Interview: Max from Hazan Motorcycles
Maxwell Hazan. If there’s one shining star on the custom bike scene that’s currently at their apex, it’s him. Winner of the Pipeburn 2013 Bike of the Year Award. Ex-New Yorker and nouveau Californian. And, as Scott discovered on his recent sojourn to the Bear State, an incredibly nice guy to boot. We were lucky enough to be able to speak to Max via Skype recently and we are proud to present this extended interview with him. We hope you like it.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
“My name’s Maxwell Hazan. I build custom motorcycles. I started thinking I’d build and sell six or seven a year. Then I kind of fell into making these really unique, one-of-a-kind art pieces. It started off really well – I built a bike, it got an amazing response. You featured it on your site and made it Bike of the Year – it was literally the first custom that I built. I kind of fell into this unique bike build thing and it’s going really well.”
Where are you right now?
“Right now I’m in the guest bedroom of our new place in Venice, California. I moved out here with my girlfriend Sarah. We met in New York at a friend’s going away party about a year ago. She decided she was going to move to California for work and I decided to come. Our place here is about 30 minutes away from the workshop and the beach is close by. It’s kind of a hipster neighbourhood like Brooklyn, but it’s far enough away from things to get some peace and quiet.
What’s your background?
“I think you are kind of born with a handy gene. I got it from my dad; he built everything. When I was a little kid, it started off with Legos. I used to put them into the microwave to heat them up so I could make them into shapes that they didn’t come in. I ruined everything. Then I built model airplanes and some hydroplane boats… and then I stopped and went into working 9 to 5. I had a ‘real’ job doing interior design and contracting in the city.
Then I started doing bikes for fun on the side. Then I had lunch with my Dad one day and he looked at me and said, ‘why don’t you just build bikes full-time?’ And I did. So far I’ve taken a big pay cut, but my two most recent bikes are for sale now in Switzerland. Once those sell, maybe I’ll be back to where I was so far as earning a living goes. It was something I took a chance on because I wanted to enjoy what I was doing so I could just apply that creative gene.”
What was your first bike?
“I’ve had dirt bikes since I was three years old, but that kind of went away in high school when I started driving. The first bike I bought to ride on the road was a Buell S1 Lightning. I wanted something unique and I wanted a muscle bike. I liked it because it was slim – before Harley took over. It was mostly metal with some fibreglass bodywork.
I was in college and I scrounged up $4,000, but I needed $5,000. So I went behind my Dad’s back and I talked to my Mom and my Grandmother because I knew they were push-overs. I got it and had it for a while, but I ended up blowing the engine up; I put a big nitrous tank on it and it exploded. I loved that bike. It was cool and so loud.”
Why did you start the shop?
“Actually, I rented a small, windowless shop in Brooklyn just near my house to store some stuff – I wanted a place to do some cabinetry work. It was a forgotten area then; it almost had tumbleweeds rolling down the block. Of course, now it’s the trendiest corner ever. I put a curtain up so I could keep the sawdust away from one corner of the shop where I could keep a few bikes and some metalworking stuff. Eventually I just decided to go with the bikes and I got rid of all of the woodworking equipment.
Then a spot came up in the same building that was three times the size of the old place. It had a window but the rent was expensive, so I said to a friend ‘let’s split it’. He raced supermoto bikes and he had them all in his apartment. Then a year later I moved out here to California. It stung, because we put so much money into the old place. It was fully set up, but I guess it had to end sometime because the building was filling up with offices. I literally couldn’t swing a hammer at anything. People would ask, ‘did you pound out that tank?’ and my response was always ‘No. I can’t pound on anything. I used a metal shrinker and an English wheel!”
Tell us about the motorised bicycles you made.
“It was completely tinkering. It was after I got hurt riding enduro. I was on the couch for three months and I couldn’t walk. I had an old Schwinn beach cruiser in my apartment and after browsing eBay I decided that I’d put this 200cc, four-stroke motor on it. Then I made another one after that, and I figured that it would be a lot easier if I just built the frame from scratch instead of trying to fit things into some else’s frame.
That one went really fast; it used bicycle tires. That thing would go 90 miles an hour. It had an automatic transmission from a golf cart I put together with a Honda 350cc generator motor. Then on the next one I used motocross wheels and some Avon tires with a 650 motor. I could have continued, but I could see where it was going so I went back to using full-blown motorcycle parts. Why not make a real motorcycle?”
Why did you move from New York to Los Angeles?
“It was because of a girl. I had thought about moving to California a while back, but after I got the new shop in Brooklyn I decided that I was staying in New York. Then I met this girl and it was obvious to me that things like this don’t come along that often. Shops, they come and go, but one day she just said ‘I’m going to California and I’d like you to come with me,’ and I just said ‘yes’ straight away.
I’m also a keen surfer. The winter time is when the surf gets good in New York. And then when I moved to Brooklyn it was a real pain because you had to take the subway and then get changed in a snow-covered parking lot. Obviously, it just makes a lot more sense to just move to California. That’s one of the reason I got into bikes again, because you can say ‘on Saturday, I’m going out riding,’ and that’s that. With surfing, you are really at the mercy of when the conditions are right.”
Your latest bikes are the Enfield and the Ironhead. Can you run us through both builds?
“Both of them started off with the engine itself. I always just look through pictures of engines and try to get inspired by their features. If you look at the old JAP engines or old Harley engines you can see moving pushrods; usually the more functional the engine looks the more desirable it is to me. The Royal Enfield was a really pretty engine. I just put the engine on the table and, with a blank canvas in my head, I just started brainstorming. I shaped the tank and seat a couple of times out of foam and just threw them in the garbage – after a while you just look at it and you know it’s not right.
With the Ironhead, I originally had a plan to build some really sleek thing with the back wheel completely covered like an old Packard car. But when I put the front tire on it, I liked the look so much I just decided that it had to have one on the back as well.”
So you’re saying that the physical shape of the engine is inspiring the rest of the build?
“Yeah, 100%. The Enfield happened to be a real vertical engine, which made me want to have the frame more symmetrical, as opposed to the Ironhead which was more swept back. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, it definitely affects the way you design the rest of the bike. It’s really tricky because you’re trying to create something that you’ve never seen before. I don’t sit down and say ‘I’m going to make the nastiest chopper I’ve ever seen’. You wait for something new to come into you head, so you just look around all the time. Sometime you get kind of ‘zen’ with it and just stare out at the horizon and get introspective or something like that. You end up just waiting for the ideas to kind of pour in. That’s it really. I just try to find some inspiration from within. It’s like writing a song, I guess.”
So, what’s your next build?
“It’s another Ironhead that I bought. Actually, what happened was I bought this 1949 BSA 500 single – it was gorgeous. It’s hard to find an engine in that good a condition, as most of them are in bikes that cost twenty grand. But I found one, so I put it on the table and I had two massive rear wheels from and Indy car that were 33″ – they were huge. So huge, that they made the motor look too small.
Then I found this Ironhead engine that fit. So it’s going to be a modified Ironhead with a modern transmission that I will make look older and then I’ll supercharge it. It’s going to be very cool, but I really did it just because I needed to make a bigger engine to fill the space between the wheels. I haven’t quite figured it all out yet, which make me kind of nervous because I’ve made two bikes that got a lot of attention and now I’m sitting there with this leaky motor on the table… The supercharger is an old one I saw on a VW and I got it for $190 on eBay.”
Tell us about the knife design for the Royal Enfield’s seat.
“The idea for the look of that bike with the different strips of wood came from those classic Italian speedboats that used teak. I’ve always loved those boats; they usually had some big hot rod V8 in them. But the whole knife handle design happened because I couldn’t figure out a way to have a really thin attachment point between the wood and the metal. So I had to put the metal inside the wood so I could have a spar and a place where it bolted on. I literally took a giant block of foam pieces, shaped it, broke them all apart again and then traced their shapes onto mahogany pieces and did it all again.
Actually, a lot of the shaping of the wooden curves was done with my Dad’s inflatable drum sander which lets you do some really cool curves. I had to do it three times because the wood was shrinking, so six months later there was this metal spine sticking up an eighth of an inch. Of course it’s the first piece of the bike that anybody touches, so I had to strip it back and re-finish it again and again and again.”
What bike are you riding now?
“I wanted to buy a bike that was fun, cheap and that had passenger pegs for Sarah. Then I saw a DRZ400SM on Craigslist – the guy had put a big bore kit on it, too. Whenever I buy from Craigslist, I look at them and their house and I think, ‘is this person really taking good care of this thing?’ But I’d just moved here and I had to rent a van and drive three hours to get it. Of course, the guy was a complete slob who was living in his dad’s garage. I bought it but I knew something was wrong. And then about three weeks in the engine exploded, but I’ve just had it rebuilt. It is the most fun thing ever to ride in the city, because it’s super light. It’s kind of beat up a little bit, but it’s really fast below 70mph… especially in the twisty hills around here.”
What’d be your ultimate new bike?
“That’s tough. I see all these really cool bikes like Ducati Panigales out here; I’ve ridden one of those and I don’t think I want one because I can’t get anywhere near the limits of the bike – it’s just way beyond my skill set. So, I think I’d probably make some really nasty, fast super moto-style bike. Just something for me to ride; maybe a 100hp super moto. And the bike’s that I’ve built – I love riding those around town, too. When you ride a sports bike you are crunched over and on the clutch the whole time because it does 100mph in first gear.”
What’s your all-time favourite bike?
“I’ve always liked the Brough Superior. I came across it by accident because my mom, after she remarried, got the last name ‘Brough’, so I was looking for a personalised gift to give to my sisters for Christmas and typed in ‘Brough’ and this bike popped up. Those are the coolest bikes I’ve ever seen. Those, and the old flat track race bikes, too.”
Any signs in California of what could be the next big thing in customs?
“I’m not sure what’s up and coming, but I kind of feel that the café racer thing has peaked over here. There’s definitely a street tracker trend… but generally I’m not really sure. Maybe there’s a rise in the classic style – not so much café racers, but more stock Triumphs and BSAs. People are leaving them stock.”
What’s next for Hazan Motorcycles?
“Definitely a brand. When I started, I had this elaborate business plan with how many bikes I was going to build, the profits and the overheads… but it transitioned into something completely different. And better, too. So now I’m kind of leaving an open mind as to what the future holds. I’d like to continue doing the unique bikes in addition to something else. I might build smaller bikes or I might work in collaboration with some other brands – as long as I’m happy.
I used to be a mad scientists – I’d sit in the workshop and build forever, which was kind of isolating. But now with Sarah, I’ve got something good to come home to. I’m motivated to make something that’s feasible and profitable, but I also want to stay true to making these unique bikes they way I make them. I think that’s where people see something unique. That’s the secret right now.”