Common Tread

Stuff that doesn't suck: Big Mikey's big trip

Sep 20, 2016

The STDS series has highlighted spectacular things and people from the world of motorcycling. 

Today’s subject, Mike “Big Mikey” Wegener, is a graybeard with a story that’s not well known, but demonstrates a real love of the game. As a young man, Big Mikey wanted to be a part of the custom bike and car scene. In chasing that life, he’s jumped continents, held a variety of interesting jobs, and experienced ups and downs that border on comedic.

I met Mike years back on an online forum we frequent. He always had insightful commentary on the bikes other members were building or repairing, obviously stemming from his own hands-on experience. More times than I can count, I have seen him offer to sell parts to someone for little or no profit. “I really enjoy helping good people achieve their dream,” Mike says. But that's today. Let's rewind to the beginning of his tale.

Mike was born in 1955, which makes him a bit young for the chopper heyday: He was 13 when "Easy Rider" hit the theaters. He was born in Germany, but spent summers in Denmark with his family. (They were a rather cosmopolitan bunch — a trait that was passed along and helped him as an adult.)

“Speedway racing was the big thing there and we visited every race in the summer," he recalls. "The parking lots were full of British bikes. Swedish hot rod magazines always had chopped Harleys in them. Denmark became the place I always looked forward to. There I saw my first real Harley chopper and my first real EL Hydra Glide.”

“I was in love with motorcycles. I cannot describe it. I'd see a motorcycle — any motorcycle — and I would wonder how she rode and saw myself at the controls. The sound of the motor, the vibrations, the heat rising up from it sitting at a light. And riding them? What an experience! You are involved, not just the captain of a ship like in a car.”

It’s probably unsurprising that a brief stint on a Garelli moped occurred in Mikey’s early teens. “The Garelli gave me freedom to roam. I always wanted to explore — I was never happy where I was. The Garelli was the first step to fulfilling this desire. I treasure the memory of that little green 50 cc moped.”

The Horex before Mikey put it under the knife. Photo provided by Mike Wegener.

An enterprising young man, he was taking notes on the then-fresh chopper scene.

“I grew up with Hot Rod Magazine, Car Craft, Guns & Ammo, Life, Look, and Cycle Guide. I taught myself English by translating the stories with a dictionary! I was 15 when I bought my first bike, a Horex 350. It had good lines. I knew I could build a chopper from it and so I did. It was finished six months before I turned 18 and eligible to get a driver’s license. It also fell apart every time I rode it, the school of hard knocks being in session.”

Mike's pops
Mike's dad on his Horex, post-chop. Photo by Mike Wegener.

Mikey rode the bike for just a few short months after it was finished. He then fell ill and sold the bike with the intention of purchasing an automobile, but fate — and his father — intervened. “No way. You are 18, you have no income, you go to school. That gas hog (a 1957 Chevy caught Mikey’s eye) is going to ruin you. You’ll ride a motorcycle like I did. Period. Full stop. End of story,” is how Mike recalls his father dealing with that notion. “He had a good heart. I gave up the car idea and went bike shopping once again. When I told him about an Electra Glide basket case at the local Harley dealer, he loaned me the additional money to buy it.  “Just don't tell Mom.”

“And that was that. I was 18 years old, and a Harley owner in Germany.”

Mikey visited America the next year. And the year following. “My dad insisted that I finished engineering school. I did so and got a masters degree in mechanical engineering. I never worked a day as an engineer, but it did help me a lot picking out material sizes or building things!”

In Germany at that time, high school shop classes were not available. “The best thing I did back then was to pay for an oxy-acetylene welding course. During my time in engineering school, I would weld floors into the rusted-out cars of my fellow students so that they would pass the stringent vehicle inspections. I would do that all through the year and be able to spend summers in California. My fellow students had shitty summer jobs stacking boxes and I rolled around on the beach in Malibu. They called me ‘rich guy’ behind my back, not understanding the correlation between the miles of weld I ran during the year and the existence of my summer money.”

At the ripe old age of 29, Mikey rolled the dice, packed his bags, and moved to America.

At this point, I have to step in and mention that Mikey has no shortage of stories from this time period. Let me give you the fast rundown of his twenties to middle age, because we’d be here all week if we listed each of his tales: Choppers, increased visibility in the German custom car and bike world, male modeling (!), an interest in the occult that led to a rapid rise within the Freemasons, a marriage, a divorce, a business finding high-end cars and motorcycles stateside for well-heeled German clients, and the subsequent contraction of his car business and the expansion of motorcycle parts sales with the advent of the internet.

"I have exported 947 cars and hope to make it to 1,000," he says. "All have been sports cars and exotics, along with a few Harleys."

Mikey on TV
The caption reads "Man from Hamburg, loves California." Succinct, and oddly accurate. Screenshot from Sky Channel.

One of Mikey’s clients was involved in video production, and fronted the money to send a production team to L.A. and San Francisco. The intent was to visit local shops, Mike’s being one of them. The show turned out to be a big hit in Germany, called “Motostories.” As it turned out, Mikey’s a bit more charismatic than anyone suspected - and he’s bilingual. He was fluid and smooth enough to run his voice-over pieces with no script.

“It is as if something overtakes my brain and I testify. Amen.”

The result? Mikey wound up as the host for all the episodes shot in southern California. (For those of you who are car buffs, Mikey hosted an episode with Magnus Walker. I don’t speak German, but I kind of wish I did.)

Mag cover
Miss Kitty, Big Mikey's Triumph chopper, was a cover bike for a chopper rag. Big Bike magazine.

Rags to riches was a cycle Mikey repeated a few times. At his present age, Mike’s coming to grips with some stark realities of a lifetime of chasing dreams.

“I'm old now and not in good health. My bike days are over. I chose to be free and as such did not amass any wealth. I'm a loner, so I have no significant relationships. I have been kind to people, so a few may remember me but that is it. I did drag a Sixties showbike through life, though. Maybe that counts for something. I am good with not leaving a legacy. There are still a few years ahead for me.”

Big Mikey had lots to say about the bikes he loved dearly through the years. “I had a 1978 Kawasaki 175 scrambler. It was free and more fun than a barrel of monkeys. I have fantastic memories of that bike. I had a 1977 Super Glide that was my daily rider for many years. I also rode a 1962 Norton cafe machine with a 750 Commando motor. I also bought several more Super Glides and rode them while trying to sell them off to new owners and turn a buck or two. Later came a 1991 Fat Boy. That bike left me with no feeling; there was nothing there for me. I preferred my '77.“

Other bikes included a BSA 650 Thunderbolt, a 1959 AJS Twin that utilized a piece of oil-soaked leather belt for an impromptu connecting rod bearing, and a 1944 Indian 741 Scout flat-tracker.

“God, that bike was sooooo slow,” Big Mikey recalls. (Personally, I’m amazed that AJS held together for a whole summer.)

Miss Kitty in the Eighties
Miss Kitty, circa 1988 or so. I have to say, I think I prefer this bike with those funky narrow Z-bars. Photo provided by Mike Wegener.

When pressed about changes he saw both in Germany and in America, Mikey had some unique insights.

“Over the last 50 years I saw styles change ultimately for the worse and back to wonderful again. Probably the worst thing that happened to the hobby was the passage of environmental laws one after the other. The cost of chrome plating and paint materials skyrocketed, and in its wake left the horrible trends of bare metal, flat black, and the rat bike look. Luckily, bikes are relatively small so the expenses are limited, but the car people really suffered.

“My generation strived for beauty and elegant finishes. Today, fake patina ranges from perfect to really sad. Happily, the last Born Free event showed that people still build showbikes that rival what was done 40 years ago.”

German TV host, chopper cosmopolitan, occult enthusiast and California adoptee — Mikey Wegener has had a front seat in the epicenter of Kustom Kulture. He’s lived his life fully enough to have a passel of memories to ruminate on and leave for the next wave of graybeards to come after him. Now he’s helping the next wave of chopper builders get their dreams running and rolling.

When you think about it, the ability to live life in such a fashion might be the best heirloom a man like Mikey could own.