The most important thing is to feel joy,” Siegl said. “The lighter a bike is, the easier it is to ride, and the more fun you have.
SMALL TOWNS in New Hampshire are all quite beautiful, but none more so than little Harrisville. Its crowning jewel is a red brick textile mill, whose facade dates back to the 1700s. A stream runs down from nearby scenic ponds, and the burbling water that once drove looms now creates hydropower for the town. Today, space in the historic mill is rented out by local artists and manufacturers — or in Walt Siegl’s case, by a man who’s a bit of both.
Siegl is a “designer/builder of custom and limited series motorcycles,” as he has put it, and he makes some of the most beautiful, powerful, and lusted-after bikes in the world. But as I ease my car into the gravel lot, I hardly notice his name on the building — it’s printed in teeny black letters on two small white wooden garage doors. Much easier to recognize: his shiny red 1972 Alfa Romeo convertible, parked out front.
Over 14 years in this small shop, Siegl, 61, has designed, built, and sold hardly more than 100 bikes to discerning motorcyclists. Each has been made by his hand, each one-of-a-kind, each ideal in its own way. Earlier this summer, an e-bike concept he created for the Haas Moto Museum won the annual motorcycle award from the German Design Council — a particular point of pride for Siegl, as the group was once directed by one of his design heroes, Dieter Rams. That’s the class of machine Walt Siegl makes. And today, I am going to ride one.
Siegl was born in Austria. “Both of my grandfathers had motorcycles,” he says. “Back then, most men used motorcycles to go from A to B. Not these two guys. They were infatuated with the beauty of the machine, and they passed that on to me.” In art school, he studied sculpture, but he dropped out to move to France to work in a railyard and race motorcycles. When sidelined by a crash, he took up a toolmaking apprenticeship in Germany, worked as a welder in Italy, and then headed into a crumbling Soviet Union for a job with a steel company. Part of what makes Siegl so good at making motorcycles is everything else he’s done along the way, and he carries that history in a tall, thin frame. He has a deep tan and deep eyes, strong cheekbones, and swooped-back hair. It’s no surprise Brad Pitt rides his bikes.
In 1985, after some globetrotting years in the industry, Siegl joined the art world. As a cultural attaché with the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he went to New York, a new frontier. He ran a Manhattan gallery of Austrian art by day, then traveled to a waterfront Long Island City studio where he built motorcycles till 2 o’clock in the morning. It was a gritty time in New York City, and he embraced the lifestyle. “I never left the house without a hammer tucked in my sleeve,” he tells me. “I loved it.” Siegl first made his name as a pioneer in the outlaw chopper scene, modifying Harley-Davidsons to be more agile and narrow, the better to weave through city traffic.
Siegl met his future wife, Laura, in the early '90s, and his nights got even longer: after locking up the Long Island City studio, he’d pick her up from her job as a waitress and they’d head to a bar. But they liked New Hampshire, too, where she had family, and when the stars aligned in 2007, the couple and their two-week-old son moved up north. For years, Laura managed Harrisville’s idyllic general store, just up the hill from the mill, where the threads of Siegl’s artistic and mechanical lives finally wove together.
Today in his shop, Siegl’s immaculate bikes contrast with vintage machines for metalworking, like a lathe from 1938 and a built-like-a-tank Bridgeport mill, which he uses to shape and drill parts by hand. The motorcycles’ surfaces — ceramic, Kevlar, carbon fiber, chromoly steel, aircraft-quality aluminum, and lush Alcantara upholstery — alternately absorb and reflect natural light. “Performance always drives my aesthetics,” Siegl says, and his designs make a great show of exposing mechanical components that are usually hidden under plastic on mass-produced bikes.
The atmosphere Siegl cultivates is undeniably elegant yet approachable. While we are talking, he hops on a motorcycle to demonstrate how a one-degree change in the steering axis angle alters not just aesthetics, but a rider’s entire experience. Nearby, wires dangle from a racetrack-destined superbike-in-progress. Siegl doesn’t publicize his prices, but I’ll tell you this: some houses go for less than his highest-end builds. But such quality also makes for very happy customers. Siegl says almost every single buyer has come back for a second bike.
Occasionally, clients bring Siegl fabulous bikes they’d like to make even better. Most, though, come for his original designs, available in five series. The bikes serve different purposes, but each is informed by Siegl’s love of classic Italian motorcycles, built at a time when form and function worked hand in hand. There’s the Leggero, tight but muscular; the Bol d’Or, an endurance racer; the all-terrain Adventure; the track-ready SBK; and his latest, the PACT, an electric motorcycle that looks a bit like a dirt bike with a battery pack instead of an engine.
Each motorcycle Siegl builds begins its life as a donor bike, usually a used Ducati or MV Agusta. But just as a flower — Siegl’s logo — grows from a simpler-looking seed, so do these donors change shape and form, as nearly every component is replaced by something lighter, more technologically advanced, and personally relevant to its rider. No one buys a Walt Siegl motorcycle off the rack. The magic is a collaborative process, often involving a visit to his shop that can see suspension, wheels, brakes, body, and more tailored to a client’s height, weight, and inseam — and also to where they ride, how they ride, and, really, why they get on a bike in the first place.
“The most important thing is to feel joy,” Siegl said. “The lighter a bike is, the easier it is to ride, and the more fun you have.” This is a principle he learned modifying his own bikes for the racetrack: lighter is almost always better. “It builds confidence. If the thing doesn’t frighten you, you can pick up your pace, learn your limits. You can learn who you are as a rider.”
On the day I visit, motorcycles from all five series are arranged in a neat row. I send a picture of the shop to my wife, and she replies that the electric PACT is her favorite. Earlier, I’d emailed Siegl’s website to my dad, and he said that was the one he wanted too.
It’s certainly a good time to be an e-bike. Within a decade or two, they might be the only option. City governments all over the world have already implemented low- or zero-emissions zones, effectively banning gas motorcycles. China, Japan, India, the E.U., and at least a dozen U.S. states have discussed phasing out the sale of new vehicles with internal combustion engines. Motorcycles are loud, dangerous, intimidating to learn, and difficult to maintain. For some people, that’s the whole point. But for many more, a nimble, less intimidating, environmentally friendly electric motorcycle might entice them to take up riding.
Siegl hasn’t begun production yet, but he wants his next big project to be another e-bike, expanding on the design of his award-winning Haas Moto Museum concept. Here’s the kicker: he wants it to be a much bigger run, and priced for the masses, closer to $6,000 or $8,000 each. He’s thinking about his legacy, he tells me. He wants to cash in his status among any skeptical aficionados to help change the transportation world for the better.
“I represent a world that a lot of motorcyclists really embrace and aspire to,” says Siegl. “To have an e-bike coming from me, it helps to convince them that it’s really not such a bad idea. It’s progress. Most haven’t felt the power that’s possible with electric. It’s not just better for the environment. Holy shit, it’s a new generation.”
If the PACT is a preview of the future, I’m all in. “We’ve gotta get you on this bike,” Siegl says, grinning at the idea almost as much as I am. He wheels it out of the building, and I wait in the parking lot while he goes back inside for his. For the first time, it is just me and a Walt Siegl motorcycle.
Naturally, I take some photos. I put my eye close to the woven carbon fiber fender, with its almost mystical texture: When clean, it looks scuffed; it’s thin but seems thick. But truth be told, I was also avoiding touching the bike. It had been years since I’d ridden a motorcycle. I was nervous I’d forget some basic steps, like how to find the space for neutral halfway between first and second gears. Gingerly, I laid hold of the handlebars, trying to envision my start. Normally, you squeeze the clutch with your left hand — but wait a second, where was it?
After Siegl wheels out his Adventure, he walks me through starting the PACT. Lo and behold, there is literally nothing to it. Shifting is automatic; you just squeeze the throttle and fly. The biggest decision is which of the four power modes to use: 1 is for easy cruising and 4, as Siegl tells me, is “completely loony.” I’d start off with 1.
Following his lead, I eased the PACT onto the road. I wish there was more I could tell you about riding this thing, but honestly, my mind went blank. What I experienced, most of all, was a profound sense of calm. The engine was quiet, handling was natural, speed control was effortless. I leaned through tree-lined corners without the slightest thought.
After a while, Siegl pulls over, and I creep up beside him. He switches me to 4. “Don’t pull too hard at once,” he says, and makes a gesture like a wheelie with a guy flying off the back. I cross my fingers and pull the throttle. It takes off like a shotgun blast. As we make our way back to the mill, a summer rain arrives, big drops smacking my T-shirt. I didn’t care. Apparently, it rains in heaven.
Duncan Cooper Writer
Duncan Cooper lives in New York’s Catskill Mountains, a great and winding place to ride. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Fader, and writes about music, culture, and saints.
Anthony Blasko Photographer
Anthony Blasko is a photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.