Text by Alex Schechter
Images by Damon Casarez & courtesy of Arch Motorcycle
Gard Hollinger is not a man prone to bragging. Despite co-founding a high-end motorcycle manufacturer in Southern California with clients as far-flung as Austria, Italy, Malaysia, and Qatar, Hollinger tends to downplay his success. “I’m not here because I had ambition to do this thing and I achieved it,” he says from Arch Motorcycle’s headquarters in El Segundo, California. His office feels like a professor’s study, with a narrow bookcase and a framed drawing of his childhood home hanging above his desk. There’s a racket going on outside his sliding glass door. “I’ve always been hardworking, and I’ve always been too dumb to know when to quit,” he says, laughing.
Hollinger is at home amid the shop’s roar of clanking metal and revving engines. His lifelong fascination with auto parts began when he was an 8-year-old in Hollywood Hills and an older boy from the neighborhood asked if Hollinger wanted to ride his minibike. In his teens, Hollinger got odd jobs as a mechanic, and when he was 21, he moved to Seattle to open his first motorcycle business, a repair shop that doubled as a dealership.
But it was off-road racing that captured his heart. Despite having a natural aptitude for repairs, his downtime was devoted to the dirt track, and he dreamed of going professional. “I’ve raced all over the Pacific Northwest,” says Hollinger, who has the bronzed face of a surfer, with a goatee and honey-brown eyes. Back in his Seattle shop, he’d spend hours preparing for the next race by taking his bike apart and putting it back together with slight modifications. His skills as a motorcycle builder took shape, but he still wasn’t convinced there was a career in it. Doing repairs was easy and it kept food on the table. As far as other people commissioning him to build their bikes, the thought never entered his mind.
At 34 years old, Hollinger gave up on his racing dreams and moved back to Los Angeles, where he met his wife, reality TV director Sharon Trojan Hollinger. He studied acting and worked for a few years as a stage manager. “I was a little rudderless,” he admits. As far as he was concerned, he was done with the motorcycle industry.
Then one day, he saw an ad in the LA Times: Come work for the #1 custom Harley business in LA! He was hired on the spot as a sheet-metal fabricator at a small shop in Culver City, but he was forced to quit over a pay dispute. “I wasn’t gone a day, and my phone started ringing,” he recalls. It was customers with vehicles in the shop demanding to know when he was going to finish their motorcycles. So he did what he’d always done: He rented a 750-square-foot space in an industrial lot in Canoga park and got to work. “More and more people heard about me, and the jobs came.”
One such job proved particularly fortuitous. In 2009, Keanu Reeves commissioned Hollinger to build him a custom bike. “We became friendly,” he says of the high-profile actor. “Our personalities, our sensibilities, our senses of humor are similar.” But it was the bike itself that cemented their bond. For the first time, Hollinger used 3D modeling, and the resulting design was streamlined and sporty, a masterclass in proportions. Even before the bike was finished, Reeves was pushing Hollinger to collaborate fulltime on a motorcycle-production business. “I quickly replied, ‘Maybe I should just finish this one first,’” Hollinger says with a laugh.
Unknowingly, Reeves had planted the seed for what would become Arch Motorcycle. Hollinger knew they had a hit, but he was cautiously optimistic. “Because I’ve been an entrepreneur my whole life, I tend to look at everything as, ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ So when I do it, I’m prepared.”
In the end, Reeves’ optimism won out. The sport cruiser he’d commissioned from Hollinger became the prototype for Arch’s KRGT-1, a 538-pound cruiser equipped with aerospace-grade billet aluminum and a 124-cubic-inch, V-twin engine—though several years of re-tooling were in order. “The only thing we didn’t change was the size of the front tire,” says Hollinger of the transition from prototype to finished product. When the company opened its doors in 2011, the orders poured in.
A big appeal of Arch bikes is their rawness. On the KRGT-1, there is a billet-aluminum machined primary cover over the belt that is manufactured in-house. The dash is minimal, featuring just the speedometer under a fitted aluminum guard. Next to a Harley, the model doesn’t come off as showy or embellished but rather as understated and nimble. The lower handlebars and thinner frame encourage the rider to lean forward—perfect for whipping along the curved roads that weave through the Santa Monica Mountains. Hollinger and his team manufacture more than 200 parts in house, which allows them to finetune each bike to a customer’s demands. Aesthetically and ergonomically speaking, every aspect of the KRGT-1 can be altered, from the position of the foot peg to the stitching on the seat leather.
The brand has attracted a broad range of customers, from those who have designed bikes from scratch to first-time motorcycle owners. Typically, each project starts with a creative meeting, to which clients bring a visual cue of what they’re after. The photo doesn’t even have to be a vehicle, he says. “It could be something in nature, architecture, something cultural, or even a person.” During one such meeting, a customer showed up with cross-section images of meteorites, which prompted Hollinger to create a dark, rippling camouflage pattern. The result is a subtle finish that plays off the base colors of the motorcycle itself and is unlikely to be duplicated on the road. (The customer, unsurprisingly, loved it.) “We’re building a second bike for him now,” Hollinger says.
With characteristic modesty, Hollinger is grateful for the detours that led him to where he is today. “When you’re young, you find something you love,” he says. “If you make the mistake of turning that passion into a business, it ruins the passion.” Instead, he has held true to the love for motorcycles he had as a kid. Along the way, of course, he picked up invaluable experience—the kind of expertise that led one of the world’s most beloved movie stars to go into business with him. “At some point,” Hollinger reflects, “you realize this is what you’re meant to do. You settle into it.”