Motorbikes so good even Aquaman wants to ride them
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
You don’t have to like motorbikes to appreciate the creations of Max Hazan. Part engineer, part artist, the 41-year-old makes machines that look at once striking and otherworldly. He does this in an unassuming workshop two floors up in a ’50s former sweatshop in Los Angeles’ Fashion District, an area more known for its wholesale merchants than its bespoke motorcycles. Hazan heats, bends, shapes, welds and forges each piece of metal, from individual cogs to handlebars and swooping fuel tanks.
Ironhead, sold for $65,000
He always starts with the engine, the only piece not created from scratch. Usually favouring a vintage block, he might go for a thumping old Royal Enfield single-cylinder, or a Vincent twin from the midcentury. These are often so old that he has to rebuild them entirely, sometimes adding a turbo or supercharger for a more contemporary boost. With the engine as the focal point, the rest of the bike takes shape around it, and the results can be spectacular: previous builds include a BSA 500 complete with ’30s-style rear fender (sold for $115,000), and a 300bhp land-speed-record bike called Saltshaker ($95,000).
His latest creation is a little different. It’s his largest build yet and was commissioned by the 6ft 4in actor Jason Momoa (Aquaman, Game of Thrones). “My partner and I bought and renovated a house in Joshua Tree as an Airbnb,” Hazan tells me of the project’s origins. “To decorate it on the cheap, we put up framed photos of my bikes on the walls and Jason stayed there and saw them. He hit me up and said, ‘I want you to do your thing, but make it big.’ He didn’t flinch when I told him the price of the engine – I bought it at an auction so it actually saved him $20,000. We haven’t spoken since, apart from me asking him how much he weighs. He’s 260lb.”
The engine comes from a 1938 Brough Superior and presented its own challenges. “It didn’t look this good when I got it. Every picture you find of one of these is different. It was a race engine, with dual carburettors, and I put a supercharger on it. Normally you’d need all this stuff to make the engine run right with the boost pressure, but I came up with a system a while ago where you just pressurise everything. You don’t need any electronics and it works.”
KNTT 1200, sold for $125,000
Hazan often dreams up his own design solutions, from boosting near century-old engines to inventing suspension systems. In the past he’s turned a trumpet into an air intake and made oil tanks from glass. Impractical maybe, but few of his bespoke bikes will be used for the daily commute. Many of his builds have in fact become museum pieces.
Bobby Haas, the late billionaire financier from Cleveland, was the first client to order a bespoke bike from Hazan. He went on to commission five more, including the land-speed-record bike, which formed part of his museum collection of around 300 motorcycles. On his death in 2021, he left all of the bikes to those who made them, so Hazan’s are on their way back home. “He kind of saved me from going out of business,” says Hazan, who plans to resell many of the models. “People ask if I get attached to these things. And I don’t really, but that land-speed bike, that one I’ll always keep. That was a project we did together. I got up to about 217mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats and I shut it off because it was sliding everywhere.”
Haas isn’t the only person Hazan has impressed over the years. Anthony Bourdain, who interviewed Hazan for a documentary in 2017, told the LA Times, “When I first saw his bikes, I thought, this is art.” Hazan has also won prizes including “best of show” at the 2022 Quail Motorcycle Gathering and multiple Pipeburn Bike of the Year awards. What does he attribute his success to? “One of the biggest things is not being scared to fail. I’ve ruined so many things and it’s not that big of a deal. You learn so much more from a mistake than you do from someone telling you not to do it.”
Hazan only built his first bike in 2012 – before that, he had an interior design and consultancy firm. But following a motorbike accident, after which he couldn’t walk for five months, he started tinkering in his dad’s shed. That resulted in his first prototype, a motorised bicycle that did 60mph on tyres not much more than an inch wide. The second, made using actual motorbike parts, sold quickly for £20,000 after being displayed in a clothing store in Malibu. It was after seeing another of Hazan’s bikes in the window of that store that Haas commissioned his own, allowing Hazan to follow his passion full time.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. “With the first few bikes I built, a lot of the feedback online and within the motorcycle community was negative. I thought there were two things I could do. I could try to make them happy or I could just ignore them. I eventually stopped listening, kept going and it worked.” Twenty bespoke commissions later, his single-minded drive for perfection has paid off. “I’ve been a perfectionist since I was a kid, but the other thing is not compromising. That’s why I started making everything myself. It’s not that I wanted to make life harder. It’s just, if you want it to be right, you’ve got to do it all yourself.”