Eddie Trotta Sits with Treez: Legendary Custom Bike Builder from Thunder Cycle Designs
The Chef called me one day and said, “Can you do an interview on Eddie Trotta?” “He is a legendary bike builder and he is there in Ft. Lauderdale.” I wasn’t sure who Eddie Trotta was when I agreed to do the interview, but I learned very quickly that this man has a gift. These custom bikes are works of art that you just happen to be able to drive. They are truly one of a kind.
As he told me his story, I came to find that Eddie Trotta is much more than a bike builder. He is an entrepreneur, cancer survivor, adrenaline junkie, accomplished boat racer, expert horse handicapper and an all around cool guy. He came across very humble and actually soft-spoken. I thoroughly enjoyed my interview with Eddie Trotta, and I know you will too.
SFLC: Are you a South Florida native?
Eddie: I was born in Connecticut. I went to music college in Boston. I came down to Ft. Lauderdale for spring break in 1971 and I never left. I was visiting my aunt and her new husband. He was a horse trainer. He took me to the track a couple of times. I started to go everyday because I really liked it. So I played the horses and I was good at it. I had come down to Florida with $600 to my name. At the end of the week, I had $3,000. I said, shit…I’m never leaving. I have a new career.
SFLC: How did your love of building custom bikes come about?
Eddie: My older brother (six years older to be exact) was a biker. He got his first bike when he was 17. I was 11 years old and so jealous. He was so cool. He had a 1947 Harley Davidson “knucklehead” chopper. So every year you would customize your bike in Connecticut. You would ride all summer and then come October, you took the bike down, cleaned it up, re-chromed the metal and even re-painted the bike. So by spring time, you had a brand new bike. We did that every year. Later on, I got a job at a body shop that was also a motorcycle place. I really learned a lot hanging out with those guys. They all knew so much about building
SFLC: What was life like for you before being dubbed a legendary bike builder?
Eddie : Well, I didn’t start out in that. I was first in the horse business for 20 years. That business takes up a lot of your time. It was an all day, seven days a week job. There were no vacations. And it was a hard business. So, I started fooling around with boats. When I moved to Ft. Lauderdale, I had a house on the water. I bought an old racing boat. I thought it would be a great idea to enter the boat into a race in Miami. I looked like such an idiot! I finished in last. My boat just couldn’t compete. My ego was hurt after the race. I told everyone there that I would be back next year with a boat that I BUILT! I built TWO boats. A V Hull and a catamaran. I raced the V Hull and did really well. I got pretty famous for winning a lot of big boat races all over the world. Pretty cool for a kid from Connecticut.
SFLC: How did you finally wind up in the custom bike building game?
Eddie: My uncle, the horse trainer, and I both got sick at the same time. I got Hodgkin’s disease and he had a brain tumor. He asked me point-blank if I intended to stay in the horse business once he passed. I told him I would try to. Well, after he passed I lost my edge. I just decided to quit. I had nothing to do. I was looking for something. I opened up a bar in Ft. Lauderdale. That bar was Montego Bay which eventually became Thunder Road Saloon. I got the idea for Thunder Road from visiting the Harley Davidson Cafe in NYC, and I thought it was so cool. It was 1990/1991 and the motorcycle thing was starting to get big.
Well the place was doing O.K., but there just weren’t enough bikers in town to keep the place making good money. There were a lot of “weekend warriors”. At that time, I had a deal with a bike builder to display his bikes in my bar. One day, he was hitting on my girlfriend at the time, so I threw him out. He took all of his bikes in my bar with him. I built my own bikes to put on display in my bar. A photographer from Easy Rider magazine came in and took photos of my bikes. I nailed a cover of the magazine, and the rest as they say…is history. I started to sell some of those bikes. My friends were my first customers. I sold that bar, kept the name, and that is how Thunder Cycles started.
SFLC: What sets Eddie Trotta’s style apart from other builders?
Eddie: The inspiration came from a Connecticut tradition, but I did mine a little different. We always like a lot of body work and metal work. One major thing that we did was the strutless rear fender. We set the bikes where the seat really sinks in. You can see the progression of my bikes if you lined them up. They get lower, longer and bigger.
Eddie: At one point, we had 25 guys working here. But only four or five really ever got to touch the bikes. Those guys are the only ones left working with us. You have Dustin who handles the welding. He creates the frame and works the sheet metal. Seth does the body work and painting. Ian makes all the parts manning the C&C machine, and I do most of the assembly. I do have a couple of guys that do airbrush for me. I used to use Billy Streeter, but now I have been using an artist I really like named Bones. As for how long a bike takes? A quick bike will take four months. Some bikes can take up to two years because they are really intricate. Sometimes the paint job alone takes 7-8 months.
SFLC: What is the state of customized bike building right now?
Eddie: I used to have a demand where 15-20 bikes were backlogged. All had paid deposits. I mean things were good. That was ’95 / ’96 and everyone wanted a custom bike. There wasn’t even enough to go around. It isn’t like that anymore. (Eddie chuckles to himself). Maybe it’s because I raised my prices. I used to charge $40,000 for a bike back then. Well I still will build a bike for $40,000.
SFLC: Is the industry over saturated?
Eddie: The TV shows helped and also hurt the business. They helped in that they brought the public interest full force into the motorcycle industry. They hurt it because it made for an easy way for those who wanted to be TV stars. They didn’t really care about being motorcycle builders. They just wanted to be on TV and famous. So they built these bikes that were never really meant to be ridden. These bikes shouldn’t have even been on the road. When I build a bike, I am totally conscious of the ride-ability. Is it gonna break and is someone gonna get hurt on it.
SFLC: What is your opinion of Jesse James and of the Teutuls?
Eddie: Jesse James was a biker first and foremost and he wasn’t doing bikes to get on TV. It was a way of life. He had some great ideas and his bikes were really cool. The celebrity thing was luck. He was in L.A. and he made for an easy choice to do the show. You’re not gonna come down to Ft. Lauderdale to film a bike builder. You’re gonna film a guy in L.A. I think ”Monster Garage” was a great show.
But the “Orange County” guys were desperate to be famous. No one ever asked them to be on any of these TV shows. They had a TV guy and paid him like $60,000 to do the shows. I wish I had thought of that. I would have spent the 60 grand if I knew it would have made all the money they made.
SFLC: Tell us what TV shows you have been featured in.
Eddie: I won two biker build-offs for Discovery Channel as well as other wrap up shows and the reward shows. I also did a bunch of shows on Speed Channel called V-Twin TV. We did 26 shows, two seasons at 13 episodes a season. I would build a bike as they showed the progress, and we would give the bike away at the end of the season.
SFLC: Tell people about your activity in the community.
Eddie : I’ve done four bikes for the Boys and Girls Club of Broward County. It originally started out where bike parts were being donated to raise money for the charity. After seeing that all the parts could actually be used to build a bike, I decided that I would build the bike. They were pretty excited. That first bike sold for and raised $70,000 for those guys.
SFLC: What do you do to relax when you are away from the shop?
Eddie: The highlight of my day is riding my bike to work and riding home. I do have a couple of nice cars. My Ferrari is sitting in the garage with a dead battery.
SFLC: How many bikes do you own?
Eddie: Everyone asks me that. I don’t have that many. I don’t know why. I would swear that I wasn’t going to sell a certain bike. Like I put so much work into it, so I am going to keep it. The “skunk” bike. I swore I would never sell it. Well, in walked a customer, offered $200,000 for it, and “C’est la vie” there it went. I’m not rich enough where I can say no to that.
SFLC: You say the custom bike business is on the down roll. Why?
Eddie: They are all going back to Harleys. People lost faith in the customs. You know how many people bought a bike from American Ironhorse for $40,000 and now they can’t get any parts for it. That’s disheartening. All these companies that swore they would be around forever aren’t even around anymore. People have just lost faith.
SFLC: So what is the future for Eddie Trotta and Thunder Cycle Designs?
Eddie: We are still selling bikes. I just sold a bike for $125,000 which is unheard of right now. I actually built seven full customs last year. Between custom bikes we are working a lot on “baggers”. When you go to these rallies, we are seeing that 90% of the bikes you see there are “baggers”. So it has become big now to customize these “baggers”. We put on a 26″ wheel on the front of one, replacing the 18″ stubby wheel, and it looks sick. Baggers are definitely taking up my time. It’s a unique look and bike. It’s hard to make these big bikes look good.
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