Why Keanu Reeves Had To Convince Gard Hollinger To Start Arch Motorcycles
Photography by Ted Gushue
We all have that dream of starting something with our best friend someday. Whether it’s a bar, a restaurant, a workshop, a racing team. You name it, we’ve all fantasized about it. But when a fully invested custom bike build for a customer wrapped up at Gard Hollinger’s shop, his first reaction was to move forward as quickly as possible in a different direction.
That bike was being built for Keanu Reeves, and he had the exact opposite reaction, asking instead if Gard would be interested in launching a new company, with this bike as the prototype.
I sat down with Gard recently to hear his side of the story, and to talk about the long road that lead there.
Ted Gushue: Gard, start at the beginning. What was the first motorized machine that started it all for you?
Gard Hollinger: For me, it was very young. I was eight years old, lived in the Hollywood Hills and this was, the ’60s, mid to late ’60s. This was pre-BMX, but myself and some buddies had Schwinn Stingrays and we’d just tear around the Hollywood Hills on them. I lived in this house on Mulholland Drive that was designed by John Lautner. There’s actually a picture of him on the wall there. It was on Mulholland, and several streets below, there was this teenage kid named Rick, and he raced motocross, had a little mini bike, a little Honda 50 that he had modified. Every day when he got home from school, or if it was a summer day sometimes do it all day long, he’d get this minibike out.
He’d wheelie down to the bottom of the cul-de-sac and he’d turn around and he’d wheelie back up. As long as he would do that, I would just be mesmerized watching it from this house that was perched a couple of streets above. One day, couple of weeks after that, my buddies and I were on this little track which we built on this vacant lot, and this kid, Rick, showed up on his minibike and said, “Can I ride on your track?” And of course, we were like, “Yeah”. He went around a couple of laps and he stopped and he said, “Do you want to ride it?” That was it. I was just done.
TG: Totally hooked. What was your family’s background at this point?
GH: I lived with my mother and my stepfather. My stepfather worked in local radio and advertising. My mother was a trippy, intelligent, beautiful, artistic woman. I think at the time she was maybe she was just a housewife. Most of my life, I spent being raised by this single mother, but at the time she was married to my stepfather.
TG: Do they have interest in cars or anything like that?
GH: Not at all. My stepfather was a normal man from the mid century, so he enjoyed cars, but the coolest car I can member him owning was maybe an early convertible Firebird or something like that.
GH: I’m sure they just got sick of me talking about this minibike. Back then, there was company called Taco that built these little minibikes that you could buy almost anywhere. They were probably $150.
TG: It was the equivalent of the Razor scooter back then?
GH: So my first mini bike was a purple Taco, 22 was the model. It’s basically got no suspension. It’s a minibike with these tiny little tires and a Briggs & Stratton, you know, equivalent to a lawnmower engine in it. Then I immediately started trying to modify that thing, and the next thing after that was a Honda CT70, which came about a year and a half after that, maybe. Then, it just continues.
TG: At this point you were how old?
GH: I was eight originally, and then when I was a young teenager, my mother and my stepfather got divorced. My mother was working as an office manager for a big lighting manufacturing company in downtown L.A., and I was going to a junior high in East Hollywood called Le Conte Junior High and there were 3,000 kids in three grades and it was very ethnic. Gangs were just starting to sort of become a little more serious. I think my mom wanted to get us out of L.A., and she went to this little island with some friends in the Pacific Northwest, literally almost to the Canadian border in the Puget Sound and bought a house while she was on vacation for a couple of weeks, and came back and announced that we were moving. I went from Hollywood to this little tiny island.
TG: Pretty stark contrast from a Lautner house that’s probably worth $20m now.
GH: Now. At the time, it wasn’t. We knew the couple that had it built and they were sailing around the world and the sailboat, a guy, Russ Garcia, who was a composer. They got to Australia and realized that they needed a bigger sailboat, and they asked my parents if they wanted to buy the house. I’m sure at time they probably got it for less than the cost to build.
Then, I lived on this little island. I went from this school of 3,000 kids in three grades to a school that was, like, kindergarten to senior, there were 250 kids. Totally landlocked, an hour and a half, two-hour ferry ride to get to it, and it was a bit of culture shock. I always had an interest in motorcycles through that whole experience, not an interest, and obsession. I was drawing pictures of motorcycles in the back of math class or English class.
TG: You’re in the Puget Sound, you’re riding motorcycles. When did you first start taking wrenches to them?
GH: Well, I started wrenching on them early just by necessity. Obviously, I didn’t have parents who were either motorcycling or gearhead enthusiasts, and so as it is with these things, they break, so I just had a natural mechanical aptitude and I just started working on them. You start with necessity, like, “It’s broken and I want to ride it, so how do I get it running?” To, “It’s not broken, but I want to change something on it,” so then you start modifying stuff and that just happened really early. Then, I got into racing motorcycles, and then my first real businesses as an adult was sort of in the motorcycle world in the Pacific Northwest.
TG: What does that mean?
GH: I co-founded a company that was a small protective gear company for off-road motorcycles called Duval and Junior, which I believe is still in existence. I sold my share out to my old partner years ago. We manufactured these aluminum protective components for dirt bikes, like disc brake protectors, master cylinder protectors, exhaust pipe protectors, that type of thing. Then, we opened a small motorcycle dealership in a little suburb of Seattle, West Seattle. Those businesses were just as I was turning 21 and I had been a mechanic on the island when I was younger and had gone to school and got an associate’s degree in automotive technology. Why, I don’t know. I know I did want to work on cars.
I was a Marine mechanic for a number of years on the island, but always building motorcycles and riding motorcycles and eventually racing motorcycles. I raced motorcycles until my early to mid ’20s in the Pacific Northwest. I went to the nationals. Then, sometime in the mid-to-late ’80s I just wanted to get away from motorcycles. I thought I had spent my life until that point being obsessed by them and where had it gotten me?
TG: It’s like the quintessential kid who plays sports all through childhood in high school and gets to college and has no interest. They’re burnt out.
GH: Yeah, it was a lot like that. It was a lot like that with the exception that I didn’t have a support network for it. It was always as though I had to make the money to pay to do it and find the time to train and do it. There was a burnout factor. I was so into it that by the time I quit racing motocross in my mid-’20s, I thought that life was just never going to be the same. Of course, the second week after you’re done, you’re like, “Life isn’t the same. Look at all the stuff I haven’t done”.
TG: Yeah, you’ve been so focused.
TG: At this point, you’ve been building bikes. You’ve been wrenching your own bikes, you been racing bikes, what was the first bike that you built that you sold to somebody?
GH: Oh man, I mean, I guess it starts early with the dirt bikes. When you’re involved in a competitive motorsport, the motorcycles that you build are tools, right? You need to have the newest tool all the time, so I guess I didn’t even think of it in terms of that. It wasn’t necessarily a creative thing. It was you’re building a motorcycle to be as competitive as you can and then you’re replacing it with a newer, better one, so you get rid of that one. I can’t even remember what that was. In terms of the idea of motorcycles as a creative endeavor came much later. It probably was in the early to mid ’90s when I started getting pulled back into motorcycles.
That really came from inspiration from a friend who was also in the Pacific Northwest whose family owned the local Harley dealership. His name was Russ Tom. Russ and I knew each other from racing motocross, and his family owned the Harley dealership. He was building some really creative motorcycles with Harleys as the sort of foundation for them and he got me involved in some of those projects. that got me sort of thinking as motorcycles is something that could be more artistic and creative. Then, I sort of just went on my own at some point after that.
TG: That’s when you founded Arch Motorcycles?
GH: Yeah, originally, when I moved back from the Pacific Northwest to the Los Angeles area, met my wife, got married, moved back. This was in the early ’90s, ’94. I had a business, a couple of businesses in Seattle and a house and I sold that. I was a single father until I met my wife. I was raising my son, who at the time was nine years old. I was like, “Okay, I’ve sold everything and moved back to L.A. What am I going to do?” I pursued acting for a little while, studied it, but I just wasn’t really built for it. I loved the creative process, but I didn’t like the business part of it. The auditioning and that kind of stuff.
Then, I thought I’m going to get a job doing something with motorcycles again. I saw a local ad that said, “Come and work for the leading Harley shop in West L.A.” I was thinking it was Bartels’. It ended up being this little shop called Bad Bikes in Culver City. The guy that owned it at the time, Ed Hastie, hired me as a mechanic/fabricator. When I went to work for him, was still very sort of entrepreneurial. I had not had very many jobs working for the people since, like, the early ’80s. I just made a deal with him of you pay me by the job as a private contractor. No matter how long the project took me, I worked on a flat rate by the job.
I did that for about six or eight months and then his shop was going through some stuff, and I ended up leaving and starting my own shop at that point. It started kind of the way those things always do. There were some customers whose bikes I was working on there when I left they were like, “Who’s going to finish my bike now?” So I finished them in a garage. Then I got more people that wanted stuff, so I went and got a little shop in Canoga Park and I had a business partner who was one of these ex-customers. That first shop was called Ziggy Harley, and that was in ’97.
Then four or five years after that, somehow I got involved with the new Gilroy Indian era. Then, it’s a really long story, but we had the opportunity to become the L.A. Indian dealer, so we opened the Indian dealership across from Bartels’ in Marina Del Ray, and had that until Indian abruptly closed the factory in, ’02. That dealership was established and we were already taking on some other lines, so that’s when Chop Rod started.
The idea of the Indian dealership really came from the inspiration of that Russ Tom had sort of given me. The idea of using what he did, using Harley as a creative platform for motorcycles. I’ve always thought, “Well, Indian is the other viable brand that has the same kind of history as Harley”. My dream wasn’t to have a motorcycle dealership, but to have the Indian as a platform to do something more creative. Chop Rod started almost immediately when the Indian dealership did, only using the Indians for that. When Indian went away, obviously, it became a focus.
TG: Walk me through Chop Rod. You just became a custom shop that was doing super-high end builds for interesting people around L.A.?
GH: Yeah, exactly.
TG: Is that how you met the people that have helped build Arch? Keanu Reeves for instance?
GH: Yeah, a mutual friend, he was working for a pretty well-known Malibu leather and silver artist named Bill Wall. He actually called me and said, “Hey, Keanu Reeves is a customer here, and he’s got this ’05 Harley Dyna that he just did a bunch of stuff to, and would you be interested in building a sissy bar for him?” And I was like, “Not really”. He goes, “Well, would you just meet with him and look at his bike?” And I was like, “Okay, sure”. They came to the shop and I looked at the bike and Keanu was like, “So, what do you think? Do you want to build me a sissy bar?” and I was like, “No, not really”.
He tells the story of me turning him down really well, but my stance was basically I only had so much time left to do what I really wanted to do, and building a sissy bar for Keanu Reeves was not what I wanted to do.
When I made that commitment that I was going to start Chop Rods, it was that I was going to build what I wanted to build. I spent a number of years when I had Ziggy Harley and these other businesses, basically being a gun for hire. I would do fab work for other motorcycle shops that were not my inspiration. It was just they’d bring something to me, “Can you do this?” Yeah, sure, no problem.
I decided with Chop Rods that I was going to do what I wanted to do, and if people dug it, cool. If they didn’t, then after a couple of years, I’d have a few cool motorcycles and I’d just, like, go off into the distance, right? Fortunately, people seemed to respond to what I was doing and I think I was doing something at the time not very many people were doing, the style of bike that I was building, so I earned some degree of attention and notoriety doing that. So it really was about—life is short, I could spend three days building a sissy bar that I can charge you $300 for, which will seem like a lot of money, and it won’t be satisfying for anybody.
Or, I could say no and do what it is that I do. That’s where it really was coming from. Then he’s like, “Okay, well, what do you do?” “Well, come in the shop and see”.
He came in, he saw some of the motorcycles I was building, and there was a quality to them that he liked. Then, the conversation started, “Well what can we do with my bike?” Then, through that conversation, we agreed that I would basically change his bike, modify his bike. That grew into something even bigger, and it took quite a number of years and it was really a process that dragged on because I saw his interest in the process, and he was communicating to me what he wanted the motorcycle to do, and that was sort of challenging me in a way.
The project would get to a certain point, and then I would just stop and wait until he had some time and was back in town to see what the progress was, and then we’d continue. That took about four years for that bike to get built, and the result was the prototype that you see out there.
TG: That was the original Arch motorcycle?
GH: Yeah, it wasn’t called an Arch. It was a Chop Rod. It was started as an ’05 Harley Dyna.
TG: You finished the project and you both sat there looking at it and it’d be like, “We should do another one of these”.
GH: Yeah, it started even a little earlier. My first foray really into a heavily CAD-designed bike. It was existing in the real world just a tiny bit ahead or a tiny bit behind what it was in the 3D world. As we were visualizing it in the 3D world, it was starting to look like something that was familiar but different. I almost don’t know how to explain it except that way, like a concept bike.
Almost like you’d seen it before, but you hadn’t. At the same time, it was being built in the real world; when it was done and we rode it, there were some rumblings even before then where Keanu was like, “Man, that thing is beautiful. What if we made some more of them?” I’m like, one of our jokes here is, I’m the “no” guy, right?
TG: Someone has to be.
GH: I would just say, “You know what? Let me finish this one. Maybe there’s something to talk about after I finish this”. Then, when the bike was done, we rode it. I’ve been riding since I was eight years old and I’ve ridden almost every kind of motorcycle that I can imagine. Keanu started riding much later, but he’d ridden many different kinds of motorcycles, because he’d owned a lot because he’d got in this habit of just buying one when he was on location someplace, and riding it until he was done on set. He would go into a motorcycle shop, and he would go, “What used motorcycles do you have?” They would go, “Well, we have these”. He’d go, “OK, how about that one?” Then, he tried it while he was working, and then when he was done he take it back and he’d go, “Give me whatever you want to give me for it”.
He wasn’t collecting them, he was just having that experience of riding the motorcycle. Through that, he’d ridden a lot of different motorcycles. What an awesome way to experience all these motorcycles. He really didn’t care. He would look at the six that they have for sale and he’d go, “Okay, that one is kind of cool”.
So, he owned a lot of different motorcycles and got to experience a lot of different motorcycles without being a collector. It was more about the experience of riding a motorcycle. I always thought that was cool. That was part of it. Obviously, somewhere early in us meeting we started to hit it off and the time we would spend together, we would enjoy that time together. That’s when the friendship started. I was very much not interested in starting a motorcycle company.
TG: It’s a pretty hubristic enterprise.
GH: Yeah. I knew that from having been in the industry for quite a long time.
TG: When did the first plan solidify to make the second bike?
GH: After finishing the bike, it was really a unique motorcycle in terms of the riding experience that it offered. Keanu was persistent, so I really sort of grilled him for several weeks when we started talking about it, and I remember we would get together and I would have a list of 20 questions and also reasons why we shouldn’t do it.
Finally, I remember him saying, “You know, I have listened to all these reasons why we shouldn’t do this. Can you tell me some reasons why we might want to do this?” I thought that was interesting. As an entrepreneur, you have a dream and then you look at worst-case scenario and you do all those thoughts and stuff: “I want to do this, but it doesn’t make sense to do this”. He was thinking sort of in a different way, like let’s think positive about this. What’s the opportunity here?
Then, it came down to my final question. Okay, forget all that other shit I asked you. If there was just one reason you had to say why we shouldn’t do this, what is it? He thought for a minute and he looked at me, “Because we’re going to die someday”. There’s an opportunity here for us to do something that’s special, and something that we both are passionate about, and care about, and something we could leave behind. Really, that was the turning point for me. I went, “Okay, I don’t know how to argue with that. Let’s give it a shot”.
I think that’s what it was, and here is the opportunity to do it. I fell in love with motorcycles very young. I went through that period where I was like, “Motorcycles, bad. Stay away”. Then, I came back to the realization that this is what I do. It’s what I’ve spent most of my life doing, I like doing it, it’s natural for me. Why am I running away from it? Then, I was in that mode, thinking, okay, well, if I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it the way I want to do it. Then, along comes this opportunity and this business partner.
TG: Were you in a position that if you hadn’t met Keanu that you could have done this?
GH: I would not have done this. I was already sort of doing it in my own way, but I was building one-off motorcycles, three every year.
TG: We talked about this earlier when we were talking to your CAD guy. There’s a big difference between building one-offs that might share parameters and building replicable machine pieces.
GH: Huge. Huge. The second is much more challenging and difficult, and so that was also part of what I was interested in. I’d gotten my toe in the water doing some consulting and design work for some other small custom motorcycle manufacturers before the big economic crash. I was interested in it. I was interested in the challenge. There’s something fulfilling as an artist to do a one-off piece and then never do that piece again, but there’s something really challenging to try to create something that is the same as that, has those same challenges as a design piece, but then has all these rules that you have to try to, like, how can I push the boundaries of those rules.
TG: Yeah, it’s not a natural state for an artist to be in.
GH: No, and that was really interesting to me, and I think that’s what made me even more interested in it, because I’d already had a taste of it, when I got over the, “Okay, why should I not do this part of it?” that’s what was interesting to me. That’s what I found to be way more fulfilling and challenging than what I was doing before with Chop Rods. Did I have the financial means to do it if I’d wanted to back then by myself without going to get capital? No. Not in the capacity that we’re doing it now, but I also didn’t have the interest in doing it, so I didn’t care. I would go as far as to say that there isn’t anybody else I would have done this with.
TG: Is he your only partner?
GH: Yeah, and we’ve talked about that a lot, too. There’s something pure about that. I really think that somebody else or a group of other people, even with a shit-load more money to back it, if they would have come to me and said, “Let’s do this,” I wouldn’t have done it. I’m not really money motivated. I became very passionate about Arch and the idea of it and the opportunity and I think we both, he and I share the passion and I think he sort of reignited something in me.
When I would have conversations with him, he would be so thoughtful about explaining a riding experience. I remember thinking, “Wow, when did I lose that, or did I ever have that? Has it always been just more visceral for me and less thought-provoking?” That sort of reignited some of my passion.
TG: Maybe it has something to do with the fact that you had started at such a young age, when you didn’t have the vocabulary to describe these things.
TG: It became something that was just part of you, so there didn’t need to be an internal dialogue. It was all feeling, but maybe he started later in life, to the point where he had to have a dialogue to explain it to himself.
GH: It could be. You’re not charging me for this, are you?
TG: The bill’s in the mail.
GH: Yeah, I don’t know. There was something about the way we were going to do this and the purity of it that was interesting to me, and we’ve tried to maintain that. That’s part of what I love about doing it, too. I think we are very pure. I think if you look at what we’re doing, it’s like we’re not pulled and tugged by consumer, what do you call it? Like, taking consumer surveys, and doing group research, and, “What are people responding to?”
TG: It’s two-buddy research.
GH: We’re doing what our passion is driving us to do, and fortunately some people are responding to it. I mean, I know all the negative criticisms, and listen, life is full of them, but we’re staying pure and I think that’s part of why I have the energy to keep doing this. I think we’re doing some interesting stuff.
I think we’re doing some stuff that you’ve seen some bigger segments of the industry start to do, and I don’t think we’re necessarily responsible for it, but there’s a collective consciousness and that’s inspirational, too, or validation to keep going and try to do something else. You know?
Special thanks to Gard at Arch Motorcycles for his time and attention as we learned about his inspirations, latest venture, and what drives him to make what’s next.