Master Craftsman in Miniature: Don Nowell

By Paul Garson

Call it Motorcycle Mania. The Guggenheim's "Art of the Motorcycle" exhibit broke all records. People who didn't know a Ducati from a doorbell flocked to the museum. Television programs focusing on their construction are literally smash hits. Even prestigious Sotheby's conducts special auctions of these two-wheeled works of kinetic art. The "Live to Ride, Ride to Live" matra has been extended to Live Bigger, Ride Louder as pertains to the builder, the rider and the "bike." So how does shy, retiring, untattooed Don Nowell fit into this Born to Be Wild scene? You could say he has found his niche.

A resident of Granada Hills, California, a state known for high profile vehicles of all descriptions, Don builds very low profile motorcycles. Not the kind that roar down quarter mile dragstrips or pose on Rodeo Drive in chromed splendor, but scaled down versions you literally can hold in you hands or certainly place on a shelf. Yet inch for inch, ounce for ounce, they are as meticulously rendered and exquisitely detailed as any show winning Harley-Davidson or Dusenberg, both of which Don has also worked upon.

Don should have lived two centuries ago when some tsar or potentate would have been his patron since he designs, manufactures and fabricates on a level previously reserved for the famed house of Faberge. While his works of art are hewn from metal alloys and not egg shells, his creations are destined as museum pieces and as centerpieces for a rarefied class of collectors. There's the rub. These hand-built marvels require a trained eye to appreciate both the artistry and dedication required for their creation.

"Unfortunately, people are used to seeing plastic models that are glued together in a few hours, and sometimes give my work only a passing glance," says Don who literally spent years in the preparation of his two-wheeled wonders and an equal amount of time finding customers savvy enough to add his work to their collections.

The story of artistic achievement and angst stretches back some forty years when Don as a student at San Fernando High School designed and built a small motor in an electric shop class. The motor won a Rotary Club contest, and literally set the wheels spinning for his future endeavors. Graduating from high school, Don soon entered the world of hotrods and racing, building high performance engines at his own shop and even inventing and patenting of a popular tool for racing engine repairs that brought him more recognition and a measure of business as well.

He then branched out into classic car restorations including work for the J.B. Nethercutt automobile museum where he restored a 1924 McFarland that had belonged to silent screen star Fatty Arbuckle, the car winning its class that year at the famous Pebble Beach Concourse d' Elegance. In the late 1970's as he began making brake components, and crossed paths with another motorcycle enthusiast, actor Bobby Carradine for whom he built a custom Triumph which in turn drew attention to Don's motorcycle building skills. It also caught the eye of Fred Thompson of Smith-Miller Toy Trucks fame. Says Don, "I started designing and building toy trucks for Smith-Miller, 20 different toy trucks in all."

Yet another twist in the road occurred when Don went Dental. Hired by an orthodontia equipment company he entered another mainstream industry making fixtures and tooling for various companies. Says Don, "But after 13 years of toy designing and building for other companies, I wanted to make my own statement, create something new and with my own stamp on it. So in 1994 I arrived at the idea of making a model bike. It took 13 months from a blank sheet of paper to the first finished example. I was able to give it a splendid debut at the Peterson Automotive Museum in November of 1995."

Using a full-sized bike to determine dimensions, he decided on a quarter-scale adaptation. After calculating all the various segments to correct ratio, his next step was figuring out how to make a laced from wheel in as much as motorcycles traditionally used spoked wire wheels. He designed and built a fixture to hold the rim and the hub, then turned them up on his lathe, drilling holes and lacing stainless wire through them as spokes. "Once I had that figures out, I knew I could build the rest of it. I went to a rubber mold shop, and they put me in touch with a mold builder resulting in the production of the correctly scaled tires based on scaled down 21-inch front and 16-inch rear rubber. The first prototypes were slicks without tread, the tread design later provided and approved by the Avon Tire Company in England, an indication of Don's drive for meticulous authenticity. It was his own chore to design and build the miniature mold for his treaded tires.

Work on the frame was the next order of research and development, a long, painstaking and expensive undertaking. Although he was building a one-quarter scale vehicle, it required the same design effort expended on a full-sized model, compounded by its smaller dimensions. The frame required bending the raw tubing, fabricating fixtures to hold the frame project, milling and mitering of all the joints, a very labor intensive activity to say the least.

When he describes the process, his voice assumes a metallurgical tone. "I finally decided to cast the gas tanks out of thin wall investment cast aluminum, and then fabricated the rear fender out of one-piece aluminum using a CNC milling machine which guaranteed straight, parallel sides without wrinkles."

The next hurdle was the engine and transmission. Don made all the prototype components from 6061 aluminum billet utilizing his milling machine and lathe. He then linked up with a foundry that was able to take the molds off the prototype engine, cylinders, transmission and carburetor. "Then I had them cast out of aluminum, and it was a great joy to see them come out perfect." Yes, there is joy in billet aluminum and Don can see it even when it comes in raw chunks.

After making fixtures to hold the parts, a major task in itself, Don was able to machine the components to exact tolerances and likenesses, especially the crank shaft and cylinder intersection which line up to form the correct "V" angle of the classic vee-twin engine configuration. This required an exact alignment of all the various bolt holes, exhaust pipe apertures, intake manifold and rockerboxes. Don is apparently genetically endowed with the intense patience and the ability to both recognize and capture incredible levels of detailing. He also utilizes several very good magnifying lenses all combining to make all this happen.

They say greatness is in the details, case in point the Avon tires previously mentioned. In final form, they even display the Avon logo and the very small inscribed arrows indicating tire rotation direction as well as numerals stating tire size and tubeless design. Says Don, "I'm still really tickled about those tires." Yes, there is rhyme and reason here as well.

Other rich details abound. For example, the diminutive seat is fashioned from aluminum and soft foam covered with glove leather. "It looks and feels like the real thing," says Don. "Because it is the real thing." As for the speedometer Don saw to it that the little red tip on the indicator arm was there, and that the odometer's last number is also correctly colored red. The shifting levers also function featuring a ball detent on the transmission so that it clicks to neutral when the shift lever is moved up or down as with a real motorcycle. The hand and clutch levers are fitted with spring with a piece of rubber inserted on the brake side to simulate the real feel of their operation. The bikes feature working suspension, both front and rear with three-quarters of inch travel, mimicking full-sized machines. Don's even gone so far as to make molds for the headlight and tail light lenses.

Paint is of the utmost importance, whatever size the vehicle. Don offers a choice of colors based upon the buyer's specifications. As for the metal pieces, all the aluminum on the model, other than the castings, are made from 7075 billet, and polishes up to a brilliant luster.

Speaking of bolts, Don created special stainless hex head hardware in a truly tiny scale. You can see them at the swing arm pivot bolts, triple clamps, and axles. Made from scratch, they all carry the same custom look throughout the bike. Form follows function and the Golden Mean both find expression here albeit in miniature format.

Currently, in very limited numbers, Don offers his clientele a choice of variations on a theme: the Custom Softail, the '90's Style Chopper, and the Lowrider each echoing their real world counterparts. Don has also built a very few special examples fitted with incredibly detailed and operational 1930's era Harley-Davidson Knucklehead design powerplant, the engine built by the legendary Replica Engines of Gulliver, Michigan, Yes, a running engine! One example was purchased for the new Harley-Davidson Motor Co. museum in Milwaukee and another went to a German collector.

Exactly how many pieces go into each model's construction? Don answers with his usual precision, "There are 215 pieces in all and 152 screws. The bike is 23-inches long, 8-inches high and weighs 12 lbs." But it's obvious that the final product is definitely more than the sum of its parts. It is a work of love, and a lifetime's achievement without compromise and therefore deserving of all its accolades. As Don says, in all humility, "For once in my life, after all the engines and cars and boats, I feel I was able to make something that is perfect. The bottom line is that this is a world class model. It'' what I was shooting for, and it's what I've arrived at."

For your own one of a kind custom "desktop" bike contact Don Nowell Design at (818) 363-8564 10:00AM-6:00PM PST.