Article By: Chris Callen
Photos Courtesy: Cycle Fab
Originally Published In The March 2017 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
In an effort to get over the winter doldrums, the mid-build blues or the foretelling of the slow business of the motorcycle industry this time of year drags with it, I decided to take a look back in an effort to move forward. I spent much of the holiday break visiting several shops of people whom I have always been inspired by. To start that off, one of the O.G.s of our culture’s rich and storied history, Mr. Flames himself: Dave Perewitz. Since the Donnie Smith show is right around the corner and we are all heading up that way, I thought that a nice look into the history that some of you young bucks might not know about some of the big names in this industry would be in order. What ended up coming out of the interview was that even I, your lowly paper pushing editor, learned quite a bit about these men and the early days of the custom scene.
CS: So, we’re watching the third generation in my time in motorcycling come through the scene and I really wanted to get together with you to talk about the beginnings of the Donnie L Smith Show and how you and Donnie met.
DP: It was at a show named “It’s called Detroit” in fact I have a poster at my house, a big original poster from that show. You member Yosemite Sam, don’t you? Sam was big then, he was like one of the top guys in the industry back in the early to mid- 70s and he did really wild paint work and fabrication, wild stuff you know, a lot of molding and Sam kind of put the show on. Finch was very much involved and Arlen, he was involved and yeah, they had a backer, a guy that backed it all, put the money up… it was a first-class deal. So me and my buddy went with my girlfriend (who later became my wife and later my ex-wife), we drove out there in old van I had. We went through a blizzard to get there and I mean it was an unbelievable trip, it got to be so bad that you couldn’t do anything but keep going. The exits off of the highway were closed, all the hotels were full, I remember we stopped at a rest stop and we went in and there must’ve been 25 people asleep on the floor of the men’s room that’s how packed it was, it was crazy. Anyways we got there and it was a huge, huge show. Now this was 1975, I already had the shop then and I was 25 years old. At that point, well the last job I had was 1970 and that’s when I built my first shop. It was a little bigger than a one car garage behind my father’s house. Yeah yeah me and my father and my next-door neighbor put up the building and I had a little fab and assembly area and one half of it was a spray booth and that’s where we did it all.
CS: So in 1975 at 25 years old you were the young guy of the day. DP: I was definitely, I was always the young guy. Time goes by so fast… you know? I was running with Arlen and Donnie, the whole crew and they were all 10 years older than me. CS: What was the reception for you like? You know, since you were not only the young guy but you were from the East Coast with these bikes.
DP: I can tell you this, I really do owe a lot to Arlen Ness. Me and Arlen became very good friends, really quick. I traveled out to the West Coast quite a bit, he traveled out here, went to Laconia with us you know… Him and his wife came out, spent Christmas and New Year’s with us one year. It all started after we met at the Detroit show. I invited Arlen out for Laconia so he shipped his bike out here and we went to Laconia, we had a great time. When Laconia was over he said “hey listen, why don’t we take a ride to Detroit? I know all these guys from Detroit that put on the show and let’s go out there and ride bikes for a while.” I said OK so I put my bike and his bike in my old van and we drove to Detroit. We stayed at Yosemite Sam’s house. He had a big huge house and we rode bikes for a week. I got to meet all these guys and one thing I remember he (Arlen) told me he said “You know when you meet these people on your own level it makes a huge difference…” you know because I was with Arlen, they accepted me a lot easier than if I just went in cold. I always thought that made a big difference. Arlen always helped me out, got me started on my first store and you know it was a pretty neat deal.
CS: That was one of my next questions, Arlen was actually kind of your mentor at the time then?
DP: Arlen was definitely my mentor. We became really good friends. When I told him I wanted to open up a store, he said OK. I was like the East Coast Lowrider digger guy you know? That was the hottest thing going on the West Coast and I kind of brought it so to speak to the East Coast and so Arlen fronted me a whole bunch of stuff to get my store going and it was really cool deal you know I mean I had all the cool stuff that nobody else had out here on the east coast.
CS: I think it’s the one of my favorite parts of the motorcycle industry, because it’s still that way, where you talk about someone bringing you in, meeting people on a personal level, away from the show and the business. It’s still like that you know, you get a lot further just being a guy in the scene.
DP: Absolutely, I mean people ask me “aren’t you taking a booth?” I don’t take a booth anymore, you know I used to years ago but I can accomplish more and meet more people just being out on the street. You can do it on a lot more of a personal level.
CS: What was the motorcycle you had in the van for the Detroit show?
DP: It was a ‘65 sportster in a rigid frame that I modified. It was a really cool bike, it had a 15-inch American mag on the back. It had a disc brake on the back and a Honda front end with dual discs on the front, a 77-inch motor, I mean it was a really cool bike. You know, I won best paint at Detroit that year.
CS: Did you really?
DP: Yeah yeah, in fact it was a show in 1974, in Boston, the big Boston show. They had never really had a show in Boston and this promoter came in from Arizona and I mean he really hyped it up. It was in all the newspapers and everything. The Best Bike was going to win a brand-new Harley so everybody was psyched, the whole motorcycle c o m m u n i t y was pretty psyched about it. I remember I worked on my bike for like two weeks straight just detailing everything. We put it in the show and it was huge! I mean, there was lines out the door waiting to get in. Friday night was a big night, Saturday started like gangbusters but by Saturday night word got around that the promoter was giving best bike a gold watch and not a new Harley. So Saturday night at like 7 o’clock we all got together put blankets over our bikes in the show and within an hour, probably less than an hour, the promoter came up and said “OK, ok, I’ll give away the new Sportster. So I won the show… yeah I won a brandnew 1974 sportster so that was pretty cool and my best buddy won the gold watch.
CS: So that first Detroit show was the same time you met Donnie, tell me about Donnie then.
DP: Well, my wife used to do leather, she made belts and vests and all that stuff. So we brought a bunch of stuff to the Detroit show just to sell in our booth, we didn’t really have a booth per se but you know, a table. She had this Harley buckle, you probably seen it, it’s a number one with wings, it’s all made out of brass and it’s like brass rod all welded together, it was really cool, a guy named the “Mad Torchman” made them. Anyway, Donnie Smith came over and he was looking at the leather and the belts and the buckles and everything, he ended up buying that buckle and he still has it to this day. We talked a little bit and you know shook hands and all. You know, Smith Bros & Fetrow, they were big ya’ know. That was kind of the extent of it and then when we all met again, let’s see that show was in February and then Arlen came to Laconia in June. We all went to the Oakland Roadster show in January. A whole bunch of us flew out to Arlen’s house, me, Donny and Berry Coonie and a guy named Francis Diaz from Hawaii and Arlen had his whole crew… all the guys that he hung with. We did that for many years. That was when I was first introduced to drinking tequila, I never drank tequila before…
CS: So those were the wild times?
DP: Oh yeah!
CS: So how long was it until you got married, started a family began trying to figure out the dynamics of the motorcycle business and family life?
DP: I was with my wife for 39 years. We went together for 9 years before we got married and you know she was cool with everything. I’ve never worked a 40-hour week in my life. To make it in this industry there’s no secret, it’s just a lot of hard work and you got to live the life you know… it’s all about living the life. You’ve gotta love motorcycles 24/7pretty much.
CS: That question comes up constantly, everybody’s looking for that secret, especially with social media and stuff today. What’s the quick route? What’s the secret? But there really is nothing that replaces the hard work is there?
DP: Yeah there’s no secrets here, really you know, there is no easy way.
CS: So, during the time that you’re coming up in the motorcycle industry, what was it it like trying to keep this all together and still have a family? I mean there are a lot of single guys out there living it but I’ve started to learn over the last few years that having a family adds a whole new dynamic.
DP: Oh yeah, well I got married in 1978, in 1979 I bought my house and in 1980 I built the shop at my house you know it was a pretty big building. I worked at the house, you know from when the kids were born, I worked there for 25 years. I’d be out there till 11pm every night and when the events came it was around the clock stuff you know? It was hard, but my wife was pretty understanding when it came to me doing what I had to do. You know Bob Clark has been a really good friend all these years and he always told me “you know people forget your real quick” you know if you’re not in magazines and now social media, you know? I mean just think of the guys that were on top and when you didn’t see them for two years half the guys out there didn’t even know who they were anymore. Rick Doss is a perfect example. You know he was on the top of the heap for so many years but then he just kind of fell off. Now, you’d be hard pressed to find somebody who knew who the hell he was.
CS: That’s a big thing today, the young guys miss some of that history.
DP: I mean the industry has its ups and downs, probably 3 or four times since your original shop in the seventies. Now the industry is facing harder times again and people are looking for solutions and direction but it seems that’s been the same all along: seven days a week, put the work in and be ready to live it. DP: Yeah, you know the thing is, there’s a lot of really talented young guys out there but, what I see is, a percentage of them are building really cool stuff but it’s one thing, one style, baggers in particular. There are some guys out there that are building some bad ass baggers but that’s all they build you know. I’ve found, regardless of what you love to build, I mean everyone has a style they love to build, but you gotta do it all. You gotta be versed in doing what people want, what’s in style, a little bit of everything you know and I love doing that. One thing I always love doing was building a bike that people didn’t think I built, you know outside the box, which is really cool, I love doing that.
CS: That was the cool thing about walking through your shop the other day. There was a ‘55 Panhead that you’re working on, a Shovelhead in another part, Jody’s race bike in progress, all kinds of bikes and styles.
DP: I still get very excited about the bikes I’m building. That Shovelhead is one that I’m really excited about building. You know, I’m excited about building that 55 pan that’s gonna look like it came out of a Dave Mann poster just to do that old nostalgic stuff, you know and I’m thinking about doing some hidden valve stems in it!
CS: Today, when we want to learn something, the internet is so easy for us to just watch a video and grab the knowledge. Where did you guys pick this stuff up?
DP: You know I had some mechanical ability, I knew how to weld and I basically just cut a couple panels out of a big plate and shaped them, cut the neck off and eye balled the whole thing, clamped it together and arc welded it all up. Same with the hardtail, just weld it up, frisco the tank you know…
CS: No Shit?
DP: One of my first metal flake paint jobs was a ‘64 Sportster, silver metal flake with gold and ribbons, it was one of the coolest bikes around. I rode it a lot, no front brakes, shitty drum rear and we used to ride every weekend. And we’d Fu*#ing hammer, never thought so much about how bad it stopped or anything. I sold that bike and got all the money, you know I was rich I got like 2,200 dollars for it and that was unheard of. Yeah a paint job back then was like 75 dollars. Yeah, I still have my paint books from the early seventies. A tank and two fenders with one color candy – 35 bucks. A Sportster job, rake the frame, mold the frame, paint the frame the tank and two fenders – 175. Still to this day, out behind my house I have an old rack that I probably have a half a dozen old Sportster necks on from doing front sections, we were front sectioning frames like crazy.
CS: Ok, so that was early on but today the look and the Perewitz flames are internationally known. When did you become known for your paint work?
DP: Well in the eighties another guy that was a key person was Bob Clark, editor of Street Chopper. We traveled together and he came and stayed with me for weeks at a time. He became part of the family, Jody calls him Uncle Bob. All the magazine stuff he did made a big difference. Early eighties to mid-nineties, we were doing three to five paint jobs a week, just tanks and fenders. I mean every f#@king Friday night I’d be in the shop till three or four in the morning finishing paint jobs that had to be out by Saturday. Then, I started doing paint for guys from outta state that were friends of mine like Hotop, Donnie Smith, different guys. I was giving it away back then too. I didn’t have any clue how much time I had in it, I’d just pick a number and that was it. Then after talking to some other painters who would ask how I could do those for so cheap, I started to look at the time and the material. One thing about painters, and this was me too, they don’t have a clue how much they have in materials. It took me a long time to really figure out what I have into a paintjob.
CS: Did you have a painter that was a mentor to you that helped you learn as the years went on?
DP: Yeah, I had a guy that I hung with for many years, his name was John Hartnett. John was the guy who went to Detroit with me on that first trip. We hung out all through the seventies, he was a really good painter and he taught me a lot. A lot of the other stuff I just learned on my own, I didn’t really have too many people help me over the years, John Kosmosky did of course. In the early days of the Donnie Smith Show I’d go out early and spend a couple days painting with John. He’d give me some tips and see how I was doing. Jeff McCann, Arlen Ness’s painter gave me a lot of really good tips in the early days. A lot of it has just been trial and error.
CS: So how about the early days of the Donnie Smith Show, what was that like?
DP: Well you know Neil Ryan, good friend of Donnie’s and mine. Neil got that show from John Parham of J&P Cycles way back. He got together with Donnie and made a deal to call it by Donnie’s name. We’ve all been close friends forever and when they got it started I told them to count me in. We’d send a truck load of bikes and I knew so many people in that area it was always like being at home. Neil and Donnie have done such a great job with that show, Neil really has his shit together with that. He added the car area and is now adding the tattoo part but the swap meet area has always been huge. It’s become a very prestigious show, anybody that has anything from the mid-west, you gotta be at the Donnie Smith show with it you know. People love the fact that they can say they won their class at that show, of course you got all the Kennedy High School class kids. Kevin has done an amazing job getting that started and getting those kids in there.
The afternoon went on and I had one of the best days I’ve had in quite some time talking about the life and times of a person who has been through generations of the custom scene, been all the way to the top and still approaches every day the same as he always has. Doin the work that has made the look synonymous with the Perewitz name. Of course, there was nearly an hour more of this interview where we talked about the next generation, his Daughter Jody, who has become an outstanding ambassador of motorcycling. She is currently the fastest woman on an American Motorcycle on this planet, holds several land speed records. You can tell that this is part of the fuel that keeps Dave in the game today. I’m proud to know both of these characters and you can get to know them too at the Donnie Smith Show this year or any of the Perewitz Paint shows they hold across the country. The rest of the interview will be available in video format through the Cycle Source social media feed, so go look it up.