By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Rucker moves his girth from the showroom floor to his shop, pivoting on his cane. As he walks, he explains that the top muscle in his left thigh is weak. He's trying to build it up by midsummer so that he can mount one of his bikes and shift gears with his prosthetic leg.
His shop is immaculate. It's as hot as a blast furnace, and a huge fan whirs near the center of the shop, cycling air around his crew, who pound, weld and shape his exotic cycles into their peevish stances. "It's really easy to build one," Rucker says. "It's a real bitch to build two that are just alike. You just can't always get every part the same."
To effectively ramp up production, Rucker must create an assembly process that will allow his exotic designs to be manufactured consistently. For this task, Rucker pulled in Jason Delago some 18 months ago from Wausau, Wisconsin, where he worked as a welder, automotive mechanic and custom bike builder. As shop manager and head bike builder, it's Delago's task to analyze and refine the Rucker manufacturing process to get the "bitch" out of it.
Example: Delago orders raw, disassembled engines from S&S Cycle, a Viola, Wisconsin, manufacturer of motorcycle components. He builds the Rucker engines from scratch, polishing every single part to give the motor a chrome look. But the heat from polishing stretches the metal. So he has to bore the block and refit parts before adding customized fuel injection, ignition and exhaust systems. "That's part of the thing with them," Delago says. "They take a little time to build because they are so intricate and so detailed."
But it's this attention to detail that attracted construction and real estate consultant Ron Cogburn to the Rucker fold. As president of Meridian Consulting Group, Cogburn wanted to offer a radically rakish street sled as a hole-in-one prize at an industry golf tournament in Pinehurst, South Carolina, last year. After putting his head together with Rucker, he came up with the Meridian Marvel: a bright red muscle bike with gas tank designed to look like a Cobra's head. "It's cooler-sounding than a Harley," Cogburn says. "It'll absolutely run away with you." No one shot a hole in one, so now the $70,000 bike sits in Cogburn's garage. He rides the thing once a week.
"It is probably, ergonomically, the most comfortable bike I have ever ridden," he says. "It's kind of like sitting in a La-Z-Boy chair."
Former pro wrestler and film producer Todd Miller had metal profiles of Vargas pin-up girls welded into his bike frame. "Real clean, tasteful pin-up girls," he insists. "I don't have any problems going to church and riding with my friends up at the church."
The frame sits in Rucker's shop, fresh from a spritz of bright blue paint. Miller will call his machine The Blue Hawaiian, named after his wrestling alias. But Miller--who now runs a leisure clothing line designed for those who split their personalities between golfer and biker--added a few other custom touches. "I wanted to blow flames out of the pipes at the touch of a button," he says. So he had Rucker rig the exhaust pipes with an ignition system and flushes them with stuff called Got Flames. Miller will also install a couple of bottles of nitrous oxide for cheek-stretching engine boost.
"The Blue Hawaiian is an extension of my personality and me," Miller says. "I really believe in something that speaks to me individually. That's why I don't ride Harleys."
Resting in one stall along the hot rod side of Rucker's shop is his prize: a 1968 harvest gold Plymouth GTX with Chrysler's famous "hemi" engine, which generates some 425 horsepower. The upholstery is frayed, and the paint is dull and cloudy. Rucker says he picked up the muscle car for $22,000 seven years ago in Missouri. "What's amazing is that it's tripled in value in seven years, and I haven't even touched it," he says. Other stalls hold a 1973 Camaro Z28 and a 1953 Mercury that Rucker is modifying for a client into a chopped-roof hot rod. A 1965 Corvette Stingray is being prepped for painting.
Behind the shop is a small patch of tall brown grass. Here Rucker's cadavers rest peacefully as they await reanimation: A 1956 Chrysler New Yorker, a few Plymouth Satellites, a Dodge Challenger and a 1953 Cadillac ambulance from White Settlement, Texas, round out the decaying herd.
Even more than a passion for bygone American iron, this graveyard testifies to another Rucker trait: methodical resourcefulness. A heap of rusting and disassembled industrial shelving scavenged from various businesses sits in one corner of the yard. As his business grows, Rucker plans to sandblast, paint and erect the shelving for pennies on the dollar. In another corner sits a pile of busted lighted signs he scavenged and plans to have retrofitted with his Rucker Performance moniker. An old padlocked ocean shipping container and a discarded Kroger meat trailer serve as parts storage sheds.