Making the Best in Brattleboro
The first thing I found out about Vintage Steele is that Vintage Steele isn’t particularly easy to find. Situated on the outskirts of downtown Brattleboro, just a stone’s throw from I-91, they occupy a modest barn-like building with a two-bay garage, directly behind Lotus Graphics. They are, for all intents and purposes, invisible from the street. The only indication that there may be something interesting going on at the end of the driveway at 448 Canal Street 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, wears a worn “Vintage Steele” sign, its bald front tire a mere inches from passing traffic. Understated signage for sure, yet a virtual magnet for curiosity seekers. Location is undeniably the first of owner Josh Steele’s myriad challenges of running his motorcycle business in Brattleboro; his initial question for most of his customers is, “How’d you find us?” Fortunately for Steele, savvy marketing skills, a strong online presence, and glowing customer reviews (not to mention the technical godsend whose initials are G.P.S.) has enabled Vintage Steele to not only get found, but to gain a following over the last four years. In truth, the business began three years prior, but was operated, as all successful startups seem to be, out of Steele’s personal garage. But their hard work is paying off. Steele, 33, and co-owners mechanic Chris John, 26, and childhood buddy Caleb Matthiesen, 33, are experiencing steady growth with a business that, at first glance, really has no business being in Brattleboro—a small town in a small state where the motorcycle-riding season is 6 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.” And also building a solid name for themselves in the process.
That’s no small feat given the fact that these guys are all self-taught. Think about that one for a second: Every skill they’ve mastered was learned on the job. Every mistake, simply chalked up as a learning experience. But it’s clearly served them well. Just ask their devoted customers. 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. 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. But custom they are. The motorcycles that roll out of Vintage Steele maintain a distinctive, uniquely identifiable personality. The designs are clean, deceivingly simple, yet 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. When Vintage Steele is done with a build, a motorcycle’s true soul is revealed. And it’s heavenly.
The majority of these bikes began their lives in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a period, in Steele’s opinion, when motorcycles still retained a unique personality. It’s a trait that runs in stark contrast to the themes from the decades that followed, when most manufacturers were effectively churning out carbon copies of one another, styles that catered to the masses, and, separate from a tank badge, or a stamping on the clutch cover, were virtually indistinguishable from one to the next.
Vintage Steele will tackle virtually any project from ground-up restorations to frame-up custom builds. On the day I visited, there were four bikes crammed into the tiny shop in various stages of repair or reconstruction… 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 original 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 ‘70’s Yamaha xs650 was strapped to a lift. This was a complete custom job. Steele tells me the bike’s owner, a young woman (a demographic he explains is squarely in their sights) had asked Vintage Steele to build her a bike before the shop’s impending popularity would put one of their custom builds beyond her financial reach. I wasn’t as surprised to hear this as I was Steele’s next line, which was the fact that this was her very first motorcycle. Next up was a 1983 Moto Guzzi, a bike that had been 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. There was no question in either Steele’s or John’s minds that this Italian superbike would run again, it was simply just a matter of time and patience. 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. This bike held particular importance to the shop as it was being built for a client who was from Brattleboro, and would be their first local build. While BMW isn’t a brand one often associates with the word “custom,” no marque is off limits. In fact, there are already two BMWs on the Vintage Steele completion list.
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, re-dos, and bursts of inspiration along the way. After all, these are amalgamations of various eras. Parts that were never meant to fit together, much less operate seamlessly with one another (at high speeds, mind you) are cut, molded, modified, and massaged to appear as if they’ve been that way since day one. While a bike may feature a 50-year-old frame and an engine from the ‘80s, the front forks may be sourced from a more current model, as it benefits from the incorporation of large disc brakes, a safety feature not to be overlooked, especially while cruising along on two wheels. Other details blend the old with the new. It isn’t uncommon to find late-model Japanese swing arms bolted to vintage English frames. Lighting, of course, is state of the art, and details such as leather-seat stitching and painting are all done by hand.
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 (after all, these still are decades-old machines) shouldn’t expect 100% 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 such 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 when you flip the switch. Worry not. Vintage Steele has your back. For just as they’re lining the walls of their shop with images of each build, the community they’re building around their shop and the following they’ve amassed is the real end product here. 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 are, 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. Josh talks about the challenges that not just his business, but all small businesses in the Green Mountain State face on a daily basis 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.