Company builds cycles, reputation and a tribute to Evel Knievel
By Burton Speakman
They might have only built a couple of motorcycles so far, but Warren-based upstarts Sledgehammer Bobbers already have made a reputation for themselves.
The early success has helped the company hook themselves a whale of a new client.
The team has been tasked with building a tribute motorcycle in honor of Evel Knievel by Knievel’s family that will be sold at auction, said Sledgehammer Bobbers owner David Cook.
Cook and his team are connected to the Knievel family through George Sedlak, who painted the images on Knievel’s motorcycles and helmets for his jumps.
“We [Cook and Sedlak] really hit it off, and I told him it would be an honor to build a Knievel tribute bike,” Cook said.
Sedlak then spoke to the Knievel family, finally leading to Cook speaking with Kelly Knievel about the motorcycle.
When the commemorative bike is finished, it will be displayed at motorcycle shows around the country and internationally, and then sold at a major auction of Knievel memorabilia in 2015, Kelly Knievel said in a release about the agreement.
Sledgehammer Bobbers, at 160 Clifton Drive NE, Warren, has only been building motorcycles for two years, but started well in the industry by winning the Easyriders Bike Show in Columbus.
“It’s the largest bike show in the world,” Cook said.
Getting into the business of building motorcycles is tough, he said.
“The people in this industry know instantly if you’re for real or if you’re fake,” Cook said.
The idea for the business came after Cook spent 28 days in the Cleveland Clinic for a heart procedure, he said.
“I had worked and made a lot of money. I had a lot of toys, but none of that material stuff mattered,” Cook said. He had formally worked as a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch.
After leaving the hospital, Cook got together with lifelong friend Dennis Markle, with whom he had worked in Markle’s father’s auto shop and built motorcycles when they were younger.
For Cook, building projects started at age 8, when he took an old bicycle frame and built his own 10-speed, he said.
Markle and Cook then added George Beharry III as head machinist. “George is the best machinist,” Cook said.
Markle knows how to do things with detailing that no one else can do, Cook said. “I wouldn’t trust anyone else with my bikes,” he said.
Markle said he’s been with Cook since the beginning and knew that if anyone could make this business work, it was Cook.
“I thought he [Cook] was nuts,” Beharry said about his reaction to the idea of the business.
Before joining the shop, Cook said he had been self-employed, running a couple of vehicle-repair shops.
Beharry said his previous career had been working as a machinist in the area at various companies, including GM.
Cook said that Knievel had always been a hero of his.
“When I was 10, I built my own ramp, and there was a picture of me in the Niles Times jumping six flaming trash cans,” Cook said.
Knievel was one of those people whoSFlbcould bring everyone together, he said.
“The goal for the Knievel bike is to tell his life story,” Cook said. “We don’t want to build a replica bike or a jump bike.”
The motorcycle built in honor of Knievel will include a number of his personal items, including two rings and other items donated by the family, Cook said.
“We’re going to build something that is going to blow people away,” he said. “I told [Kelly Knievel] that when we get done, he may not want to sell this one.”
The goal of the company isn’t to sell a lot of motorcycles or make as much money as possible, Cook said.
“Each bike we make, we want to be one of a kind. We don’t want them to be replicated,” he said. “I don’t think they can be because our designs are here [pointing to his head]. I don’t design on paper.”
Everything is designed as part of a vision, and sometimes that vision changes as things move forward, Cook said.
“When we were building the first bike, it was with Biketown [Harley-Davidson in Austintown],” Cook said. Every time Cook would decide that a part he had ordered did not fit his vision, it was returned to the Biketown store, which charges a restocking fee for returned parts. “They said I had the largest restocking fee in Biketown history,” he said.
Markle said his role sometimes is to help with design and drawing to help Cook bring his vision to reality.
He’ll sometimes sketch Cook’s idea so Cook and Beharry can see the same vision.
“This business is about passion,” Cook said. “We’re not looking to be a dealership. I don’t want to sell a specific product line.”
The goal for the company in the next five years is to be considered one of the five best motorcycle-building shops in the world, he said.
All three men spoke of how their faith led them into the business, and how they credit God with their success.
“This whole journey has been a blessing. It’s all God,” Cook said. “We’re not trying to be Bible thumpers, but without God, you’re nothing.”