Making the Best in Brattleboro
The only indication that there may be something interesting going on at the end of the driveway at 448 Canal Street in downtown Brattleboro is the presence of a pair of old motorcycles parked curbside. One sports a “for sale” sign, the other—an ancient, rusted, engine-less cycle, its bald front tire mere inches from passing traffic—wears a worn “Vintage Steele” sign. Understated signage for sure, yet a virtual magnet for curiosity seekers.
Venture down the driveway and you’ll roll up on an unassuming barn-like building outfitted with two large garage doors. It could be any old repair shop, but it isn’t. This is Vintage Steele. It’s the brainchild of self-taught motorcycle mechanic and builder Josh Steele, and it’s fast becoming a virtual magnet for motorcycle enthusiasts hailing from Vermont and miles beyond.
At first glance, Vintage Steele really has no business being in Brattleboro—a small town in a small state where the motorcycle-riding season is six months at best. But Vintage Steele isn’t your average neighborhood repair shop; they’re a full-fledged fabrication shop, crafting custom motorcycles from the ground up, building jaw-dropping designs that are the definition of “one-of-a-kind.” It’s those designs, combined with a solid business acumen, that has allowed Steele, along with co-owners, mechanic Chris John, 26, and childhood buddy Caleb Matthiesen, 33, to not only get found despite their out-of-the-way location, but to build a solid name for themselves since opening Vintage Steele in 2015.
The fact that there is now another option for reliable service in the southern end of the Green Mountains is promising news for motorcyclists in Vermont. Because, while motorcycling in Vermont is perhaps as good as it gets—think Routes 7, 4, 9, 30, 100 … I could go on all day—being a motorcycle owner in Vermont can often prove frustrating because repair shops are few and far between. For that reason, Vintage Steele operates as a general motorcycle repair shop throughout the riding season. They’ll service any make, model, or year, and if the work is beyond their level of expertise, they’ll refer customers to other local businesses where the work can get done.
But once the leaves, and the mercury, begin their downward spirals, the big bay doors are rolled down, the heat is turned up, and the real work begins. The winter months at Vintage Steele are devoted to the fabrication of custom motorcycles. And we’re not talking about chromed-out choppers and heavily modified rides here. Steele is quick to point out that the last thing they want to be known for is for building a specific style, be it bobber, chopper, scrambler, or café racer. The motorcycles that roll out of Vintage Steele maintain a distinctive, uniquely identifiable personality. The designs, while clean and deceivingly simple, clearly pay homage to the original manufacturer. If an engine block is stamped with Yamaha or Honda, it remains as such. Iconic styling cues, such as the legendary BMW boxer engine, are prominently in full view. The bikes retain just enough of their originality yet roll out of the shop remarkably different, transformed, exquisitely simplified.
Vintage Steele will tackle virtually any project from ground-up restorations to frame-up custom builds. In November, on the day I visited, there were four bikes crammed into the tiny shop, four patients crammed into a crowded operating room, each awaiting its turn beneath the capable hands of mechanic Chris John. On the left side of the shop, a ’70s-era Triumph Scrambler was undergoing a full restoration, a job commissioned by the owner’s son as a Christmas present for his dad, who wasn’t able to finish the job on his own. To its right, a ’70s Yamaha xs650 was strapped to a lift. This was a complete custom job. Steele tells me the bike’s owner, a young woman, had asked for a custom build before the shop’s impending popularity would put it beyond her financial reach. Next up was a 1983 Moto Guzzi, a bike rescued from a basement in Keene, New Hampshire, where it had sat for more than a decade after being submerged in five feet of filthy floodwater. And on the far right, a build in its very early stages: no more than a frame, two wheels, a front fork, and a gleaming “toaster” tank indicative of a ’70s-era BMW R60 being built for a client from Brattleboro, the shop’s first local build.
Building a custom motorcycle is a delicate balance of art and science. There are no blueprints, no schematics, no rules. Rather, it all starts with a dream, a budget, and a conversation between client and fabricator. What are the rider’s likes, dislikes? Have they ever ridden? How do they ride? Where will they ride? What do they want it to look like? What don’t they want it to look like? The development and construction that follows is tedious, technical, and time consuming. An average build takes anywhere from six months to a year. And while each step is carefully thought out, there are always hiccups, redos, and bursts of inspiration along the way. Honesty and attention to detail are the hallmarks of Vintage Steele. Tell them what you need and they’ll tell you like it is.
Prospective owners of vintage motorcycles shouldn’t expect perfection from a 40-year-old power plant. But therein lies the allure of owning a classic. Getting to know and understand the innate personality of the beast you’re riding is without a doubt one of the most gratifying aspects of owning a unique piece of modern history. Yes, there will be issues. Problems will inevitably arise. There will be days when, try as you might, that bike just won’t kick over, won’t idle, or won’t blink its turn signals. Worry not. Vintage Steele has your back. Even though they’re lining the walls of their shop with images of each build, the real end product here is the community they’re building and the following they’ve amassed.”Because while riding a motorcycle is, in and of itself, a solo pursuit, motorcyclists as a whole are a communal bunch. It’s for that reason Vintage Steele remains a true work in progress, and aspires to be more than simply a repair and fabrication shop. Their goal is to become a destination, a mecca for motorcyclists no matter where they roll in from. Steele muses about the future where Vintage Steele features a larger shop area, a retail space, and a café. I believe that time isn’t too far off.
Running a small business is far from easy. Running one in Vermont, even farther from easy. So why would these guys stick around? There are warmer climates, bigger cities, customers with deeper pockets. The truth is surprisingly simple. It boils down to friendship, a desire to build something amazing together, a common bond. A common goal. Steele talks about the challenges that not just his business, but all small businesses in the Green Mountain State and recalls something his mother once told him when he was younger: “You make the best with what you have.” Cliché? Sure. But Vintage Steele is successfully turning this old adage onto its side or, more aptly, balancing it upright, breathing new life into it, and tear-assing down the road on it. What they have is an uncommon blend of passion, drive, and commitment. What they’re making are some of the finest custom motorcycles I’ve ever seen.