The self-exiled badass is a cliché character found in every action genre of filmmaking. Whether it’s Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in The Unforgiven or Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens, somebody’s always disappearing only to have someone or something force them back into the game. “Yosemite” Sam Radoff is a bit like that. Back in the 1960s and ’70s he was one of the coolest custom car and bike builders in the Midwest, if not the country. Eventually, he closed up shop when business slowed down, and now, thanks to Instagram and Facebook, he’s let the world know he ain’t dead yet. Only instead of exiling himself to the Himalayas or some Jedi planet in galactic BFE, he’s gone somewhere a bit closer to home: Canada. Right around the time we started seeing more and more of his cool old photos from way back posted on Instagram, he looked us up to see if we wanted to run a story on him. We jumped at the chance. Here’s what he had to tell us.
HB: How’d you get the name?
YSR: I got that nickname in the mid- or late 1960s after I got out of the Army. A friend of mine called me that when we were riding; he stuck “Yosemite” in front of it. A lot of people at that time were getting nicknames. Mine used to be Little Sam, which stuck with me for years.
HB: Tell us about how you got started in bikes and cars.
YSR: When I was young, I lived in a little neighborhood in Detroit that was a hot bed for custom stuff. The Kaiser Brothers, all the local builders of the day, were in that area except Barris. I started making model cars, which led to pinstriping them. The locals picked up on it, asked me to stripe their cars. Then I went into the Army. After that, I bought a motorcycle. The people I hung out with wanted nice bikes, so I started painting bikes for them and that blew up real quick. Next thing I know, I’m welding frames, making tanks, and doing full choppers. I was in the right place at the right time. Most of the time I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time [laughs].
HB: Tell us about your shop.
YSR: I’d always said that if I ever had a shop, it would be a custom shop. I stayed true to that my whole career, just doing custom stuff. I originally opened up a shop in the basement of an old farmhouse I rented then moved to a friend’s garage then a shop in the toughest part of Detroit at the time. Some of those shots I sent you show my shop building with painted characters on it. There were no checkerboard floors and bullshit like that; checkerboard looks good, but you have to be a multi-millionaire to have it. My shop was one step above a dirt floor. That’s as close as we came to checkerboard, but we created a lot of cool bikes, cars, vans.
We bought up a bunch of tanks and fenders, painted ’em up, and folks would come exchange theirs then we’d repaint that stuff, hang it up, and sell it also. If I had a video camera and filmed the shop, it’d be the coolest show ever on TV. It was a fun time. It just developed.
HB: And the custom shows? What was your involvement there?
YSR: We wanted to make a name nationally, so we started making a few bikes to take and show. I learned over the years to never take a knife to a gunfight. People everywhere are prejudiced and lie; they’ll tell you the local judges aren’t biased, but if you’re from out of the area, it’s harder to win.
So we started building radical bikes. On the West Coast, they were into that narrow, slim look. I was into taking what was on cars and putting it on bikes. Frenched-in lights, molded-in plates. I’d incorporate the car feel into bike feel. We won tons of “best paint” awards all over the country. One of those bikes you have there in the photos won best paint over the cars at a show. We were the first to do that. We won hundreds of awards. People think I’m bullshitting when I say that but it’s true.
HB: Why’d you stop entering bike shows then?
YSR: We decided to stop showing because the worst thing you can do is compete against your clients. They don’t want to think you did your showbike better than you did theirs. I think the young kids are interested in finding out about this kind of history.
It’s nothing like today. There was no school back then. You learned on your own. The old guys guarded their secrets. People would come in wanting something done. If I’d never done it before, I learned on the job. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never looked at any of this as a financial situation. If a guy wanted something painted, I’d get into it and think, “How cool would it be to add this?” and I’d do it at no additional charge. That’s the way it was done. Most of the paint jobs weren’t the best at the show, but they had the look; they had the design. It was a psychology game. Now you see pinstripers doing panels. Back then we knew the bikes would last a little while before they got toasted. We’d paint something similar on a piece of plastic for the customer. That’s how the panel thing got started.
HB: What was your favorite?
YSR: The one bike I won America’s Most Beautiful Chopper award with. The headlight that came out of its gas tank was a challenge. They’d go into the tank when they were not on. There was a lot of cool stuff on that. It was the most challenging thing I can think of.
You can see more about “Yosemite” Sam Radoff at yosemitesams.com, radofforiginals.ca, or on his Instagram and Facebook pages.