Billy Joel Tunes Up A New Instrument


By Robbie Vorhaus

A strong and powerful middle-aged superstar. Evocative and moving, stunning to watch, captivating to hear, and after spending time with this world renowned classic, your spirit is transported back to a time of first loves, endless summers, and a carefree life of music, friends and fun.

That’s how six-time Grammy Award winner, and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, Billy Joel, describes his magnificent motorcycles on display here in Sag Harbor, his home and motorcycle showcase, at the foot of Marine Park.

 Mr. Joel collects, rebuilds, redesigns and retrofits historical motorcycles, keeping them on display in two sun filled rooms at the corner of Bay and Rysam Streets.

 “I like how old things look and new things work,” Mr. Joel said

This is also the beginning of a new venture for Mr. Joel. Three years ago in 2005, Mr. Joel, an avid motorcycle buff, approached Rob Schneider of Lighthouse Harley-Davidson in Huntington Station, New York, with an idea: can you retrofit my new Harley Sportster to look like an old Harley-Davidson classic, yet run like new?

The shining new/old Harley was so remarkable they decided to try it again; this time retrofitting a 2005 Harley-Davidson Springer Classic to look exactly like a 1940’s Harley-Davidson “Knucklehead,” a nickname for the Harley Davidson V-Twin engine rocker boxes, which resemble two knuckles on the back of a closed fist.

“I wanted these bikes to be so perfect, so detailed, they would fool an old-timer,” said Mr. Joel on a recent sunny morning. “I want to pull up on my bike and if a Harley enthusiast ogles my creation and says, ‘Wow, I had one of those years ago,’ then I can say, ‘No, you didn’t, look again,’ and I know we’ve succeeded.”

Together with Bill Blackford of Lighthouse Harley, they formed 20th Century Cycles by Billy Joel,, and began building one-of-a kind, non-production motorcycles, using bikes from the United States, Japan, Italy, Germany and Britain, including Hondas, Harley-Davidsons, Indians, BMWs, Triumphs, and Royal Enfields, one of the oldest motorcycles in the world.

“Our official slogan is, ‘A modern ride with classic pride,” said Mr. Joel. “But our joke motto is, ‘new scoots for old coots.’”

Prices for one of Mr. Joel’s 20th Century Cycles begin at $15,000 and can run as high as $60,000 or more, depending on size and detail. But for Mr. Joel, it’s not about the money.

“Motorcycles represent personal freedom to me, but not in the sense of an outlaw,” explained Mr. Joel. “I’ve always admired motorcycle aficionados, such as Steve McQueen, Elvis Presley, Jay Leno, and George Clooney. I, of course, love to ride, but I also enjoy tinkering, customizing a machine, making something that used to be old new again. For me, as an artist, it’s another means of creative expression.”

Mr. Joel has a long history with motorcycles, although not always pleasant. On April 15, 1982, Mr. Joel, riding here on Long Island, was broadsided by a car and hospitalized for a month, leaving him with multiple fractures of both hands.

Yet today at 59, quietly playing with his two pug dogs, Fionoula and Sabrina, Mr. Joel appears reflective and appreciative of his love and enthusiasm for motorcycles.

“When I bought this place on Bay Street, I was single and had a dozen motorcycles all in different places,” explained Mr. Joel. “My dream was to somehow keep my motorcycles inside with me, and my boats across the street, right outside my door.”

Now married to Katie Lee since 2004, Mr. Joel, surrounded by his motorcycles, points out the window, across Bay Street to his private marina, where his 36-foot down-easter fishing boat, the Alexa, sits.

“You see,” he said beaming, “dreams do come true.”

Mr. Joel now owns and displays up to 20 new, and as he describes them, “faux-old” motorcycles, all clearly within view from the street and sidewalk. His collection includes the Italian-made lead police Moto Guzzi, from the 1956 Grace Kelly wedding to Prince Rainier III of Monaco; a pristine 2005 Indian with sidecar; a full-bodied stock Honda Gold Wing, along with his retrofitted 20th Century Cycles. There is an open spot on the floor where Mr. Joel is waiting for delivery of his customized 2007 Harley-Davidson Road King that’s been retrofitted to look like Elvis Presley’s 1955 Harley Panhead.

“Sometimes on a nice day when I leave the door open, people will just walk in and ask, ‘Is this a museum?’ or ‘Are these motorcycles for sale?’ and I’ll just say, ‘Nope, this is my home.’”

Mr. Joel compares his motorcycle passion and collection to Steven Spielberg’s 1976 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

“Remember when Richard Dreyfus’s character had this obsession to first build and then visit Devils Tower in northwestern Wyoming? That’s the way I feel with collecting and rebuilding motorcycles, especially from around 1949 when I was born. I really don’t know if reincarnation is real, but retrofitting a motorcycle to look old and run new feels like a rebirth.”

Walking around the two large rooms that house his motorcycles, Mr. Joel continued, saying, “I’ve created these motorcycles exactly like I’ve always written my music: with influences from my youth, while at the same time trying to recreate that special feeling of Elvis, the Beatles, James Brown, Ray Charles, but all, ultimately, with my voice. That sound, that spirit, is in both my music and these motorcycles.”

Although Mr. Joel owns other homes, including a 14-acre Centre Island estate, Roy Scheider’s former ocean-front home in Sagaponack, a townhouse in New York City’s West Village, and a winter retreat in Miami Beach, he still refers to himself as, “a son of Sag Harbor.”

“I consider myself a Sag Harbor townie,” said Mr. Joel. “And I’m proud of that. I love being here in the middle of town, I like living as a Sag Harbor local. Katie and I feel included and happy. We have great friends here and I also get involved with the baymen and farmers and forget I’m famous. That is until someone comes up to me on Main Street and makes a fuss, and then I remember, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m that guy, too.’”

“Look, I picked a very good job, maybe the best job in the world. But it’s still only a job, a hat I wear, and it’s not who I really am, just a part I play. When I get up in the morning to brush my teeth and I look in the mirror, I see a pizza baker, or a plumber, just a regular guy, certainly not a rock-star musician, who still, by the way, does the dishes and takes out the trash. The moment you start believing all the money, attention and fame is rightly yours, you know you’re in deep trouble.”

Mr. Joel slowly runs his hands over the leather seat of his Harley-Davidson retrofitted Knucklehead.

“I pinch myself every time I go on stage, and it’s funny, I feel the same way about my motorcycles; I still can’t believe I’ve collected this many bikes and get to keep them here in Sag Harbor,” Mr. Joel said. “I’m right in the heart of Sag Harbor, the best town on the East End, and I love it.”