Inspiration: Workshop

Wes White: Reluctant customiser

The Triumph-loving builder who gives customers grief

Approach Wes White to customise your Triumph and he’ll tell you that you don’t have enough money and that he doesn’t want to do it anyway.
Not the best sales technique, but the enigmatic Californian eschews wealth or fame and is reluctant to improve on something he already sees as a work of art. Reagan Alexander meets the modern day Hephaestus

Rolling up to Wes White’s Four Aces Cycle Supply workshop, you will hear clanging. It’s metal on metal, a sound that conjures up images of sparks before coal-lit fires and charcoal drawn blacksmiths. It’s the paradox of irresistible force set to an unhurried rhythm.

And then White emerges from the garage, dark, sternum-sweeping beard, shaved head beaded with sweat, hands caked in grease and oil that he doesn’t bother wiping before he reaches out to grip yours simply because it won’t make a difference.

The ink of his labour isn’t going anywhere, and White is all about economy of motion. Point A to point B in a straight line, be it in speech or movement.

It’s like glad-handing Hephaestus, the Greek god of blacksmiths, sculptors, metallurgy, fire and volcanoes… only White has a straighter back and wider grin.

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“You caught me beating on a buddy’s carburetor,” he says, and there is the quick and honest laugh, and the truth of the reality that he’s letting you in on a secret that really anyone else could know if they cared enough to pay attention.

It is the essence of Wes White.

Young, lust and big mistakes

What you see, what you hear, is decidedly and wonderfully what you get. It’s the spirit of his custom Triumph builds, substance and beauty through simplicity. He’ll gladly leave the pomp and chrome to the other motorcycle shops.

Point A, meet point B.

Four Aces Cycle Supply shop, in Pacoima, California, was launched in 2001, but White’s passion for bikes, as with many of us, can be traced back to when he was a stripling.

It’s a story as old as time: parents stand between the love of a boy and a motorcycle, boy turns 18 and does a two-wheel emancipation, boy finds out that he fell in love with the wrong bike.

White’s first bike? The one that he admits to with a chagrinned chuckle that has him scanning the pavement outside his shop, scratching the back of his head and looking for some inexplicable trace of reason in his then 18-year-old brain.

“It was a Harley Davidson Sportster.” It’s akin to a confession. But we all make mistakes. That’s what young lust is about.

Wes White, El Mirage, Racing, Speed, Custom Motorcycle

“I came to my senses in 1992,” White adds quickly. “After having lots of motorcycles, I finally got an old Triumph 68 Bonneville.”

‘There are actual motorcycles buried behind stacks of parts and books, racing leathers hung along walls, still caked in dust’

Less than a decade later he started Four Aces Cycle. It’s a little shop, in a little neighbourhood in the northern part of the sprawl that is Los Angeles. It’s a veritable museum to Triumph motorcycles, but only if the curator had gone absolutely mad and simply given way to the glory that is the clutter of organised chaos.

There are actual motorcycles buried behind stacks of parts and books, racing leathers hung along walls, still caked in dust, a desk you’d never realise was there until you find yourself sitting at it, staring at racing plaques. Above one workstation, littered with a mayhem of tools, hangs a faded yellow scrap of paper that simply reads, ‘Gremlins Go Away…’.

‘The builds are a conversation, first with the customer, and then with the bike itself’

Wes and The Humble Bee

Drive by a hundred times and you’ll miss it 99 times, and that is the beautiful paradox of Wes White as a Triumph devotee and small business owner. He loves his work, but he doesn’t necessarily want your business.

So when a prospective customer, be it proper rider, a discerning collector, or a bus-stop rocker with a wad of cash and a vision, approaches Wes White about a build, his answer is always the same.

“I tell them to go away,” he deadpans, and then there’s that laugh again because it is a joke. Thing is, Wes is only half joking. He simply finds the truth of it funny. “I tell them that they don’t have enough money and I don’t want to do it anyways.”

You would probably want to tell me, ‘I want a 60’s-style show bike’. And we would pick a frame, swing arm or rigid, and then we would go from there.

Wes White

His custom builds come at a price, one that taxes his soul in the sense that he has to augment something that he already sees as a work of art. The builds also take away from what he sees as his true calling, this little thing that is breaking land speed records on vintage Triumph motorcycles. Press on though, and you may find the cracks in the grease-encrusted veneer.

“If they are persistent, then we talk about what kind of Triumph they want, because it’s pretty much all I do, and we figure it out from there,” White says. “Usually, I like to stay towards something that I call ‘period modified’, so something like what you might have seen in 1965 or 1959, that it’s British-inspired or inspired by 60’s counter-culture choppers.”

The builds are a conversation, first with the customer, and then with the bike itself: “I would say that things happen more organically,” he says. “You would probably want to tell me, ‘I want a 60’s-style show bike’. And we would pick a frame, swing arm or rigid, and then we would go from there.”

Wes White The Humble Bee, Custom Motorbike, Triumph 650

Sometimes, the builds and the passion for racing gloriously intertwine, and when White speaks of those moments, it’s less like a proud father and more akin to a braggadocios sibling. It’s less, ‘look what I did’ as it is ‘look what we can do’.

‘Wes White has forgotten more about motorcycles than you may ever learn in a lifetime’

“This latest customer of mine wanted to go land speed racing, so I built him a stock bike to go and race with,” he says, pointing to a silver motorcycle that sits expectantly in the shade of the parking lot outside his shop. “It’s a 1953 Tiger 100C, which is a very small production number, probably six or seven hundred were made in ’53. It was the absolute first factory dual-carb motorcycle and, in a way, it did its part in starting the whole Bonneville phenomenon. The two-carb Bonneville was named after the Bonneville Salt Flats.”

This is when you realise that, in the five minutes you’ve been talking, Wes White has forgotten more about motorcycles then you may ever learn in a lifetime.

One of his customers also happens to be his girlfriend, a fire-brand blonde with a name out of a Dashiell Hammett novel. Kristine Peach started riding about five years ago, and now she races a bike, tenderly named ‘The Humble Bee’, that White built just for her.

Truth be told, it was less a romantic gesture and more of what one would call selfish altruism, or simply a gentleman’s way of keeping his toys to himself.

Wes White , Kristine Peach, The Humble Bee, Custom Motorbike, Triumph 650

“First of all it was a bike to be built to let Kristine race because I wouldn’t share my bike,” White says, and it’s less an admission and more a statement of fact, but then there is that laugh again, and the undistilled sentiment that follows. “Which is a long way to go around, to build an entire bike just so that you don’t have to share your bike. That’s love, you know.”

It started off as a 1953 Triumph 650, then White got his hands into it, and as it is with all of his builds, the end result came from a place of the history of the motorcycle itself. The sense of augmenting something without ever forgetting where and when it came from.

“We changed the seat, the footpads, the rear controls, the gas tank, the oil tank, the battery box,” White says. “The aluminum structure, the aluminum fender, the aluminum tanks were inspired by a bike I got to put together a few years ago that was a double-engine Triumph drag bike that had a lot of lightweight stuff on it.

So, really my inspiration for the bike came from those old pictures and meeting those guys that had drag bikes back in the day.Those are all custom modifications that are based on pictures that I had seen, people that I had talked to who had drag bikes and land speed racing bikes back in the 50s and 60s.”

Kristine Peach, El Mirage, The Humble Bee, Custom Motorbike
Kristine Peach just before her ride on The Humble Bee at El Mirage. Photo by Christopher Nelson , nelsonfoto.net, Instagram – @hassyxpan

You get nothing when you land speed race, beyond the respect of the people that are doing it alongside of you and maybe, if the Gods are with you that day, a little metal tag like the ones that line the shelf above the desk at Four Aces.

There’s a starting line, there is a finish line, but in-between it’s just you in a race against an indefinite, head down, knees clenched, with either the Bonneville Salt Flats or the floor of the Mojave’s El Mirage Lake Bed racing past your eyes as the roar of the engine goes quiet in your ears and the earth nips at your heels.

“It’s kind of stupid that way,” White says as he motions to the little brass plates nailed in a haphazard row. “Because you don’t really get anything else. All of those tags up there, that’s what you get. If you get a record you get a trophy, and you get your name in the book.”

Triumphs have always been ‘everyman’s bike’. People from all walks of life always rode Triumphs, and you didn’t really have to be anybody to ride a Triumph, you just had to love them

Wes White

But that is not why Wes White races his Triumphs. Not why he does his custom builds. He’s stupid that way, in a world where the rest of us think we are so smart because he’s pure. He doesn’t want the money, he doesn’t want the acclaim, he simply wants to be somewhere on one of the greatest machines ever built, going as fast as he can make that engine go. Faster than it was ever meant to go.

He is point A to point B in the straightest, most breakneck possible line, and that is why he and these motorcycles were made for one another.

“Triumphs have always been ‘everyman’s bike’,” White says. “People from all walks of life always rode Triumphs, and you didn’t really have to be anybody to ride a Triumph, you just had to love them.”

And this time there is no laugh. Maybe something that is akin to a sigh, but nothing that is sad, as if he is recalling a noble truth even he has yet to understand completely. Absentmindedly, he rubs the faded Triumph logo that is tattooed on his thick forearm before he says, simply: “They are the greatest motorcycle ever made.”