Motorcycle Diary

Big motorbikes are hot again. Garnet Hill and his Halifax choppers plan to ride the trend while it lasts.

Garnet Hill is the kind of guy who likes to light it up, grab a handful and smoke a fattie. That isn’t to say Hill is a pot smoker. No, he prefers to light up the engine of a high-powered motorcycle, grab a handful of throttle, give it a quick twist and smoke the rubber on an oversized rear tire.

When Hill isn’t toying with a two-wheeled torque monster, he’s building one, usually with an audience. In his shop, Powertrend Cycles on Bilby Street, you’ll always find a group of bikers battling for comfortable space amidst the stripped-down frames, discarded gas tanks, exposed motors and assorted tools. They joke and tell tall tales of rides past, but mostly they watch Garnet Hill. In 30 years of making motorbikes bigger, faster and louder Hill has learned that bike shops draw bikers the way dropped food draws a puppy. Especially in winter, when the only fix a snow-stranded rider can hope for is the sound of a high- powered motor as Hill fires up one of his creations to test its tuning. In February, the roar of a big bike can warm a biker’s heart and blast the roar of a Nor’easter out of consciousness for a while.

Hill looks more like a professor than a hardcore biker. In truth he’s a bit of both. The white haired mechanic stands about 5’10” and tips the scales at 150 pounds if you let him hold a good-sized wrench in each hand. Most days Hill can be found in the back of his shop, which he opened in 2000. He launched a second business out of that back room in 2003. It’s called Halifax Choppers and it’s the work he does under that name that is drawing the crowds lately. While Powertrend will modify or repair any motorcycle, Halifax Choppers is a business with one goal. Hill opened it to design and build overpowered motorcycles for discerning clients. Hill chuckles when asked why choppers are suddenly a hit again and chopper builders are gaining cult status.

“Oh, it’s those TV shows. No doubt about that,” Hill says, referring to the Discovery Channel hits American Chopper and The Great Biker Buildoff. They are unlikely successes in the vicious American prime time ratings war. American Chopper is a reality show based on a dysfunctional New York family. The Teutuls, Paul Sr. and Paul Jr., battle each other and the clock as they race to build amazing choppers week after week. In The Great Biker Buildoff, Discovery Channel pits builders against one another in a race to create and build a one-of-a-kind bike that will win the hearts of fans at the next big bike show. Both programs draw huge audiences made up of people who don’t own or ride motorbikes.

“Actually, we started to see it first with Monster Garage,” says Hill about seeing people wearing the logos featured on those Discovery Channel hits. “You’d see that West Coast Choppers Maltese Cross everywhere. Kids were wearing it, old people, people who wouldn’t know how to start a chopper let alone ride one.”

Hill and business partner Sean McGowan welcomed a new trend at the shop in the early fall of 2003. That’s when the American Chopper program became a mainstream success and Halifax audiences were not immune to its sartorial influence. Customers were coming in to buy biker clothes instead of bike parts. The duo added to the stock of t-shirts and even launched their own Halifax Choppers line with a bloodied battle-axe as its centerpiece. The boom in clothing sales was good for the cash flow, but the shop is about bikes and bikers and the renewed chopper craze was hitting Halifax riders as well. Garnet Hill started building high-powered, high-priced choppers to the delight of Halifax riders. Hill’s customs were selling for $60,000 or more. The shop sold a couple of the sexy sleds and a Halifax Chopper even took first place in class at a Toronto bike show in 2003. The bike, a bright red bobber-style chopper, was a nod to the style of West Coast Choppers’ builder Jesse James. The machine, with the small bobbed tank, oversized rear tire and overpowered engine, gained Hill and Halifax Choppers respect in the small Canadian bike building fraternity.

Choppers first gained popularity in the early ’60s when bikers would chop the extra factory metal off a motorcycle to make it lighter and therefore faster. The sacrifices were necessary. It would be decades before advancements in motorcycle engineering developed bigger motors with enough power to push today’s bulky choppers to dangerous speeds. The philosophy of the early custom builders was simple; if it didn’t make a bike go faster or stop better, it was chopped off. It was a time when Hollywood romanticized the outlaw bikers, when Hell’s Angels and their radical bikes were pop culture icons. After Altamont, a Rolling Stones concert where Hell’s Angels hired as security guards killed a concertgoer, the Angels fell from grace and bike culture was again a subculture.

In 1975, when Garnet Hill opened Axeman Choppers on Alderney Drive in Dartmouth, his customers were mostly outlaw bikers and their friends. “They were the ones with the money and they didn’t mind spending it on their bikes,” he says. That was a time when choppers were no longer hot. It was the birth of the pro-street bike, a beefier and faster kind of motorbike. Bigger was better and making a motor kick out more horsepower was the key to a builder’s success. Big bore kits and racing cams, the finely tuned high-powered components developed for use inside the motors of racing bikes, were added to factory motors. That coupled with free flowing pipes, a thirstier carburetor and an air-gulping breather could do a lot more to make a bike go faster than simply cutting off excess metal. The science is easy to understand. The internal combustion engine breathes. The more air and gas you move through it, the more power it pushes out. That’s one reason bikers opt for the louder pipes that give a Harley that unmistakable rumble. Those loud pipes don’t restrict the engine, they let it breathe easier and deliver the extra horsepower bikers want.

As Hill mastered that science and his reputation as a builder began to grow, he noticed another change in the market. “I started to see new customers; they were businessmen, lawyers, even doctors. They had the money needed to modify the bikes and they wanted the rush of a high-powered machine.” What they didn’t like was Hill’s shop and the clientele it attracted. It seemed the business bikers wanted to look like outlaws but not necessarily wait around the shop with them.

“I decided to move the business,” Hill says. In 2000, he crossed the bridge to Halifax because that’s where the customers he wanted to attract spent their days. The timing was perfect; his outlaw customers had purchased new, bigger Harleys and were going to the factory outlet for warranty work. A couple followed Hill to Halifax, but for the most part their bikes worked well and they didn’t need his services. The new breed of rider felt comfortable in the new shop and its location was chosen for them. If members of the nine-to-five crowd could slip out of the office for an hour it would be easier to get to a shop on the peninsula. It proved a savvy move. Hill and his business were in place as more baby boomers felt the call of the wind and took to motorcycling. These riders had money and were willing to spend it to make their bikes faster. The bike factories recognized this trend too and began putting out huge engines with enough power to pull a rider up to adrenaline-pumping speeds. Hill’s reputation as someone who could make those monsters even bigger, louder and faster kept the customers coming. The silly grins on their faces as they ride away from his shop on modified bikes say it all.

“If you’ve ever taken one of these things for a ride I’d never have to explain it to you,” Hill says. “If you’ve never been on one I never could explain it.”

Despite a long list of satisfied customers, Garnet Hill wanted to take his business to the next level. It’s why he started Halifax Choppers. Hill was keen to compete with the big time builders who were suddenly TV celebrities. This winter he got his chance. Derek Gammon, a bike collector and rider from Pictou County, was feverish with the TV-fuelled custom bike bug. He took a trip to the US, to some of those now-famous shops, looking for just the right builder to create a one-of-a-kind pavement pounder to his specifications. In the end he liked what he saw in Garnet Hill’s shop and decided to let Halifax Choppers do the work. To Hill’s delight Gammon ordered two customs—a long forked chopper and a big fat pro-street bike. That’s roughly $150,000 worth of steel chrome and horsepower. With a budget like that Hill let his imagination loose. He hammered out the shape of the tanks, fenders and frames and then hired one of the world’s most famous bike painters to do the extreme artwork on them.

Fitto doesn’t use a last name. In bike circles he doesn’t have to. The eccentric owner and operator of Montreal’s Airbrush, Fitto has had his work featured on the Discovery Channel Biker Buildoff and spread across the centrefolds of the major bike magazines. Now it would be featured on two Garnet Hill creations. In the late spring of 2004, Hill and Derek Gammon travelled to Montreal to meet with Fitto and discuss the design concept for the two bikes. It was during these meetings Hill decided he would try to gain international recognition for Halifax Choppers. He wanted to take Derek Gammon’s bikes to the Rat’s Hole Bike Show. The show is a place where the finest bikes in the world compete for trophies and recognition and is a highlight of the annual Bike Week festivities in Daytona Beach, Florida. Bike Week draws about a half a million riders to Daytona every March; a win at that show could make Hill a celebrity.

When Hill returned to Halifax from Montreal he was not intimidated by the challenge of living up to the world-class paint schemes. He put together two badass bikes to go with them. As always with Hill, bigger is the objective. He wanted these rides to be sexy and powerful. Both machines shove more than 160 foot-pounds of torque into the pavement through monstrous rear tires. “They’ll be a little squirrelly in the bottom end.” He laughs. Translation: They’ll rip your arms out of the sockets and toss you off like a rag doll if you don’t treat them with respect.

Stepping into the high price big leagues hasn’t been a pain free experience for Hill. With world renown comes a long waiting list. It took eight months for Fitto to get to the first of the Halifax bikes. The frame, tank and fenders arrived in Halifax in early December and there was a problem. The gas tank for the pro-street came back from Montreal missing its recessed gas cap. That meant shipping the tank back to the painter to match up another cap. With Rat’s Hole only three months away, every delay was costly for Hill. Then, the ever-eccentric painter decided he would surprise his new Halifax customer with the chopper’s paint scheme. He wouldn’t tell Hill what colours he was using or give an estimate on when it would be ready. There were other delays with chroming parts and finally reality put the lie to reality TV.

On American Chopper and the Biker Buildoff there are always frustrating delays on the builds. That drama drives the shows. But in TV land, last minute crises are met with stubborn determination and suppliers who are keen to look good to a huge audience. The TV bikes always make deadline. That’s reality TV. Halifax Choppers is Hill’s reality and his bikes didn’t follow the script. The pro-street was almost ready for Daytona; the chopper frame never got out of its crate.

There would be no Rat’s Hole entry this year; instead Hill took his own chopper to Daytona and did some networking. He’s not worried. There’s the big show in Laconia, New Hampshire, in June, or Sturgis, South Dakota, in August, and Hill plans to have both bikes ready for those shows. In the meantime he gets to do what he loves.

“I come to work every day loving it,” he says. “That’s not to say there aren’t frustrating times. There are always bills to be paid and things to do. But I’m working on bikes and that’s what I want to do.” He’s not sure when the surge in the bike industry will plateau; he just plans to keep cashing in on the craziness while it lasts.

For now, Garnet Hill will continue the ritual on Bilby Street. The t-shirts will still sell out front and the custom bikes will slowly come together in the back. Gammon’s pro-street is drawing praise now that it’s finished. It will be entered in a major Montreal bike show in mid-April before making the trip to Laconia in June. The chopper is up on the lift coming together now. The really good news is outside though. It’s spring in Halifax and everybody in the shop is lighting it up, grabbing a handful and welcoming the new riding season.

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