Posted October 9, 2013
Interview by Andrew Chen
Photos by Julian Berman
Len Higa discovered his love for speed in a manner similar to many of us: through an older sibling. Spending countless evenings in a garage in Mililani, Hawaii watching his brother build cars, it was inevitable that he too would begin building and racing automobiles himself. Eventually, he and his brother began flying to California to drag race their import cars where he eventually met legendary driver Stephan Papadakis on the drag circuits. Soon after, Len joined Team Papadakis as one of his two main fabricators. Motorcycles started out as an easy means of transportation but quickly grew into a deep passion which led him to establish his own workshop, Oni Motorworks, where he now builds custom cafe racers for discerning clients. As we’ve gotten to know him better over the past year, we’ve found Len to be a quiet and humble individual, qualities that seem incongruous with the level of work that he produces. We stopped by his garage a few days before the Born Free 5 bike show to check out his newest project and talk shop.
Tell us about the bike you’re working on right now.
It’s a 1969 Honda CB750. Specifically it’s a sandcast engine, and at the time it was built it was Honda’s way of stepping into the bigger bike world. They weren’t sure if they were going to make it long term, so they sandcasted the engine blocks from a single mold; I think they did the first couple thousand like that. By 1970 they realized the change was a step in the right direction and in the process they revolutionized the bike world, so they switched to a die cast engine – which is stronger – in order to speed up production. The first 1969 bikes are now viewed as more of a pre-production run. Honda was selling them through their dealerships but there was so much variation because all the dealerships were getting feedback from the customers about the bikes’ performance and mechanics, which helped Honda make some critical changes. So from a collector’s standpoint the sandcast is a rare bike; a restored one can go for $35,000 on eBay (which is a lot for a Japanese bike) whereas maybe 10 years ago you could find a Honda CB750 for $1000. The sandcast ones are kind of like a unicorn.
What’s your favorite part of the bike building process? What do you find most challenging?
There are two parts of the process that I like equally. The first would be forming the body work – gas tank, seat, oil tank etc. – and the second would be building the engine, all by hand. I really enjoy the whole process: from first designing the gas tank with simple drawings, to constructing cardboard templates, sculpting the cardboard design out of foam, making the wood buck from the foam and then finally shaping the metal from the wood template. It’s a very hands-on and labor-intensive process but the reward is seeing your initial design manifest into a functional component. The engine building is something I’ve always been into since back when I was racing cars. I always liked the DIY aspect of being able to make any vehicle go faster. The underlying motive to engine building is just basically to make it as fast and as reliable as possible. This aspect of the build is a great complement to the artistic side of designing and forming the tanks. Where there is a lot of room for artistic freedom and interpretation with the tank fabrication, the engine build has an entirely different set of motives and factors. Both are equally as challenging and rewarding.
The most challenging aspect to the process would be the whole business side of the build and time management. It takes a lot more time to hand build a bike from start to finish rather than just assembling one with other people’s parts. I actually design and fabricate the parts myself so it takes a lot longer for me to produce a bike. If I charged an hourly rate to my clients then the price would be astronomical. I’m lucky I really love the building process; otherwise I probably would have a desk job somewhere.
I’m lucky I really love the building process; otherwise I probably would have a desk job somewhere.
What is your approach to bike building?
It depends on if I’m building the bike for myself or if I’m building it for someone else; in other words, it depends on the degree of freedom I have. For a lot of the bikes I try to keep it period correct, even though I hate that term. Of course I’m going to change it a bit though, to add a little bit of my presence to it. Since I see my projects all the time I guess I don’t always see the points of difference. But a lot people will say they can tell which ones are my bikes. People can spot them out.
Is it because of the way you fabricate parts?
I guess it’s the way I shape the gas tanks and the metal sheets – the style that is incorporated into my metalwork. But it’s like anything, I think there’s a bit of originality in anything that is handmade. A certain hand style, I guess.
A friend of yours mentioned to me that you don’t just do fabrication but that you also have an illustration background. What other things inform the way that you end up building your bikes?
A lot of my design process comes from personal drawings and doodles. I want to say that I’m fan of architecture and furniture design, but I’m not a total fan in that I don’t know the particular names of who designed what. I know from designing, though, that I know what I like. You don’t have to know who did it. But little details get stuck in my mind, like I think that piece of furniture has a cool little cast piece that I think would look good on a motorcycle. So I’ll try to replicate it.
You’ve said before that fabrication was a dying art. When you go to a bike show, a lot of people just gather a bunch of new and old parts together and put it onto a bike and call themselves fabricators. To you, is fabrication literally making new parts?
In a sense, they are all fabricators; there are probably some people who think I’m not a fabricator. I get that a lot, especially when I bring a bike to a show and it looks like I haven’t done shit. People will say “Cool, you built the gas tank” or stuff like that.
But is that part of your design philosophy – to build a custom bike in such a way that everything looks like it belongs, or like it could have been a part of the original setup to the untrained eye?
Bingo! With both motorcycles and cars, I try to keep things looking as if the manufacturer or factory race team built it… Or what I felt they would have done if they had the present-day technology. Also details. To me, that’s super fun. I love it when friends or other builders build bikes that I can stare at for hours on end just noticing new little details I hadn’t seen a few minutes prior.
We’ve found that the Japanese apply a unique mindset and approach to many of their industries. Being that you started out working on domestic cars, was there something about the Japanese approach that you started to notice over time that you liked better?
There is. You can tell that the casting on Honda engines is of a better quality than domestic counterparts. Not only that – an old Honda motorcycle engine, with the cranks and everything, looks exactly like a present day Honda. It’s crazy. When I was pulling this old ’69 motorcycle apart, the crowns look like they came out of a ‘91 Honda CRX. They learned to leverage their R&D and apply it across platforms.
That’s crazy. Part of what makes working on imports exciting, to many, is the philosophy of having to squeeze as much performance as possible from something that wasn’t meant to perform like that.
Right. It’s crazy because you’re trying to get as far as you can through a small displacement engine. You have to either make something or sort something out; it’s kind of an adventure. Like 1940s hot rods, when they all got back from the war they wanted that rush and they just did whatever they could to make the cars faster. It was almost the same way in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Imports were our generation’s hot rods. There’s a lot of corny stuff that came out of it, but if you look back on the old hot rodding pictures there are a lot corny things that happened back then too. It’s just that now some of those corny vintage things are cool.
What’s an important lesson that you share with younger builders?
Pay your dues. Even the most seasoned veteran is still learning and improving his craft. Being respectful to other builders, mentors, and basically anyone in the field goes a long way because everyone has something you can learn from.
Tell us about one thing – personally or professionally – that you’re working at improving on.
I’m really working on how to balance my personal life with my work life. Finding time for both is something I’ve never been good at. I started out building bikes because I love riding them. I don’t want to be that builder that never rides. I think having more balance between work and leisure would be beneficial all around.
What do you want your legacy to be?
Personally I’d like to be known for making a great macaroni salad and tasty mochiko chicken. Oh and of course I’d like to be known as being a stand up, hard working guy. Professionally I’d like Oni Motorworks to have that same legacy. It would be great if after I am gone, Oni Motorworks gas tanks are still coveted and people are tweaking on eBay for them.
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