Ron Finch doesn't just make his own custom motorcycles — he's built his own world. His Pontiac home studio, where he creates decidedly whimsical custom motorcycles and sculptures from discarded scraps, is as fanciful as his creations. Finch will exhibit his bikes and sculptures at Autorama at Cobo Center this weekend, including a 13-foot-tall motorcycle that was built for Grand Rapids' Art Prize contest in 2012 (it came in the top 100 out of 1,517 entries). We met Finch at his home to talk about the career he's built for himself.
Metro Times: How long have you lived here?
Ron Finch: I've been here for 13 years. Before that, I was at a place called Finch's Custom Cycles. I was there for 30 years. When Great Lakes Crossing came in, the property got more valuable. There was nothing out there when I moved out there. This house was just a little house, so I bought it and expanded it.
MT: How'd you get started?
Finch: First, I was a pinstriper. It was just something I wanted to do when I was a teenager, so I just started striping. There was a guy who I would watch, and then I'd go home and stripe a piece of glass, and then turn the glass over and match the design on the opposite side and wipe it off, and do it again until I thought I was good enough to do people's stuff. Then I did a friend, and then a friend of a friend, and just kept going, doing painting, and rigging frames, and doing some metalwork. I got into more and more metalwork, and started making my own frames.
MT: This bike — I don't even know how to describe it. It has an exoskeleton — it's made of both metal wiring and old tools, and chains.
Finch: It's all by hand. I don't have any machines that bend. I just kind of lay it out in my mind. I don't draw or anything.
MT: It seems like you're not just a builder, but a collector.
Finch: I get stuff from different machine shops. I go garage sale-ing every Thursday. A lot of it's scrap. But there's getting to be less and less scrap, because as the machines get better, they're more efficient. It's harder to get stuff now than it was 10 years ago.
MT: How long have you been going to Autorama?
Finch: A long time. Since the '60s. Before, it was a lot of people who built hot rods in their garage with their buddies. Now it's such a money game now. The Ridler Award, your car's got to be shown for the first time and it's got to be a really high-end car if it's going to win. Those cars, the whole undercarriage is spotless and chrome and futuristic stuff. It was never that way. Before, you would have a chance of winning if you were just a guy in your garage. Now, it's not that way no more. Same thing with drag racing. I used to drag race. As soon as the money started coming in, I was done. You've got to spend 10 grand just to gain a second, or less.
MT: What inspired you to make a 13-foot tall motorcycle?
Finch: Well, most viaducts are like 13 feet. You couldn't go any bigger than that!
MT: Was your work always so whimsical?
Finch: It was a whole progression over 50 years. I've been fortunate enough that I've been able to do what I want all my life. Every now and then there's something I don't like to do, but that's life. There's a lot of people in the world who just hate their job — they go in to work, and go home, and go back to work. That's not me.
MT: Do you still do customization full-time?
Finch: Theoretically, I could retire if I wanted to, but I just enjoy working. A lot of guys, they work in a factory, they don't have any hobbies or nothing, then they're like, "I'm retired! I ain't gonna do nothin'!" and then they just lay on the couch for about a year or two and they're dead. I'm 75 years old. Every morning I wake up and I'm ready to do whatever I'm doing.