Making It in Motorcycle Business No Easy Ride : Steve Nelson has found success drafting behind the enormous appeal of Harley-Davidson Inc. by selling aftermarket parts.
Succeeding in business can be a little like learning to ride a motorbike.
You ride, you fall, you ride again. Eventually, you get the hang of it.
So says Steve Nelson, who has spent years in the saddle of his own customized motorcycle and developing a $3-million business selling aftermarket parts for Harley-Davidsons.
Nelson, a high school dropout from Chicago’s South Side, said he became a millionaire by age 26. He moved to Orange County and watched his fortune trickle away as he tried to establish a national motorcycle magazine. He eventually turned the magazine around, combined it with his cycle parts business, and today says he is wealthy and happy.
“This is my life’s destiny,” said the 45-year-old owner of Nostalgia Cycle in Huntington Beach, a rough-hewn man who bears a faint resemblance to an older Steve McQueen. “I put my ego into my business.”
Actually, he crams it into a 340-page combination magazine and catalogue that sprinkles glossy photos of scantily clad models lounging on shiny vintage Harleys and articles on biker friends among price lists for thousands of Harley parts--from double-lip oil seals to “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” license plate frames.
Nelson has made his living by drafting behind the enormous appeal of Harley-Davidson Inc., the legendary Milwaukee-based maker of the classic American motorcycle.
He is one of several such shops around the country, Harley-Davidson spokesman Steve Piehl said.
“There are any number of companies that have entered the aftermarket business,” he said.
Nelson said he takes a cycle part to any of several metalworking shops near his headquarters. There, he said, machinists make knockoffs of a part at a fraction of Harley’s price.
“You look in the phone book, you got everything. You want electron-beam welding? It’s right down the street,” he said.
Nelson’s search for better, less-expensive parts has led to some pretty involved undertakings. His signature product, for instance, is an entire motorcycle engine.
Nelson said he discovered that cutting down a small Chevrolet V-8 produced a motorcycle engine that rides smoother, is more powerful and has half the parts of a stock Harley. So he perfected the design, had them produced and each year sells about 100 of his “Super Vees” kits for $3,995.
He remembered fondly riding a motorized bicycle around Chicago in his youth. Deciding the idea was a fresh as ever, last year he started producing his own strap-on motor for bicycles. Now, he said he has back orders for 500 of the $1,500 Whizzer motorbike engine kits.
Nelson does it all from a crammed industrial building in Huntington Beach. The business has grown fast enough, he said, that he plans to move to larger quarters elsewhere in the same industrial park.
It is a long way from his humble start in Chicago, when he got his start in the mechanical world by discovering that fixing broken-down cars and selling them was easier money than laying bricks for a living.
He then started building front-end assemblies for “choppers,” the long-forked motorcycles popularized by the Dennis Hopper-Peter Fonda movie “Easy Rider.”
California beckoned, however. Nelson was seduced both by the easy lifestyle and the plentiful number of cycle parts suppliers. He left his Chicago parts business to his father and brother-in-law and moved to Huntington Beach in 1976. He then started SuperCycle magazine, which featured bare-breasted women and various motorcycle features.
But disputes both with the editor and the magazine’s Midwest printer led to losses that started wiping out Nelson’s fortune. By the time he said he took over when his editor died, Nelson said that SuperCycle was $100,000 in the red.
Those were sorry days, Nelson recalls. “I lived in my shop for seven years--living like a dog,” he recalled.
Under Nelson, the magazine’s finances improved. He switched printers and saved $27,000 an edition. Circulation increased from 50,000 copies to 140,000 copies bimonthly. Paid advertising was up.
Still, Nelson was laboring under a debt of $315,000. Finally he sold the magazine to Larry Flynt Publications in 1986, the same company that publishes Hustler Magazine.
With some of that money, Nelson established a company called Harley Nostalgia to sell parts that are advertised through the twice annual parts catalogues. The name was changed to Nostalgia Cycle when Harley-Davidson sued, alleging trademark infringement.
Now, Nelson is returning the favor. He sued Harley-Davidson last month for trademark infringement over a new motorcycle model that Harley named the Harley Softtail Nostalgia.
“It’s a blatant and willful infringement,” Nelson alleged. “Harley has no respect for the little guy.”
Harley spokesman Piehl said the company considers shops like Nostalgia Cycle to be competitors but that he would not comment on the lawsuit because it is still being litigated.
Win or lose, Nelson said that he plans to keep building his business.
“Orange County is a world of opportunity as far as I’m concerned,” he said.