“I feel an attachment to something like a Shovelhead engine. It goes back to where I started from. After market companies still sell parts for these old engines but they don’t know nothin’ about them. They don’t know how to make them run. I like to change the parts around to make them run better. I put the whole valve train from an Evolution on a Shovelhead. They told me I was dreaming. It couldn’t be done. Oh ya? In that case I am going to make a stroker to boot. So I made a ninety-two incher out of a seventy-four. It was a challenge. I’m dreaming? Don’t think so. Fucking thing purrs like a kitten.” – Frank Voto

Frank Voto in his workshop, and drawers full of gizmos, in Wolf’s Pond, Staten Island, NYC. [Mike McCabe]
There is no avoiding the passage of time, and the only constant is change.  Change has become increasingly rapid in the modern era, and much of importance is left behind and forgotten. Standards, tolerances, sensibilities and methodologies have been surrendered to expediency. Frank Voto and his secluded Wolf’s Pond, Staten Island motorcycle shop push back against the tide of change and relaxed standards. He attended high school during the 1960s when machine shop, electrical shop and wood shop were still valued parts of the curriculum. Hard-ass skill-based learning that pointed you towards a life where you used your acquired skills and your hands to make a buck.”

Frank Voto in 1970, on a Harley-Davidson FL Panhead Hydra Glide. [Frank Voto]
“I first started getting into motorcycles in 1967. I was seventeen,” Frank said. “I was always involved in engines. As a kid in the neighborhood I was always working on lawn mowers and outboard motors over by Great Kills. Small motors. Then some guy come by with his Harley and asked if I could fix it. Have gave me the manual and I gave it a shot. Then a friend of his showed up with his Indian. I studied the engines and I liked the way they were designed. Now, I think that I am the oldest engine guy in New York City. I have lasted the longest.”

Frank Voto built and maintains Mark Kmiotek’s sweet ‘Frisco style’ 1948 Harley-Davidson FL Panhead since 1989. It’s a classic New York City style custom, just like the 1%er clubs rode in the 1950s. [Mike McCabe]
“Back when I got into this in the ’60s people told me I rode an old man’s bike because I was riding a Harley. Young guys rode BSAs and Triumphs. Then in the ’70s the motorcycle movies made the Harleys popular. In my time nobody wanted these things. You could buy them a dime a dozen. Then that movie Easy Rider came out. In ’67 I bought a full dress Panhead for three-hundred dollars. Nobody else wanted it.”

Frank Voto’s long time friend Mark Kmiotek in 1975, wearing his club colors of the Living End MC Brooklyn. The club was active from 1977-1980. [Frank Voto]
“I work a lot on older style bikes. Rigid frame, small tank; some people might say it comes from the San Francisco outlaw style. This style traveled across the country from San Francisco to New York City. The style traveled with members of a few clubs. The small tanks were popular – you have to remember gas was plentiful in the 1960s. Guys were riding choppers with peanut tanks. Gas was cheap. Twenty-five cents a gallon. Then when the gas crunch days hit everyone wanted a bigger tank. These clubs really rode, and if you were really riding across the country that was a problem. In the ’50s guys rode dressers, then the style changed in the ‘60s and outlaw guys started riding rigids with peanut tanks, then it started to change again in the ‘80s back to dressers.”

Matty Newman in 1972 riding in Staten Island on a bike Frank maintained. An early extended-fork chopper, post Easy Rider. Note the 16″ front wheel, which is second-gen long fork style, after 21″ front wheels were found to slow steering. [Frank Voto]
“I love the rigid. It’s lower to the ground and more stable. The swing arm started  in ‘58 [on Harley-Davidsons…Indian had a swingarm frame in 1914 – ed.]. Before that you had the rigid. But think of how the roads were back then. You still had cobblestone roads and bad roads. The rigid is lower to the ground and more stable. I have an old swing arm but I put stabilizers on it. They sway around on the highway. As old as I am I still like a rigid.”

A rigid Harley-Davidson Panhead custom built by Frank Voto circa 1977. Note the molded tank and rear fender, the Bates seat and pillion pad, no sissy bar, straight pipes, standard frame geometry, and ‘bottlecap’ valve covers. [Frank Voto]
“There has been a shift in ideas about working on engines. It has happened to me on more than one occasion that a young guy will walk into my shop and then he gets a look on his face. I can see him looking around the shop but he looks lost. He doesn’t know where he is and he doesn’t feel comfortable. One guy walked in here recently and he asked me, ‘What do they call this place? They call this a machine shop?’ He had no knowledge of a screwdriver. He’s pointing at this and that and he’s asking, ‘What is that?’ He was pointing at the lathe and asking what does this thing do. I said to myself, Holy Shit.”

Frank Voto with several of his builds. [Mike McCabe]
“This guy’s been riding on a motorcycle and he’s a member of a big club and he doesn’t even know that the tools are. For the young, they are not being taught this in school any more. It has become a lost art. They do not teach machine shop in high school any more. I went to McKee Technical High School on Staten Island. They had machine shop; they had electrical shop, woodworking shop. Now that is all gone. I see myself as a dinosaur. There’s nothing I can do about it. But there are dinosaur hunters out there looking for people like me. This shop represents a completely different world. Now, a shop like mine is bid on and sold to salvage brokers that buy it and send it all to South America. Mexico and overseas. It’s all gone. Harley is designing bikes so you can’t work on them.”

Cast iron machine tools, made in the USA, refurbished by Frank when they were valueless, and stable enough for Frank’s exacting hand. [Mike McCabe]
“I do look at myself as someone who is holding onto the history. That’s all I got. These engines and these old bikes are my life. I started off doing this work as favors and it kept going. I spent three years accumulating the machines I needed to work on these engines. I bought these machines all beat up as scrap and I put them back together. The guy delivered them one by one. They were so heavy that they destroyed his truck. He was like, what the fuck are these old machines made out of? I remember when my whole shop floor was covered in parts. I took them apart piece by piece. I paid less for these machines then you would pay today for a Black and Decker drill. My machines are cast iron solid. Cincinnati. There is no aluminum in my shop. No vibration. Every vibration shows up on the tooling. Believe me. But my machines go back to the last generation. I do not tolerate vibration. All this new machinery is inferior but now they are stuck with it. All the old cast iron companies are gone. Any vibration in the machine will show up in the milling. But now there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Tools need tools: a good machine shop is capable of making more machines, and repairing anything. [I have the same Fordham flexible drill in my workshop – ed.] [Mike McCabe]
“The quality of my work and my reputation has to do with the fact that I found these old cast iron machines and brought them back. I am self-sufficient. I have made the decision to do it this way. I was not going to give this machining work to some shop that uses bad tools. This only creates problems. I wouldn’t do it. There are roller bearings and there are shims and there is a flywheel. All of this has to be perfectly centered. There is a clearance of only four-thousandths. You have an old Panhead and these things have to be tightened up but it has to be done correctly. I learned all of this by trial and error.”

Frank’s friends Matty Newman and Mark Kmiotek. [Frank Voto]
“I have a set of standards that I work by that is based on old heavy cast iron technology. I don’t need to work with a Bridgeport. It does not meet with the standards that I am interested in. They don’t make nothin’ like that no more. Today people just go out and buy something. That’s a consumer world. I don’t live in that world. I live in a producer world. All this aftermarket stuff is made now but it doesn’t fit. It isn’t made correctly. What are you going to do? Do you know how to use a reamer? No, you are going to have to bring it to a machine shop for them to fix it. Why should I have to bring something to a machine shop that is supposed work in the first place because the bushings were not correctly made? All this after-market shit. How do you sell something to somebody that doesn’t fit?”

Frank Voto in 1970: not much has changed but the color of his hair. [Frank Voto]
“There has been a shift in values. It doesn’t piss me off but today people just think everything is going to work no problem. Well, it’s not going to work. There is no such thing as a no problem on these old engines but that’s why it’s interesting. A guy came in here with an old Harley that he said didn’t sound right. I took a look at the motor. The carburetor and exhaust were totally detached from the engine manifold. You could see daylight through the connections. I looked at the guy and thought, the motor doesn’t sound right? The whole thing is disconnected. Can’t you turn a wrench? But it still runs. These old motors are like that. You could spit on the peddle and they’d start up. They were designed during a different time when guys could turn a wrench.”

Matty Newman in 1972, aboard his Frisco style chopper, built by Frank Voto. [Frank Voto]
“You have to be mechanically inclined. If somebody tells me, well I want to be a mechanic, I ask them let me see your shop. First thing I am going to do is look to see if they have any gizmos. Stuff that you save from old motors. Little pieces of things, old odd-ball bolts. If you’ve been saving that stuff that means you are into it. If you go into some guy’s shop and he has three screwdrivers and a couple wrenches it’s like no, no, no. This guy doesn’t get it. You gotta be a pack rat and save stuff you can use. I got drawers with labels that read “gizmos”. There ain’t no name for them but you need them. I save stuff because somewhere, someday that thing is going to look cool on something. It’s going to look funky on something. The only guy I ever heard use that term was Indian Larry. We were looking at a bike and he said, ‘That bike don’t have no gizmos on it.’ I nearly fell back in my chair. What he’d just say? I couldn’t believe he just said that. I thought I was the only guy that said that.”

Frank Voto in his happy place, at his shop in a quiet corner of Staten Island. [Mike McCabe]
“I do wonder if these kinds of things are going to pass on to the next generation. I’m not sure but I hope so. It’s the way these things go. A lot of this has become a dying art. I work on guys’ bikes and these guys own a motorcycle shop. They’ll mess around on yours but they don’t want to take a chance on their own. These old engines will last forever but I wonder if the knowledge to really work on them will last that long.”

Frank Voto built and maintains Mark Kmiotek’s 1948 Harley-Davidson FL Panhead since 1989. [Mike McCabe]



Michael McCabe is a New York City tattoo artist and cultural anthropologist. He is the author of New York City Horsepower, Kustom Japan, New York City Tattoo, Japanese Tattooing Now, Tattoos of Indochina, and Tattooing New York City. For New York City Horsepower, Mr. McCabe spent two years discovering and documenting underground custom motorcycle and car garages in the City, as rapid gentrification put their culture under tremendous pressure. He interviewed and photographed New York City customizers about their personal histories and creative sensibilities.
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