If life, indeed, is a highway, David Johnston would certainly be living his dream one customized motorcycle or car at a time.
Not that the road he has ridden hasn't had its share of tragic bumps, with the Phenix City native losing his first wife to a brain tumor, grappling with declining health of his parents, and battling prostate cancer himself.
But a believer he truly is, and with the help of his second wife, Dawn, the man who has an eye for turning stock bikes into works of art, has persevered and bounced back strongly through the proverbial blood, sweat and tears.
"I am very proud of what my husband has accomplished," says Dawn, who is co-owner, office manager and essentially promoter of Johnston's Bodyworks and Bikes, a business in the Ladonia area of Phenix City that isn't known by the masses. But it is being sought out, specifically, by those motorcyclists looking for eye-popping, and often colorful, custom designs for their free-riding machines.
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Johnston -- he and Dawn both are 52 -- has been working with race cars, motorcycles and other vehicles for 35 years. The last 22 years have seen him take more of a turn toward custom work, although the expanding shop behind his home at the dead end of North Bayview Drive also does insurance collision repairs on everyday vehicles as well to pay the bills.
Dawn Johnston says the skills of her husband and his two-man team of bodywork technicians are so versatile that people even ask them to paint and decorate bicycles, helmets, shirts, bowling pins, gates and, jokingly, even unused toilet seats.
"My husband can make anything look beautiful," she says.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited recently with the Johnstons to take a look at some of their work and to talk about what it takes to soup up a motorcycle enough that it can win shows and be featured in magazines such as Road Iron and Urban Bagger.
So you have some customers coming from Canada and the nation's capital. How do they get their bikes here?
David: They transport them. One guy brought his motorcycle down from Washington, D.C., to repair another shop's job. So we fixed it and he has since sent another friend down from Washington. We've done six from Mississippi, all of them from the Hattiesburg-Gulfport area. We get them, of course, from all over the Atlanta area. We have done work from as far west as the Texas line, like from New Iberia, La.
You also work on bikes owned by people in Germany?
David: We have some guys over in Germany who we've done work for. They actually have somebody bring it to us (from storage elsewhere in the U.S.). We have two like that here now, one from (a person) in Korea and one from Saudi.
California custom shops have their own market?
David: Oh yeah, that's a whole other ball game. I know some of those guys through dealings and stuff. They do nice work, but not any nicer than what we're capable of doing. What's your recipe for being successful and growing?
David: Just word of mouth and quality work. We didn't even start advertising until about three years ago.
Are there other custom bike shops in the area?
David: There are, and what's funny is we were doing all of their custom paint work for them. Both Harley shops here in Columbus and in Opelika, we do work for them. It's for their customers. And then we have a couple of shops in Rome, Ga., and northeast Georgia that we've done some work for.
What percentage of your work is regular bodywork and repairs versus customizing?
Dawn: About 80 percent is customizing, I would say.
David: We modify stock bikes, do custom paint work. We don't do any engine work, just fabrication, metal work and paint work.
What's the toughest part of your job?
David: Trying to get people (to understand the process), like this guy that just came up, we're doing his bike. We're buying all of his parts, but we're not going to get his bike in here until we have all of his parts. That way it makes our process speed up and he can continue enjoying his bike while we're getting everything.
Dawn: I would say one of the major things, too, is just getting parts in. Somebody may want a 30-inch wheel and they give you their money and go, OK, I want my wheel. Then eight weeks out, we still don't have it because (the manufacturer's) not done with it. The manufacturer's just busy.
David: In this business, not everybody is straightforward or in a hurry. What it does is put a strain on us. Especially in this weather, people want to be on their motorcycles and enjoying them. As long as it's raining and cold, not too many people call you. But when it starts getting pretty outside, people want to ride, and I don't blame them.
What causes business to pick up?
Dawn: I would say bike shows and weather.
David: There are five major shows each year that people are going to attend. But in between them, if it's pretty weather people want to ride. They want to be on 'em. And we don't want their bikes sitting in here when they can be out riding and enjoying them.
How long does it take, on average, to major customize a motorcycle?
David: It can be about two or three months, depending on the availability of parts. Sometimes the wheel may be the hold up; sometimes it may be a (saddle) bag. It's different things that can slow the job down. Also, our workload plays a part in how fast things are done. But we try to get anything that we do completed as soon as possible within reason. We're not going to let quality suffer just to get it back to you. So we try to make sure, when we're finished, that it's something you can be very proud of and you won't have any problems out of it.
What percentage of people who bring their bikes to you end up putting them in shows?
David: A lot of them. They like to be in the show.
Dawn: I would say 60 to 70 percent like to put them in shows like Thunder Beach, Daytona, and other bike shows around. We have had sportsters and we have had choppers that have been put in shows.
That cool motorcycle there, what is the color?
David: This is a candy gold over gold. It's a three-stage paint, and it has a gold base coat and a gold top coat. But it's just different shades, and that's what gives it the look where it will change colors as you go by it. (Before the work) it was a 105th anniversary copper and black stock bike when we got it
Do customers typically come to you and tell you what they want or perhaps have a picture of a style they like?
David: Most do, and we encourage them to bring some type of idea with them, whether it be a picture or something they have in their head. As long as they can get their idea across to us, then we're good. We've had a few that just say, do what you want, and that's really not good for us because what we want and they want may not be exactly alike. So we try to involve the customer in the whole process from start to finish. And then we throw in a few cool touches as we can to just make the job that much better
What is the toughest part of your job, meeting expectations?
David: We've been fortunate that we have great customers with good ideas and they let us do what we do. We've been doing it a long time. The hardest part is getting the parts (materials) here or explaining to customers why their parts aren't here. This has turned into a very big pastime for a lot of people and our job is to make each bike unique to each customer.
Is there a typical customer?
David: There's really not, whether it's a regular working-class guy or someone with a lot of money. The difference normally is that the person may take a little longer when they work harder for their money. But, ultimately, our goal is to satisfy everybody, and you can see it written on their faces when they come and pick up their stuff.
Is this a physical job or a mental job?
David: It's a little bit of both. Math's involved, and you have to have an artistic eye of sorts so you can see the product before completion. Sometimes you have to see it (mentally) before you even start so that you can know what the best direction is to go with these bikes. It can get challenging at times. We use as much technology as we can but, ultimately, our hands have to make them pretty.
Have you ever thought about moving to a more visible location on a busy road or highway in Phenix City or even in Columbus?
David: We never wanted to turn into a little machine. We wanted to enjoy our work, make a living and make people happy. It's not about being famous. It's not about 'doing the most.' It's about doing a quality job for a fair price. As far as I'm concerned, I'm perfectly happy back here in my little area.
What's the toughest or most involved job you've ever done?
David: Motorcycle-wise, we did a custom bike ground-up build that we had to make virtually every part on the bike, and it was quite a challenge. It worked out great and it's now going to be a feature (cover) bike in a major magazine. This one is in Road Iron, and it will be coming out in September.
Is having your work appear on a magazine cover the ultimate honor?
David: I think it solidifies you in what you do. It actually shows that other people have noticed your ability, and it does feel good knowing that other people recognize that.
There's no big awards ceremony in this industry?
David: No. But we go to multiple shows and we always seem to do real well at the shows, and that also helps. And just knowing if somebody calls your name, you're at least known as 'Man, that guy does nice work.'
Do you take your own bikes to shows or those of customers?
David: Customer's bikes. We have some great customers and pretty much, when we need to, we can borrow their bike and take them here and there. A lot of times we'll just have them on display at events.
You've had health and personal trials and tribulations. Is this also a story of not only a business, but of a person with perseverance and showing determination and overcoming sheer adversity?
David: Well, you know, God has blessed us greatly and I firmly believe that he wouldn't put anything on me that I couldn't handle with His help. Sometimes we don't have the answer to why things happen. But I know that with my faith and my wife's faith and our family's faith, we can overcome any obstacle. To me, it's just a little hiccup or bump in the road. We rely heavily on our church, our pastor and our family faith, and it's brought us through many, many trials. We go to The Way Church in Phenix City. We have an awesome church family and an awesome pastor, and if you want to hear the word of God preached, come on down. It's worth it.
Is customizing motorcycles a bit of therapy for you as well?
David: Just being on a bike riding is such a good therapy for us, for both of us. Like I said, we've had a lot of issues in our life, health and otherwise, and when we can just get on a bike and ride, there's just not a better feeling in the world.
How does Dawn play into this, office manager?
Dawn: Just keeping him straight and from cutting off too many fingers. (laughter)
David: But since she's been involved in our business, it's really taken off. She is constantly trying to push our name and our work. Up 'til now, we've been on a dead-end road in the middle of the country.
Dawn: Let me tell you why I've done that, because he does good work. He loves his job and he ensures that it is a safe bike or vehicle -- whatever they're working on -- and when it goes out, it is safe and you're not going to get hurt. And he puts every bit of blood, sweat and tears into it because it is not a job, it's his love. This is something that he's always dreamed of and we have a wonderful crew here and they love it, too, and they want to put out the best.
Which do you enjoy the most, being creative on these bike jobs or being out on the road riding your Harley Electra Glide?
David: That's a hard question because I love what we do. But it's just so freeing when you can just leave and ride. There's really not a comparison. As much as I love this, it's even better when I can get on one of them and ride it wherever you want to go.
Where do you like to ride?
David: We tend to stay toward the water.
Do your customers like to take their motorcycles after you've customized them and head out to legendary places such as Sturgis in South Dakota?
David: Sturgis has got some of the more beautiful riding in the world. But a lot of people have a misconception that when you do the kind of work that we do, that they're not rideable bikes. (That's because some ride low) and you've got big wheels and all of this cool stuff, and the long sheet metal and plastic on 'em. That's something that's just not true. We've been on every bike that's out there in front of the shop and rode them at (highway) speeds and around byways, highways, curves, straights. I test drive everything. The point is these are rideable, fun, comfortable bikes. They're not just made to look at. There's no rule that says you can't have a really cool, good looking, functional bike, and that's what we're here for.
What's a good ballpark range of the cost for doing these bikes, low to high?
David: There is no high. The sky is the limit. They generally start between $20,000 and $25,000 and work their way up.
Have you done a six-figure job before?
David: We have come very close.
What is that kind of customer looking for and what will they do with the bike?
David: Well, they want to be different.
Dawn: And they want to turn heads and win shows.
David: They just want to be above the normal crowd.
Was the nearly six-figure job the most impressive one you've ever done?
David: You can see it in September on the cover of Road Iron magazine. It's a beautiful bike.
Is that a local person's bike?
David: He actually lives in north Atlanta, in the Acworth area. We've become very good friends. We've done two other bikes for him and his wife. We have her bike out there now, and we're going to do a trike for them later.
Why is it that customers become friends in the end?
David: The reason they become friends is we do what we say, we give them more than they pay for and, if there is a problem, it's fixed immediately. And we make sure that they're happy.