Motorcycles Rising Sons: A Look At Two Of Japan’s Best Motorcycle BuildersShinya Kimura and Go Takamine and their move to America.
- Words Chris Nelson
- Images Scott G. Toepfer
He wants to be a cowboy when he grows up. He wants to fall in love with America’s Wild West and ride along her dusty spine. She is beautiful and provocative, beckoning with the promise of freedom and excitement. She captured the imaginations of two Japanese boys immersed in Dana Brown films and dreaming of life in the West. Shinya Kimura and Go Takamine, two of Japan’s best-known motorcycle builders, grew up in Japan and established successful motorcycle shops there, only to uproot their lives to start anew in Southern California. Why? What have they found here they couldn’t in Japan?
Shinya Kimura, born in Tokyo in 1962, began working on motorcycles after his uncle gave him a 250cc Yamaha DT-1, a basket case he repaired with his father. At 30 he opened a shop, Chabo — “bantam rooster” in Japanese, which somehow translates to “back to basics” in Shinya’s mind — and then launched Zero Engineering with a partner who wanted to build Harley-Davidsons. Shinya says, “I had 100 people on the waiting list when I was at Zero Engineering, and I had six mechanics working under me and had to give each of them direction. I wanted to make motorcycles by myself, with my hands, but my role changed to be a director. It made me tired, which is why I left Japan.” In 2006 Shinya parted ways with Zero, moved to Azusa, California, and opened Chabott Engineering with an aim to create more artistic motorcycles.
Go Takamine moved to California eight years after Shinya. Born on the island of Okinawa in 1974, Go got his first bike at the age of 14: an air-cooled Yamaha YSR50 that he and his friends rode around an old U.S. military base. In ‘98 Go opened Brat Style, building simple, tasteful bikes loved by motorcyclists around the world. Go himself became a style icon; people called him the Japanese Steve McQueen. “I don’t think so,” says Go. He, too, resented the stress that success breeds and, like Shinya, wanted to escape. “It was my long dream to race in America,” says Go. “Road race, flat track, motocross, scramble, maybe drag race too … everything. I remember a long time ago visiting Daytona and seeing the flat track guys. That’s why it’s my dream.” Go left Japan and opened the second branch of Brat Style in Long Beach, 34 miles southwest of Chabott Engineering.
It was my long dream to race in America,” says Go. “Road race, flat track, motocross, scramble, maybe drag race too ... everything. I remember a long time ago visiting Daytona and seeing the flat track guys. That’s why it’s my dream.
Racing is sparse in Japan, but in America, both Go and Shinya race almost every weekend; Shinya enjoys land speed racing on the Bonneville Salt Flats and El Mirage Dry Lake Bed, and Go is a savage on his vintage Indian flat-trackers. Go’s wife, Masumi, loves flat track, too, and so do Shinya and his wife, Ayu. “It’s a symbol of American racing heritage,” says Shinya. “We had frustration in Japan, because we wanted to do it but could not.”
These days Go and Shinya are familiar faces in the pits, where fans ask about “zero style” and “brat style,” the custom genres the men unwittingly birthed. “I don’t want to be in some particular category,” says Shinya. “I always try to be flexible in my mind, and I’m not comfortable having some ‘style.’” Go agrees — he knows what he likes and couldn’t care less how people define “brat style,” because really, it’s him.
They’re both humble and appreciative of their legacies, because that’s what brought them to America and brings them new, lucrative opportunities — like collaborating with Yamaha. A few years back, Yamaha asked Go and Shinya to build custom bikes to coincide with the launch of Faster Sons, which connects legendary Yamaha bikes from the past to modern motorcycles in today’s Sport Heritage line. It was a big deal, because at the time, few companies were approaching Japanese builders to customize factory bikes. Go confidently started work on an SR400; he’d built dozens in Japan. He wanted to keep the SR’s character intact, making it look original but with more fluid lines and a stand-out vibe. The resulting B.S.R., or Boogie Single Racer, is one of the most beautiful SRs in existence.
Shinya picked something more complicated for his first Faster Sons project: the tightly packaged, liquid-cooled, twin-cylinder MT-07. He met with engineers and mechanical designers to better understand the MT-07’s inner workings, and realized how difficult it is to build a production motorcycle with regulations, cost constraints, and conflicting wants and needs. Shinya typically builds bikes for particular clients and struggled with the fact that this creation would be enjoyed by many, but fortunately, everyone loves the hand-shaped metal body of Shinya’s Faster Son. A patch of brilliant emerald green paint nods to the Yamaha XS1; it’s an odd, expressive beauty from a visionary builder. The SR400 café racer Shinya just finished — built for Yamaha to celebrate the model’s 40th anniversary — is far more subdued but just as beautiful, carefully crafted, and touched by artistry.
Go looks good on his Chequered Scrambler SCR950, also built for Yamaha. But then, Go looks good on anything. We watch Go and Shinya ride side-by-side along scenic Route 39, which starts just outside of Chabott’s front door and wanders through the San Gabriel Mountains into Angeles National Forest. Shinya looks at peace tucked against his bike, listening to the road. Go stands on the pegs of his beefy scrambler with a slight smile on his face; confusingly, his expression is more serious when he pulls into a dirt overlook to do donuts. “Needs more ground clearance,” he smiles. Go and Shinya speak to one another in their native tongue and fall in and out of conversations naturally, just as you would expect from friends who’ve known each another for over 20 years.
They’re playful artists chasing the same dream. Boys from Japan who rode shitty bikes through crowded cities and imagined what waited out West. Men who fearlessly express themselves through the machines they create, who irrevocably influenced an entire industry, and who love and cherish their wonderful, supportive wives. When we ask Ayu how Shinya has changed since moving to America, she says, “He was trying hard in the beginning to make a motorcycle ‘art,’ but in America he rides a motorcycle every day and realized we could enjoy riding whatever we had. He started thinking a bike must be more functional. Before he would do 50 percent mechanics, 50 percent design, but now he does 90 percent mechanics, 10 percent design. It changed him.” We ask Masumi if America changed Go, too, and she simply answers, “Not changed, but … happier.”
Go and Shinya have discovered new parts of themselves in their adopted home. Go loves that Shinya doesn’t follow rules and makes what he wants, creating unique motorcycles that also ride well. Go says that if anyone else tried to build bikes the way Shinya does, they’d make “spaceships.” He’s in awe of Shinya’s ability, as Shinya is of Go’s. Shinya watched Go grow and thinks he is the pioneer of expressing his style through riding and racing, insisting there has never before been a builder like Go. Their mutual admiration is adorable, their respect for motorcycling is bottomless, their love for speed is insatiable, and their talent is undeniable.
They are two of the all-time greats, without question. They followed their dreams the way you’re supposed to, listening to whatever called to them. Shinya Kimura and Go Takamine are genuine cowboys now, set free in America, nourished by her earth.