Updated: Mar 2
Josh Steele and Chris Johns are driven to beat a tough business model and a bad rap. “Motorcycle shops are misunderstood,” they told us. The associations with gangs, drugs, and bad dudes can be hard to change in a small town. Their immaculate shop off Exit 1 in Brattleboro belies a bullish pride and deep-set talent. Dubbed “Vintage Steele,” their 2,000 square foot garage is one part repair and maintenance shop and another part art studio.
When Chris and Josh started “wrenching” on bikes together eight years ago, success was an unlikely outcome. “We started by buying up dead bikes; it was just a hobby,” Chris told us when we sat down to talk on a muggy day in late July. “We didn’t know what we were doing.” While Josh was apprenticed to Stanley Lynde, owner of a local moto shop, Chris worked for a local non-profit in their thrift store. They squeezed in the bike work evenings and weekends.
But the chemistry was good, and the passion to learn as much as they could about bikes was shared. Vintage Steels started out of Josh’s home but within a year there was enough interest in their cheap, refurbished bikes that the two decided to create a limited liability partnership and bootstrap the fledgling business out of the rented garage where they are today. After receiving a blessing from Lynde, owner of Brattleboro's only other bike shop and Josh's mentor, they got to work.
As of this year, Vintage Steels is a quarter million dollar business that has tripled in size. Its customers include world class doctors, blue collar enthusiasts, and retirees. Outside the shop, lined in a neat fantail of glinting color, are four and five figure custom jobs including a 1940’s vintage Indian Scout. It’s pretty clear that high quality collectors trust these guys with remarkable machines. This kind of success wasn’t guaranteed, and the guys are pretty humble about it.
“We’re probably a first tier shop,” Josh confesses, “but we think like a second tier -- we want to be a classified shop working with analog machines.” Translated from moto speak, this means they want to be known for building beautiful, stripped down machines from the ground up, helping customers fuse their creative vision with a safe and exciting road experience. To get there means that Vintage Steele has another half-decade of hardscrabble wrenching ahead of them.
Right now the business thrives on the seasonal ebb and flow of motorcycle maintenance and tuning work that keeps bikes safe and road-worthy from spring until fall. Billed at $85 an hour, this work keeps the lights on for the shop’s four work stations. In between, they’ll land the occasional custom job. These can range from restorations to retrofits, teardowns to groundup work. These jobs bring in $5,000 to $20,000 in work; due to the labor and materials-intensive nature of the work however, the margins are still small. And what Vintage can’t do in their shop, they’ll contract out to partner shops as far away as Bennington. This includes painting, chrome applications, and upholstery.
While we were with Chris and Josh, all four lifts were occupied by bikes -- a spangly Harley Davidson roadster in for a rear wheel change; a vintage Honda enduro bleeding a rainbow of liquid colors; a gorgeous Norton getting a tune and facelift, and a very new BMW in for a custom retrofit. The BMW intrigued us, so we asked a little more; turns out the owner -- an anesthesiologist from Boston -- felt the styling was too harsh and clean, and wanted to tone down its aggressive contemporary lines. Josh proposed a few modifications including a custom fuel tank, new saddle design and front-end details to give the bike a friendlier retro feel. And that’s how jobs are born at Vintage: a combination of good listening for customer needs combined with the vision, talent and guts to execute on complex, risky fabrication.
Learning is at the heart of Vintage Steele’s business model. Every bike has its own identity -- a combination of upfront engineering and driver wear and tear -- that makes it a learning opportunity. And Josh and Chris both seem to embrace this opportunity, it’s a big motivator to keep going. The constant churn through bikes increases their familiarity and aptitude with machines and their tools, which in turn makes them better mechanics and artists. And this within a landscape that is constantly changing: bikes are, becoming more sophisticated as technology changes -- power trains to ignition systems.
While Josh attributes his affinity for “do it yourself” learning to early work in his father’s woodshop, Chris is a little more circumspect. “I was more into sports -- soccer, basketball… and the saxophone” he mused. It was his coworker’s efforts to get him on a bike that hooked him. Today, six years after their self-taught journey began by rebuilding their first trash haul, Chris and Josh have settled into strong division of labor: Chris has the behind-the-scenes disposition to rebuild esoterica such as wiring harnesses while Josh takes on marketing needs including the product photography that graces their walls and online presence.
The work is constant and tireless -- and, as of recently, Vintage Steele is now the only shop in town. Stanley Lynde was killed in a crash in late 2017, depriving Josh and Chris of a mentor, a friend, and any break between projects. While they can rely on the relative stability of a booming business, the work just doesn’t end. “We’ve taken maybe,” Josh had to pause for a second, “maybe fifty vacation days between us since we opened” he reflected.
Over those years, Vintage Steele has made just enough profit to invest back into the company -- including tools, a delivery van, a photography rig, and this year their first full-time employee. In the years ahead they’d like to continue growing; they also confess the challenge of resource constraints. While a larger garage, more mechanics, and upgraded tools would be nice, it can be hard to scrape together the cash to do so; the daily and weekly grind can still make wrenching in Brattleboro feel like a month-to-month operation.
But this doesn’t stop the guys from dreaming of becoming that second tier certified shop in the not too distant future: to get there they’ll keep doing what they do best, wrenching from sun up to sun down, and relying on their network of friends and family -- and their girlfriends -- to see them through the hard patches. Like a good ride, it’s all about the journey and not the destination for these two southern Vermont craftsmen.