Real-World Custom: 2011 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero

KW1A3277 2KW1A3473 3Try to think of the best custom job for your ride. I can almost guarantee that each person who’s reading this thought of something right off the bat. Some of these mod ideas are complex, ideas in the form of hours, days, or even years of planning in papers strewn across a desk somewhere. Let’s add some coffee stains and angry scribbles to these images, too, for good measure. Other mods are simple. Enter Joe Swatzell from Greenville, Tennessee.

When The Rolling Stones wrote the line “I want it painted black/No colors anymore I want them to turn black,” they definitely didn’t have Joe’s customizing preferences for his Kawasaki in mind. Granted, the Stones weren’t referencing actual paint or Joe’s bike in the song, but that’s beside the point. Joe wanted it painted white — with black flames — there yah go, Jagger. In fact, pretty much everything Joe owns is white. His three vehicles, his house, his garage, everything is white — all expect his boat. And that’s only because it’s hard to do. Call it what you will, Joe’s love for the color won him the Cruiser category in Kawasaki’s Bike Nite in the Daylite contest at this year’s Daytona Bike Week.

After hearing Joe’s story, I can safely say that Joe Swatzell’s victory almost came out of the blue. This definitely isn’t the tale of an epic battle waged through blood, sweat, and tears. No, Joe’s path to success is paved with happenstance and a dash of nonchalance; everything just seemed to fall into place for him. It all began in 2007 when Joe’s friends from work started looking into motorcycles. His buddies were looking, so why not him? While they got Harleys, Joe chose a Honda 1300. Then, two and a half years later, Joe went with a Suzuki M109, “A monstrous bike as far as engines goes,” Joe added.

For his third ride, Joe wanted a motorcycle with a stationary fairing on the front end — in white, of course. With his Harley group in mind, Joe began investigating Road Glides in addition to the Kawasaki you’re reading about now. “I rode both and there was no comparison,” said Joe. Seriously. It took him an eighth of a mile before he realized that the Vaquero was the bike for him. But during that short run, you can bet that Joe was already plotting his next move: the paint job. “When I bought the bike, it was solid black,” said Joe. “After the test ride, I said, ‘Let’s do the paperwork, but before I do that, we need to get it custom-painted.’”

When looking for the right painter, Joe came across some photos of jobs by John Paul Townsend, owner of Hardcore Chopper Concepts. All of the bikes he saw were done with flames that came pretty close to what he already had in mind, so Joe gave him a call and hired him. While the flames were what sealed the deal, there was one item on his list that came first. Take a guess. While all of Joe’s bikes were white until this point — Pearl White, to be exact — Joe realized one fatal flaw in their color scheme: they were done in the wrong shade. “Up close, they look white, but at a distance, they look almost gray,” said Joe. “I told John that I wanted the brightest white he could find.” Once the correct color was chosen, the bike parts were sanded and then based in DuPont white toner base coat. “No pearl, no metallic, no anything,” said John. “Just pure contrast for the flames.”

With Joe’s first and most important job checked off, the next thing to do was to figure out how to actually approach these flames. “My style of flames are thin and sleek, so I knew I could drape the bike in a way that would look sinister even though it had a white base color,” said John. Using pictures of the bike still assembled for reference, John had to free-hand tape the fine line flame layouts onto each panel. By the time he was finished, the entire bike was taped up, save the areas that were going to be painted black. These flames weren’t going to be just black, however. John ended up outlining them in bright red DuPont base and then coated the parts some more, with black DuPont toner, to be exact. “This way the colors are in the purest form and can be easily manipulated or shifted in shade when needed,” said John. Well, after a few more light coats of black and some tape pulling, the manipulation finally began. Mixing up a very thin black base for the airbrush, John then freehand painted the drop shadows on the underside of the flames. “A loose, freehand drop shadow has a more realistic look than one slammed against the edge of a flame,” said John. “It makes it look like the flame is raised off the plate,” added Joe. “You usually see white bikes with red or blue flames. Not with black. I didn’t want what everybody else had, and I’ve never seen a stock black bike that has been changed to white with black flames.”

Interestingly enough, not much else was done to the Vaquero. Other than shaving off the reflectors that were on the bags, Joe’s Kawasaki was left completely stock. So when you think about it, Joe’s bike won for its paint job alone. Add that to the fact that this was the first time Joe had ever entered a bike contest and that this was his first bike show and — yes, there’s more — that Joe wasn’t even planning on entering in the event. Wow! After cruising into Daytona Bike Week on their rides, it was Joe’s friend David “Fuzzy” Jennings who saw that Kawasaki was doing a show at the Speedway and suggested he sign up. “Sure, why not,” was Joe’s response. “It was no big deal to me,” he recalled.

Turning his handlebars toward Kawasaki’s Bike Nite competition was probably the best thing Joe could’ve done because he ended up winning the Cruiser class, earning him a spot in our pages. “I can’t believe the amount of people who come up and look at my bike,” said Joe. “No one has seen one like that. I reckon it sticks out in people’s minds.” With his bike now a gold medal winner and as white as can be, the only thing left is to buy a new exhaust system. “She’s not loud at all,” said Joe. “Whenever I’m riding with Fuzzy and my cousin Randy Ricker, they pull up next to me on their Harleys, rev, and put their hands up to their ears,” he said with a laugh.

So until another contest finds its way into Joe’s headlights, Joe will continue doing what he enjoys best: riding to work two to three times a week and going on weekend trips with his group through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky, sometimes hitting three states in one run. “As long as the road’s curvy, we’re happy. And as long as it ain’t raining, we’re riding,” said Joe. And while his friends are pushing him to finally get a Harley, it’s possible, but not that important to him. “I’d like to own a Harley some day, but it ain’t about a name. It’s about being on the open road and being able to ride.” Just as long as the bike’s white, right, Joe? RB

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Hard Data

Hardcore Chopper Concepts


Story by Steven Wyman-Blackburn Photos by Alfonse Palaima