By Gary Charpentier
I met Clay Ridley at the Twin City Ridley dealership on a sunny Saturday last August. We were there for the dealership’s grand opening celebration, and I was able to sit down with the amiable fellow from Oklahoma for a little chat about the unique little cruisers he originally built for his children, but ended up building a motorcycle company around them. This is some story!
MMM: Let’s start with a little history. At the age of 12, as the story on your website says, you built your own car using a homebuilt chassis, an MGA body, and a 427 Ford Cobra engine. Is this correct?
CR: I tell ya’… this is almost accurate. My original idea was… my dad saw me scratching chalk lines on the garage floor. He said “What are you doin’?” So I told him “I’m gonna build a car.”
Well, that night at dinner, Dad asked me for an estimate of what it would cost to make the car and I told him I figured about fifteen hundred dollars. That was my best estimate, you know, as a kid. As it turned out, I think I had about fifty three hundred dollars in the car. I bought an old engine out of a Cadillac, which turned out to be somebody’s retrofit of a Ford crossbolt-main 427 motor. It was a fluke that it was a Ford, and a real fluke that it was the coveted crossbolt-main 427!
MMM: So, you went to Oklahoma State University for engineering, but you left after two semesters?
CR: Yeah, I had a family business to get into. I do not claim to be an engineer. I have the utmost respect for educated engineers. I can’t focus that long. I understand how things go together, but the higher math, well, I hire that done.
MMM: So, how long have you been into motorcycles?
CR: I had motorcycles after high school for a while. But then I got married and, as with most of us, that takes a backseat to raisin’ a family and other stuff. Manufacturing is where I’ve ended up. The family cattle business and brokering livestock lasted 17 years. As I was doing that I got into trucking, the helicopter business… always mechanical hobbies that I turned into businesses. So, I got into motorcycles as my shoe business grew. After the cattle business, I got into shoe manufacturing. I had an opportunity to sell that and was encouraged by a Harley Davidson dealer to get into motorcycles. I built the bikes for my kids, never intending to be in the motorcycle business, but as a hobby. I built some automated production machinery for people and that came real natural to me. It wasn’t hard to build a motorcycle.
The small size was because my kids were thirteen, and I wanted to build a road bike for them but I wanted it to be perfectly scaled. As it turned out, the Harley dealer suggested I sell my business and get in the motorcycle business. He said it would be easy and it would grow real fast. Those were the only two things he had wrong. It’s grown pretty fast, but there are a lot of struggles with a licensed motor vehicle. The rules and regulations go far beyond your ability to build a motorcycle.
MMM: Let’s talk about that engine for a second. Is that your own design?
CR: No. We don’t design engines. We buy other designs. Our little bike engine is a casting made overseas. It’s kind of a general-purpose utility block that we start with. We grind our own cams, we create our own valve springs, we build our engines to run about 5,600 rpms and then we require them to run not over 4,000 rpms. So what we’ve done is we’ve built a hundred-thousand mile life into the engine based on the gearing, the performance of the transmission, and the inability of the rider to overspeed it because it’s in gear all the time. The only way to overspeed the engine is to lift the back end and rev it up. The engine on our big bike comes from a domestic casting house. Those are made in the USA.
MMM: I’m sure that will be important to some of our readers.
CR: Well, yeah. When you look into most anybody’s engine, most of these parts are cast overseas. There’s no way around it. There are very few casting houses that cast aluminum into engine blocks, so all of our choices are narrowed down.
MMM: OK, now the small bikes, the Sport and the Speedster, those look to be a rigid frame with a suspended saddle.
CR: That’s right. The seat post is suspended, along with the three-inch springs in the back (of the saddle). That particular frame is made from 4130 chrome-molly tubing. I started that way and I’ve stayed that way even though it’s overkill, but we’ve had extreme reliability out of that frame. It’s all tig-welded… it’s a hand-made project.
Our original intention was not to skimp, not to build a price machine. It was always about the finished product being perfect, and to perfect scale. It’s a .80 scale. We call it three-quarter, but if you took a picture of a `60 Harley Duo-Glide, the only difference would be the rear suspension with the covered shock. I didn’t intend these to go a hundred miles an hour, so I didn’t think we needed rear suspension, but in every way it would fall right into that enlarged picture of a Harley Davidson, with 20 inch tall tires instead of 24… and that’s .80 scale.
MMM: Looking at the wheelbase, isn’t that more than .80 scale?
CR: Well, yeah. An inch and a half over.
MMM: Hey, how bout that eye, huh? (Laughter)
CR: The reason we went over-scale on the wheelbase was because we raked it at 37 degrees for high-speed stability. We didn’t want any wobble in the front end and it’s light enough where you don’t get any flop in your low-speed steering. The fear of over-raking it is to get poor handling, where it dives in low speed corners and because it’s so light you overpower it so easily. (?) So the decision to rake it out an extra 3 or 4 degrees was an easy one.
MMM: All right, on to the big bike then. Was it the success of the smaller bike that drove you to build the big bike? Or, was it not enough success with the little bike?
CR: Oh, those loaded questions…
MMM: Hey, I’m a journalist, after all.
CR: Well, I’m a manufacturer, and my ultimate goal is to have a very large company. To do that you’ve got to create a line of products, not a single product. We started with the small one. It’s gotten us attention way beyond what we could do if we’d have cloned what other people have already done. We stand out in the market based on our engineering and our dedication to quality. On the small bike, it’s an eye-getter, nobody’s done it, and nobody will ever do it like this. It’s not a profit center for us. It costs us more to make that little bike than it would to make one bigger because we have to machine every part.
Each wheel is a custom-made wheel, to our specifications. We bend our own handlebars to .80 scale. We make our own light bars. We do buy lights and a few things, but the fender struts, the fenders… everything has got to be just so for me. We don’t use any off-the-shelf parts that would throw it out of scale.
So, it’s expensive to make. The market is narrow and we know it. I thought it would be collectible for certain individuals, but it’s become a functional utility machine for a group of people.
MMM: Oh? What would that group be?
CR: We sell a lot to women. We sell a lot to older guys such as Mustang (minibike) enthusiasts, guys slightly older than us, those who are into the Mustang and Cushman thing; they have a certain affection for small vehicles.
MMM: What about handicapped riders? Do you think these might be suitable for certain handicaps?
CR: Well, though that wasn’t the intention or direction we had patterned it after, it has emerged in a big way. Lots of stroke victims have a loss of energy in their left side, and we have nothing for the left side to do on this bike. It’s lightweight; the big bike weighs four-ten, so it’s about half the weight of a Harley. As kneecaps get threatened with age, this takes some of the threat out. It lets you lean into corners where the only other alternative has been trikes. A lot of guys tell me they’re not ready to ride a trike. They still wanna lean around the turns. I’ve got lots of pictures of smiling older gentlemen sitting on a Ridley.
MMM: Back to the mechanical side briefly… the automatic CVT transmission. Is this a snowmobile technology at work here?
CR: Oh yes. We simply made an application for an existing device. I think that particular set of apparatus has been around since the 1800s in some form. So it wasn’t something that we had to create, but we did have to modify it to fit our situation. As snowmobiles are getting up into the hundreds of horsepower, the devices are large, too large to use on a motorcycle where you have limited space. So we go in and we buy off-the-shelf parts and we re-create what exists to fit our application. And we feel like we’ve got it exactly right. I will tell you on the Auto-Glide (the big bike), we’ve had the engineering help of the transmission manufacturer to make this particular adaptation built by their factory, instead of rebuilt in our factory. We’re very excited about the new one coming out.
MMM: What about the suspension design on the big bike? You’ve got a soft-tail type of mechanism there, correct?
CR: Yeah, we use a pull-shock type of suspension. Currently Progressive builds the shocks themselves. They’re built special for us, as Harleys weigh more, so Harley shocks don’t work on our bike. They’ve got to be resprung, so we engineered our own springs at our factory. We sent that design to Progressive, who we think is the best name on the market. Our intention is that when we use outside vendors, we use the best there are. It’s never based on price.
We build our bikes the best we can, put in a reasonable margin for the dealer and us, and sell it that way. When you buy it, you know we haven’t skimped. It’s never been about price. That customer isn’t what we’re looking for. At our handmade volume, we can’t get into the price war. We’ve gotta go on quality, and you’ve gotta be proud of what you ride.
MMM: Well, I’ve got to say these are great looking bikes, and they’re not going to be as intimating to someone of smaller stature or whatever perceived limitation a person has as those available in the rest of the market. People who have been put off by the proliferation of so-called Power Cruisers are going to look at a Ridley and think, “Hey, I can do this!”.
CR: Well, it does let someone go ahead and get started, but you don’t want to underestimate the power of the bike. It’s 600cc at 265 pounds… that’s a boatload of engine on that bike.
MMM: I suppose that if you did build based on price, you would still get undercut in the new global market place by products from Asia, right?
CR: To be American made is one thing, but that’s not as important as being well made in America. Our determination is to build something that endures the test of time and brings satisfaction to the end user.
MMM: So, is there anything else you would like people to know about the Ridley Motorcycle, or about your company philosophy?
CR: Our plan is different from most. We got into this to build a production machine. Our dealers sell accessories that are built by us for our machines. As they get bigger, other off-the-shelf items work. But our goal is not to be in the custom motorcycle business. We wanna build a production motorcycle, the highest quality you can build for the end user to decorate for themselves.
MMM: All right. So, what’s the highest mileage Ridley out there right now?
CR: There’s a lady in Charlotte, North Carolina that bought her bike in Myrtle Beach. She rode from Charlotte to Sturgis, which was about 2,045 miles. She absolutely broke every rule I thought we had. I thought, did she not get the memo to trailer that thing to Sturgis?
MMM: Oh, come on….
CR: She came by the factory and said “I’m gonna ride to Sturgis.”, and she had her bike in the back of her van…. she’s in some kinda motorcycle missionary business. So we did a little work on her bike. It had 13,000 miles on it and she rides it like it’s… like it’s a form of transportation! She called me from Omaha that evening. She’d ridden in front of the van from Oklahoma City, which was about 450 miles. Yet for me to take off on that bike, man, it weighs only 265 lbs and highways are highways, 18-wheelers are 18-wheelers, I mean… she’s an animal. We appreciate her no end!