Michael Woolaway, or ‘Woolie’, is a master bike builder and the design director of Deus Ex Machina. His Venice-based workshop, the Emporium of Postmodern Activities, has turned out one masterpiece after the next, and Woolie is now an icon of motorcycle culture. We wanted to know how he achieves constantly higher standards and what it’s like working in the world of bike creation.
It’s very clear that you have much more than just a passion for motorbikes. How and when did you become so fascinated by them?
It all started when I lived in Hawaii with my parents and I was two years old. As soon as I saw a motorcycle I went crazy, so much so that my mother called me “Michael Michael Motorcycle”. I rode my first bike in third grade. My dad was always fascinated by all these kinds of motorsports - that rubbed off on me and I started racing bikes myself. When we moved to California there were a few racetracks nearby so that made it easy.
How did you develop from racing bikes to designing bikes ?
The two actually went hand in hand. We can’t all be Nicky Hayden or Valentino Rossi so in order to get faster I modified my bike - a lot. Back then there was no internet and you couldn’t spend hours on Google looking for parts. If you wanted a part to upgrade your bike you had to make it yourself. at one point I modified my bike in such a way that I made it go around Willow Springs raceway two seconds faster. That was my strong point as a racer.
I also moved around a lot and did many different jobs, picking up so much knowledge and techniques along the way. Not just with motorbikes, I even worked a lot with cars too.
Now you’re building bikes with Deus Ex Machina. How did that collaboration come about?
Well a few years ago I was working in showbiz, as you do in Los Angeles, and while I was on a set a guy named Orlando Bloom showed up riding an old and broken Ducati. I had a little workshop back then and I told him I could fix his bike and asked him to come visit me in my garage the next day. To my surprise, he did and we started talking and I built him a very nice Ducati Hypermotard. His partner was an Australian model who somehow was connected to Deus down under and the company was expanding into the US market as people wanted their bikes here, and through her I got in touch with them and because they had problems importing their bikes into the US they asked me to build bikes for them here. Which I’ve been doing for ten years now.
Walk us through the process of building a bike? How many people are involved?
It’s just me. I like it that way. I only make three or four bike a year so it’s a pretty long process but besides building the bike I also do my own marketing, my own photos. I basically try to be in control of as many things as I can. Most of the time, when a client contacts me I ask them what they want to do with the bike and as soon as I know that, I can decide on the power plant and from there we move on. Once we’ve decided on an engine, I usually ask them to send me pictures of what they like or what inspires them. So I get an idea of the style and from that point I can start working.
How do you describe your own style? Do you have signature trademarks.
I always prioritize functionality. I want a bike to ride really really well and after that we can talk about styling. So many one-off bike designs are pretty much unrideable. So for me a bike has to be functional. I’m mainly inspired by race bikes so most of my bikes are going to have a sleek design and be very agile to ride. I don’t built choppers. That also don’t really match with Deus, the lifestyle brand I’m representing.
Do you consider yourself a builder/engineer or an artist?
What I do is definitely an art form. I want my end result to be something that rides beautifully and looks amazing. I also come from a very artistic family. My mother was an artist, as is my brother, and both are engineers so I kind of fit into the same profile.
Last but not least, how was it to participate in Pike Peak, The race to the clouds on your own bike ?
It was scary but so amazing. Not many riders show up there with a bike they’ve literally built themselves, so for me that alone was fantastic. Building that bike was my passion project for a long time. I ended up being second in my class which was great because I changed the gearing in my bike the night before and when I started riding I immediately sensed something was off. The bike was way too sharp. But at that point, I just had to send it up there. Pike Peak is always difficult. If you think about it, it just takes a little bad luck and any corner could potentially kill you. But all the risks aside, I’m already building an even faster bike to go back next year.