With ten years under our belt, it’s amazing to look back — to see the path that brought us here and the future pushing out ahead of us. We celebrated that decade of Motoworks a few weeks ago, but for those of you out there who don’t know the history of those ten years, it’s a story worth telling.
It was December, 1997. I was at x-mas dinner in Florida visiting family when a “cousin in law” (who happened to be a bartender at Chicago’s own Twisted Spoke) told me about “Bob’s” as I shared with her my interest in BMW motorcycles. Once back in Chicago, I came to the shop on a cold December day. Bob’s was a four man operation back then and Chad McDade was the only person working that day I came by. There was Bob the owner, Bob West the mechanic, Chad the mechanic, and Tim the “parts guy” in the shop. The place was pretty ramshackle too. No heat at all, other than a few wood-burning stoves. Very few lights, but there were lots of bikes. Actually, it was a big room full of bikes. (Today that big room still exists and is sacred ground at Motoworks.) There was no signage, and no front door. The entrance was in the alley. Just a pair of steel doors with a BMW roundel laid into the concrete. It was cool — kinda magical really. A seemingly endless collection of beemers, a secret entrance, and a rough but kind staff. The place had my heart the day I walked in the door. Looking back, it was definitely love at first sight.
Fast forward two years, to 1999. I spent 80% of my net worth, $5000, on a 1995 R1100R. She was chained to a pole outside of Autosport on Division, just east of Damen, which is now sadly just another soulless “TV bar” on division. Autosport was a euro car shop with an indoor tow yard next door. I had been looking for a BMW. I was actually hunting for a K75 because I wanted a bike with ABS. Looking back, I don’t really know why that was so important to me, but the K75 was the cheapest point of entry to nanny brakes. An R-series twin was beyond my meager $4K budget, but I saw this dirty bike chained to a pole and stopped short. Turns out she was at Autosport because she was a repo. I got the info for the bank that held the title, went there the next day, and made a deal. I paid just $5K for an R1100R that was still under the 3 year warranty. It was an epic score.
I brought her to Bobs for service and to buy saddlebags. The guys were stoked on my deal, and made me part of the family. Over the next two years we modded her heavily and I piled on the miles, getting to be very friendly with the boys in the shop in the process.
Over the course of the next couple of years my career blew up a bit, and my ability to ride and invest in the bikes was increased quite a bit as well as a result. I purchased an SV650 track bike that I still own and race, and I began spending countless hours in the shop working on that project.
One random day when I happened to roll down to the shop, I saw a very prominent for sale sign on the building. I figured I could see this as either the end of an era, or the beginning of something new and awesome. I chose the second option. The building going up for sale sparked a conversation with the owner that went on for a couple of years, but resulted in me buying the building myself and Bob’s along with it.
That was 2004, when I purchased the building at 1901 S Western, and we opened shop straight away. The place had no name at that point, just business cards bearing the names “Bob, Chad, John, and Tim” on them. That was us. Our business was really just those four guys. We fixed bikes and did some business that summer, and then really went to work on the building over the winter. We had to. It was really cold in there and the building itself was in very poor shape. I’d sold my condo to fund the deal, and I was living upstairs in an uninsulated space, burning wood in a stove in a feeble attempt to stay warm. I was young, foolish and happy.
Looking back it was pretty crazy. It’s for the best that I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. Sometimes it’s easier to succeed if you don’t know how big your obstacles really are. The building needed a TON of work, I was completely ignorant about how to operate a retail business. We were under-capitalized to say the least, but I believed that a shop that cared about the dreams of its patrons could survive. If we just took care of people and their bikes, they’d take care of us. That belief, married to a couple dollars and force of will, created Motoworks Chicago.
Those first few years were total bootstrap and by the seat of our pants. We had fun, though. We fixed bikes. That was what we did. Back then we worked on all brands, all makes, all models. It was a bit chaotic, actually, but we made it work.
In 2006 we created a humble little storefront with an entrance on 19th St. We also took on our first dealership franchise with Kymco. My goal for the store was to sell 50 scooters and 50 used bikes a year by the end of three years. I thought at the time that would be the maximum capacity of the store. It was a cool period, really. We met Chicago. Chicago met us. We became pals.
Two years on, in 2008, we were able to secure the Vespa franchise. Our timing was perfect. For those who don’t remember, 2008 was the year of the $5 pg gas “crisis” and we sold a lot of scooters as people looked for ways to cut their gas consumption (and excuses to get that scooter they always wanted anyway). All those sales were a huge help. We had a pile of bills to pay, and start-up expenses we had deffered for years. The scooter boom helped get the business stable.
That 2008 season also began my love affair with the large-frame Vespa, which continues today. To say that I was enamored meeting the Vespa GT200L is certainly an understatement. That affection also brought about one of my favorite two-wheel adventures. My partner in crime was my #1 riding partner, best pal from high school, Motoworks field tester, and high school director, Josh Saxe. Josh took the majority of his summer holiday in Chicago to assist us with our growth spurt, but also to prep for a ride from Chicago across America and deep into the heart of Mexico. You can find those exploits here.
For all the booming success of 2008, 2009 was a challenge. The scooter bubble burst and the scooter sales market was in the tank, suffering the largest losses in an already down two wheeled market. Yet we believed in our cause, and began prepping for Motoworks, Part Deux! We doubled down and opened a “boutique” location at 1710 W North Ave. It was a simple little storefront that we built ourselves in the fall of 2009. That was fun and we made a lot of new friends. That project was fun, and ultimately worthwhile because of everything we learned doing it, but I found myself stretched too thin. What’s too thin? I couldn’t ride. I couldn’t race. I couldn’t go on riding adventures. None of us could. It was time for a strategic retreat.
In August of 2010 we took a big step in the right direction. We took on Triumph Motorcycles. This was really exciting for us, since we’d been talking to Triumph since 2007 in the hopes of forging a partnership and becoming a dealer. We sold a few bikes that first autumn and just a few years on, we were the top Triumph dealer in the Midwest for both 2012 and 2013. We owe that to not just great bikes from Triumph, but how fortunate we’ve been to make enough friends in the Triumph community. Fast forward to Spring 2012, just two years ago, when we brought Ducati onboard as well. That brought its own challenges and rewards, but Chicago Ducati fans have embraced us whole heartedly and we’ve embraced them and everything the Ducati name brings with us. Carrying everything from entry-level Piaggio scooters, to modern classic Triumphs, to ultra-rarified, 200-hp Ducati hyperbikes means that we’ve pretty much got something for everybody.
In under a decade we’ve come up from four guys in an old dump of a building to Chicago’s source for all things Ducati, Triumph, and Vespa. There were definitely growing pains along the way, but we haven’t forgotten our roots either. Fixing BMWs is still a huge part of what we do, and it always will be. We’re also still scrappy — still figuring it all out as we go. Yet we’ve grown in so many ways. What started as a team of four is now almost two dozen.
So that’s been the journey. Ten years of taking care of people and their machines. Ten years of hosting events, and traveling the country and the world burning rubber and shredding gear in the process. What’s next? More of the same. Not more locations or new product lines. Not this decade, anyway. More of the same is more events, more riding, more adventures, and more friends made on the road. More of the same is making more of our pals two-wheeled dreams come true, and having a blast doing it. That’s my dream. It always has been.
Looking back after 10 years the #1 feeling I have is gratitude. I am so grateful that Chicago supported our dreams and made them come true. None of this would have been possible without the love, energy, and enthusiasm of our friends and customers. So thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. We’re here for you, and we’re here because of you. Ride on!