China Daily
Ride and Roll: American Girl

American Danny Woody has a fun hobby—restoring old Chinese sidecar motorcycles.

Diny Lohrmann with her two dogs and purplish-red three-wheeler. []

Reporter Gao Yiyang revs the engine and has the story behind the reborn Chang Jiang motorcycle. Something this beautiful can only be described as art. A restored Chang Jiang 750cc motorcycle sits proudly on display on the second floor of the Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai.

Its bright pearl-white frame, fenders, gasoline tank and sidecar demand your attention. Its re-welded and re-painted frame, polished aluminum engine case and rims, chromed bars, fork, exhaust pipes and headlight reveal exquisite craftsmanship.

While Danny Woody's tools are different from Picasso's brushes or Beethoven's piano, what he creates is just as unique. Woody has turned restoring classic Chang Jiang motorcycles from a hobby into a small business.

With graying hair and black-framed glasses, the music director of the Portman also looks like an artist. The model on display in the Portman is a replica of the legendary 1938 BMW R71 and cost about $8000 to restore.

''All my motorbikes are art compared with other motorcycles,'' says the 58-year-old from southern California. ''They are my little labels of love in China. I want to show the world that China does have something really beautiful.'' One of his restored Chang Jiang motorcycles won ''The Best non-Harley'' award at the Denver Bike Show in May, an annual event in the United States.

He believes all his bikes deserve the honor. Judging by the amount of time, money and passion devoted to each bike, Woody has a legitimate argument. Besides, there's no shortage of Harley Davidson's in the US, but a Chinese Chang Jiang—a brand born in late 1950s in Nanchang of Jiangxi Province—is a rare sight overseas.

Depending on the scale of restoration work, each bike takes between three and six months to complete. The American runs his own workshop with a six-man crew and has connections with several factories near Shanghai. Together they customize each motorcycle. Prices range from $4500 to $10000. Each bike is unique. Woody tailors the design according to each customer's requirements including the color and other ideas. The result is a one-of-a-kind motorcycle.

Except for the original engine case and frame, everything else on Woody's Chang Jiangs is custom made. Even the engine is taken apart, re-polished and upgraded from 6 to 12 volt electrical systems for better looks and performance. Woody arrived in Beijing in 1998— originally as the drummer and vocalist in a jazz band—and picked up his first Chang Jiang motorcycle to restore in 1999.

After visiting numerous factories and shops while trying to restore his first Chinese classic motorcycle, Woody realized he needed to do it himself. Woody only buys pre-1971 Chang Jiang sidecar bikes—known for excellent maneuverability, reliability, economy and ease in maintenance.

The model's inspiration dates back to the BMW R71 used by the German army during World War II. At first Woody sold his restored bikes and used the cash to start work on another Chang Jiang, but gradually decided on selling custom made motorcycles. It all happened without a plan. Woody's enthusiasm for the bikes is matched by the new owners, particularly after he moved to Shanghai two years ago. Bruce McArthur, general manager of Shanghai Center, has received his custom Chang Jiang within the last few weeks and is happy with the new toy even though he doesn't know how to drive it yet. ''This vintage bike is more of a collectible,'' says the 69-year-old. ''The history associated with the bike is a romantic attachment for me. Since these bikes are only available here in China, I can't let the chance go by.'' McArthur's army-green motorcycle looks like an iron horse with a small storage compartment on the top of the gas tank and a small old-style headlight with a metal hood. ''I want a bike with a classic style. And I plan to make more minor changes and give it a classic racing look,'' says the Canadian.

For Diny Lohrmann, another of Woody's clients, the bike was a birthday gift from her husband last October. She's always been interested in having an older made-in-China three-wheeler to enjoy the city and feel free. Her custom paint, chroming, special leather seats and exhaust pipes are feminine, yet ''exceptionally flashy.'' The joy of riding casts a spell over these riders.

''I love the feeling of riding a motorcycle'' says Woody. ''In a car, the windows are like TV screens since all pictures just move backward fast. But on a motorcycle, you are outside and stay in the picture, where you can enjoy total freedom.''

The freedom is even sweeter for Woody. Only he truly understands the effort and hard work that goes into each Chang Jiang. He says the restoration work would be easy in his native home, but it's ''super hard'' in China.

The hardest part has been finding qualified workers to help. Even with a competent crew on hand, Woody still searches for the ideal person.''`In the United States, those workers are artists. They love and feel proud of the job'' he says. ''But my staff just does it for money. I tried to bring them up, but in vain. Actually I need a mechanic with great skill and passion.''

Nevertheless, Woody is optimistic about the potential of the industry. ''Ancient Chinese art is of the highest level in the world,'' he adds. ''The capability of making nice stuff is no problem here.''

Danny Woody draws attention on the streets of Shanghai with his self-restored Chang Jiang motorcycle.