Get Your Motor Running

Can a new cable TV show stoke the fortunes of a Ferndale custom-motorcycle shop that’s relying on parts-and-service orders to stay alive?

When Dave and James Kaye set up a motorcycle shop in Ferndale eight years ago, the market for $60,000 custom bikes was just hitting its stride. Popular cable shows, available financing, and a desire to stand out in the crowd all served to drive sales of the duo’s one-of-a-kind bikes, including the Green Demon, Revenge, and Satan’s Crush.

Today, things are dramatically different, as the economic recession and tight financing have caused many motorcycle enthusiasts to pull back. A drop-off in conspicuous consumption has affected sales, as well. “We haven’t sold a bike in more than a year, and our plan was to open a second shop in California, where we could sell in a year-round climate,” says Dave, a partner in Detroit Bros. Custom Cycles and a former equity options market maker for the Chicago Board Options Exchange.

As the economy began its downward spiral, priorities shifted for Detroit Bros., and their planned expansion was quickly put on hold. An old friend who’d helped get Dave and James in two episodes of the Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-Off was back with another offer. Would the brothers, along with their father, John, be willing to return to the Discovery Channel to star in a 13-episode series titled Motor City Motors?

“We padlocked the door in California and headed back to Detroit,” says John, a former ad exec. The show, set to launch later this month, is unlike anything the Kayes have ever attempted. Instead of building one-off choppers, Motor City Motors calls for converting conventional vehicles like a GMC Suburban into something totally unexpected and radical, like a pothole-filler equipped with a rotating hot box, a 500,000-BTU torch, and a hydraulic-tamping front end (aka The Asphalter).

Naturally, to keep up the pressure, the team — which includes unemployed autoworkers — has just five days to complete each task. “We built some pretty tough bikes, but this was way beyond what we’d anticipated,” says James, a classically trained metal sculptor. “If you’d told me we were going to convert a 2-ton military jeep into a corn-picker with a conveyor belt that sprayed the kernels with butter before going through a 500,000-BTU heater to make popcorn, I would’ve said you were crazy.”

Original Productions in Burbank, Calif., produced the show, which was filmed at a 350,000-square-foot warehouse in southwest Detroit owned by 23rd Street Studios. “We’ve already been approached about licensing agreements, and we believe once the show is aired, we’ll start selling bikes again,” Dave says. “And if we’re [lucky], the show will be picked up for another season.”