Photos by Willy Williamson / Winnipeg Free Press
Darcy Epp owns Prairie Iron Motorworks, one of the few remaining independent motorcycle shops in the city. Although his passion for bikes was ignited by old British models, he mainly works on Harley-Davidson and metric cruiser bikes now.
Even on sunny summer days, Darcy Epp, the owner of Prairie Iron Motorworks, an independent motorcycle repair shop on Sargent Avenue, doesn’t get many opportunities to ride his own motorcycle — but he’s totally OK with that.
“Watching a satisfied customer ride away happy on their bike after I’ve just serviced it is about the best feeling in the world,” says Epp, who recently celebrated his second year in business.
It’s taken a whole lot of hard work to reach this milestone.
Epp, 43, graduated from the Harley-Davidson technicians course at Grand Prairie Regional College’s Fairview campus in Alberta back in 2004. For about a dozen years, he turned wrenches at several different Winnipeg motorcycle dealerships — and even spent time building custom trikes.
If there’s one thing Epp learned working for others, it was that he really didn’t like working for others.
“I’m finally in charge and it feels great to do things the way I see fit,” Epp says.
“I get to take the credit when it’s good and the blame when it’s bad, which wasn’t always the way it went working for others.”
Epp comes by his passion for motorcycles honestly. His late father, Ray Merel, was a fan of British bikes and although Darcy was only eight when Ray passed away, he left his young son with a pair of vintage bikes to tinker with — a 1956 Triumph and a 1955 BSA, motorcycles he still owns today.
The location Epp chose for his shop, a strip mall in a mainly industrial area at 1865 Sargent Ave., was no accident. It is actually the former home of Thunder Road Motorcycles, once owned by Ted Hector, a Manitoba Motorsports Hall of Fame 2013 inductee and all-around good guy, who retired from the motorcycle business a few years ago.
“I decided if I was going to open my own shop it was now or never and, when thinking of a location, Ted’s old shop came to mind. I checked it out and, sure enough, the location was vacant,” Epp says.
“It is a small space, but the rent is cheap and it has plenty of history, so it just seemed like a good fit.”
Although Epp made a few changes and brightened the place up a bit, the mural in the showroom is still intact, and an old leather jacket Hector left behind hangs on a hook upstairs.
To help get started, Epp, who is Métis, received a loan from the Louis Riel Capital Corporation, a Manitoba Métis-owned lending institution created to finance the startup, acquisition and or expansion of viable Métis-controlled small businesses based in Manitoba. He also had loads of help from friends and family getting the shop set up — and huge support from his mother, Paulette, his No. 1 fan.
So far, Epp’s first experience as a business owner has been largely positive — aside, of course, from the monumental stress associated with being a business owner.
Epp hasn’t been losing any sleep though, in fact, most nights he’s asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow — 14 hour days will do that to a guy.
The average day for Epp begins before 8 a.m., and he’s often at the shop well into the evening. When he signed the lease, the property owner made it clear he didn’t want Epp sleeping in the shop. Although he goes home every night, the shop is indeed his second home.
“If there’s work to do, I will stay late and get it done,” he says. “If I take on the job, my goal is to get it done right and get it done on time.”
In the summer months, many of his customers rely on their bike for daily transportation.
And, when the weather looks good for the weekend, the requests for fresh tires and oil changes can be challenging to keep up with, but he enjoys the work and only takes on as much as he can handle.
Although Epp has a passion for old British bikes, he doesn’t typically work on those at Prairie Iron.
He does -routine maintenance on newer bikes, even if they are still under factory warranty, but the majority of the motorcycles he services and repairs are Harley-Davidson models, typically a few years old and off warranty, as well as older metric cruisers from Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha.
Epp is also a trike specialist and recently converted a customer’s Harley-Davidson Softail model into a mean looking Frankenstein Trike — due to health reasons the owner was no longer able to ride and the trike conversion got him back in the wind.
Prairie Iron has dealer accounts with several parts companies throughout Canada and the U.S., notably Drag Specialties, and can obtain most of the parts required for the bikes Epp works on in a day or two.
Many of the tires and general maintenance parts required can quickly be sourced right here in Winnipeg from a couple of local wholesale distributors.
With the bad weather fast approaching, Epp is also in the motorcycle storage business — he’s got about a dozen bikes masterfully stored in his small showroom.
The bikes not only look good, but they will help pay the rent and keep the lights on throughout the winter.
Epp has relied on social media to spread the word about his company, and like any small business, he relies heavily on customer referrals.
Ultimately though, the secret to his success thus far has been the quality of his work — Epp’s attention to detail shines through brightly in everything he touches and he truly is a talented technician.
He especially enjoys enhancing engines — making bikes run great is always a sure way to keep customers happy — and he’s become an expert at handlebar replacement, a popular upgrade with the Harley crowd.
“Anything I can do to someone’s bike to make it unique to them is great,” Epp says.
That specialized service is a big part of his success, and it takes time. But the payoff is well worth it.
“It is a lot of fun working with a customer, helping them order the right parts and then putting it all together for them, and when they see their bike finished for the first time, that reaction is always a blast.”
Winter can certainly be challenging for any motorcycle shop, especially a small one, but Epp already has a few customer projects on the go and is hoping to schedule more work for the winter months.
When we visited, he was booking in a bike for a tire change — apparently the owner is hauling his bike, and himself, south for the winter. Lucky devil.
There’s enough room to store about a dozen motorcycles for the winter in the showroom at Prairie Iron Motorworks, a motorcycle repair shop on Sargent Avenue.
Darcy Epp converted a Harley-Davidson Softail into this Frankenstein Trike for a client who could no longer ride a traditional two-wheeler.
A custom Harley-Davidson with new handlebars on a motorcycle lift at Prairie Iron Motorworks.
The showroom is loaded with customer bikes stored for the winter. A custom Harley-Davidson just had new handlebars installed.