How I Made It: Talking custom motorcycles with award-winning designer Max Hazan

Max Hazan has quickly established himself as a gifted designer, builder and artisan of custom motorcycles.

Max Hazan has become, at only 35 and with dizzying speed, one of the custom motorcycle industry’s most admired bespoke bike builders. But he only turned his head to design after a motorcycle injury sidelined him for several months.

The accidental artist

Hazan wasn’t aiming for the artistic life. The New York native and son of a third-generation garment manufacturer had low expectations for himself.

He chose to attend Tulane University in New Orleans “because it was warm all the time and it was a party town,” majored in psychology “because it seemed easy and that’s where all the pretty girls were,” and took a carpentry job on Long Island “because the money was good.”

But in 2011, when he was 29, he had a terrible crash riding an off-road motorcycle and spent long, painful months recovering and unable to work. To pass the time, he started designing a motor-driven bicycle.

Building a better bike

By his own admission, the first effort was a mess. So he started over. But this time, instead of trying to fit an existing motor into an existing frame, he built his own frame.

The result was more successful, and capable of speeds of 60 mph. That seemed unsafe, on thin bicycle tires, so he started a third machine, using motorcycle tires, motorcycle wheels and motorcycle forks.

That’s when he had the epiphany: “Maybe I should just go ahead and make an actual motorcycle.”

When I first saw his bikes, I thought, 'This is art.' As a designer, he's unlike anyone else.

— Anthony Bourdain, host of "Parts Unknown" and "Raw Craft"

The right genes

Hazan — it’s pronounced to rhyme with “raisin” — credits his father with giving him “the design gene.” The senior Hazan had built sailboats and always kept a fully stocked wood shop.

Creating his early machines, young Max used and ruined woodworking tools for metalworking projects. “I was cutting aluminum with a wood router,” Hazan said. “It used to drive him nuts.”

Still, it was his father who drove him to pursue motorcycle design as a full-time career.

“He told me, ‘I think you’ve got something here. I want you to give yourself a year and just do this,’” Hazan recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t think I can afford that,’ and he said, ‘I’ll take care of it. You got a year.’”

An unpromising beginning

Hazan rented a garage space in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint and began building custom motorcycles. A year of work produced bikes but not a single sale.

Then love beckoned. Hazan met Sarah Mayer. She was moving to the West Coast and asked him to come along. Hazan gave up his shop in Brooklyn, starting to lose hope that he would ever sell a motorcycle.

Then a childhood friend’s uncle showed a picture of one of the Hazan bikes to the owner of an upscale Malibu clothing store, who offered to display one in his window. That machine sold — and orders for others began to come in.

The artisan’s way

Working alone in a small second-floor studio in downtown L.A.’s Fashion District, Hazan starts each build with nothing more than a motor — a 1938 JAP speedway engine for one project, a modern KTM 520 for another.

Then he hunts for vintage-looking wheels and tires. Only then, with these parts suspended on his custom-built steel work bench, does he begin to sketch the actual motorcycle. On most of his bikes, every part except the motor, wheels and tires is entirely “scratch-built,” he said.

His most recent project, a just-finished machine built to look like the motorcycle version of his first custom bicycle build, took four months of all-day, every-day work.

How many hours is that? “I don’t know for sure,” Hazan said. “I don’t want to do the math.”

But he recalled that the custom fender he designed and built for an earlier machine had to be redone, from start to finish, a full 12 times.

Max Hazan stands next to the first machine he ever sold — note the air intake fashioned from part of a trumpet — and his personal KTM supermoto bike, wearing 516 number plates to represent his native Long Island area code.
Max Hazan stands next to the first machine he ever sold — note the air intake fashioned from part of a trumpet — and his personal KTM supermoto bike, wearing 516 number plates to represent his native Long Island area code. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

A little acclaim from Anthony Bourdain

Hazan began winning prizes for his bikes early in his design career, taking the 2013 Bike of the Year award from Pipeburn for his free-form 1965 Harley Ironhead — and then winning again in 2014 for his Royal Enfield 500 and in 2015 for his Musket, an unprecedented three-peat from the respected motorcycle publication.

Sales followed, with some bikes going for $100,000 each. Several were bought by mega-developer Bruce Makowsky, who installed one in his $250-million spec house in Bel Air.

Motorcycle historian and journalist Paul D’Orleans, of the Vintagent and Cycle World publications, called Hazan “exceptional.”

“He’s a sculptor, and his medium is motorcycles,” D’Orleans said. “He has a keenly developed aesthetic sense, and it’s all his own. It’s remarkable how far he’s gone and how fast.”

Now Hazan is getting a taste of mainstream acclaim. His latest motorcycle build is featured in an upcoming episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “The Balvenie Raw Craft” online series.

Bourdain heard about Hazan and asked to see some of his motorcycles, thinking they might be artisanal enough for the series. He was impressed by both man and machine, especially after getting a chance to ride one of Hazan’s masterworks.

“When I first saw his bikes, I thought, 'This is art,’” Bourdain said in an interview with The Times. “As a designer, he’s unlike anyone else.”

Life in Los Angeles

Having followed Mayer west, Hazan set up house in Venice. (The two were married in Brooklyn in July, and now live in Westchester.)

Hazan took to the local scene immediately. “You can ride a motorcycle every single day of the year, and you can surf almost every day of the year,” he said. “I’ll never have a better commute than sitting in I-10 traffic after catching a couple of good early waves.”

He commuted by motorcycle every day until he got spooked by a slow-speed fall on the freeway, and now drives his truck more of the time. Though he keeps a supermoto bike for the track, he also cut back on the dirt bike riding. “I really, really like what I do,” he said. “When you get hurt, you can’t work.”

A few words of advice

Hazan’s bikes all wear the Hazan Motorworks crest — the letter H, ringed by a laurel, topped with a crown — but the builder said he has no particular motto and doesn’t generally give advice.

But if anyone asked, he’d say, “The biggest thing is to take risks. Dare to make something hideous. Dream as big as you can. You may fail, but you will learn so much.”

Also, don’t plan too much: “If you have a set plan, you can miss a lot of opportunities that come along.”

Future tripping

Despite the accolades, Hazan retains a sensible, workingman’s attitude about his craft — and about his future. He keeps his overhead low, signs a contract for each project and delivers on time and on budget.

“In the beginning it was scary because I didn’t know what I was doing, and someone was paying me money,” he said. “Now, I trust the process more.”

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