Richard Pollock is the founder of legendary Mule Motorcycles.
He’s recognized as the godfather of the street tracker style of motorcycle, has had his custom builds on the the cover of Cycle World numerous times, is a pro level flat tracker, and is often considered one of the best custom motorcycle builders in the world.
How did Mule Motorcycles get started?
I got my first bike when I was 16, and I’ve been modifying bikes ever since. It’s in my DNA. At 22, I started working in motorcycle shops and have always wanted to see and work on the latest stuff and modify my own bikes to take them to the next level.
I did that for a long time. Later though, I got into the aerospace industry and became more confident doing more complex work like modifying frames, bodywork and suspension components. Eventually, a friend of mine came to me in 1994 and asked me to do some modifications on his brand new Sportster.
We did quite a lot to it, and it got a lot of publicity. And then people started calling and asking me to build them custom bikes. Over time, more and more people kept coming my way, and I just kept up with it and still do it to this day.
What was your upbringing like? Who influenced you most growing up?
My dad mostly, I think. He was an electrical engineer in the early days of the space program, as in literally from the beginning. He always fixed his own cars and appliances. He even built our first television. When I was growing up, he had a special record player he built that could cut the grooves into a vinyl record so he could make albums of my sister singing.
He went to Yale and MIT and was in the space program during the Cold War, so I didn’t know much about what his work involved, but he was a hands-on guy for sure. I picked up on that.
Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s, hot rods and motorcycles were my main interest. Motorcycles were especially appealing because you could see everything and their workings, which made them even more fascinating to me. That really got me enthused in mechanical stuff, and I started working on bicycles and wooden downhill racers. That’s how it started.
In my early years I grew up in Syracuse, New York, and then we moved to Daytona, Florida because my dad got a job at Cape Canaveral.
At that time, you could get a permit at 14 years old to drive a motorcycle with up to 5 horsepower. So when I went to junior high in the early ’60s in Daytona, there were probably 50 motorcycles in the parking lot.
It isn’t like now where you’re lucky if you see one or two bikes in a high school parking lot and zero at a junior high. Bikes were huge; it was freedom for young people. All the kids would go out at lunch and look at all the bikes and talk about them and say, “Man, wouldn’t it be nice to have a Triumph or a BSA?” And we would all just dream and drool.
That was at a point where the nicest people were meeting each other on little Hondas. At that age, Triumphs weren’t things you could have, which made you want one even more.
My parents weren’t wild about motorcycles, but I remember being 15 and really wanting a mini bike — I thought that was the way to get my foot in the door.
For Christmas I got a Vespa scooter. The next year, I got a Honda 305 Scrambler. My dad started riding the scooter and we couldn’t get him off of it. Before I had the scooter though, my sister — who is older than me — came back from college on a motorcycle and told my parents she had quit school.
Shit hit the fan, though more about her quitting school than the motorcycle, but I was 15 and just thought, “Oh my god, having a motorcycle in the garage is great.” My sister and I are three years apart, and she was really cool and really smart and hung out with the older kids.
The bike she came home from school on was a Suzuki X6 Hustler, which was a pretty trick little bike at the time. She somehow got linked up with these guys at a motorcycle shop near Louisiana State University who were going to “Bike Week” (before it was called “Bike Week”), at Daytona, and so they gave her and her bike a ride.
Later, she ended up going back to school and getting into computer science though. But man, I thought I was rebellious, but she was really rebellious.
You have a background as an aerospace technician and have worked on numerous projects that have required extremely high levels of expertise and skill. How has being an aerospace technician influenced the way you go about designing parts and building custom motorcycles?
I got to work on a number of first run designs where I had to figure out how to do the build, help design tooling and come up with fixes if something didn’t work as planned.
When I work on a bike and build something from nothing, I have to figure out the materials, the sizes, the dimensions, maybe build a prototype, test it and then perhaps have to redo it.
There are very few instances where I long to be an engineer or to have their kind of background and education to do what I do. But from time to time I wish I had “the paper.” I think I get by pretty well just from learning by doing and from the education I’ve gotten from working on things.
Where do you think the custom motorcycle scene is going? And where would you like to see it go?
There was a time when bikes had decent power but didn’t handle well. You had to be able to ride, but also be able to work on the bike and make it handle better.
There was a time when I raced around in the mountains on an RD350 against guys on CB550s and Sabers and GPZs. All week I would work on my bike trying to make it better so I could beat the other guys, and then on Sunday I would go out and do battle.
And they were all doing the exact same thing. We were motorcycle “hot rodders” who modified our motorcycles because we wanted them to be better at what they were meant to do. I think that’s what’s missing from the custom scene. Now you can go in with a credit card and buy a stock bike that’s ten times better than you are.
Don’t misunderstand, though. I think there are two kinds of builders: the guys who want to build a custom bike that looks cool, and the guy who wants to build a highly functional bike. And there’s nothing wrong with either.
What would you suggest to someone thinking about building their own first custom motorcycle? Where should they begin?
The first thing somebody needs to do is ride. After you start riding, you start dabbling with the idea of working on it, and then you finally put a wrench to it, and you make mistakes and learn as you go. Once you have a foundation to build off of, you don’t jump in on a custom bike and start building frames; you have to learn how to walk before you can run.
Now, if a guy is a really skilled welder or worked in fabrication, he could probably build his own tank or seat and dive right into making custom parts.
Joe Average, though, would have to start out by buying accessories and learning by installing them on the bike. Little things like replacing the grips or troubleshooting why your throttle is stuck and replacing the cables to get it to work properly. You have to work your way up, and can’t be afraid of that.
I started out just riding and breaking bikes, which naturally lead to working on them. After fixing them came attempting to make them better, then building them from scratch. The more you do, the better you get and most importantly, learn who to listen to. Listen to criticism.
A fresh set of eyes is critical to learning. You’ve got the rest of your life, be patient and do things right. Your bike will come out a lot better.
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