In our media-drenched universe, there is no shortage of folks looking to pin the label “customizer” to their lapels, folks looking to become Internet famous with photos of their eye-candy custom motorcycles slathered all over social media like white lithium grease on a brand-new chain. In that world, how the bikes look is what matters—what happens after the photographer packs up their lenses and reflectors doesn’t. Todd Chamberlin cares more about the “after” part.
“I don’t build hanger queens,” the serious and compact 50-something Chamberlin told me at Sonic Moto, his development shop in an industrial nook of Oakland, California. His projects have to “feel safe and reliable enough to cross the Bay Bridge five days a week and be fun on the racetrack.” His thing is building something that looks OEM, no matter how fast, slow, or in between, the motorcycle is. A build that tells the world he cares about his work.
That’s because he has a long history of working inside the moto industry—building cool customs isn’t a midlife-crisis affectation for Chamberlin. After a stint as an aircraft mechanic in the US Navy (he enlisted later in life than most, after learning metal fabrication and welding in high school and working as a fabricator for several years) he got the attention of Polaris Industries and started working as a development technician for the then-new Victory cruiser division.
Todd got a bit of fame in a 2004 issue of Roadracing World, where he was spotlighted for building and racing a V92SC in CRA endurance racing. Roadracing a cruiser? Well, Todd isn’t a guy for labels. He likes fast, good handling motorcycles, and if it’s not fast and good handling from the factory, his goal seems to be making it that way, be it cruiser, sportbike, supermoto, standard or the weird electric scooter-skateboard thing he was fixing for a customer the day I visited.
He left Polaris in 2008, going to work for Munroe Motors in San Francisco, an old and storied race-oriented Ducati, Triumph and Moto Guzzi shop. There, he twirled wrenches on just about every European sportbike you can name, as well as dabbling with the various custom and vintage projects that would roll through the doors. Todd gets a little rankled when I call him a mechanic, but working on customer bikes—very high-end customer bikes—gave him a lot of understanding of what customers want.
But you can’t pick your customers working for someone else’s shop, so he branched out on his own in 2014. Today, Sonic Moto is a small operation that is always busy, turning out the kind of bikes Todd would want to ride. When I was visiting, a K5 GSX-R1000 was getting ready for a trackday, an immaculate RD400 needed a few things, an exquisitely detailed Moto Guzzi V11 Scura was getting a new exhaust and subframe fitted and a Ducati Diavel was having an Energica powertrain grafted into it. Oh, and the 25-mph electric skateboard needed some new bushings. And that was just on a Wednesday.
That Diavel/Energica (more in another article) wouldn’t seem surprising to you if you could wander about and see Todd’s bike collection. It’s reminiscent of that scene in Toy Story where all the weird mutant toys skitter out from under the bed. There’s a Cannondale Supermoto with a Ducati Monster 900 motor, his old Victory V92SC racebike, a pimpin’ mid-’80s Rebel 450 street tracker Todd built for his grown daughter and a couple of CBR600F2 streetfighters (Todd likes to build two of everything, as his partner Debra also rides). But one bike is clearly his favored child.
It’s a Suzuki DR650 frame, front end and bodywork with an SV650 motor and swingarm wedged all up into it. Looking it over reveals Todd’s way of doing things. Aside from the angular, industrial modifications he made to the frame, it looks OEM down to the big stock blinkers and 90s graphics on the tank. Front fork is stock, wheels are SV650, with the only real apparent mod being the aftermarket race exhaust. The electrical system is all SV and everything is neat and tidy. When Todd builds a bike he doesn’t feel the need to hide wires and cables like a high-end custom builder might. “I shoot for the OEM look—it’s okay to see wiring and cables so long as it makes sense.”
It sounds loony, but like a lot of loony ideas the hybrid DR/SV makes sense the more you think about it. It combines the lovable, torquey nature of the SV mill with the toughness of the DR’s dirty-bike pedigree; who cares if you drop it? A (willing) Suzuki dealer can easily work on it, and there are 22 years of SV and DR aftermarket support. Plus, there are a zillion DRs with blown motors and two zillion SVs with twisted frames.
If you think about it, what’s weird is how (as far as I could tell) Todd represents 100% of the builders who have even attempted such a hybrid, let alone complete it and ride it for years. Years! The only other result you get from Googling “DR650 with SV650 motor” besides a picture of Todd’s bike from 2014 are a few posts from Internet “experts” shooting down the very idea.
He completed the bike in 2013, but had his baby cruelly plucked away about five years ago by that scourge of urban riders—bike thieves. Miraculously, a friend spotted it on Offerup not too long ago. He alerted the boss, they made an appointment to see it and “we recovered the bike…let’s leave it at that.” It was a little worse for wear after being traded around from methhead to methhead for half a decade, and it needed a new front cylinder head, a different radiator overflow bottle (“what’s wrong with the bong they put on there? It’s so Oakland.” I asked Todd. “No…just…no” was the reply) and a lot of cleaning, but he’s now happily riding it once again.
He loves it. “It’s stable at 120 mph, you can jump off curbs with it, I’ve gone upstairs, downstairs—it’s the ultimate urban assault vehicle,” he told me. “You can do anything.” So he probably won’t ever sell it (I’m not sure he sells any of his personal bikes). But he does have a couple of motor-less DRs and plenty of SV motors lying around—call him up and he’ll make you one.
In fact, he’ll probably do anything you want. Todd’s work isn’t the prettiest or eye-popping, but it’ll probably run and handle like a real motorcycle, not an art project. As long as the customer has a clear idea of what he or she wants, and Todd thinks it’s possible, he’ll do it, no matter how bizarre others may think it is.
For Todd, it’s more about the customer than the type of bike. “A great customer can make or break a project. I don’t care if it’s a wheelbarrow or what…if he knows what he’s doing, he knows what he wants and is realistic. It really comes down to the customer in the end.”
Gabe Ets-Hokin is a motorcycle journalist who should be much more jaded than he is, which is plenty. Sonic Moto is appointment-only; check the website or call–yes, call! (510) 947-9988 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The author has a personal and professional relationship with Todd Chamberlin and Sonic Moto, so cannot claim journalistic objectivity.