IN ACTING CLASS it’s called space work, a sort of pantomime to create the illusion of handling an object that isn’t there, like smoking an invisible cigarette. Keanu Reeves resorts to space work when he describes his new motorcycle, putting his fists out and sitting on a low-slung imaginary saddle while leaning hard into the Malibu Canyon hairpin that never seems far from his mind.
“It’s a bike that when you get it down in the corner, you can just—Huh!”—he swivels his hips, blips the throttle, squints his eyes, bites his lip. I like this guy.
For all I know he may be an ax murderer. I only spent a day with the 50-year-old film star, touring the new motorcycle-building boutique he is backing, Arch Motorcycles, in Hawthorne, near LAX, and riding said canyon on one of his bat-guano super-cruisers. It was a fun-filled day of near-death experiences. Mr. Reeves isn’t guarded, isn’t unfriendly. He’s just soulful and mellow, kind of like you would figure. But I do feel safe in saying the man loves motorcycles. Oh yeah. He’s got it bad.
A-listers usually don’t do heavy industry. Sure, some showbiz elites have invested in car and motorcycle companies—Johnny Carson taking it in the plaid with DeLorean, for instance—but Mr. Reeves is no silent partner. This bike is essentially a productionized version of a bike built custom for him, delivered in 2011. He is also the million-dollar face of the project, duties that will include the occasional photo op and elbow rub. “I’ll represent, sure,” he says.
With that, I’m pursuing a theory between celebrity and design.
Richard Schickel wrote a book about the manufacture of celebrity culture perfectly titled “Intimate Strangers.” Whatever you think you know about Keanu Reeves, or any other famous entertainer, is 100% horse feathers, total make-believe. Some of it may be true, but you can’t rely on any of it. However, this bike is in the real world, and it is quite the uncompromised statement, given its open-checkbook provenance. If you are really curious to know what makes Mr. Reeves tick, ride his motorcycle.
It’s called the KRGT-1—do I have to spell it out for you? It is The One. And I sympathize with the man’s loss of words in describing the bike. No one likes to say “pornography.” But, wow, this is a fairly radical bit of industrial design, starting right in the middle, with a two-liter (124-cubic-inch), 45-degree, air-cooled V-twin built to order by the thunder gods at S&S Cycle. This black-finned paint-shaker is attached to the frame with rather indifferent attention to vibration isolation, I note. Like Mr. Reeves himself, the bike stirs feelings in the loins not easily explained.
Mr. Reeves is Arch’s financial backer and Client One, of course; but the KRGT-1 is the masterwork of designer/L.A. custom-bike obsessive Gard Hollinger, 55, and his atelier of mad machinists, working in a renovated 20,000-square-foot open-truss warehouse near SpaceX. The assembly bays are surrounded by a series of oil paintings of scantily clad American Brunhildas in the wilderness. There’s a ’55 Cadillac I wouldn’t mind driving off with. Without apology, the space is dressed like a movie set.
Gard Hollinger—best name ever, by the way—claims design inspiration from his boyhood home, the arch-topped Garcia House on Mulholland Drive, by architect John Lautner. Here the Hollywood runs deep: The Garcia house is the one that Mel Gibson pulls the stilts out from under in “Lethal Weapon 2.”
As the lads tell it, Mr. Reeves loved the first bike and enjoyed the process of test riding and refining so much that he persuaded Mr. Hollinger to start a new venture in 2011.
“I really didn’t want to do it,” says Mr. Hollinger. “We told Keanu all the reasons it wasn’t a good idea.
“Finally he said, ‘Gard, You’ve told me all the reasons we can’t do it. Tell some reasons why we can?’ And that was the beginning.”
The bike is in production, but one senses no great urgency in the company’s ramp-up. The company will birth about a bike a week and sell each for a cool $78,000, with a $12,000 deposit. Mr. Hollinger is careful not to call it hand-built. “I’ve built a lot of bikes like that,” he says, “and no matter how hard you try, things are never exactly the same.” Arch’s current approach—which is to machine-mill much of the bike out of billet aluminum—promises close tolerances and repeatability, if not exactly rapid throughput.
Despite the fancy digs, the Mediterranean work pace and a wildly extravagant construction process, Mr. Hollinger assures me that Arch is no vanity project. “Nobody’s in this to lose money.”
Ah, well, let’s just say that Arch probably exists outside the usual economics of the motorcycle industry and leave it at that, shall we?
But what insights can be gained about the ember-eyed Mr. Reeves? He’s not interested in being the fastest guy out there. The KRGT-1 isn’t as quick as, say, a Ducati Diavel. But acceleration has real authority, aural and emotional. The tug, the sheer frapping grunt when you roll on the throttle coming out of a corner, is the sort of thing that makes you laugh in your helmet.
I also don’t think it’s interpretive overreach to say it’s a bike for a man who wants to blow off steam. Nothing about railing this bike corner to corner is what you’d call carefree. While the KRGT-1’s geometry—68-inch wheelbase, 30-degree rake, 5-inch trail—is a little more forgiving than the prototype bike, the 1 is still a big, rakish cruiser that requires Keanu-like levels of eye squinting and lip biting to get through a fast sweeper. The solo saddle, set into a cutout like the business end of a bottle opener, is a low 27.8 inches.
I managed to run wide on Mulholland Drive twice, the second time skittering the 240-mm rear tire across gravel in the road and barely avoiding an unscheduled exit into the arroyo below. The guys with the full-sleeve tattoos kept telling me we weren’t going that fast.
Mr. Reeves might be the king of make-believe but the KRGT-1 is as real as it gets.