chop shop: clevelander scott colosimo pulls off dream of building a motorcycle co.

Scott Colosimo's business plan sounds like something a fast-talking 25-year-old might conjure up on a barstool over beers. Close enough. In truth, the Cleveland entrepreneur mapped out his big idea with a friend three years back over buy-one-get-one pizzas.

That big idea -- to produce a stripped-down '60s-inspired motorcycle that looks like a million bucks but costs less than $5,000 -- was the germ that grew into Cleveland CycleWerks. You see, instead of wadding up the bar-napkin sketch and tossing it in the bin, Colosimo and that friend, Jarrod Streng, decided to look into actually building such a bike.

The timing was right; Streng and Colosimo had both been laid off from their design gigs at Dirt Devil, where they tried a bit too hard to shake up the vacuum cleaner world, earning reputations as outsiders in the process. And it's not like the idea of building a motorcycle was completely foreign to Colosimo; he had been chopping up cars and bikes in his parents' Parma garage since he was a teenager. Among his juvenilia is a cartoonish Chevy Cavalier painted shamrock-shake green.

"I spent every waking hour working on that," he says proudly, pulling out a picture of the ride. "We call that polishing a turd."

More recently -- and perhaps more significantly -- Colosimo graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art with a degree in industrial design. He is currently an adjunct professor at the school.

Colosimo's dream of building a "working man's bike" -- one that average wage earners could actually afford -- started taking shape while he was working at Detroit-based Johnson Controls, his first job out of college. Back then, his quest for perfection was less of an asset than it is today.

"I couldn't just draw a door handle on a car when the whole car was screwed up," he recalls. "I'd want to draw the door and the seats and the dashboard, and then fix the whole company. It always got me into trouble when I worked for someone else."

At Dirt Devil, he continued laying the groundwork for his hoped-for company, secretly working on bike parts after hours in the company shop. "I'd clean it up to make it look like no one was ever there," he confesses. Inspired by '60s-era café racers, Colosimo's first bikes were turning heads. Though they cost him just $3,000 to make, the bikes drew just as much attention as a $30,000 Harley.

Deciding on the name Cleveland CycleWerks -- and investing $15,000 of their savings -- Streng and Colosimo built a prototype bike at a factory in Mansfield. To cut costs they used stock parts, chopping them to fit where needed. They also built the bike around a smaller engine. Instead of a more beefy 600, 750 or 1100cc motor, these bikes are powered by a more sensible 250.

Colosimo says he had every intention of manufacturing his bikes in Cleveland, shopping around his idea at events for start-up manufacturers, hoping to secure financing. But, he says, he was getting little traction. "Nobody was receptive to it. People were like, 'Start with a fender. Start with a tank.' I was like, No, we're going to do it all."

After about six months of "banging his head against the wall," Colosimo was forced to do something drastic: He boarded a plane bound for China. "We set up a bunch of different tours," he says, hitting about 30 factories in two weeks. After a few false starts that cost about $50,000 in manufacturing screw-ups, the team found a factory that could build the bikes to their specifications.

This year, three models rolled off the assembly line: Heist, a bobber-style bike with a nostalgic look, Misfit, a café-style racer, and Hooligan, a modern street bike. All are priced south of $3,000. Cleveland CycleWerks expects to sell about 800 bikes by year's end, most of them in Europe, South Africa and New Zealand. Projections for next year are in the 2,000 to 3,000 range for each model.

The company has distribution in about a dozen countries, but only the Heist is sold in the U.S. The other two models are still awaiting EPA approval. Colosimo is hoping to have his bikes in Ohio dealerships in time for next year's bike season. Also, a Cleveland CycleWerks outlet is in the werks for Little Italy.

Although the bikes aren't made in Cleveland, Colosimo leans heavily on the city's working-class reputation to sell his bikes. "Born of fire and steel" is the company's tagline, and in marketing materials, the bikes are set against the backdrop of urban warehouses. "Cleveland's this gritty city," says Colosimo. "It's perfect for motorcycles."

Colosimo is not giving up on his quest to build the bikes in Cleveland. Currently only the handlebars, the exhausts, and some after-market parts are manufactured here, but Colosimo hopes to change that.

"People know how to do things here," he says. "Experts with metal, laser cutting, the stamping, the engineering…"

But how to build it here and still charge $3,000? To figure that challenge out might require a few more napkins and a lot more two-for-one-pizzas. 

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Photography by  
Bob Perkoski