Flint, MI — The aluminum of the motorcycle’s fuel tank is polished so well that you can see Patrick Knight’s reflection in it as he speaks, describing his preferred build for the custom bikes he makes out of his garage on Flint’s east side.
“I mean, they all kind of have their own look,” he said as he rounded the front of the motorcycle.
Even strapped to a pedestal in Knight’s backyard, the bike seems like it would be at home in a James Bond film — the international spy riding it down a country road in southern Italy, a femme fatale clinging to his suit jacket.
“Low bars, I like to keep a low stance,” Knight continued as he tapped the bike’s handlebars and moved toward its shifter, an amber-colored glass door knob, before resting a hand on its tan leather seat. “Typically, I like to keep them pretty skinny, too, you know? But real curvy, real curvy. I mean, you see my frames … there’s not a straight line on it.”
Like the motorcycles he hand-builds, Knight is just plain cool. The 47-year-old began working in repair shops across Michigan at age 15, hopping from place to place before starting his own company, Knight Cycle Works, roughly a decade ago.
In between those shop gigs, he developed a penchant for playing the stand-up bass, touring with bands such as Imperial Swing Orchestra, which Chris Handyside of the Detroit Metro Times described as having “a reverence for rollicking big band-era dance floor fillers, sultry torch intimacies and smoldering pre-rock ‘n’ roll American music — and the chops to pull it all off handily! — that doesn’t come down the road too often” in a 1999 review.
Knight later worked as an in-house fabricator for a railroad company. There, a part he tinkered together for a bulkhead earned the company a patent, but he refuses to brag about that.
In fact, he left not long after the company earned that patent, even though it resulted in a nice raise. He said he decided he was done when they began to move to more “intermodal shipment by truck.” He’d signed up to work on the railroad, after all.
So, Knight settled back into shop life and continued playing stand-up bass with local bands.
It was during this time he met his wife, Pam, while working at what he called “a little hillbilly shop” in Howell, Mich.
“It was all the miscreants in the world,” Knight recalled, laughing as he described both his colorful colleagues and the dozens of cats that sauntered around the place from the adjacent woods, cared for by an old truck driver.
Knight ended up cutting the top of his right middle finger off in a workplace accident, and during his recovery, he and Pam drove around the country. They stopped in Memphis, Tenn., where Knight asked her to marry him outside of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion.
“It was pretty f*cking romantic, I must say,” he said with a smile.
A bit later, after the wedding, he and Pam moved back to Flint, near where Knight grew up.
And that may have marked the end of his adventures: Knight happily married to a woman he loves, quietly working to build a bespoke motorcycle business and listening to ska and jazz music while welding together a few clients’ bikes, bending their curved frames against a tree in his backyard.
But then an old high school friend called.
‘He wasn’t thinking numbers … He’s an artist’
Knight met Anssi Lihtonen during his senior year at Linden High School in 1993.
“I was just some lone, desperate, spiky-haired punk,” Knight explained of finding a friend in Lihtonen, who came to Linden, Mich. as a foreign exchange student from Helsinki, Finland.
“So, this cat shows up and he has a greasy pompadour and you know, cuffed jeans and kind of like an old-style sport jacket with little leather patches on there, and I’m like, ‘what the f*ck’s with this, guy?’”
Lihtonen, now living back in Helsinki, remembers meeting Knight in much the same way.
“I was sitting with a bunch of other losers in the lunch[room] … and I was just trying to figure out how I’m going to make friends,” he explained. “And Pat stopped by — I don’t know what made him, probably the way I looked — and we got to chatting.”
Lihtonen said Knight had asked him “something random,” likely about music, and the pair quickly became best friends.
“He came to pick me up next day with this old, his old late 70s automobile, and we hit it off straight away. And then we were like, every day just cruising around, drinking coffee, racing cars for money, and we were just super tight, every day together,” Lihtonen said.
Knight credits Lihtonen with developing his rockabilly taste and interest in the stand-up bass and sleek, European automobile designs over that year, sensibilities he carried with him long after the pair lost touch.
“This was prior to internet and all these, you know, phones like what we’re working on right now,” Lihtonen said. “So we have landlines and stuff like that, and we’re moving back and forth… We just lost numbers, and I lost connection.”
While Knight had been able to come over to Finland once, just a bit after he and Lihtonen graduated high school, his self-described “hard knock pirate life” meant he was rather nomadic most of his late teens and twenties.
But despite losing touch, Lihtonen never stopped thinking about his American friend — even as he shaped himself into a successful banker, radio host and podcaster across the Atlantic Ocean in Finland.
Lihtonen said through the years he’d bring up Knight during parties, sometimes even drunkenly calling operators in Michigan to try to find the right “Patrick Knight.”
“But, you know, there’s a lot of Patrick Knights,” he said with a grin and a shrug.
Finally, though, an Australian partygoer Lihtonen confided in one night offered to look up Knight online.
The man soon found an article talking about the “Genesee Ramblers,” which featured an interview with the band’s stand-up bassist, Patrick Knight, who’d been to Europe in the 90s and had a rockabilly style.
“And I was like, that could be my man!” Lihtonen recalled, qualifying his excitement because he remembered how fast his friend Pat had liked to live. “Because I thought the way things were going for him, he could be in jail or dead, you know? He was the kind of character that anything can happen.”
But while Knight agreed anything could have happened in those intervening 19 years, between his trip to Finland and Lihtonen’s Facebook message, what happened from there is that the pair met up again as if they’d never skipped a beat.
Lihtonen came to Flint, where Knight now lived with Pam.
Knight showed him his custom motorcycle setup, and Lihtonen noted his old friend’s work was absolutely beautiful but it likely wasn’t reaching Knight’s target market given his lack of desire to promote himself.
“He hates everything that’s not genuine,” Lihtonen said of Knight. Which is why Lithonen said he wanted to help his friend formalize his new business.
“He wasn’t thinking numbers, obviously. He’s an artist,” Lihtonen said. “I wanted to start putting some, you know, thought behind it. And I said, ‘Let’s build something. Like if you really want to do this for a living, and you obviously have the talent, let’s figure out some numbers to make this something you can live on.’”
Since that time, Lihtonen has been a behind-the-scenes supporter — or, as he joked, Knight’s “partner in crime” — of Knight Cycle Works.
He helped get professional photos of Knight’s hand-built motorcycles, start the brand’s social media presence and even put together a promotional campaign that felt suited to his friend’s “no bullshit” style: a small box that features a picture of a sleek, all chrome Knight Cycle Works motorcycle against a gray Flint sky and a 45 rpm vinyl record that plays the sound of the pictured bike’s revving engine.
“You have that and the card with only a phone number — no webpages, no nothing like that,” Lihtonen said.
He added that the need to call was entirely intentional, as Knight prefers to get to know his clients, preferably over a breakfast Pam whips up for them, so that he can make sure he can build a bike that reflects the person buying it.
‘It’s all about the ride’
While Lihtonen said he’s tried to pitch Knight on ways to share his unique brand over the years, he also knows his friend will continue to do whatever he wants, as he always has done.
“In the end, it needs to be real,” Lihtonen said of how Knight approaches his sales pitch and his motorcycles. “And in the end, it’s all about the ride.”
In his own way, Knight confirmed what Lihtonen said — both about his individualist attitude and the implied need for a company tagline.
“I’ve always kind of gone on: I want my work to speak for what I do, to speak for itself,” he said from his Flint garage.
So far, that’s been working well enough for Knight, who added that between Lihtonen’s help and his own methods, he’s built and sold roughly 10 bikes from scratch and doubled that in “complete workovers.”
(He explained the latter as being motorcycles for which he didn’t build the frame himself.)
Today, Knight’s custom motorcycles start at around $50,000. He said he is happy to try to work within different budgets, but as with many small businesses, his continues to weather the inflation spikes and supply chain concerns of recent years.
“A while back, I would have said something significantly lower [than $50,000], but it’s hard for me to really keep up with the inflation,” he said, standing among four low-profile motorcycles in various states of completion.
But even so, Knight continued, “I’m not in this for the money… I could make a f*ck ton of money doing something else. But I love what I do. That’s why I still do it.”