Naval airman. Father. Fireman. Writer. Photographer. Media mogul. Mentor. Motorcycle racer. Friend. If there’s a man who’s left bigger footprints or worn more hats, I haven’t met him. I did meet Bob Osborn, in 1979, standing on the biggest jump at the gnarliest BMX track east of the Mississippi. Oz was shooting my friend Timmy Judge for the cover of Bicycle Motocross Action magazine, the slick bike-racing rag Oz founded in the mid ‘70s. Timmy’s photo graced the cover of The Mighty BMXA that year, an accolade my stylish friend was destined to enjoy on many occasions during his career. I remember the moment like it was yesterday. Cultural shift shapers like Bob Osborn weigh heavy on sponge people like me.
Armed with the quick writing tips Bob gave me, I returned to Florida to hone my craft. BMX was my adolescent passion, but I decided early on that racing was simply a means to an end. My first love was writing, and I set my sights high in 1982 by submitting an unsolicited manuscript to Wizard Publications. My story was a race report, and I slaved over mom’s typewriter for days perfecting my prose. Bob’s response was jotted on a piece of notepad clipped to the corner of my manuscript…
Your story fails to lead the reader to a strong point. Try again…
After picking the shrapnel from that 3x5 bombshell out of my brain, I did what any other egomaniac might do—I mailed my story to the editor of BMX Plus! John Ker paid me ten cents per word for that shitty story, and a career was born. I would meet Bob Osborn again in 1983, this time as a PR hack for Torker BMX. On that occasion, Oz’s advice was even more helpful: “Get a copy of ‘The Elements of Style’ and read it twice.” Oz’s insight worked, because in 1984 the man who gave face and voice to an entire industry offered me a job. I was a shortsighted know-it-all with a greedy streak a mile wide, so instead of accepting Bob’s offer, I strong-armed a raise out of my employer at the time and thanked Oz for the opportunity. Six months later Torker went belly-up and I went job hunting. BMX Plus! threw me a bone, and I celebrated by going street riding with the editor and art director of “Freestylin’," Bob’s second groundbreaking BMX periodical.
By the mid ‘80s Wizard Publications was a media juggernaut whose books, magazines and calendars were nearly as interesting as the man who published them. Fifteen years of the monthly magazine grind had taken its toll on Bob’s soul, however, and wanderlust kicked in. Bob handed Wizard’s magic wand to his daughter, then pursued his next passion: large format fine art photography. After traveling the globe with 4x5 camera and sheet film in hand, not even Bob seems sure about what happened next.
Oz sold his cameras and darkroom equipment and started chopping Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The year was 1992, and Bob’s disappearance from the face of the earth was instant. Since then, friends and fellow students from the Bob Osborn School of Passion and Purpose have shared random Oz sightings with me from time to time:
“I saw an old dude on a Harley with a leather vest the other day. I swear it said ‘Wizard of Oz’ on the back.”
“When I took the bus to Sacto last summer, I bumped into Oz at a greasy spoon across the street from the Greyhound station. We shot the shit about the good old days for so long, I damn near missed the dog!”
Whether tales of Oz’s rise to Animal Chin-like cult status are fact or fiction isn’t important. If your attraction to motorcycles is rooted in living life by a personal credo, lessons can be learned from Bob's tales of gunslinger instinct and riverboat gambler good fortune.
ChopCult: After building a family and a fortune behind the lens, what “aha” moment made you cash in your cameras for the blue-collar existence of a garage builder and bike rider?
Bob Osborn: An "aha moment?" Good one. This is exactly what happened…
Having recently returned from a two-week photo trip through the Northwest United States, I was in my darkroom working on a print of a prison cell. This was around 1992. I had taken the picture inside the old state prison at Deer Lodge, Montana. About noon on the third day of trying unsuccessfully to get a good print of this mediocre image it suddenly dawned on me that in my quest to see the world through a camera, I was spending nine months of the year in a closet. The symbolism of the jail cell with the door open did not go over my head. Neither did the irony of the situation. I walked out of my darkroom, up to Carmel village, and had a bowl of soup while I thought things over. When I got home I dismantled my darkroom and the adjoining photo studio. Within a couple months I had the darkroom and studio converted into a Harley shop, where I started working on my ’91 Heritage.
CC: What model H-D did you buy in ’90? How long did you wait before you chopped it, and what was your motivation? What were your first mods?
Oz: It was a ’91 Heritage. The very first modifications were a cam, ignition, exhaust, apes, paint, and the removal of a few odds and ends. Almost ten years went by before I completely chopped that bike because I was building other bikes. My motivation? Same as any of the bikes I built: I can’t leave a bike alone. I have to take stuff off, make it lighter, make it faster, switch to apes, make it more efficient, make it look better.
CC: How many bikes have you built, bobbed or butchered since the first machine described above?
Oz: The Heritage wasn’t my first bike. My very first bike was a Cushman scooter when I was about 12. Next was a two-stroke 200cc Zundapp which I stripped down and put knobbies on so I could ride it in the dirt. That would have been around 1956.
When I was in the Navy in ’57 and ’58, a buddy and I had a beat-up panhead that we worked on way more than we rode. But when it did run, we’d take it out on those long, straight, deserted Texas roads and fly. Many times I’ve wished I still had that bike.
In the early '60s I bought a new 350cc BSA single. Left that bike stock. In the late '60s I bought a 250cc Yamaha motocross bike. It cost somewhere around $700 brand new. That was Yamaha’s first motocross bike. It never ran right and had lousy geometry, but it looked great. Then came a 250cc Husqvarna motocross bike, which was AWESOME. Then a 250cc CZ motocross bike that must have been made out of old tin cans. Every time I laid it down, something expensive would break or bend.
Now I can answer your question about what came after the ‘91 Heritage…
First was a 1980, 80 cubic-inch FXWG shovel, which I rebuilt top to bottom probably three complete times until I got it right. I didn’t change the general looks of that bike much, except for apes. Next was a '90 FXSTC which I stripped down, hopped-up a little, switched to a chain drive, put a 16-inch wheel/tire on the front, and painted for my girlfriend. Before this bike, she had a Ducati, which she would crank up to 150 mph sometimes. So, to keep her from killing herself, I lowered the Softtail so low that if she went around a corner any faster that about 30 MPH, the frame would scrape and shoot off a shower of sparks. She slowed down, so it worked. And it looked good.
Next I got a 74 cubic-inch ’72 shovelhead engine and tranny, pushed it out to 84 inches, had Gerolomy modify the heads, rebuilt the tranny, and mounted it in a Chopper Guys hardtail frame. Let’s see: S&S carb, Wideglide front end, PM brakes and forward controls, suicide clutch, jockey shift, kick start, 3-inch belt-drive primary, Sportster tank, and like that. That was a good bike. Really good.
Next I helped a guy build a very expensive 120 cubic-inch, custom frame, custom everything, 6-speed, monster rear tire… a thing that I didn’t enjoy at all. Didn’t enjoy the guy, didn’t enjoy the bike, didn’t enjoy the bike’s owner.
After that is when I finally got around to my ’91 Heritage. This bike got the full treatment. I took an entire year to build it. Everything was modified, and I mean EVERYTHING: electrical wiring consists of only six wires, even with the electric start. This is a Softtail Evo version of the ’72 Shovel I just described, complete with suicide clutch, jockey shift, open primary, apes, yellow paint, etc. This bike is dialed.
CC: Describe your very first motorcycle ride, then compare it to your last. What part of the experience has diminished by either miles or time, and why?
Oz: Well, the first one was that Zundapp, or the Cushman if you want to count that, and the last one is my ’91 Evo chopper. That is a span of six decades. Holy cow! Right this minute I’m getting the Evo chopper out of winter mothballs—it snowed just a week ago here in Montana—and am going to take it for a ride. The first of the year. I must admit photography has once again preempted riding to a degree. But what am I photographing lately? Harleys! Ha! Don’t know which I like better: building them, riding them, or photographing them.
CC: You’ve gotten behind the lens after nearly a 20-year sabbatical. What inspired you to take the plunge? Are you enjoying the digital revolution? How do motorcycles fit into your new program?
Oz: About three years ago an old BMXer named Gary Haselhorst was trying to get me to do the photography for a magazine article with Greg Hill, Stu Thomsen, Harry Leary, and a bunch of old-time BMX pros. So I bought a camera and oops—photography moved back into my life. In about three seconds I was hooked again. This time around I’ve gone all digital. I shoot with a Nikon D3, process in Photoshop, and print with an Epson Pro 3800. Like I mentioned before, for my last subject I traveled to Oakland, CA, to photograph David Rogerson for DicE magazine. David's a biker/tattoo artist/movie director (editor's note: see JASON JESSEE: PRAY FOR ME) and a cool guy. Now I’m thinking about shooting more bikers, but in a fine art photography context, if that makes any sense.
CC: Share one best story from your days as a motorcycle racer. Any near-death experiences on the track or the tarmac.
Oz: I was riding my CZ at Indian Dunes a couple days after a really heavy rainstorm. Not racing, just fast trail riding. The bike was new and I was breaking it in. As I’m riding across the flats I see this big puddle coming, maybe 30, 40 feet across. When I got close to the puddle I cranked it on and pulled the bike into a power wheelie. Suddenly everything was very, very quiet. And cold. And through my goggles I see the CZ suspended upside-down next to me with a lot of bubbles coming out of everything. Right then I realize it wasn’t a puddle, it was a small, deep pond, so I swam up and ran into dirt and grass. Vertigo was kicking in because at first I thought I had floated under an island. Then I realized the dirt was the bottom of the pond. It was very hard to talk myself into swimming DOWN to get to the surface. Anyway, I finally dragged the CZ out of there and pushed it back to my truck. That bike was screwed up. I must have disassembled it five times trying to get all the water out, but it never ran right again.
CC: Wow! Let's move on to some easy stuff…
Birthplace: South Central Los Angeles—Watts
Current home: Livingston, Montana. I love it here in the Rockies.
Current stable of motorcycles: Just the ’91 Evo chopper.
Five desert island books: Tolkien's "Lord of The Rings" (I've read the trilogy 11 times so far), Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath", Tolstoy's "War and Peace", Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind" and "For Whom The Bell Tolls" by Ernest Hemingway.
Three best magazines of all time: BMX ACTION, FREESTYLIN’, and HOMEBOY. No brag, just fact.
One favorite dream motorcycle of all time: My ’91 Evo chopper, which, by the way, is going up for auction on Ebay with proceeds going to the Livingston Art Center in Livingston, Montana. The auction is being held in conjunction with a retrospective show of my photography including some BMX stuff this July.
Favorite film camera: Nikon
Favorite digital camera: Nikon D3
Favorite brand of color film: Don’t do that anymore. Used to be Kodak.
Favorite B/W film: Used to be Tri-X
Favorite hand-held power tool: An air-powered die-grinder. I love the sound!
Camera you wish you had but don’t: I like my D3 just fine.
Shop tool you wish you had but don’t: I’m a tool nut. I have every tool I want.
Longest day in the saddle: Probably around 400 miles on a hardtail in a gruesome rainstorm. Add miles, sore butt, soaking wet and freezing, and you get the longest day. I was riding to the Bridgeport Harley event.
Favorite two-lane in America: Either the Beartooth Highway in Wyoming, or Highway 1 from the Hearst Castle up to Carmel, CA
Favorite two-lane abroad: Any road in the Scottish Highlands—although most of them are one-lane roads with pull-outs—or the road from Skelwith Bridge to Eskdale over the Wrynose Pass and Hardknott Pass in Cumbria in the North of England. A very narrow, very steep road with many, many hairpins and wild, wind-blown, medieval scenery. I was there a couple months ago.
Average miles ridden per year: On a bike, not so much anymore. A better question now would be how many miles do I travel each year photographing. That would be a lot.
CC: You have a son around the same age as many ChopCult readers. Did he follow Dad’s footsteps into the chopper scene, or was he buying Harleys before you were?
Oz: I bought the ’91 Heritage after (my son) R.L. rode up from LA on a shovel bagger to visit me in Carmel. R.L. builds choppers, too.
CC: What do you think of the current fascination with ‘70s-style diggers, choppers and metal flake show bikes? Do you think it’s a trend with staying power? If no, what chopper style will ascend to the crown?
Oz: I don’t know what "diggers" are. I don’t think about metal flake show bikes. I believe choppers will be around forever. I really like what a lot of guys on ChopCult are doing: building what some might call "rat bikes." That’s how it was back in the '50s when choppers were born… and hot rods, for that matter.
More insight into Bob Osborn's life and work in words and photographs can be seen on his website.