Richard Pollock's Custom Bikes | The Mule Prophecy

By David Edwards, Photography by David Edwards

Not that Harley-Davidson or Victory should be looking over their shoulders, but the fastest-growing bike builder in the country might just be Mule Motorcycles, run out of a converted two-car garage in suburban San Diego.

When we last saw Mule founder Richard Pollock’s handiwork he had just built a sweet-as-honey Hinckley Bonneville custom (see “Triumph ’Tracker,” Sep. 2010, MC), but a lot has changed in the past couple of years. When his aerospace employer of 23 years pulled up stakes and moved across country, Pollock decided it was high time to take Mule from an afterhours operation to a full-time gig.

“I am pretty comfortable here in California,” says the 60-year-old. “I came to SoCal originally because it was—and still is—the hub of motorcycling, plus there’s surfing, hotrods, mountains, deserts. It’s where I want to be, not Alabama, so I took early retirement. Now I’m livin’ the dream, doing bikes full-time—and working five times harder than I ever did in aerospace!”

Richard Pollock Wants a Street-Tracker in Every Garage!

Not that Pollock was exactly a slacker before. He built his first customer bike, a café Sportster, in 1993, and has been steadily turning out gobsmackingly gorgeous specials ever since. By his count he’s built about 150 to date, mostly street-trackers. This despite production slowdowns when Lilly the rescue bull terrier needs to be let outside or when the lovely Mrs. Pollock fires up her washer/dryer to do a load of laundry. Currently, build sheets for 23 bikes hang from pegs that ring the garage. Mule also has just launched a new line of aftermarket products (www.mulemotorcycles.net).

“Holy crap, it’s hard,” says Pollock of his increased workload. “I’m everything in one: CEO, financial officer, designer, parts procurement, quality control, PR, test rider, warranty department…it takes up a lot of brain space, but I love doin’ it.”

All those years as a rocket fabricator gave Pollock the organizational skills needed to juggle the builds of 20-plus bikes at the same time, but it’s his sense of aesthetics that sets Mule street-trackers apart: the way the bikes’ proportions are spot-on, the interplay between paint and metal finish, the intangible rightness of stance. He’s way too modest to say it, but fact is a Mule custom is one of the finest crafted vehicles being built in the world today, two wheels or four.

“The only thing I bring to the table genetically is having a decent eye for what looks good, be it cars or boats or airplanes or vacuum cleaners, whatever is mechanically cool,” Pollock allows. “I’m on the Internet all the time looking at pictures of bikes, I read all the magazines, I go to the shows, talk to other builders, study old racebikes. I have this data bank to draw from to make things look good.”

Case in point is Mule’s most recent Sportster, a triple-black ’tracker named Stealth, built for Brooklyn avant-garde artist Matthew Day Jackson. The base machine was a 2000-model Sporty 1200, but about the only items that remain untouched are the main frame loop and the center engine cases. Everything else was massaged, modded, kicked, and cajoled into shape. For a more aggressive look, Pollock moved the shock mounts forward about six inches on the swingarm, which required that the rear subframe be totally reworked to match. Front suspension duties are handled by a jumbo Italian-made Paioli inverted fork. This fork was sold by Custom Chrome as part of a sporting Big Twin kit that failed to find an audience. When the unsold surplus inventory was auctioned off, Pollock, always on the scrounge for suitable parts, ended up with several sets of the 56mm forks and matching triple clamps.

More parts-bin repurposing: What look like ultra-expensive 19-inch Morris magnesium race wheels are actually cast-aluminum lookalikes as fitted to Kawasaki cruisers in the 1980s. Mule acquires these inexpensively on eBay, then sends them to Kosman Specialties to be widened so modern rubber—Maxxis dirttrack tires here—can be used. Brembo four-piston Goldline brake calipers are another online score at less than $100 per piece. A used Vance & Hines sportbike muffler was shortened by half, polished up, and joined to a swirling set of custom-bent, ceramic-coated head pipes.

It’s that one-off, coachbuilt quality that attracts Mule customers from as far away as Thailand and Russia, each ready to plonk down a minimum of $32,000 for a full-on build and wait 6-8 months for it to be done.

“I’ve been told I should standardize, build one or two basic models, make them all the same, that’s the only way to make real money,” says Pollock. “Well, that would be okay if everybody wanted the same thing. They don’t. Besides, I have no interest in punching out cookie-cutter motorcycles. If I had a big factory and we were building, say, the Mule 880, turning out 50,000 of the things, I’d be bored out of my mind. I’d get out of the business. What I sell—the service I provide—is the ability to build a custom motorcycle any way you want. Come to me with an idea and I can turn it into reality, something that looks cool, works bitchin’, and goes fast.”

Which is a pretty apt description of Mule’s latest Yamaha XS650, a British Racing Green job commissioned by a retired northern California probation officer. This time there’s even less of the stocker left, just the engine castings and the footpeg brackets. Everything else has been replaced or rebuilt, starting with the motor, which gets a 750cc kit, hotter cam, big valves, porting, and an electronic ignition from Powerdynamo in the Czech Republic. The compact sparking system allowed Pollock to trim the alternator bulge on the primary cover and weld on a flatter aluminum piece for more of a comp shop look.

All buttoned up, the rebuilt twin was slotted into a new cromoly-steel frame built locally to Pollock’s specs. The design does away with the bottom frame cradles. Again, wheels at both ends are Morris mag reps, this time 18-inchers with sticky Bridgestone BT45s fitted. Pollock’s uncanny ability to mix-n-match parts is evident on the front end, where his own billet triple clamps house 45mm conventional forks taken from a Honda CBR900RR. Nissin calipers from the 900RR remain, putting the bite on rotors that consist of custom carriers and thinned XS650 discs drilled with a series of holes to resemble TZ750 roadracing items. A new Triumph Bonneville headlight bucket, tiny Acewell multi-function instrument pod, Wood Racing stainless-steel handlebars and Brembo front master cylinder complete the front end.

Good looking as a “Mule-ized” XS650 can be, the engine has its limitations. The newest one is now 30 years old and even thoroughly hopped up, about 60 horsepower is all that can be reliably extracted from the Yamaha. That’s one of the reasons the new Triumph Bonneville has become Mule’s parallel-twin of choice, not that it was an easy sell at first.

“Have to say I didn’t especially like the new Triumphs when they came out,” says Pollock. “Kind of bulky and blobby-looking. But the more I worked with them the more I realized what could be done. At about 200 pounds, the motor is a little heavy, but the power potential is stratospheric—you can instantly take it to 75 horses, and with a 904cc big-bore kit 90-100 is within reach. They run real good.”

The Bonneville has also allowed Pollock to stretch his design legs. Champions Moto, a Southern California speed shop specializing in Hinckley Triumphs, partnered with Mule to build that first titanium-laced Streetmaster street-tracker we featured back in 2010, and soon after came the Brighton, an alloy-tanked café racer on Page 72. More recently, a longtime Triumph aficionado dropped off a new Scrambler model in hopes that Pollock could turn it into something more akin to a classic Triumph desert sled. The result, with a BMW drum front brake, alloy fenders, Bates-style seat, and beautifully sculpted fuel tank, looks like something straight out of Steve McQueen’s garage circa 1966.

In fact, Pollock was so taken with the new Triumphs that he built one for himself, not that he got to hold onto it for very long. The big-bore T100 also served as rolling testbed for a just-released line of Mule aftermarket products for the Hinckley bikes, everything from billet triple-clamps and an oil-cooler kit to lightweight hubs and a two-into-one exhaust pipe. With its stock main frame and fuel tank, the Triumph looked factory, just lighter and tighter, more like a classic 1960s Triumph. Problem was, the Mule-modded T100 was such a hit that people kept trying to buy it right out from underneath him! Eventually Matt Helder, drummer for the indie rock band Arctic Monkeys, simply refused to take no for an answer.

Not to worry. Back in his garage in the hills above San Diego, Pollock already has visions of his ultimate street-tracker. The only problem is finding enough spare time to actually build it.

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By David Edwards
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