Would you immediately dismiss someone with ideas about re-imagining motorcycles, if they were an educator with no formal motorcycle design or engineering credentials, and if they started riffing on ideas including golf cart parts and Nissan Leaf batteries? I think most of us would be suspicious, but then again, sometimes it takes an outsider to re-imagine an industry.   And maybe the motorcycle industry could learn something from a New Orleans grease monkey named Matt Candler.

The Night Shift Leafy Savage, with a ‘battery module’ from a Nissan Leaf [Harlin Miller]
He’s worked Operations at the Atlanta Committee for the 1996 Olympic Games and at Chicago Public Schools. He’s been a teacher, coach, and principal at all school levels, and helped people build schools in New Orleans. He’s the founder and CEO of 4.0, and conducted this interview while on sabbatical with his wife and three kids in South America. And he builds electric motorcycles in his garage under the moniker Night Shift Bikes.

Matt, why and when did you start tinkering with motorcycles and batteries?

I moved to New Orleans in 2006 after a few years of garage-less living in big cities. Our new place had a too-small-for-working-on-cars garage, and as soon as I cleared it out, I started looking for projects that would help me justify buying new tools to my wife. I’d been commuting on two wheels for a while—a heavily modified 4-stroke scooter in San Francisco and an electric GoPed in New York City—so it wasn’t long until I dropped $40 on a copy of John Bidwell’s guide to converting a Honda Rebel to electric, called ‘El Chopper ET.’

Candler’s first build, a Honda Rebel stretched and crammed full of golf cart parts. [Matt Candler]
The guide itself was pretty janky, and so was my interpretation of it. But I was amazed by John´s passion and hospitality. He was relentless about sharing the promise of EVs and committed to helping other people make stuff on their own. I respected how much he was willing to share, and ever since, bikes have been as much about the process of learning and creating community as they are about design and making things go fast.

For someone who’s not an engineer you’ve certainly garnered a lot of press. What is your day job, and how do you approach a build?

I finished college with math and Spanish language majors, but I spent more time in the darkroom trying to become a photographer and in the metal studio dreaming of being a sculptor. I think that’s one reason I’ve found this whole process about way more than horsepower and specs. It’s really about learning for me, despite not having a credential or formal training. How can I figure something out without a degree? Where are the informal networks that can replace the formal classroom stuff I missed out on?

I build with two things in mind:

  • Looking for new lines: What frame could be really interesting without they constraints of an ICE drivetrain? What’s something we haven’t thought of?
  • Learning from other people: What do I suck at that might get better if I try X, and who can I find who knows how to do it better than me? Where can I go to explore what learning for learning’s sake really looks like?

Looking for new lines

My first build took more than a year, and I wanted to see results faster, so my second build was much simpler, a mod more than a ground-up build. The factory Zero I bought kept begging for some mods, so I put a café spin on it. I thought that Zero looked much better when I tore all the plastic off.  

Stripping off the bodywork and looking for new design lines is really interesting to me. And it is what I obsessed about in my last build, based on a Suzuki Savage 650 frame and 14 battery modules from a Nissan Leaf car.

The Night Shift Leafy Savage, with a rear hub motor from Enertrak [Harlin Miller]
Without all the constraints of an ICE build, how can we rethink where stuff goes? What lines are in the frame that we can really use now that all the stuff we don’t need is gone, now that we don’t need a gas tank, for example?

Learning from other people

One of the reasons I’m so interested in people like John sharing what they’ve learned is because I work in education during the day. I work at an organization called 4.0, where we help people run small experiments that might make learning more effective, engaging and fun, especially for kids who don’t have great school options today.

That’s why I get so fired up when I find a community that’s together solely for the love of creating and sharing and learning. From elmoto.net, an online community of electric builders, to Makers of NO and the New Orleans Mini Maker Fair, I’ve found places I can go when I’m clueless or when I’ve figured something out that I want to share.

Night Shift sketch of 1973 BMW R/75 project underway [Matt Candler]
I think that’s what sets the Handbuilt Show apart from so many other shows. Alan Stulberg, founder of Revival Cycles and the show, leans into the mindset behind the #motonerd hashtag. Why would they let a hack like me bring a bike to their show? Because they’re curious and interested to learn about electric. That’s huge to me. And I’m grateful for their willingness to think out of the box. We need more of that.

You’re talking my language with a 1973 BMW R75/5 build. How’s that coming along, and what are your plans?

Thanks. The airheads are gorgeous bikes. When I took the Leafy Savage to the Handbuilt Show two years ago, I got to spend time with some builders I really respect, including Bryan Heidt, who builds bikes at Fuller Moto in my hometown of Atlanta, GA. He pushed me on my build, and dared me to try and make an electric on a really classic frame. I took him up on it and got a prototype built last winter with the help of two amazing interns who were as curious as I was about learning new stuff, Liam Grace Flood and Nadav Hendel. We documented that journey here.

Night Shift’s 2012 Zero XU Cafe Racer [Matt Candler]
I´ve stripped that version down to parts again and am asking what the frame’s got to offer us now that it’s free of the ICE constraints. I’ll be building a custom battery pack with 18,650 cells (what Tesla’s using). Here’s a recent sketch of where it could go.

I’d love to get feedback on where to take this!

Any plans to partner with an OEM to develop a production-friendly model?

Nope. I’m lucky to have a day job I love. I love seeing OEMs experiment with custom builders, and I’d be thrilled to riff with anyone thinking about electric bike design, but I’m happy as a dude in a garage right now. I care more about encouraging people to get off their couch and try something new than getting lots of bikes to market. I respect the people who take on that challenge, but that’s not my goal right now.

 

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