Richard Pollock, owner of Mule Motorcycles, on his days of surfing, his obsession with detail, the state of craftsmanship in America, and how he strives to build the “real thing.”
– richard pollock
Can you tell us a little about yourself and Mule Motorcycles?
I grew up in New England as a youth, then my father moved the family to Daytona Beach, Florida. He worked at Cape Canaveral as an Electrical engineer. This was the early 60’s. Up North everything was baseball, football and cars. In Daytona with the nice weather, it was motorcycles and surfing. Too hot and humid to have fun playing ball. I just wanted to stay in the water playing and eventually learned to surf. At the time in Florida, you could ride a motorcycle with up to 5hp at 14 years old. There was probably 30-40 motorcycles in the parking lot at my Junior High. My parents said no motorcycles in this house. So I stuck to surfing and got pretty good, eventually competing a lot.
Meanwhile, I had talked my parents into a Vespa scooter which I got for Christmas in 1967 and the next year, my sister who was away at college in Louisiana, quit school and came home on a motorcycle. A T20 Suzuki twin. She achieved hero status to me, but my parents were not quite so impressed. Anyway, the next year I got a 250 Honda Scrambler and 6 months later, I T-boned a car badly breaking my arm. Spent a week in the hospital, and had 3 surgeries over 4 months. After I healed up from that, I bought a CZ250 and started riding motocross and have had scores of bikes ever since. From 1973 on, I worked in bike shops, on aircraft and then went to AMI (American Motorcycle Institute in Daytona). After that, I moved to California in 1975 and worked in bike shops till 1988. From there I went to aerospace and 8 months ago I went back to bikes full time.
Mule Motorcycles is just my way of trying to make a mark in the motorcycle world. In a positive way. Hand making bikes for people that like what I like.
How did you get into motorcycles in the first place?
Liked the way they looked and sounded. When I was young in Florida, they were everywhere and the guys that had them? They were the cool guys of course! Finally I borrowed one to ride and it was hopeless to fight it after that. Started reading all the magazines and then drawing pictures of bikes.
Where did you come up with the name: Mule Motorcycles?
I was into bicycle racing for a number of years. I liked to be at the front pulling instead of sitting in the draft. Everybody had nicknames and eventually I got the nickname “Mule”. Then a bicycle racing friend who I was building a bike for called me one day and said, “Is this Mule Motorcycles?” We had a good laugh about it, but later the name made sense. A Mule is a hybrid. A combination of genetic traits that exceeds the performance and intelligence of both its parents. That’s how I viewed the bikes I was building and a business name was born.
What defines a Mule Motorcycle?
I think what I try to achieve is rather unique among builders. First, the bulk of my motorcycle experience has been with racing or increased performance and then aerospace (missiles and missile hardware). Machinery that functions very efficiently in these areas, have a look all their own. Meaning, they don’t have a bunch of stuff that serves no purpose added to make them have a “Look”. For instance, I will build a bike that looks like a race bike with lights and a sidestand because that’s exactly what it is. Not a chopper with a number plate attached. People that know a bit about bikes look at the chopper and say, “That looks like a chopper with a number plate attached!” It’s a contrived fake. Like a rusted out car with 500lbs of Bondo and a nice paint job. The chopper and the Bondo car are no different to me. So I strive to build the “Real thing.”
Another factor that is hugely overlooked by most builders and people that view bikes at a show or on the Internet or in a magazine, is the hardware. Nuts and bolts, washers, safety wire, material, plating, anodizing etc. Most of the time early builds for a builder will focus on large components or paint. Hardware is an afterthought and ends up looking that way. I was restoring a TZ750 roadracer back in 1991. I took every piece of hardware and had it all cad plated. Bolts that matched in head designs and that were the proper length. All the bolts ended up the same color or “Tone” of silver. It took the bike I was building to another level and a very bright light went on above my head. I never looked back. Add to that, the years in aerospace working with extremely nice nuts and bolts that cost as much as pistons and rings or even body work would. Also learning all about proper lengths, design and the installation of hardware. You get spoiled, so I began searching out aerospace hardware suppliers to get the highest quality bits.
If you popped open the hood of at NASCAR or an Indy car and looked at the engine compartment, that’s what I want my bikes to look like. I would like to be able to have an aerospace inspector look the bike over and give it the thumbs up! That would mean more to me than spectators at a show drooling over a bike that has every part polished with a hideous paint job of Satan and skulls and pointy things aimed at the rider.
So take that look and function, add in a classy one or two color paint job, bump the horsepower to a point that keeps the bike fun to ride and fits the customer’s budget and away you go on a Mule Motorcycle build.
You consider yourself a creative person, can you ever turn that off?
No. It’s not something I turn on or off. It’s just the way I’m hardwired. I look at stuff around me anywhere I go and I’m subconsciously logging data. What looks good, what makes it that way and how it looks different from stuff that doesn’t look good? Colors that catch my eye, or contrasts of metal tones that really give something uniqueness. I go on websites to view as many custom builds as I can every day. I mentally critique every build I see. Sometimes I comment on forums, but the average person just doesn’t see what I see. Everybody has a different “Eye” for what they like and when something really looks “Right”. But usually they don’t take the time to analyze why something looks right or what it takes to get it to that point. They don’t have to. And in so many cases, a few small tweaks can make all the difference in the world. The downside is after a guy building his first bike has put everything he can into a project, he usually doesn’t want to have somebody tell him that is has an odd look or what would make it look a whole bunch better.
So I’m looking and thinking and trying stuff and for sure not everything works out. I’ve buried myself for months in projects that were ultimately abandoned. The way I put a shine on that is that I learned tons and I now know what to look out for when designing stuff, what doesn’t work and why. When a customer approaches me and says I want to do this or that, I mentally ask myself if that will make something work better or look better than what we’re going to start with. Some ideas are stupid and I’ve learned how to say “No.” How much homework is there to back up this idea? Being “Creative” is why I don’t just buy a bike and go riding. I did that a few years back with a mountain bike. Bought it, rode the crap out of it and just put air in the tires and oil on the chain. It was no different to me than a shovel. It served a purpose and I was able to curb my creativity on it. Unfortunately, I can’t do that with a motorcycle. I bought a New Triumph Bonneville a year ago and I‘ve been working on it changing stuff for a year. I’ve ridden it zero miles!
You say about certain projects, “The harder it is, the deeper I get into it.”
If somebody says to me about one of my ideas, “That’s not going to work!” or they say, “You probably couldn’t do that anyway,” that’s all it takes. Game on! Oh yea? Stand back, cause the shit’s gonna fly. A challenge is what really gets me going big-time. I’ll think about the latest challenge day and night. “Necessity is mother of invention” was never truer. If we have to do something or make something and it’s gonna be really hard or on a tight schedule, count me in. Time to step way outside the box. Hot Damn!!
What’s the biggest challenge in running your own bike shop and small business?
Time and space. Need more of both. Space can be purchased fairly easily. Time is precious. I’m getting more conscious of time, as I seem to always have less available than I’m comfortable with. Doing things right takes time. I’ always say to people, “You want it right or do you want it right now?”
How involved is your family in your business?
My wife helps with small items here and there and my sister does all of my website stuff. She lives near Orlando so that’s all done by phone and email.
Your biggest satisfaction about running and owning Mule Motorcycles?
Going into the shop, seeing what needs to done and doing it is a great feeling. Then getting totally blindsided by a huge problem and finding a solution. Shipping a bike to a waiting customer is always nice too. Getting a bitchin’ idea, seeing it through and then the realization that it looks better than I had imagined are reasons why I really like doing what I do. It takes money to do all this, but I’ve yet to make much. Labor of love.
How has the motorcycle industry changed since when you first started?
When I started and later when motorcycles became my whole life, the buyer/rider had some responsibility to tweak their bike to get the most out of it, make it faster, handle properly or just make it look better. Now, a buyer must choose from a selection of very specialized single-purpose bikes. Touring, beginner, Sport, MX, Enduro, chopper (cruiser), dualsport, adventure or Harley. Tweaking or changing these bikes is more likely to diminish performance. What if a rider isn’t sure of where this motorcycling thing will lead them? They haven’t experienced everything yet and on a “Specialized”, uni-purpose bike, they never will get to. The other thing is, if you’re just starting out, what‘s available as a starter bike? Just a few limited fairy bikes that most full sized grown-ups have no interest in. So to potential new enthusiasts, there is basically a “Keep Out” sign staring at them as opposed to a Welcome sign.
Eventually I hope a manufacturer will realize that there is a huge market segment that has been locked out of buying new bikes. Decent, universal bikes that could be a starter bike, a commuter, could be upgraded for more performance or could just be a standard, neutral handling, reliable everyday bike that doesn’t look like a Third World chopper for those who want to experience motorcycle riding without having to play a roll. I believe there are scores of riders that want a universal motorcycle. The perfect example would be the Triumph Bonneville of the late 60’s. It could be converted to satisfy almost every type of motorcycle activity. Touring, sport (Café racer), roadracing, flattrack, chopper, standard (unmodified) or whatever. Buy it and modify as you see fit.
Obviously, the last thing would be price. $10K for a mid-sized bike keeps a large segment of the young buyers from ever experiencing the good things about motorcycling. Somebody in Europe or Japan needs to wake up and smell the coffee.
There seems to be a revival of handmade products and craftsmanship as a whole. In your opinion, what’s the state of craftsmanship in the U.S. now compared to when you first started back in the 60s?
I don’t think there is really a revival as much as there is a lack of people doing things with their hands, eyes and minds that require experience and years to perfect. In days gone by, everybody worked on or fixed their own stuff. Or at least tried. I think now there are just so few people doing it, that it’s become a novelty. So people that are doing things have become spotlighted. “Wow! Look at that guy change his own tire!” Now guys like Jesse James that pound a fender out on an English wheel in 15 minutes are still very impressive for sure and even back in the day, I don’t think many builder/mechanics could do that.
When I was a little kid in upstate New York in the 50’s, if a guy fired up a car and was going to do a tune-up or something, every kid within 3 blocks would sniff it out or hear it and be there in a minute on their bicycle pestering the guy. I’ve worked out of my garage for 25 years and had bikes in the garage or sitting parked in the driveway that entire time. I haven’t had 4 kids stop and ask about the bikes in 25 years. And there’s kids everywhere and this is in Southern California. Yes, something has changed. Takes commitment and time to learn a craft. So every time I see or read a feature about somebody that builds stuff, I think that’s a good thing! But not necessarily a huge deal.
How do you like to work with you clients on a custom bike?
Some customers have really unique, cool ideas. Others want something like they’ve seen that I’ve previously built. My favorites are the ones that say, “Do whatever you want within my budget.” I like these are best as I’m continually growing and expanding my range of ideas and experience. So the best thing I could dream up last year, is mentally obsolete to me this year. By the time people get exposed to what I’ve just completed, it’s last year’s ideas. When a customer is very fixed or rigid with requirements, I need to be totally on board to mentally get behind it. With the wacko weird ideas, I usually try to explain that most new ideas are a theory. They may or may not work out as envisioned. We both need to be somewhat flexible to see it through. Kinda like the difference between theory and reality. Plus, really innovative ideas usually require a couple run throughs to really get right.
Customers don’t want to pay for a prototype bike and then a final rendition. It’s not uncommon for the first attempt to miss the mark. The only builds that I’ve turned down are, (and there’s been several of the same request), a Sportster based offroad/adventure bike. Sorry, nobody’s home! Something that has really surprised me is that I’ve become friends with everyone I’ve built a bike for and done a second or third build for several customers. Guess that’s from spending a year of phone calls and emails and picture swapping. After all that you either hit it off or you don’t.
– mark hoyer :: cycle world
What’s the most memorable bike you ever built?
The “Punisher”. It was on the cover of Cycle World a couple months ago. It took 7 years to build and was quite an engineering challenge from start to finish. I could have built a house for what it cost and it was an emotional rollercoaster that lasted way too long. But I refused to quit. After I was done with my part, the owner spent 3 full months on the dyno working out all the issues with the “prototype” motor……because he refused to quit. Overall, a pretty amazing bike!
Who road tests your bikes?
I do. It’s really important that the bikes are safe and work as designed and I don’t want to crash testing them. So I put lots of effort and experience into making everything work right prior to the first ride.
When do you know when a bike is finished?
Hmmmm? I guess when they are done or complete, I’ve ridden them, everything works well and I’ve put some serious miles on them. Then I know what needs adjusting or tweaking and take the time to get them right. Also, and this will sound kinda wacky, but I sit and stare at them for quite a while. I look for flaws or something that could have possibly been overlooked.
If you could have any bike, on any road…what would that be?
A Honda RC30 on Mt Palomar without question.
How do you like to run your shop? (Couldn’t help notice that your shop looks super clean and organized.)
I have a lot going on in a small space and the only way to keep track of everything and keep the chaos to a minimum is to keep it clean and highly organized. I have a lot of parts to keep track of with 10-15 bikes in work at any one time, and that means lots of boxes of components. I’m not a clean freak and after doing a thrash on a bike, the shop will be a disaster. It’s thrash and clean, thrash and clean, re-organize, regroup, thrash and on and on. Something I always try to do is every time I ship a bike is to do some sort of upgrade in the shop. Build a shelf, put up better lights, build a tool rack, buy a piece of equipment or something that helps me do a better job or work more efficiently or comfortably. I’ve done this for 25 years.
What do you think about the whole exploding Cafe Racer scene?
This won’t be a popular answer but to me it’s the same as choppers. Same mentality where it’s all about a look that doesn’t pack any meat. Function is secondary. Guys are pushing so hard to turn anything into a “Café Racer” that they don’t even know what one is. The focus is on a “Look” and has little to do with performance upgrades. So every guy that puts Clubman bars on his 350 Honda now is a Café Racer. In the day, it was like I said earlier, you had to tweak your bike to go faster, work better, handle better. Not just pretend it was better. If you took a 350 Honda and had Todd Henning build a trick motor and put upgraded suspension on it and lower bars and a stepped seat, it would be a good handling, light, faster bike and you could have a blast. That’s a Café Racer. Taking a saw to a bike and turning it into a Rat-bike with low bars is not. Most still have the stock, zero dampening chrome shocks. Racer? I’m thinkin’ not so much. Yes, I’ve seen some really trick ones and the guys who build nice stuff, build nice Café Racers as well. The majority are an embarrassment though. The odd part is that the Café “Scene” seems to be as much, if not more important than the bikes. I’m much more focused on the bike aspect than the “Scene” aspect.
The good news is it’s getting a lot of cool old bikes out of the sheds and onto the roads. And is creating new interest in bikes for some previously uninterested people. That’s my opinion as unpopular as it may be.
Your favorite tool or machine in your garage is?
I guess the drill press gets the most use, because I use it so much and in ways it was never intended. The other thing would have to be the satellite radio. Can’t work without tunes!!!
Who influenced you the most when you were growing up? And now?
I didn’t really have any heroes growing up, but my father was a huge influence. I didn’t realize he was when he was alive. But looking back, he was a huge influence. He could “Fix” anything. Electrical or mechanical. Different generation. The other would be Sandy Kosman. I’m trying to do what he did for 35 plus years and he’s very free with helpful information. He doesn’t know it, but he’s helped me a huge amount!
What do you ride (or drive) on a daily basis?
Single speed bicycle, Ford F250 truck. I’ve spent many years racing flattrack and flattrack bikes are what I like to ride most, but it’s not every day. When my Triumph is done (very soon), I hope to ride that every day!
How would friends and family describe you on a good day? (On a bad day?)
Good day? Always happy. Bad day? Stay away!
Your most overused phrase?
That would be two. “Bitchin” or “WTF?”
Proudest achievement, so far, in your life?
Having a bike on the cover of Cycle World would be a biggie for sure.
What’s next for you and Mule?
I have a huge secret project in work involving two bikes. I think they will be very hard to top. For me anyway. Seven months to go on those! I would love to do some bike design for a factory, specifically Harley or Triumph. I think things through much more than when I was younger, so most decisions seem to bear more fruit. So I’m very optimistic about the future.
Anything you’d like to add about Mule or yourself?
I’ve made a lot of good friends and met a lot of great people through building stuff and riding motorcycles. I met my wife of 30 years working at a bike shop! Couldn’t ask for more than that.