“I think it was ’91. Tom Petty shot ‘Into The Great Wide Open’ there,” Max Hushahn, 56, says the German-born proprietor of the legendary motorcycle shop Thunder Road Classic Cycles on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Poinsettia Dr. Back in the day, his business was called Thunder Roadhouse and it stood on the Sunset Strip. (More on that later.)
“It was with…,” he continues, trying to remember, “what’s his name? That actor that’s in all those…What’s his name?…In that music video….” I confess I’ve never seen it. “You never saw the video? It was pretty big. They used…what’s this guy’s name?…I can’t believe I forgot it…’Pirates of the Caribbean’…”.
“Johnny Depp!” I blurt out, like I’m playing a raucous game of Celebrity.
“Yeah, he wanted to get a Harley-Davidson,” meaning the actor’s character did. Reliving the memory, he adds, “I got to meet both of them. Tom Petty was such a cool guy.” (Hushahn and I meet only a day after the rocker passed away.)
The list of famous people Hushahn has met in the course of doing business could probably stretch from WeHo to the Pacific Coast Highway, not that he’s all that impressed anymore. “I’ve seen so many celebrities…it just doesn’t jump out at me as a unique experience,” Hushahn admits.
Born in Hamburg, Hushahn (pronounced “HOOS-hahn”) came to L.A. in 1986. “I was still at film school at USC,” he says, “just had graduated…was starting to pick up jobs here and there…was making no money.”
So he turned to motorcycles?
“My friend [Michael Eisenberg],” he says, “who became my [business] partner, he thought it would be cool to have a Harley-Davidson.” Although Eisenberg bought one it turns out “he was not a biker.” Wanting to sell it again, Hushahn thought, “Oh wow, you’re gonna lose money on it.”
Turns out, a lucrative business model was born.
The pair fixed the bike up “a little bit,” added a “cool paint job,” a “couple chrome pieces,” and…? “He did not lose money!” Hushahn says. “He actually made money! Aw, hell, that was easy!”
Soon, he had a “whole garage full of bikes.” Advertising in “Cycle Trader” and “The Recycler,” Hushahn says, “people were coming up to my house. This was, like, in 1989/90.”
Needing a retail store and seeing that there was “nobody really in the Hollywood area” selling motorcycles, they worked out a deal with a landlord on the Sunset Strip, in a location now famous for dressed-up mannequins hugging a western facade.
“It’s now what is the Saddle Ranch,” Hushahn says. “I actually built the Saddle Ranch. It pretty much looks the same on the outside. Inside it’s obviously more like a sports bar. When we built it…sort of like a genuine roadhouse…one side was all tin panels and all wood and leather…the seating areas…it was a really cool place.” [link saddle ranch to: http://www.thesaddleranch.com/sunset.html]
Enter the celebs. “Everybody came,” he says, “I had Bruce Springsteen, he bought bikes from me.” Interesting, that. The first song on The Boss’ landmark album “Born to Run” is called “Thunder Road.”
Lesser stars ventured in, too. “One guy I almost kicked out was…what’s his name? The guy from the Allman…Greg Allman?” I nod, thinking of Cher. “He smelled and he wanted to buy a bike from me. I almost kicked him out, but somebody told me, ‘No, no, no…that’s Gregg Allman, dude.’”
Musicians dug the place. “Axl Rose,” says Hushahn. “All these rock n’ rollers still had good deals, cash burning a hole in their pockets. Red Hot Chili Peppers…all those guys.” With cushy record contracts, “of course, they liked these kinds of bikes. All those years in the early 90s, it was crazy.”
Hushahn says he “must have had 60 bikes at all times” because he was “selling a lot of bikes per month.”
When the place grew, and he had a retail section, too, Hushahn says, “That’s when we got Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper and Dwight Yoakam involved…spokesperson type of thing. They liked the concept.”
Like so many good L.A. tales, how this motorcycle house got its name involves an old-time movie’s poster.
“I had this tattoo,” Hushahn recalls. “It was a thunderbird.” I then notice an embroidered orange design on his dark blue polo shirt, realizing he probably wore it on purpose, for the snaps I said we’d take after the interview. “Like right there,” pointing to his chest. He wondered about turning that tattoo into a logo. “We’ll call ourselves Thunderbird Motorcycles.”
It didn’t take. “My partner was dating this girl,” he continues, “and she said, ‘Well, that’s kind of a stupid name. It sounds like a car.’ My grandfather made a movie once, and it was called ‘Thunder Road’.”
“Her name was Katie Mitchum,” Hushahn tells me. “Robert Mitchum was her grandfather.” She later brought the movie star in so he could sign a huge poster of the 1958 B-movie Hushahn had on display. Its tagline? “Robert Mitchum roars down the hottest highway on earth!” Kitsch aside, “he died a few years later” Hushahn says. “He was a big alcoholic, unfortunately. But a nice guy.”
Also unfortunate was when “the roadhouse had a fire,” Hushahn recalls. “Even though the fire department had come in really fast, it was like a toaster oven inside and charred up everything. Everything melted. That was maybe in 93/94.”
A guy named Larry offered Hushahn a partnership in what no one knew would become tourist drinking gold mine Saddle Ranch. “I discussed it with Michael,” Hushahn tells me, “’Some yo-yo is coming in here and he thinks he’s gonna make the next hot thing.’” How could they know? Instead, they sold the place outright. “I don’t feel so bad about it because I used the money to buy this property. I built this and I own this. So this is great.”
Now on the eastern edge of WeHo, close to Jones and the Formosa, Thunder Road is a different entity than what it once was.
“When I first built this,” he says, “it was the whole first floor, like 2,500 square feet of mostly retail and bikes. When Food Lab [became a tenant], I thought, ‘Well, it’s starting to become more of a museum because a lot of these bikes are not moving anymore.’”
Hushahn does not seem bitter in the least. “I don’t need this space anymore,” he says. “Business is not there anymore. It’s still good enough for what I have here. [But] it’s a far cry from what it was when I started.”
“These are all used and refurbished bikes?” I ask.
“Yeah, customized,” he answers. “That was always my business. I was never a dealership who sells brand new stock. That would have been boring to me. I need the artistic part, the creative part.”
Aah…so Hushahn considers himself an artist?
“I think so,” he says. “That was what really kept me in it. What I always liked was building the bikes, creating something different. That’s what still intrigues me.”
Being such a rarified business, a true niche, how does Hushahn stay afloat? “Word of mouth,” he says. “I’ve seen so many shops close down. It’s scary.” He says there used to be a lot of cash sales. “But it doesn’t exist anymore. And the kids now that come in, they can’t afford these bikes.”
He admits it’s the “older school guys who know about bikes.” “But there’s still a business,” he continues, and Hushahn knows who his customers are. “When you look for something custom, you usually end up here.”
In terms of Thunder Road’s future, WeHo may not be part of it. “The city won’t let me,” he says, sharing an idea he’s had about expanding into a “combination” retail-service-parts type business with a mechanic he knows who is “from my same home town, Hamburg.”
The city’s “master plan, as I understand,” Hushahn says, before jumping back into the past: “I asked them, ‘What is your master plan?’ They said, ‘we want to get rid of anything automotive…and have it all boutique.’ Get rid of all automotive…get rid of the gas stations…get rid of the body shops.”
“I understand it,” Hushahn says about such development, “but I find it sad.” “The only reason I’m still here is because I own this place. I’d probably move to La Brea or Fairfax…areas that are relatively close by…but I’m away from the City of WeHo so I can do more.”
This creative, motorbike-obsessed entrepreneur strikes me as ultra-relaxed about his fate. “Unless you want to go to a basic dealership,” he explains, “and a lot of people do because they have financing…good deals.” “But people who want something more special,” well, they come to him.
Perhaps his sanguine outlook is due to the advice of his father. “My dad told me to do a second floor,” says Hushahn. In other words, when he moved to his current location, his dad showed him how he could earn rental income. “This shop is not costing me anything.”
It won’t surprise you, but at one point one of his tenants was yet another well-known musician. “Marilyn Manson was upstairs,” Hushahn tells me. “We did a music video with him,” explaining how film and TV production rentals have been a significant portion of his business (films like “Jumanji” and “Ghost Rider”). Hushahn thought working with Manson “was kind of unique.”
After our interview, Hushahn emails me a photo of himself standing next to Manson, who is in full make-up. I see what he means. Definitely unique.