Common Tread

Leaving the grind behind to build custom motorcycles

Jan 10, 2018

Many people daydream about turning their passion for motorcycles into a full-time job, but few actually abandon an established career to do it. Carlos Ormazabal is one of the few, a Spanish electronics engineer with more than two decades in the industry who left it behind to build custom motorcycles.

“I’m just doing what I love to do,” says Ormazabal, founder and owner of The Foundry Motorcycles, a custom shop based near Madrid. Ormazabal has found success, with his work regularly featured on sites like Pipeburn and Return of the Café Racers, but when he left the security of his full-time job a few years ago, he knew little to nothing about building custom motorcycles and possessed few of the skills required.

Carlos Ormazabal
Ormazabal and the #6 BMW K75 street tracker. Photo provided by Carlos Ormazabal.

Ormazabal, now 55, was born in Spain to a father who was a shoemaker and though he didn’t come from a family of motorcycle enthusiasts, he nonetheless developed a passion for two-wheelers.

“I grew up watching a lot of old cowboy movies and westerns and there was always something appealing about the cowboy, alone with his horse,” he explains. “And to me, motorcycling is close to that, just a lone rider and the bike.” 

At 17, he got his first motorcycle, a few years before enrolling in university to study electronics engineering. After working a few years at Fuji Film, Ormazabal took a position with Nikon and worked for the company for the next 19 years.

In 2010, Ormazabal saw Brad Pitt on TV riding one of Zero Engineering’s high-end scoots built by Shinya Kimura, and it reignited his passion for motorcycles.

“I was just so focused on that bike, so I did some research and after realizing how expensive Zero’s bikes are, I thought I would build my own,” Ormazabal says. 

Ormazabal Zero replica
Carlos Ormazabal's 350 cc "Zero replica." Photo provided by Carlos Ormazabal.

Ormazabal was living in a flat in Barcelona and didn’t have the space or equipment needed to build a bike, so he completed his first project — a 350 cc Regal Raptor he half-jokingly refers to as a “Zero replica” — in a local community garage. He started spending an increasing amount of time at the garage, making friends and learning as he went. In 2011, the same year he finished his first build, he and some pals from the garage established “The Foundry,” what Carlos describes as “a group of custom bike enthusiasts.” As he wrenched on his first project, a realization dawned on him.

“I realized that was what I really wanted to do for the rest of my life,” recalls Ormazabal. “I thought a lot about what kind of person I wanted to be and how to get there.”

Still, he did not immediately change careers. In 2013, he got married and moved to Madrid, still working for Nikon. The pivotal moment arrived a year later when the company asked him to move back to Barcelona.

“After 20 years, it was boring. I was traveling too much, and just wasn’t happy” said Ormazabal. The reluctance to uproot his family, dissatisfaction with his job and his desire to build bikes all came together to set the stage for Ormazabal to pull the trigger on the next phase of his life. 

“It was just time for a change,” he says. “I wanted to do something I was passionate about, to wake up every day and be excited about the day ahead of me.”

Carlos Ormazabal custom BMW K75
Another BMW K75-based custom. Photo provided by Carlos Ormazabal.

Of course, that meant abandoning a secure position in the film and camera industry to start a new business in a world he knew little about. It was a serious gamble. He now had a wife and kids to think about. Ormazabal mulled it over, did the research, spoke to family and friends and became convinced he could realistically do this. In 2014 he quit his job and signed up for a TIG welding class at a local community college. His decades of paying into Spain’s social security system gave him some time to sort out a plan while receiving support. He also had moral support.

“My wife supports me 100 percent and my parents, sisters, and friends all cheered me on,” Ormazabal says. “There was some financial concern, but I knew I could go about it professionally.”

That professional approach involves doing ample research to nail down the expenses and time that each aspect of a build will require so he can be sure every project is realistic and profitable. The more you scratch beneath the surface, the more it becomes clear that Ormazabal’s transition was a thoroughly calculated one. His building philosophy is comparable to that of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, whose “economy of motion” principles were all about efficiency, directness, and simplicity. Basically, doing the most damage with the least effort. Or in Ormazabal’s case, selecting the simplest modifications that will yield the greatest results and have the most transformative effect.

Carlos Ormazabal
Ormazabal on his Suzuki GSX-R750 "cafe fighter." Photo provided by Carlos Ormazabal.

The Foundry Motorcycles already had a logo and Ormazabal had registered the name, web domains, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, etc., so it was a natural choice as a name for his business. The first motorcycle he completed as a professional builder was a wood-clad 1990 Suzuki GSX-R750 “Cafe-Fighter.”

Part of The Foundry’s success can be chalked up to its bikes being far more financially accessible than the majority of bespoke two-wheelers. Not only has this strategy allowed The Foundry to succeed, but it also puts more cool one-off bikes on the road.

Carlos Ormazabal custom Yamaha XJ600
Ormazabal and his latest production, a Yamaha XJ600 café racer. Photo provided by Carlos Ormazabal.

“Our goal in each project is to achieve the difficult balance between a unique and personal motorcycle, within the legal margins, that is economically achievable for a large majority of the public,” he explains. His most recent build, for example — a Yamaha XJ600 cafe racer — is a relatively simple design, but it still boasts a lot of character and appeal. Plus, it looks clean and complete.

“For each project, our approach is to simplify it to the maximum, use the original parts as far as possible and look for the shape with the proper function for each motorcycle,” says Ormazabal.

BMW K75 street tracker
The #6 BMW K75 street tracker. Photo provided by Carlos Ormazabal.

The Foundry’s #6 BMW K75 street tracker is another great example of him building an awesome bike within his means. It’s another relatively simple and straightforward custom, yet it doesn’t look incomplete or lacking. Instead, it sports more of a minimalistic aesthetic bolstered by a myriad of minor touches that together create a cohesive one-off build.

“I’m always a little surprised when people like my bikes,” Ormazabal says. “I look at stuff from guys like Max Hazan or Freddy Kruger and it’s like, I have no words. I don’t know how they’re so great.”

Carlos has come a ridiculously long way in the six years since he started his first build for himself, but he doesn’t hide the fact he’s still learning. He’ll soon be taking a course to learn how to paint and plans to continue expanding his skills. He also draws on the abilities he learned in his previous career, such as a working knowledge of social media, expert project management skills and a solid grasp of marketing and branding. With so many custom shops vying for attention, it’s important to create something different and find ways to market it beyond the local sphere. Social media have been an invaluable tool for The Foundry.

“Being a professional doesn’t change much from industry to industry,” he says. “I wasn’t familiar with the custom world, but I knew six years ago when I started The Foundry that I could run the business professionally.”

What advice, if any, would he give others who may be fantasizing about leaving their careers to pursue a passion? He repeated something he’d brought up earlier in the conversation.

“You just have to listen to your gut,” he says. “You’ll know if it feels right.”

That listening led Ormazabal to the life he wanted, being able to support himself and his family while spending his days in The Foundry, doing what he’s passionate about. We should all be so lucky.