The Bike That Berg Built

As a bike builder, Denny Berg has a lot to answer for—not least being his Cobra Sport Wing, created a full 10 years before Honda pulled the wraps off its new-for-2013 Gold Wing F6B. Similarities between Berg’s one-off custom and Honda’s production bagger are no coincidence. Of course, I may be biased. Denny is a good friend, and I count one of his builds, a hot-rod BSA Gold Star, among the handful of my bikes I’ll take to the grave. I’ve never told him this, but that Beezer, bought as a $100 basketcase when I was in junior college, significantly altered my career path. I’d been dragging around its sorry carcass for years, all the way from Texas to California when first Cycle News then Cycle World offered employment. Money in the bank at last, I hauled several boxes’ worth of BSA to Berg’s Costa Mesa shop, sure he could reassemble the rusty, busted pieces into a pukka Clubmans Goldie.

Er, sorry, no. What I had, he informed me, was a classic Bitza, as in bits of this and bits of that. The 1954 “big fin” 500cc alloy single was the genuine article, albeit blown to smithereens, but everything else—frame, gas tank, seat, muffler, you name it—was from another make or model. Sensing my letdown, Denny offered two options: 1) Track down the proper pieces, an expensive and time-consuming process, or 2) embrace the bike’s unique mongrel nature and rebuild it as a period American-style custom. Berg’s enthusiasm for the second option was unmistakable and infectious. Out came 1960s magazines, old books, and photo albums of previous builds, fueling my further research including interviews with some of SoCal’s original postwar bob-jobbers—this was the mid-1980s and thankfully many were still alive with memories intact, sadly not so much the case anymore.

Any magazine is a refection of the man or woman in the top chair, and in the 1990s my newfound interest in customs found its way onto the pages of Cycle World, from old masters like Arlen Ness to the young guns of the neo-chopper movement, talented builders like Jesse James and Cole Foster. I also initiated the American Flyers series, a semi-regular feature that covered all kinds of customs, backyard specials to factory concept bikes, which quickly became a reader favorite. My current gig as Editor-in-Chief at BikeCraft is a logical extension of American Flyers, an entire magazine dedicated to café racers, street trackers, bobbers and streetfighters— and it all started with a half-breed BSA and Denny Berg.

Now semi-retired in Palm Springs, where he bops around town on a restored Cushman Highlander, potters away at a custom Moto Guzzi, and indulges his passion for black powder firearms, Berg was chief fabricator at aftermarket pipes-n-parts giant Cobra Engineering for almost 20 years, responsible for the company’s yearly showbikes. He built more than 30, some outright fights of fancy, others much more down to earth. You may remember the Indian-lookalike Kawasaki “Super Chief,” a joint project with Daytona 200 winner/historian Don Emde and Rider magazine. Shipped off to Japan for feasibility studies after the article hit, it came back as the production Drifter for 1999.

The Sport Wing took a longer, more obtuse path to production. Built by Berg in 2003, the blacked-out, hunkered-down machine, looking like something from German auto-tuning house AMG, impressed American Honda’s staff enough that they borrowed it for Grand Marshal duty at the annual Honda Hoot rally in Tennessee. Following that star turn, it circled the country on the consumer-show circuit, featured prominently in the Honda booth, where show-goers were asked their opinion of the hot-rodded GL.

Surprisingly, no mention was made of Cobra’s Sport Wing in the new F6B’s press kit. It’s clear, though, that someone at Honda was taking very good notes 10 years ago.

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