Five Artisans: Roc City Café Racers
Rochester metalworker makes custom parts for stripped down motorcycles
In a shop as stripped down as the motorcycle parts he makes, Sean Pelletier’s to-do list includes aluminum tanks, seats, and fenders, all fashioned by hand. Pelletier’s Roc City Café Racers keeps alive a fifties-era British tradition, a small but passionate niche in the national motorcycle culture. Where once, it was all about stripping British-made Triumphs, Nortons, Matchless, Rickmans, or BSAs, the scarcity of these bikes has led to using Japanese bikes from the seventies and eighties.
Surrounded by the tools of his craft and metalwork projects in various stages of completion, he remembers how he went from being an artist and painter to running a motorcycle parts business.
“I bought my bike to play with and thought it would be really neat if I could build a [fiberglass] fender so I learned how to do that and then thought it would be really cool if I could do a seat tail too. Slowly, you make a lot of junk and then you get a little better and a little better.”
Pelletier’s metal of choice is aluminum, mainly for its malleability, it corrosion resistance and for the luster it contains when polished. Plus, he says, “once you realize you can make something half as heavy as the steel, if your goal is lightweight and fast, why go back?”
The genesis of a career
An industrial clang rings out repeatedly against the high ceilings of Pelletier’s motorcycle parts shop. He’s pounding sheet metal into the shape of a fender, striking it with a mallet against a sand-filled shotbag. The skyline of Rochester stretches out behind him through the tall windows of his second-floor warehouse space.
Pelletier, a New Hampshire native who came to Rochester to study art at RIT, started out making parts after he bought a forty-year-old Honda 750 just to play with. Without the benefit of a mentor or classes to take, he researched online how to work with his new medium “getting a tip here, a technique there, and knowing you may make a part with the idea you may throw it out.” From this learn-as-you-go method, his skills evolved. When he felt the molds for his fiberglass fenders and seats were perfected, he got serious.
“The fiberglass was what launched everything. I was spending all my nights and weekends building these parts and selling them on eBay. I was making more than I was at my day job and I was answering all my emails at work,” he said with a guilty laugh. “Eventually, they just said ‘You know, you don’t really have an interest in sticking around do you?’”
His honest answer—“I’m having a lot of fun doing this”—led him to set up shop roughly six years ago. The success of his fiberglass business allowed him to start tackling more complex metal fabrication projects.
Pelletier recently learned that his great-grandfather was a union tinsmith. Perhaps his talent for bending metal is literally in his blood.
An nationwide market
It’s beginning to warm up in the Roc City Café Racers shop this afternoon, so Pelletier throws open all his windows, letting in the thrum of traffic from the Inner Loop.
The resurgence of café racer bike building has been around long enough that small speciality shops can’t keep up with demand. Aftermarket sites online take up some of the slack, but Pelletier’s shop is one of the only places that really makes everything in-house.
“Most of the other places are importing things from China or wherever. A lot of them are more of a retail business. I tend to do a factory-direct kind of product.”
Pelletier occasionally has had the chance to network with other independent shop owners who will, as he does for them, refer customers to him when they can’t fill their needs. However, he relies more on customers he meets at trade shows rather than this niche community of small business people. “You don’t get to know a lot of vending people [at shows] because they are busy talking to potential customers and the same thing for you. So, you get to meet a lot of people who are into what you are doing rather than people who are doing what you are doing.”
Pelletier’s website helps, but he couldn’t just rely on potential customers to type the right terms into a search engine and find him. Pelletier got proactive, connecting with people on old bike forums and turning to social media networks like Twitter and Facebook to update people on his ongoing projects.
An independent lifestyle
Pelletier is happy with his chosen profession, but being a one-man show has taken its toll on his love of motorcycling. “It’s kind of weird because before I was doing this full time, I actually got to ride more.”
It would be relatively easy for him to approach Roc City Café Racers purely as a moneymaking operation by returning to fiberglass rather than handshaped metal, he says, “but there’s a satisfaction from learning and preserving this cool old craft. It’s the satisfaction I get out of a tank—making it nice and super straight, perfectly formed. What I really like doing is either getting a request from a customer to go a little bit nuts on something or working on my own stuff. That’s the fun to me: not having to stick to a formula.”
Pelletier also does one-off custom bikes but was quick to point out that these are few and far between since “it’s very difficult to build a bike well and charge a price that people will pay. Commissioned bikes? I really never factored that as part of the business.”
Even Jesse James, a custom bike builder from California (with a hit TV show), makes “more on t-shirts than he does on bikes.”
However, Pelletier has one of those “go a little nuts” bikes in Baltimore he is proud of that “came out pretty cool.” Sitting on the floor is another commission bike project for a loyal customer. This one includes a frame-off custom build with full aluminum racing fairing, tank, seat fenders, and motor. Getting to the point of making a fair living came from six years of intense self-educated effort; Pelletier’s plans to grow the company hinge on whether he can get his products more exposure.
“The only goal that I’ve got to going forward would be to bring someone in to do more of the everyday work and try to focus on building more bikes. You don’t make money on them, but they are nice advertising and fun to build.”
Being able to have his creations highlighted in bike magazines would generate another aspect to his customer base “and have people call and say ‘I saw the bike you did in that magazine, and I’d really like to get a tank.’”
“It’s a goal, but I’m totally cool with where I’m at now,” says Pelletier.
Café racing from across the pond
If you are one of those who cherish the motorcycle as an art form, then the café racer would have to be considered a product of the minimalism school. To achieve function over form, this style bike is stripped of all ancillary components, down only to its essence to go faster with better handling. Also known as rockers, these British café racers got their name because they would start out at coffee shops like London Ace Café.
Café racers just wanted to go faster and by sheer trial and error, and that all pervasive trait of human nature – competition. Those racers cut things off, smoothed things out, tweaked their engines until they got the desired results. One goal was to hit “the ton,” or reaching speeds of 100 miles an hour.