Ken’s Factory GangStar Shovelhead

Written by  Story By Fidel Sassoon Photos By Jack “North Carolina Gangster” Cofano Wednesday, 07 February 2018 12:00
Published in Bobbers
   Back just before the turn of the century, my boss, Barnett Harley-Davidson’s GM Mark Barnett turned me on to Japanese customs. I hate to admit it, but I had no idea of anything pertaining to a custom Harley scene in Japan of all places. I shouldn’t have been too surprised as European motorcycle customizers were turning out builds that were the equal of anything American builders were capable of, but with their own unique twist. Same goes for the Japanese builders after I spent some time cruising through Mark’s vast library of foreign magazines. I may not have had the slightest idea what they were writing about, but there were photos of cool bikes that defied all the current trends. Since my awakening, Japanese builders have become a huge part of the custom motorcycle scene and have become their own trendy style without losing their excruciating devotion to detail and appreciation of all things mechanical.


   All I have to do to justify my appreciation for custom Harley builders from the other side of the Pacific is to point out our stunner of a Shovelhead feature bike called GangStar from Ken Nagai of Ken’s Factory located in Nagoya City in Japan’s Aichi prefecture and also at Ken’s new American facility in Signal Hill, California. Is that thing a pip or what? Strange as it may seem, foreign builders often make me feel like they’re hipper at being American than I could ever be. On the “hipness” level, I may have to just plead nolo contendere on that one and move on before I’m exposed as being completely hipless about anything that happened after 1985 or so.


   Yeah, there’s a lot about the bike that’s familiar custom chopper treatment and that’s definitely on purpose, American-inspired purpose, but there’s a whole ‘nother lot of stuff that shows Ken’s attention to detail that takes this custom build to another level of its own. From the one-off rigid frame with its beautiful fluted lug work at the steering head and axle plates to the blingfest of its coil-over girder fork, GangStar exudes intricate detail work in every single nook and cranny. Look closer and even the nooks and crannies have details. Comparing my own York-made V-twin to GangStar only shows the OEM nooks and crannies need cleaning ─ badly.


   One of the interesting points I’ve learned about Japanese builders back when is that they didn’t try and hide things like the smooth TV customs coming out of America at the time that didn’t show much more than sleek bodywork, radical frame dimensions that aren’t the most fun on the street, and almost a lack of mechanical worthiness. Japanese builder’s like Ken Nagai don’t try and hide a thing, but embrace the hard metal mechanicalness that makes motorcycles so damn attractive in the first place. When this bike was first shown at Michael Lichter’s Naked Truth exhibition in Sturgis, it didn’t wear a lick of paint. Ken seemed to really take the Naked Truth part to heart and put it on display in all its beautifully finished raw glory. Finding a flaw, if you could and you wouldn’t, has never been easier or more enjoyable. Like a good motorcycle ride, the journey of looking is as much or more fun than reaching the destination.


   Take a gander at the generator-style 88-inch Shovelhead and you’ll see exactly what I mean. From the blindingly-polished cases to the reshaped barrels to the split rocker heads capped by Ken’s new Vintech rocker covers and all the hard oil lines running in parallel to the finning on the engine covers, there’s a lot going on. Throw in Ken’s new Vintech air cleaner and a set of squirrely pipes that go where Ken’s imagination has taken them along with a steady diet of bling on each and every piece and you have a classic Japanese interpretation of what a custom American V-twin engine can be. Toss in that unbelievable jewel of a hand shifter and even the most easily frightened would give hand shifting a try just to work that mechanism and feel the gears engaging. It’s all complicatedly delicious like looking into the goings on inside an expensive mechanical watch. If you have any appreciation of things mechanical, you’ll love this Shovel from the word go. And, I’m sure it goes as Japanese custom motorcycles are expected to perform on the street as well as look good at a show.


  Rolling stock consists of Ken’s GangStar five-spoke mags in a 21-inch front running brakeless to the 18-inch rear that sports a dual caliper disc setup that’s hidden in plain sight as sort of a drum brake lookalike. Just getting all that brake stuff neatly entombed in a faux drum is a work of art. Even the way the brake lines enter the picture is controlled and sexy as hell at the same time. Strong, dominate style lines that enhance the drama of getting brake fluid to the calipers. Go ahead, take a good look at Jack Cofano’s shot of the rear brake in the photo gallery and revel in its integration.


   Ken incorporated some of his proprietary parts that are available at his online store and that’s no quick cop out in any way. For example, just take a look at his Neo Fusion headlight assembly or the mindboggling gorgeous Neo Fusion handlebar clamp and riser setup or even the Neo Fusion gas cap and tell me that they look like catalog parts you got at a local chop shop or Harley dealer. They’re unique and beautiful even if they have a part number and are listed in Ken’s online store. No, they’re not Old School or anything else other than Ken’s idea of what extreme machining and artful design can produce and what he likes. He’s got me convinced anyway and I’m totally onboard with his design aesthetic.


    When it came time for bodywork, once more Ken went his own way in design and materials. The fuel tank, oil tank and fenders are all made out of aluminum with a familiar profile, but sculpting that leaves no surface alone. The fuel tank has many raised points of interest along with subtle metal sculpting that puts it in a class of one. Same goes for the crazy-curve oil tank sitting asymmetrically aft of the tranny that has slotted coves just like the rear fender and fuel tank. Everything’s tied together in their own separate way adding to the cohesiveness of the design through individual detailing. 


   As I preciously mentioned, this bike was initially exhibited in the raw and it looked stunning as is, but Ken took the build to a different end with good cause. While the bike was in America, he enlisted the über-talented and wildly popular for good reason painter, Michael “Buck” Ramirez of Buckwild Designs in Covina, California, to come up with a paintjob for GangStar. Not an easy thing to do as the bike looked so damn bitching raw, but once more to the breech for Buck and he came out with the unbelievable paint scheme the bike now wears. Houses of Kolor metalflake and candy paints along with just the right amount of gold leaf knocked this one out of the park. The paint scheme has a life of its own outside of the build, but it nicely showcases the lines and the metal work to a different degree than raw ever can. Actually, I loved both versions and wish they could both exist in the same timeframe, but that’s getting too Albert Einstein for me.


   So once again, I’ve got to give big kudos to my boss for making sure I knew that Harleys were loved, respected and revered by competent builders from every continent on good old Earth. Great bikes come from great minds and skilled hands in just about every country I’ve ever heard of and some I haven’t. It’s amazingly unbelievable how something as crazy as a Harley-Davidson motorcycle has fans in every nook and cranny on Earth.


  For more info on Ken’s Factory, click on or visit their Facebook page. 

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