When did Lowriders by Summers open its doors?
November 1, l979
When I was a lot younger, like high school and after, I was into cars and started working at a local body shop as a grunt when I was 14, about 1961 or so. I kept that interest alive for a number of years with a few different cars, but nothing really radical, usually just torched the coils with blocks on the rear leafs. The first ones when I was younger ran Dodge Lancer hubcaps or Olds Fiestas.
Then in about the mid 60s the "mag" type wheels became a big thing. Most of my cars were heavy weights like Olds and Buicks. My Dad, and my brother Bill, both had been into the motorcycle scene when they were younger, so I always had them in the back of my head growing up.
What was your first introduction to bikes and what made you decide that’s what you wanted to do with your life? Give us some of your personal background from your younger days that led you into the motorcycle world.
That really goes back to my days as kid with the bicycles and probably back to model cars even. I never was satisfied with things the way they were intended. Even with the model cars. I was always swapping motors and wheels from different kits and figuring out how to push the wheels up into the fenders to lower them.
I've always been into lowering stuff, even way back to the model cars. After that I got into doing bicycles. Using smaller wheels in the front and as fat a tire as I could find in the rear. Then I did a bunch of experimenting with spray bombs. Then onto the cars, even before I was able to legally drive. I bought a 53 Olds 88 when I was 14 and started messing with it, but nothing all that radical just bein' a kid, I guess.
In about '74 I was working at a Corvette shop in Minneapolis as a painter. One of the other painters had a 750 Honda with 6" tubes, pullbacks, drag pipes and a king and queen seat. That thing really grabbed my attention. One day I was heading off on a lunch break when he threw the keys at me and told me to ride it, that was it, I was hooked.
That thing sat so high off the ground and I was wobbling all over the place with those pullbacks and 6 over tubes. I was so taken back with the coolness of the wind in my face and the roar of those drag pipes. I was definitely hooked.
When did you build your first chop and what was it?
My first bike was a '71 Honda 750. I bought it the day after I rode that one on my lunch break...lol.
I did a bunch of things and kept changing it around. Bolt on stuff and paint was about it on that first one.
Then the next year I had Smith Brothers and Fetrow do a hard head section to it and after that it was “off to the races”.
My garage at home was as though it had a revolving door…different ideas and different parts in different places all the time. I couldn't get enough of it.
What came first for you: painting or building?
I started painting back in the mid 60s at the body shop I worked at as a helper. I painted my first complete car in 1963 when I was 15. A 1951 Chevy fastback with the front coils cut, baby moons with narrow whitewalls and straight pipes. I painted it a pale yellow. It came out pretty decent with only a couple runs in the corners I had to fix…hahaha.
About 2 weeks after I painted it, I sold it to a kid that saw it one night a local drive inn. He kept bugging me about how much I’d take for it, so I finally told him a ridiculous price and the next day he had cash in hand.
I couldn’t believe how much I made on that car...lol. I kept seeing that kid all over town with it…as happy as a lark with his fast back Chevy.
Where and/or from whom, did you learn to paint?
I picked it up myself working at the body shop. I'd work late prepping cars for paint the next day, and experimented while I was alone in the shop. I learned a lot of tips and tricks from the painters I worked with as time went on...but I'm basically self-taught.
You’re known for your flame jobs. Do you ever get burnt out on them? What are your favorite types of paint jobs to do?
Nice pun, Barry...lol...Nope. I love them. As long as I can do them the way I want for each individual project.
Flames... flames... flames... hahaha. I like doing the brighter colored stuff. But nothing says sexiness like a set of “Hot Rod" flames. White front blending into bright yellow with orange tips outlined with One Shot’s color called Brilliant Blue, over a high gloss black base color. Then blocked and buffed so you can't feel any of the edges or stripes…pure and unadulterated sex at its best.
How did the Purple Rain gig come about? I know Prince is from MN, was there a personal story or reference that led you to painting the bikes for the movie?
Prince’s "people" bought 3 bikes from a local dealer called Honda Town. At the time I was buying all of the OEM stuff I needed from them. They contracted Honda Town to customize these bikes the way the Prince Team wanted them done. Then, the paintwork found its way to me from Honda Town. Prince’s People came and showed me what they were after and I did them as they directed.
The details in the motor, paint, and engraving on the bike in the first picture, of the first gallery, on the Lowriders website are outstanding. Tell us about that bike.
The setup was used for 3 show bikes I built in succession. Everything is either chrome or gold plated and the engraving is by Jerry Potts of Aurora, Colorado.
The first was Snatch, a digger style with a Ness rocket tank, then that bike in the picture (first pic, first gallery), Heavy Breathing, and finally a 2nd rendition of Heavy Breathing with a number of radical changes, but the same silhouette and style. This bike sits in my shop today and was finished 27 years ago. It was the last show bike I built for myself.
Do you still show bikes? How does the climate vary now from the "glory days"?
I haven't done a show bike since Heavy Breathing in 1983. Show bikes take a ton of time and money to do. More than most can imagine especially if you're really trying to be competitive. Most show bikes are usually done by shop owners.
Even back then, full-blown show bikes were being done by guys in the industry. A few of them were privateers, but man, that gets spendy. It's rare that I hear of any shop building a bike as a show bike. Many build beautiful, show quality street bikes, but they are expected to be ridden regularly.
Another bunch of bikes have risen that weren't that common back when I was showing, and that's the European versions. Some of the bikes I've seen over here from France and England and other parts of Europe are off the hook with detail.
You’ve used quite a few turbos and magneto set-ups on your builds. Was it more of a design asthetic for you, or a performance one? What are your thoughts on those two components?
“Back in the day” I ran a few bikes with turbos on the street for the performance factor. But the ones you are referring to used the blowers and mags for the WOW factor really. In today's world it’s hard to beat the electronic ignitions out there and a good set of 4 carbs for all around dependability.
But, if I were to build a show bike today, I’d find a Magnacharger roots type blower to use along with a Joe Hunt Vortex magneto next to it. It doesn’t get much sexier than that.
It looks like you use an array of front ends (girders, springers, telescopic), which is your favorite and why?
Now days I’m pretty stuck on any form of telescopic forks, basically for functionality.
I feel they offer the best ride as well as the best handling out there.
You seem to be fond of the digger style. What is your definition of a digger style bike and what attracts you to them?
I'd say they are a street legal drag bike style…sort of the predecessor to the Pro Street look.
I've always liked things low and lean and that's what diggers seem to end up as.
The snowmobile in gallery on the Lowriders website appears to have a 4 cylinder. DOHC motor in it. What's the story behind that machine?
That’s a sled that I painted for Marv Jorgenson, a local bike, snowmobile, and boat racer that owned a shop called Chopper City in North Minneapolis. That’s a KZ900/1000 motor that I believe was 1425cc. That was when sled drag racing was in its beginning years.
That was a very wild and well-built setup. The chassis work and the body panels were done by a local racecar guy using the lightest and trickest stuff available in the racing market.
What is your favorite aspect of custom building?
Being given free reign to do as I see best for whatever project I’m doing.
What is your least favorite aspect?
Deadlines and time frames.
You've been at this gig for a long time, but what were some of your "day" jobs before doing "Lowriders by Summers" full time? I know you used to work as a bouncer at some point.
When I bought that first 750, I was working as a car painter. After that I got into the management end of body shops working for a couple of Ford dealerships. When I first opened my shop in '79 I was working full time days at the body shop and I was bouncing in local bars 3 or 4 nights week. When you first open a shop like I did, there's not much traffic, so you don't have to be there 8 or 10 hours a day.
You have to start promoting yourself. So, I'd work the body shop until 5, then go to the bike shop until about 9, and then head to the bar to work until closing...then home to bed and start it all over again the next day.
That was like 3 or 4 days a week. The other nights and weekends I'd spend at the bike shop. I stopped the body shop gig in about '82 or '83 and did the shop pretty much full time. I've always had some sort of alternative income to make sure the bills got covered because the bike business is so up and down...especially up here in the frozen north country...lol.
I stopped doing the bouncing in about 2001 or so. My knees started bothering me and it's hard to do that kind of job with a limp....haha.
You’ve mentioned health issues, care to elaborate?
Back in '78, I was leaving the bar I worked at the time, at about 1:15 or so in the morning. I was on my first rigid Honda and looked both ways before turning onto the main thoroughfare. There was a car coming from my left, but it was in the lane towards the center, so I turned right and entered the street.
The next thing I know, I'm rolling head over heels down the road and my bike slides past me leaving a parade of sparks as it skidded. I jumped up and then the car had changed lanes and ran into me and was now heading for me standing there.
When I tried to jump away from him, I discovered no feeling in my left leg and fell back down. The car quickly veered off to the left to avoid me, jumped the median and continued to the curb on the other side of the road. The driver took off leaving me lying there.
There were a few people around because the bar had just closed, so I got help right away. Long story short, I spent the next two months in the hospital cleansing the inner tissue of my left foot and waiting for a skin graft.
The doc told me this would probably bother me later in life, and he was right. The inside and bottom of that foot is numb, so when the dry skin cracks and opens I don't know it and soon infection sets in. I have bad circulation there because of the accident and when it gets infected, it gets it bad. This keeps me bed ridden for weeks on end with my leg elevated.
We're working on different surgeries now to increase the circulation there, but it’s a slow road. I have other minor issues too, but it’s that leg along with the bad knees that mess with me the worst.
Tell us of your involvement with the Minneapolis shop, Smith Bros & Fetrow back in the 70’s? Were you involved with the drag race scene that they were part of before they got into choppers?
During the latter part of my childhood I lived 4 blocks from their shop. I used to see them working nights on their drag cars, but never had the guts to walk up and shoot the shit…haha.
They began doing stuff for bikes later on and then Donnie and Happy became friends shortly after that. I got to know Bob Fetrow a few years later. Seems like he was always stuck in the back behind the mills and lathes, haha.
Do you still keep in touch with them?
I’ve rented their original shop for the past 25 years, so I see Happy on a monthly basis. Usually around the 1st…lol.
I see Donny from time to time, but I should try to more often. They are both outstanding guys and I’m proud to call them friends.
You are a member of the Hamsters MC, correct? In the 40th Anniversary of Street Chopper there was an article about the history the group. Can you tell us a bit about involvement with them?
I was one of the original 25 guys back in '78. Not one of the 7 founding members, but, one of the group that came together that same year as a result of those 7 members ideas. I stopped my membership back in 2006. I just don't have the time to devote to all that they do. I feel it's unfair to continue a membership when I couldn't do my part. It seemed to me that then I would be a member only because I was one of the original guys, and not for my participation. That wouldn't be right.
When it started it was a group of us that always hung out and rode together in Daytona back then. All of us were connected to the custom bike industry in some way. It started out on kind of a whim, or of a fun nature and eventually became a very serious organization of guys that gather around the country on a regular basis. I believe they have close to 300 members today.
The Hamsters have always been a great bunch of guys. They have always been an HD crowd basically, but through the years I always rode Hondas and Kaws until about ‘96 when I built my first personal Harley. Yet, I was always accepted and welcome as one of them, without question, just because I was there in the beginning. Good guys, they really are.
Your features in Street Chopper really helped your visibility and your business back in the day. How do you think the new editor(s) are doing bringing the magazine back to its roots?
I’m pretty impressed really. Jeff Holt seems to be showing interest in a lot of non-HD stuff and that is a great thing. I don’t see it ever going back to the way it was back then, but it really seems to be turning towards us (non-HD enthusiasts, that is) a lot.
Have you kept track of the whereabouts of any your builds over the years? Do you have any in your possession besides Heavy Breathing?
No. I've lost track of most of them. I know that “Fandancer” went to Japan, and a couple other customers' bikes went to Germany, but other than that I'm not sure. Once in a while one will pop up on Ebay or Craigslist.
The only builds I have here are the turbo Honda and the green Green HD.
Why did you use so many Honda CB750's in your builds?
I did some Kaws and Suzukis...but they just didn't have that look for me. I think it’s that double cam cover that doesn't fit for me. Plus, I love having an oil tank and oil lines. That helps make it your basic chopper.
I did quite a few Kaws and Suzukis as Pro Street...or Street Racer type bikes.
And why the Jap bikes, as opposed to American V-twins, Trumps or Beezers?
There were a number of reasons really, now that I look back at it. I was pretty turned off by the leaking and vibration of the HD's at the time. They just didn't feel comfortable to me for some reason.
From that first ride I took on my buddies 750, I was really taken by the performance and smoothness of the 750. Although, at the time I don't think I realized it but I also think it was sort of like doing something a little different than the norm.
I knew a guy that had told me time and again that building a 750 Honda chop was much easier than a Triumph, because there was so much more after market stuff available for them than the Trumps.
So, I bought his ‘71 Bonneville and built what I called “Turnabout” with the reversed head.
Although, that bike was far from what I'd consider a show bike, it did well wherever it went. From Canada to Daytona Beach it was a crowd pleaser. Most people knew something was different, but they just couldn't tell what it was.
Actually, I did a few Triumphs back in the ‘80s...just not nearly as many as the 750 Hondas.
I remember back about 10 years ago, people would say to me, “why do you wanna waste your time chopping a jap bike?” Now everyone and there brothers uncle is chopping jap bikes and proud of it. To what do you attribute this shift in attitude?
I think a lot of it is because you get a lot of bang for your buck with these bikes. Most guys just want to ride, and ride a kool looking bike. These are the easiest way to achieve that without taking out a loan for $30k. We can let our imagination flow and get what we are after without paying for it for the next 7 years.
What is more fun for you to build and why: a chopper, digger or trike?
Digger, without a doubt. When I just set up a rolling chassis and everything is under the 36” mark. I step back and get that feeling again...then that smile comes out. Happens every time.
In your opinion, what was the best decade so far for custom bikes/chops? (in relation to business, style, etc)
I'd say 1975 to 1985. Things were really poppin' at that time and by the mid eighties the choppers were becoming dinosaurs.
In your opinion, what is the biggest difference in the scene/industry now, compared to then?
With TV making it the kool factor to have a chop, everybody and their cousins are into this. Its not as Kool as it was when there was a few of us doing it..."Back in The Day". Kinda like flooding the market.
Are you glad the fat tire phase has subsided, or are you a fan of that style?
I’ve never cared for the huge tires. I like 200 at the max. Back when they didn’t make these monster tires we would use car tires for larger sizing. But, as with anything, you can go too far.
There are a lot of younger guys these days that are incorperating a punk rock, skateboarding, So Cal style to the world of custom motorcycles. What are your thoughts (if any) on that whole scene?
Not my style at all, but more power to them. What a boring world it would be if we did it all the same.
Who, in today’s world of custom bikes and choppers are you impressed by?
Donnie Smith, Arlen Ness and Ron Finch (if I have to pick some...lol) all very successful and talented, then and now.
I can’t see a lot of today's builders doing this 10-15 years from now, and those guys will probably still be at it…haha.
When did you know you had "made it"?
Thats kind of a loaded question, I don't know that I ever have made it, or ever will...lol.
I guess what I mean is: I haven't come close to what I had envisioned my future would hold for me, "Back in The Day".
I've been able to make a living doing what I liked best. I made a living with my hobby. Times have been tough for me, many, many times, but that isn't always caused by the motorcycle industry. Ex-wives seem to bring your aspirations to a screeching halt, at times. Plus stupid decisions in life itself can add to the demise of these hopes and dreams as well.
What has been the most influential part of your career?
If you're talking personal influences to me, I'd say my family. My Dad passed away when I was 18, but I gained a lot from him in regards to integrity and just being myself. My mom passed away in 2003 and she was certainly a huge fan of mine. She was always so proud of things I'd done and with my magazine features and my traveling a lot with the bikes.
I always knew that, but I found out even more from my brothers and sister after she had passed, about how proud she was of my work. Mom was the greatest.
I have 2 brothers, Bill and Stuart, and a sister Sara. Stu passed away in '88 but always was interested in what I did. Bill (or Jim as I know him) was a big influence to me with his motorcycle history when I was a little kid. To this day, his interest keeps reminding me of how great families are for all of us.
Then there's my sister Sara. She is so supportive of me and what I do it’s hard to explain. She's sort of taken over where mom left off in my life. I have the greatest family on the planet and they influence me day after day. Not just my brother and sister, but my extended family as well.
You are an Administrator and Co-owner of http://www.hondachopper.com/. Can you tell us how that came about and of your involvement with this online forum?
I ran across it in September of 2001 and signed on as a member. It involved exactly what I've done the majority of my adult life. In the fall of 2007, the founder, Mark Cooper came to the realization that it had gotten to be more work than he had time for. When he had mentioned this to those of us on the GOTF board that moderated the (site) board for him, I really didn't see that I had the know-how or time to do that.
My buddy Chuck DeVuono finally stepped forward to volunteer, but Mark could see that it was too much for one person to handle so he called me and ran the idea by me. He knew that I had a very strong passion for these 750's and had a lot of experience with them, so I agreed to have a go at it with Chuck and we haven't looked back since.
The participation numbers keep climbing month after month and we've grown to have a huge following and participation daily on the site.
In addition, what are you thoughts on the internet and its role in the motorcycle world over the past decade? (In relation to selling sites like Ebay/Craigslist as well as community/tech forums)
The internet has put a whole new spin on anything we do today. We have parts and accessories available to us at the stroke of a key. "Back in the day" we had to rely on chopper mags to show us what was available and the turn around time was at a snails pace. The internet is a wonderful thing. Ebay and Craigslist have opened the markets to being 24/7 worldwide for just a few bucks. It’s incredible.
However it has its downside as well. The vast internet has put local bike shops on their butts as far as cutting profits. Thank God I've never depended on parts sales as an income.
What projects do you currently have in the works?
The projects page is pretty up to date (on the Lowriders website). In other words, I haven't made much progress on them…lol.
I'm in the middle of finishing Twisted Midnight for Dean Magnuson in Denver. That’s my current project.
I'm behind schedule with it because of a few health set backs, but I'm getting back on track with a little help.
The next project for myself will probably be the Digger on my projects page.
What tunes are playing in the shop?
It’s on a local station that has a mix of rock stuff. Some older and some not so older...lol…really dig the blues a lot, just not for work. ZZ Top, Thorogood, Seger, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Clapton...just to give you some idea. I need that Rock-n-Roll for motivation!
What are some of your other interests & hobbies besides painting & building bikes?
I'm really not involved personally with much else as far as pursuing any hobbies. Like most of us, I like to relax in front of the TV and I'll always take time to enjoy Hot Rods and Customs, music as well...if its what I dig. I spend time listening and relaxing, but not from an active standpoint as I do motorcycles. These are my passion.
What is your most memorable motorcycle trip?
In '74, my nephew and I rode to Sturgis and then on to Denver after that, my first road trip on a bike and my first Sturgis. Lots of stories and lots of memories in that trip.
Actually, I was never into the long haul trips. In all honesty, I've spent waaay more time working on them and building them than I have riding them.
So who is Blondie?
Blondie’s my baby. She’s a 7 year old Lab mix that makes my day...day after day. I’ve given up on long term relationships with women...and Blondie agrees...lolol. Don’t get me wrong, I still need the same attention I always have...... just not 24/7.. and not long term (if you get my drift...lol)
What is your current ride?
1996 Harley Evo in a short Paughco chassis.
What does the future hold for Tommy Summers?
Hmmm. Who knows what the future holds for any of us??? As I've moved on a little in age here, and have a couple of minor health issues, I've down sized and slowed down a bit. But, the future is still...Motorcycles...Motorcycles...Motorcycles!
I want to thank Tom for taking the time to shoot the shit with us and letting us in on a bit of his world. Check out his many creations and projects at: www.lowridersbysummers.com
Lowriders by Summers/ 718 West 34th Street
Minneapolis, MN 55408