eyed and limping slightly from recent knee replacement surgery, Woolie carries the scars of 10 previous knee surgeries, seven broken arms, several spinal operations and other motorcycle racing wreckage.

A youthful 55 — he looks like a young Peter O'Toole — he has given Deus the reputation for building the finest custom-made motorcycles in the country.

"It's like a temple of custom-bike building," said Billy Joel, who operates his own motorcycle shop and museum on Long Island but has bought four Deus hand-made machines. "Michael is a real artisan."

The custom builds begin as stock motorcycles — a Yamaha SR500, or a Harley-Davidson Sportster — but under Woolie's hand become retro-cool street rockets that look good and go very fast.

The artisan gives them colorful names like the Fiddler, the Ding Danger or Moto Grigio.

Unlike some designers, Woolie doesn't work with CAD programs, design software or 3-D printers. He makes sketches with pen and paper, and works from those.

Clients have included a cable company executive who shipped Woolie two brand-new Kawasaki W650s, to begin taking apart and customizing, and a Disney executive who paid Woolie to completely re-imagine a new $30,000 Ducati.

The line of Hollywood clients began with Reynolds, in 2008, three years before his breakout movie role as the Green Lantern.

Woolie was working on a hand-built custom bike fabricated from all-American parts and components.

Reynolds saw the bike, called "The American," and wanted it.

"OK, but it's $60,000," Woolie recalled telling him. Reynolds didn't blink.

"It's a crazy hobby," Joel said. "But it's a lot cheaper than cars or boats."

Most of the customers, Woolie said, are "people with means." A lot are actors — some whom he'll name, and some not.

Joel and Bloom have each bought four, Woolie said. Reynolds owns three, and Springsteen has one.

As Jennings said, "It doesn't hurt a celebrity to be seen on a really cool motorbike."

Making motorbikes for high-end clients invites headaches, the Deus executives said. Some celebs are impatient, like the one who, told by Woolie that his custom build would take at least a year, called a week later and said, "How's my bike coming along?"

Then there was the big-name musician who ordered a bike in a specific tone of green, insisted on several changes in the exact shade of green, but when he received the motorcycle said, "Why is it green? I wanted it red!"

Some of them, despite their riches, don't want to pay for the bike at all.

"A lot of these people, they already get everything for free," Woolie said.

"The very first thing we tell them is, 'You are going to have to pay for this,'" Jennings added. "Please don't tell us this will be good for our careers."

But it hasn't hurt Deus' apparel sales to be connected to really cool motorbikes ridden by celebrities.

That's why the custom bikes are an acceptable loss leader.

"We lose money on every bike I make," Woolie said. "But the investment is not some intangible asset. It's worth millions in marketing."

For Woolie, making motorcycles for Deus is a full time, salaried job — except for when he's on set, clocking enough gaffer hours to maintain his union health benefits. His official title is motorcycle design director, which sounds like something that should come with a corner office and a staff. In fact, Woolie works almost entirely alone.

Each custom build takes months of work and might include as much as $25,000 in special parts. The gas tank alone, for the Bloom bike, required seven full days of work.

Woolie, who said he can build about five a year, was about "five bikes out" as of early December. It will take him a year and a half to finish building the motorcycles that are already bought and paid for.

Squinting at a custom part, Woolie seemed wistful about his creations.

"They're beautiful," he said. "But the problem is they're so expensive. You can't make any money making a motorcycle like that."

charles.fleming@latimes.com

Twitter: @misterfleming

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
71°