Motorcycle maker lets women roar
By M. Daniel Gibbard
She's a real wild one: Bike builder Christine Vaughn peels out on her company's first model, the Shady Lady. The pink-and-white chopper is lower to the ground, with a narrower set of handlebars and seat to better fit a woman. "It's a bike every man would be proud to ride -- except for the pink," she said. -- Michael Tercha/ Knight Ridder/Tribune
HERRIN, Ill. -- Christine Vaughn hits the starter on the low-slung chopper she designed and built, and as the pipes spit unmuffled thunder from a big chrome engine, she changes.
The self-described "good girl" and mother disappears, shoved aside by the outlaw biker chick from Alaska who created Wicked Women Choppers, the company she bills as the first run by women to design and produce bikes for other women.
Hear her roar? No, hear her rumble.
"We want it to be just as mean, just as bad as a guy's bike. We want to make it look like we're going to get off and take the boots to you," said Vaughn, 35, who has long blond hair, a husky smoker's laugh and a quick sense of humor thoroughly devoid of political correctness.
Her company's slogan -- and philosophy of life -- is borrowed from a Harvard professor: "Well-behaved women seldom make history."
The difference in the bikes, barely noticeable, is size. Vaughn, who is 5 feet 6 inches tall, designs her motorcycles with narrower handlebars and a lower frame and seat that create a lower center of gravity and an easier reach.
"A wrong-size bike is not only uncomfortable, it's unsafe," she said.
Vaughn's vision has struck a chord with riders. She and her year-old company have been profiled in newspapers and magazines. A PBS station is recording the process as she and her team create a bike from the frame up, and an independent production company plans a reality show pilot.
Suppliers quickly jumped on board: Tool companies sent new gear to use in her shop, and dozens of dealers have asked about selling her lines, Vaughn says. She has received inquiries from prospective buyers in Japan and India.
This despite that she got her first firm order last week and has not yet begun production.
One reason for all the attention is the rapid growth in women owning and riding motorcycles.
From 1998 to 2003, the estimated number of female owners jumped 36 percent, from 467,000 to 635,000, according to a survey by the Motorcycle Industry Council. Ridership increased similarly, and there are now more than 4 million women operators, the trade group says.
"We got tired of looking at the back of someone's helmet," said Lois Wyatt, a trustee with Women on Wheels, a riders club with more than 100 chapters.
Wicked Women's first model is the Shady Lady. It is lower to the ground than most men's bikes, with narrower handlebars and seat, among other female-friendly features.
The prototype sports a 96 cubic inch -- 1,600 cubic centimeters -- S&S motor, pipes that Vaughn designed and enough chrome to cause blindness.
On the other hand, its heart-shaped flames are painted fingernail-polish pink.
"It's a bike every man would be proud to ride -- except for the pink," Vaughn said.
"Women want to be macho," she said. "We want the loud pipes, the power -- all the stuff that makes you feel you know what testosterone is all about."
With all the trimmings, the bike lists for $34,500, which she says is competitive with a similar Harley. She also plans a downscale version, the Vixen, and a hardtail (no rear suspension) model called the Black Mariah.
Vaughn got her first motorcycle when she was 10, a dirt bike from her father. When she began doing stunts on it, he decided she should channel her efforts into something slightly safer like racing.
In her teens, Vaughn would "borrow" her brother's street bike -- usually dumping it, which is when she realized that the taller, top-heavy cycles were not made for someone her size.
She began to customize Harley-Davidsons to fit, but she couldn't keep them long before someone offered her too much money to refuse. Clearly, there was a market.
But Wicked Women Choppers is not really about commerce, she said. One of Vaughn's main goals is to blast open a traditionally male bastion.
"It's important not only to break open the industry but also to show (other women) they can do this," she said. "There are a lot of very talented women out there."
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