Colt Wrangler's 1977 Yamaha XS650
WORDS Chris Nelson IMAGES Brandon LaJoie
There is good money to be made by building trendy, cookie-cutter motorcycles, but the shops that churn out reiterative cafés and uninspired scramblers are as boring as the clients who are willing to pay for conformity machines. “I seriously struggle all the time to not get lumped into the hipster build thing,” says self-taught customizer Colt Wrangler, who in his five years of building motorcycles has produced several inventive, individualistic, show-stopping bikes — as well as several bikes that did nothing to advance his creativity. But, hey, they helped pay the bills.
The dreadlocked, 28-year-old Texan charmer grew up in a rural suburb of San Antonio, playing drums at his local church and riding bulls on the rodeo circuit, and today he is a member of an alt-country band, The Droptines, and runs a small, one-man shop out of New Braunfels, the third fastest-growing city in America. He currently finds himself at a fulcrum in his building career and says, “If I’m just going to be building scramblers and stuff like that, I’m done. If I’m building 10 of the same trendy bike, I’m going to lose interest, so if I can’t create something new and fresh, and put my ideas out there, I’d just rather do something else.
Wrangler wants to take on fewer projects with bigger budgets in order to better define his style and bring his wildest ideas to life in metal, and he hopes that this recently finished 1977 Yamaha XS650 brings forth that future. “This is the first bike that I made all the choices on and built it exactly how I wanted to,” Wrangler says. “I’m proud of all of the bikes I’ve built, but this is my best thing yet.”
A local coffee shop owner approached Wrangler about building him a custom bike, but gave him no creative brief and no set budget — an alien concept for Wrangler, who typically builds bikes on the tightest possible budget. “I’ve always been a penny-pincher, so at first I felt restrained, talking myself out of using his money, which was frustrating, because how can I make decisions when I don’t have a budget? I started picking out options for different parts I wanted, with varied prices, and when I sent them to the guy, he always picked the nicest stuff. It’s really cool that he did that, too, because we doubled what we thought we’d spend, and we would’ve cut ourselves short if we hadn’t.”
Wrangler first knew he’d tapped into something special when he mocked up the bike with an aluminum swingarm from an SR500, a set of Cognito Moto wheels, and a Hayabusa front end that he bought off of a friend. “Then the real stoke happened when I started the bodywork,” he says. “The minute I started shaping metal, I felt good about myself, and building from scratch gave me a new confidence.” Wrangler admits that he often struggles with confidence, and that in the past he beat himself up for not progressing faster or being bolder with his builds. But this raw aluminum street tracker changed him.
The bike is wildly artistic but absolutely functional, exactingly built while exuding a spirit of fun, and it is wholly freed from convention, with flourishes, details, and finishes that allows us a glimpse into Wrangler’s soul. He doesn’t go back from here, and the young builder says, “Bikes like this are my hope. Now that this guy let me do my thing and paid me for it, maybe another guy will ... I don’t want to get sucked into that trendy ‘what’s hot’ business; I want to create my own style, and I don’t feel like I’ve quite done that yet.”
Colt Wrangler is coming into his own, and hopefully this build shows his commitment to becoming a more self-assured motorcycle builder and helps him attract other clients who trust in his vision and originality. Wrangler says, “I’m still humble, man. I’ve done all kinds of shit work — I mean, I was washing dishes when I started this business — and I understand that I’m very privileged to be doing what I’m doing, but at the same time I want to play it smart. It’s kind of like music for me. I’ve come to a point with my drumming where I can get gigs and get paid if I want, but I’d rather be in a band because of the creative aspect: sitting in a room with three other guys, coming up with something new ... because otherwise I don’t want to do it. It’s the same way with motorcycles.”
This article was originally featured in Issue 041 of Iron & Air Magazine