The Surfer’s Journal is proudly reader-supported since 1992. We rely on membership rather than advertising to remain commercially quiet. Become a member below and gain access to every article ever published along with many other TSJ member-only benefits.
The eye of a surfer, the mind of an engineer, and the hands of an artist converge in Max Hazan’s motorcycles, singular machines custom-built for speed, intricacy, and beauty.
Words by Michael Gross | Photos by Wyatt Seaverns
Light / Dark
Only a few ticks into our rumble eastward along LA’s Imperial Highway, Max Hazan cuts loose with a choice bit of intel regarding the approaching on-ramp he takes for his daily commute. “You can make it downtown in nine minutes, not really obeying speed signs,” he states before flashing a hint of a grin. “I try to be considerate with the turn signals.”
Our mode of transport on this sunny spring day is his pearl-white vintage truck, and not, as I’d hoped, one of his strikingly distinct custom motorcycles. No, my request was deftly sidestepped by Hazan, 40, perhaps because of the unwanted headache of humoring a first-time rider, but more so because cruising at the speed of routine LA gridlock would’ve felt like a waste of time. And time is the one thing Hazan works methodically and fiercely each day to protect, as the sole creator and proprietor of Hazan Motorworks. Oh, and to find a window each morning for first tracks at one of the South Bay’s monolithic beachies.
One could understand, then, that Hazan likes to move quickly, and always with intent. Or, as Shaik Ridzwan—a longtime co-conspirator of Hazan’s and the founder of The Mighty Motor, a creative firm focused on motorcycles and other fast machines—sees it, “Max moves at his own speed. You have to jump on and go or you can’t get him.”
Hazan has a thing for going fast as hell. To be fair, for any Angeleno the thought of getting across town in nine minutes seems like some sort of heavy-metal pipe dream. At an eye-rattling 130 mph, however, speed becomes something else for Hazan: a way to focus his senses and clear the mind. “Going fast and surfing are the two things that bring me back to present,” he says. “Some people go for a walk for mental peace, but I still have too much noise. When you go fast on
a bike and scare yourself, all that shuts off.”
Finding momentary respite—or, say, nine minutes’ worth—sounds like a good idea when your brain otherwise works like a Christopher Nolan film: a dizzying zigzag through a constellation of nonlinear choices at all hours of the day. Talk about riding the lightning…and yet Hazan is always in control as the de facto master of ceremonies.
His passion-turned-business is building motorcycles worthy of his time and vision. The objective is to keep challenging himself—to do something (wildly) different each time. Each bike is unique—one of one. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that his clients will pay top dollar, with a “do you” Hazan-style brief. “It’s just like any kind of artist, where if they’re going to be paying the big bucks, they want your hands naked,” he says. Most of the time, his clients see their special prize only when it rolls off the truck six to eight months after ordering.
What’s the rub, then? Well, there’s only so much daylight. A delicate dance of family, career, mental health, surf days—tale as old as time. For Hazan, the work doesn’t get done unless he’s doing it, and the work requires all the spark he can muster in order to maintain his sterling reputation as one of the globe’s premium, yet out-there, moto gurus. No wonder the dude doesn’t like to waste a second.
Hazan is entirely self-taught and DIY in the art of the motorcycle. And it’s his ability to flex widely in all aspects—vision, design chops, aesthetics, engineering—that serves as a mark of distinction in his field. This is also the calling card that keeps customers signing on the dotted line. There might be only a handful of competitors on a similar level in terms of busting out kidney-punching two-wheeled unicorns, but what you won’t see elsewhere is a master craftsman with Hazan’s range.
“Some people go really far in one direction,” Hazan observes. “Their bikes will have this crazy styling, but they won’t know about engines. Then there are people who can engineer, but the bike looks like shit. Usually when people are really engineering-minded, the art side sucks.”
Hazan is quick to balance this braggadocio with a dose of salt: “Luckily, my wife doesn’t inflate my ego at all. She’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s pretty good. Good job.’ She’s really quick to check me.” [Laughs.]
Hazan credits his development to having learned from his share of mistakes and, crucially, being unafraid to screw around, pushing past what his peers would have called a do-not-go in terms of materials and corresponding functionality. “I had no one to teach me, so I always just dove in and figured it out along the way,” Hazan says. “I would ask people if they ever tried something and they were like, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I would say back, ‘I’ve tried it and it works.’ I’m not scared to try any idea.”
Hazan references surfboard shaping as a corollary, noting the ultimate signifier for whether a new board can be deemed a success: “Pop it in the water and see what happens.”
As often as he can, Hazan likes to begin the day with a surf, out the door at 5:30 a.m. No surprise, it makes him a happier person. “You start to see how precious time is and how incredibly time-consuming making all this stuff can be,” he says. “And [though] there is something in that which yields an amazing finished product, there are only so many hours in a day.”
Ridzwan, who has officially been photo-documenting Hazan’s bikes since before Hazan moved out to LA from New York, has noticed a steep increase in the complexity of each motorcycle. “I think it’s because of his personality,” he says. “Honestly, Max could be a rocking-chair builder and he would probably be the best rocking-chair builder. His work ethic is insane. He’s on some kind of crazy spectrum with the way he thinks and problem-solves. Like The Matrix, he sees between the lines.”
Some of Hazan’s offerings are built for a long jaunt up and down Pacific Coast Highway on a single tank of gas. Others sacrifice comfort and practicality in order to haul out like a drug kingpin in Miami Vice. “Your ass will go numb in 30 minutes on some of them,” he says matter-of-factly. Hazan attributes his blank-slate process at the start of every project to a surfing mindset: “You can’t practice the exact thing you’re going to do. Every wave is different. You have to develop your skill set and then let it happen.”
The starting point for Hazan is usually deciding upon an engine. “It’s amazing what you can find on Craigslist,” he notes. That, or he’ll turn to a small, trusted network of fellow moto nutters on Instagram to source something ridiculously rare, vintage, or insane—ideally all three. Once he’s got an engine, he can begin. “There are a million and one things that I still need to come up with,” he caveats, “but having that one decision off my plate is the biggest weight off my shoulders.”
Hazan will then put his self-taught welding skills to effective use and machine nearly all the materials himself, by hand, from scratch. This includes everything from air pumps to transmissions, carburetors, handlebars, odometers, etcetera. He’s hoping to prototype his own tires, too. “Nobody will make their own carburetors,” says his father, Ira, who also shares a long-standing passion for motorcycles and DIY projects. “He does. Only because he loves the challenge.”
Much like your friendly neighborhood surfboard shaper, Hazan will deploy the eye test in determining when his handcrafted parts are fully baked. “There’s no right or wrong way to make a fender,” he claims. “If it looks like it will work, chances are it will.”
Hazan credits his upbringing in marine construction as a key inspiration. Amateur attempts in various watercraft design, paired with the necessary skin-in-the-game surfing, kite sailing, and windsurfing, led to more-
serious endeavors, like a stint during college constructing race boats for the America’s Cup. The knowledge gained has allowed Hazan to bring varied ideas, materials, and skill sets to his work.
Take the carbon-fiber muffler: Hazan will incorporate fiberglass cloth to play with how the muffler will absorb sound, like a furniture blanket in a recording studio. He’ll use low-density neoprene foam, sourced three blocks away from his studio, as a tool to block out the bike’s proportions early in the R&D stage, helping him visualize the end result with ample room to walk something back should the perfectionist in him find it lacking.
He’ll purchase six to eight sheets of foam for each new bike, then use a glue gun with a special spray adhesive to loosely bind the sheets together. “If you [were to] use epoxy, you would have a hard layer. It messes up your shape,” he argues.
Pointing to a bike he was midstream on, Hazan says, “I shaped this whole thing out of foam until it was just right. Then I glassed it and hollowed it out. Simple.” Another collaborator of Hazan’s, director/editor Wyatt Seaverns—who has shot a film on Hazan and hooked him up with an ambassador role for the performance-racing brand Alpinestars—elaborated upon the method of shaping first with foam: “It lets the magic reveal itself slowly. He can then step away and pace around the [studio] while casting gazes from different angles. Trusting the form in front of him, he will instinctively know when to stop.”
Nearing completion, Hazan will reserve time in the production schedule to road-test the bikes. “Basically, you have to try and do everything possible that another person could do—try and hurt the bikes and find a weak link,” he says. “If it’s going to be a really fast bike, then I have to test it. I once built a bike that set a land-speed record, and it was a bitch to test because the company I partnered with for all the technical stuff went out of business, so I was stuck. I had to create all of the software and then go test it by LAX. I got pulled over all the time. The cops were just laughing at me.”
Hazan comes from a family of dual-part entrepreneurs and skilled handworkers. He credits his grandmother, a seamstress, for having “incredible hands.” The family business back in New York was garment manufacturing, with Ira also running his own successful clothing label for many years. Unsurprisingly, the ocean has been a throughline for the Hazan clan as well: “Max was conceived at sea,” Ira shares with a wink in his voice. A boating fanatic, Hazan’s dad has lived on the water intermittently throughout the years, looking for any opportunity to jet down to Key West for assorted fishing expeditions and other salty layabouts.
Ira remembers putting a cordless Bosch drill in Hazan’s crib, often waking in the middle of the night to the sound of the tool playfully purring in his young son’s hands. Later, after receiving a Lego set as a gift, Hazan would “heat them in the oven and then twist them into obscure shapes,” marvels his father. The support from Ira was always there and always appreciated, says Hazan: “If I needed to learn how to do something with tools, he was there. That built the foundation of making stuff, and I just ran with it.”
Growing up on the North Shore of Long Island, Hazan caught the surf bug as a teenager. His first board was a beat-up 6’0″ potato chip. “It took awhile to realize that foam is your friend,” he jokes. “The first time I ever rode a wave, it felt incredible…all that effort, and then finally it happens. I love riding [bikes], but there’s no way anything compares to getting a good wave.”
For much of school, Hazan remembers being “totally spaced out,” filling his notebooks with drawings of numerous crafts he would then try to create in his father’s wood shop, including boats, cars, and other, crazier “land-sailing stuff.” Says Ira, “He was building hydroplanes out of Styrofoam. His choice of materials always amazed me.” At one point, the technology teacher at Hazan’s middle school wrote Ira a letter. “Your son is unusual,” it reported. Ira recalls how his son once built an ultralight, anatomically perfect seaplane, without plans: “He just started cutting and making it. A neighbor who had his own seaplane came over and marveled at the proportions.”
Hazan was 16 when Ira came home one day with a new toy: a welder. “That was the missing link,” says Hazan. “If I could weld metal, then I could make anything, so I just sat there and taught myself how to weld steel and aluminum. This was before YouTube, so it was trial and error.” Still, there were plenty of harebrained experiments that went sideways. “Once,” he remembers, “I designed this wing to go on a boat trailer and sailed it down the street. The sail hit a tree and ripped off—just dumbass stuff like that.”
Hazan’s homespun talents dovetailed perfectly with his growing fascination with the motorcycle as a preferred medium—the relative economy of its components, the beautiful chrome finishes, the benefits of nimble movement, and, of course, the speedometer pow. “It was a long time developing—a combination of surfing, learning to use foam, fiberglass, and learning about boats. It all kind of melded together when I [first] made a motorcycle,” he says.
Hazan’s surfing obsession also would ramp up post-college, after moving back to Long Island and shacking up with a few buddies just off the beach. During wintertime, he would psych himself into charging by suiting up in the living room, go surf until he was numb, then come back and change in the shower. Hazan likens the neurological effect of those formative surf sessions to a similar one generated by going ultra-fast on a bike. “You’re experiencing all this adrenaline and fear, but learning how to still think clearly and be calm,” he says.
Following a motorcycle accident at age 29 that left him severely injured, Hazan laid up for weeks at Ira’s, hobbling out to the wood shop to mess around with the welder. A spark came when Hazan put a motor on his Schwinn beach cruiser, enabling it to go 60 mph, which he would ride all over town. “I was just having fun,” he admits. “It was something to do other than go to brunch, eat food, have drinks, and spend money.”
Ridzwan remembers his first time meeting Hazan, circa 2009 in New York City, while snapping pics of street life: “This guy drove by riding something that looked pretty odd. He was wearing a gunfighter helmet, and a gray tee with shorts and boat shoes—typical Max attire.” When Hazan stopped at an intersection, Ridzwan approached. Hazan detailed how he had built his bike in his garage, “out of pieces from supply stores.” It tripped Ridzwan out, and he suggested Hazan consider doing this for real. For Hazan, anything sounded better than his much-dreaded day job doing high-end home carpentry.
His father also recognized that this was something that Hazan needed to go for. Encouraging his son to quit the job he hated, Ira gave him an unqualified shove in the form of extended rent support. Grateful, Hazan got to following his muse, setting up shop in a gritty (at the time) Greenpoint, Brooklyn, garage, figuring the worst-case scenario would be that he’d have to go back to carpentry work if things didn’t pan out:
“I gave myself a year and a half to try and do this for a living. I got to that year and a half…[and] I had finished three motorcycles and hadn’t made any money.”
The next day, the phone rang.
“Ever since, I’ve been lucky,” he continues. “There’s a bit of a waitlist now and it just keeps happening. I don’t trust it, but I’ll take it.”
As things were finally bearing fruit on the motorworks front, Hazan met his future wife, Sarah Mayer, who was equally encouraging.
“I was like, ‘Wow,’” he recalls. “I had never met a girl that [when given the choice between] me going back to my lucrative job or this artistic venture, she’d want me to do the latter.” When Sarah, who was a successful marketing lead for the New York Times, got the nod to transfer out to the paper’s LA HQ, it was the impetus for the couple to move West. Hazan, who was also sold by Ridzwan on the vibrant car culture and access to better waves [author’s note: debatable], was ready for the change.
Hazan Motorworks operates today out of the airy loft of an industrial warehouse in the heart of DTLA’s Fashion District. On the ground floor is a taco shop. Hazan’s studio resides directly above it. Though Hazan works alone, the space is well-maintained. He keeps it that way for his own sanity. Various machinery and other odes to analog creation fill the corners, like a nostalgic auto museum. Dense markings appear on several of the light-filled windows, outlines of various dimensional signposts that make sense only to their author. At the heart of the studio are two long, aluminum-covered tables cloaked in engine parts of disparate sizes, shapes, and qualities that lay splayed out like a devilish operating room from Mad Max. Significantly (and refreshingly), evidence of a computer is not readily visible.
Once a motorcycle is fully built and road-ready, Hazan will work with Ridzwan to photograph it. Though it’s long sold before this last stage, Hazan realizes the value in snapping a beauty shot or three for his socials. “People just want to see the bikes,” he muses. Each post of his latest exotic metal firecracker becomes fodder for his Instagram-following cognoscenti to drool over.
Though Hazan has (mostly) traded his motorcycle for a car now that he’s got a pair of child seats in the back, he brushes off the notion that eventually his level of operation will become unsustainable. Will he not have to pass on his knowledge to an employee or his two sons? “I don’t plan to change how I build,” Hazan counters. “It’s how I love to do it and it’s what’s worked for me. It’s like painting: If it’s going to be unique, it’s hard to delegate.”
Adds Seaverns, “[Hazan] will not hesitate to be honest about the challenges at his level. He often questions if anyone will notice. It’s simply the alternative which keeps him on track—a healthy fear of a corporate day job burning hot in Max’s mind.”