This is a story that was years in the making.
I first contacted Len Higa after I had seen a couple of vintage Hondas he built to Race AHRMA. I was enamored by his design aesthetic and fabrication skills. That was sometime in 2013 but nothing really happened until recently.
An opportunity to act as the designer for a collaboration on a bike build with Bavarian Cafe Racer opened the door for me to approach Len as the fabricator. Seeing that Len had also started a new venture called Sleeper Speed Shop in Costa Mesa, I had to see if I could make a trip to show him some of the designs. When I got there, I knew I had the material I needed to do a feature on Len.
There is no doubt that Len carries with him some of that Aloha vibe that he brought when he moved from Hawaii to the mainland. He is the kind of person that lets his work do the talking. And I am not alone when I say his craftsmanship resonates loud and clear in everything that he does.
Born in Mililani, Hawaii, Len got into bikes as a kid watching Japanese super heroes (side note to anyone looking for ideas - old Japanese super hero bikes are a huge source of inspiration). At 18 years of age, Len started racing at Hawaiian Race Park. The track is no longer open but it was the only road track on the island of Oahu before it closed, and it was home to many committed racers.
It was there that Len started racing his FZR400. He moved his way up to a Rothmans replica NSR250 after wanting more from a Hawk GT that was no longer competitive in his class.
Len still races today. But not as often and hard as when he was back on the island.
Los Angeles was a common move in the early 2000’s for many young islanders. Especially for someone like Len. He was building and racing cars in L.A. and soon got a job offer in R&D for APEX.
“I got sick of traveling to race so I took the job and L.A. became my home." He said that even though he went to school for engine mechanics his knowledge of welding and machining came from necessity. “It was just too expensive to have other people do it for us. So we just did it ourselves.“ Most of his fabrication skills were leaned from his older brother and a lot from the Gaffoglio Family Metalcrafters.
Len's first custom motorcycle was a 1971 Honda CB350. But it was his 1961 Honda CB77 that was truly the start.
Oni Motorworks was the name he chose for the shop and the bike he built was for AHRMA races. He hand formed all the aluminum parts and had all the right stuff to go fast. He raced it for three years and even won Best Original at Born Free 2 during that time.
The next bike was a similar style but this time with the cult classic CB400 F. It won best Cafe Racer at Born Free 3.
Gaining momentum, Len was named one of the Invited Builders of Born Free 5. The bike was a sand cast 1969 Honda CB 750. The sand cast was a rare bike and Len made it a point to make it his best. The bike was a hit.
The only Japanese cafe racer in a predominantly chopper event was a hard sell. But Len made his mark. You can ask any one of those invited builders there that day. They will tell you.
Len and Mark McNealy started Sleepers Speed Shop in 2015. The idea was to put all they know into one place. Restoration and custom fabrication geared towards performance and race preparations. If that sounds vague, pay them a visit. Plan to be there for a while if you like Porsche.
Currently, Len has joined both of his passions and brands together. Oni Motoworks and Sleepers Speed Shop under the same roof. He says, “I am working on making something that will last. Something that will always be cool."
Why not. Vintage cars and motorcycles? I can’t think of a better plan.
I would like to say mahalo nui loa to Len, Mark and everyone at Sleepers for their time. It was really fun doing this article. It is the first story to include cars and I hope that I can do more of these kinds of stories.