Tony Pereira is talking with his hands. He’s holding a small bicycle light and describing how he built the vintage racing Yamaha motorcycle at the entryway to his two-car garage/workshop “out of a rusty pile of junk.” It’s misting, typical in Portland, gloomy enough that all you can think about is another cup of coffee. His wife and son are a few blocks away on a kids’ play date, to which they rode (of course).
Pereira is matter-of-fact about the steps involved in breathing life into a crap motorcycle that nobody else would have looked at twice. It’s almost impossible to comprehend the vision and chops it took to turn a rust heap into a glorious, glinting silver machine with green racing stripes, but he describes it the way you might say, “Here’s a plate of pasta. I made it from a box. I boiled the water myself. I put some butter on it and sprinkled in a bit of pre-grated parmesan cheese. You might want to add some salt.” There’s nothing even unconsciously prideful in his voice as he discusses the sort-of 1970s moto-mongrel, nor boastful, either, as he walks you through the complete and incomplete bicycles in his shop. He just ticks off how they came about, what the owner wanted, the steps involved.
As for the light, the one in his hands runs on batteries but on his bikes they run on…a generator. It’s a circa-1900s technology that powers the light through wires that are internally routed on some of the most award-winning custom bikes anywhere. The lights themselves were born — like the motorcycle with bullet-shaped turn signals that inspired their existence — out of obsession.
Pereira simply loved how they looked. “When I come up with an idea like this it’s fully formed in my head, then I go into my shop and figure out how to make it work,” he said. Practical constraints mattered not at all. Otherwise, why take a retro light from a motorcycle and turn it into headlights and tail lights for bicycles when there are scores of great modern, battery-powered lights sold at every bike shop?
The light required Pereira to contact a generator-light company in Germany to beg them to sell him the insides of their lights because otherwise he’d have to buy them at retail, gut them, and reconstruct them inside crudely made housings.
“Luckily after I’d been in business for a little while I took a course offered by Mercy Corps on how to make a case study for a product. Thank god I didn’t take that course before I became a bike builder.”
He laughs about it now and says he’d have never done it this way if he’d taken business class first. It’s too hard, especially when the artist trumps the businessman, a battle Tony wages constantly. It would’ve been a lot easier to stay a wrench at a shop, or to keep his tech job he had back in Salt Lake. Even though his bikes sell complete for around five grand ($2,500 frame only but nobody buys just the frame) and require a year-long waiting list, he’s still just one guy making bikes in his garage.
Pereira will tell you he loves technology. He will tell you fifteen ways in which disc brakes are superior to rim brakes, but then look at his bikes: They’re stupendously aesthetic, and when technology gets in the way of beauty Pereira prefers the latter. For example, he mined 1950s French “technology” to make his own derailleur cages that work on seesaw pivot: You reach down and tilt a lever attached to the seat tube to move the derailleur and change gears. It’s so analog it would make any engineer at Shimano cringe.
And, no, there was no “case study” that argued that into existence. There was, however, the North American Hand-built Bike Show (NAHBS), where Pereira’s inventions are always pushing boundaries and winning awards.
As for the bike light’s business rationale, the thumb-wrestling of artist vs. businessman?
That math didn’t entirely add up, either.
“I wanted to sell them for $135, just a short run I’d kick off at NAHBS.” He ran the numbers and to make even a little back Pereira had to move them for $139. Despite the steep ask, he sold out of his first run in fairly short order. And you can still find them on his website. Pereria says in this instance it’s not about making a living. Not everyone can afford his bikes he well knows, but this is just a cool idea lots of people can afford.
Or, it’s Tony giving in to his obsession and the world, thankfully, rewarding him for it. Because, sure, you can buy a blinkie light from the bike shop. But in a sterile world of commodified outdoor “goods” we need more beautiful, less rational inventions, too. We need guys like Tony Pereira.
For more stories from our Made in America series, go here. For a list of companies that make their gear in the U.S. and Canada, check out this page.
Photos by Michael Frank