An American in Paris Creates Custom-Bike Heaven
As a young photographer, Willie Knoll, roamed the streets of Paris looking to find a balance between his American culture to his awe-inspiring landscape. It was there that Willie noticed the hard-to-miss motorcycle culture of Paris. He took his passion for creating hand-made motorcycles and began creating custom bikes in the city of love for over a year. Each of his creations have earned the respect of locals and have helped him fulfill a neverending passion by creating obsessively detailed motorcycles.
Petrolicious photographer David Marvier documented Willie at work in his Paris shop, Clutch Custom Motorcycles, and we managed to distract Willie long enough to ask him some questions about why he started his garage, his philosophies, and some of his rolling works of art.
Q: Tell us about yourself and your shop.
A: I am a 29-year-old American guy living in Paris that has a passion for hand-built, one-of-a-kind things.
Q: Why did you move to France?
A: I was born in the States as son of a French mom and an American dad. I moved to the other side of the ocean as a teenager when my parents parents split up, but I moved between to NYC and France for a while trying to find my place.I’ve been in Paris for approximately 15 years now, with plenty of back and forth during that time.
Q: How long have you been a custom bike builder?
A: I have been doing this for about 5 or so years but officially created Clutch Custom Motorcycles a little over a year ago. Before this I was a fashion photographer. I started building bikes for myself, then a friend or two, and before I knew it, I was wanting to build bikes more than taking photos, so I decided to put all of my efforts into the bikes to ensure I was creating the best thing possible rather than sacrificing quality because I was away on a shoot. It is a big gamble, but it’s worth it.
Q: Can you tell us about your shop?
A: My shop is located in Paris in the 12th arrondissement, two minutes away from where I live at the moment, so that works out well. It’s a real custom shop; everything is made and built by hand here. Only the tanks are sent out for paint. I’ve always insisted that everything is built in the garage because I believe it’s important to know that we are putting on the road is built to our standards.
Q: What is your philosophy in building custom bikes?
A: My philosophy is to create custom one-off bikes. When it comes time to build out a bike, I rarely, if ever, take measurement notes on a part I create. This forces me to discover new ways in creating a unique part for the bike, and this is why each bike can essentially never be recreated. I’ve always refused to recreate something I’ve already done, even when I’ve been asked a few times, for big money, to do so. There is no value in pushing myself if I revisit old designs.
Q: What is the biggest challenge in creating a motorbike?
A: For me, it’s the time. I feel like I am constantly racing the clock; being a stressed out person does not help. Luckily, I have my Papoutte to calm me down.
Q: What kind of people come to you for a custom bike?
A: All types. Young people that have saved up for a once-in-a-lifetime bike to rich CEOs with deep pockets. The custom bike culture in Paris is a relatively new trend. For years, people bought scooters and motorcycles like Americans buy lawn mowers. They were only tools of transportation. So I’m left with the task of educating the population on the beauty that old bikes represent in being connected with the ride. Yeah, what I build is old, and you will have to get dirty from time to time, but it’s worth it. Eventually, they realize this and love every second of the ownership experience.
Q: What is usually the creative process between you and your customer when designing a motorcycle?
A: I usually ask for some inspiration from them. I take some personal things we’ve discussed into consideration and then get busy doing my own thing. This involves new machining processes, new welding techniques, part construction, design exploration. We learn a lot about each build and when I get a new project it’s a chance for me explore my own fabrication boundaries.
Q: What part of the build process is the most important to you?
A: The most important process in a build for me is perfecting the lines and details of the bike. I work a lot on the lines, because, in my opinion, they are what gives a bike its personality. Lines can make or break the overall look, so that’s why I take the time to rework the frame, the forks, the angles, and so on with every build. Details are just as important because they pull the look of the bike together, making it appear finished and well-made, in my opinion.
Q: Of all the bikes you’ve created, which are you most proud of?
A: I am pretty proud of the last build, the BMW#2, but as a perfectionist it’s never good enough in my eyes.
Q: Are there rules or regulations in Europe that might limit what you can do creatively with custom bikes?
A: The rules here are a lot more strict than in the U.S. I am always at the edge of regulations and most of the time go well beyond them. They require that all parts on a bike be CE-approved by the European DOT. Since 90% of the parts on my builds are made here in the shop, almost nothing is CE.
Honestly I don’t really pay attention to all that. I make sure they have the blinkers and the white license plate, and thats it.
Q: What differences do you see in the motorcycle cultures of Europe and the US?
A: It seems to me that in the States its more of a chopper scene (which I love), but in Paris there aren’t many available. It’s just not the “thing” yet—maybe one day it will be. That would be great!
Q: Are you a motorcycle racer yourself?
A: No, not at all. I am just a cruiser—haha. I was big into BMX riding for a long time when I was younger.
Q: Do you have a favorite motorcycle?
A: I really like the XS 650 from Yamaha, which happens to be a build I’m working at the moment, so keep your eyes open.
Q: Is there anybody you’d like to thank?
A: I’d like to thank Arnaud, Hubert (for the chills not the skills, HA!), Rosalia for always being there for me, My mom for her help and support, David for the pics, Ludo, Cédric, and Marco.
Photography by David Marvier for Petrolicious