Bates Leathers is an icon of motorcycling. First started in 1939 by motorcyclist and saddle seat craftsman Bob Bates. It has since evolved and changed ownership a few times. While technology and trends change, they’ve continued to be sought after at the highest levels of motorcycling for the simple reason that they are dedicated to impeccable quality and craftsmanship. For Bates, quality is not a trend.
Behind the company is the Grindle family. Amongst them, they share different roles within the company. While Lance and Lori are more behind the scenes contributors, many people at shows and events will recognize Dawn, while others interact with the person behind the day to day operations at the factory, Dana.
Bates was a motorcycle accessories company that made all sorts of things like foot pegs, wind screens and headlights among other things. Their focus in recent years has been custom jackets and suits for motorcycle racers, or people who just want a great performing custom fit jacket. But that’s about to change.
EF: What were you doing before Bates?
DG: I was doing upholstery out of my garage. I was making old car parts, like Chevy armrests for Bel Airs, restaurant booths and stuff like that. I had 3 year old twins at the time so I didn’t want to go to work and get a job. It was all about my children, I wanted to work at home, as well as be with them.
Tell us a little bit about how you and your family became the owners of Bates, the hows and whys.
That was me. Both the son of Charles Rudolph, who had owned the company for more than 30 years, and the Grindle family, shared the same financial advisor. Our father had just passed and our financial advisor came to me and said, “I’ve got something that’s right up your alley. These folks want to sell this company, and you’re going to need something to do for the next 30 years. So I got my brother, asked what he thought about it and he said, “Hey, I know that company”, I said, “So do I, let’s buy it!” We dragged Dawn into it, she agreed. Then we got Lori, put our money together, and bought it.
Bates seems to be known for its performance and race gear and not as much casual lifestyle, would you consider it a racing brand? Or how would you describe it?
Bates is about high quality as well as performance. That’s who we are and that’s the reason behind us making such awesome leathers. We have been making leathers since the late 50’s so I guess you could say it is lifestyle as well as a racing brand since we make it all. Jackets, pants, motocross, race suits for every kind of racing, including all types of skateboarding.
Bates has been around since 1939, what is it about the brand that has given it this kind of longevity?
The quality. Quality is everything. Made in the USA is very important to us. We have a team of people that truly care about the product.
When Bates started making hard parts, they were coming out with some pretty cool stuff. The seats were made of 14 gauge metal. I mean, who makes seats out of 14 gauge metal? Bates does. We offer seats handmade (and we mean handmade! ) out of 14 gauge steel as well as 16 gauge. We can credit everything to Bob Bates and his sons. They were the ones who made the parts perfectly and all we do now is live up to their legacy. They worked hard and got ahead on the aftermarket parts, designing parts for motorcycles and scooters because the OEM’s were making them naked. They dropped everything and focused on parts like windshields, headlights, brackets and side bags.
Bates used to make all those hard parts and not so much leathers, how did it evolve to become known for leathers?
The hard parts were starting to phase out, the OEM bikes started coming with accessories already on them. So that pushed all the hard parts out of it and leathers were coming into play. Other companies were making them too but they were just making them all black. Bates was the first company to come out with colors. David Aldana’s suit made it really take hold. That was the biggest upset, in 1971 at the Houston Astrodome, when he showed up with in a suit with a skeleton on it. They almost didn’t let him race.
It’s a tremendous amount of work owning and running a niche company like Bates. What motivates or inspires you to continue building up the company and to keep doing what you’re doing?
This industry needs people like us that knows hard work pays off. If there’s a task that needs to be fulfilled, we all jump in to get it completed. We don’t stand around and point our finger. Dawn and I work just as hard as our team. So what inspires us to work this hard? The industry needs companies like us to make safe suits, safe jackets and just good high quality products. Yes we’re a little pricey, so, If you have a $10 head, get a $10 helmet!
How have you seen racing suits evolve since you started doing this?
There are lots of different add-ons available these days, stretch Kevlar, puck placement and speed humps. On our road race, and drag race suits we’ll add stretch Kevlar for flexibility. We use it for mobility and breathability.
What’s the process of making a custom piece like a suit or jacket from the beginning to how you pick materials?
First we want to know what they’re doing. We want to know how fast they are going. Are they going to use it for street riding or track days? Are they going to race, drag race or use it on a dirt track? It’s important for us to know how the customer is going to use the product. That way we know how to build the product for them. We help the customer decide on the type of suit he or she will need for the type of riding they are going to be doing.
We will go through safety, leather selection, designs (custom or catalog), and accessories like hard or soft armor, pockets, vents, etc. Finally the measurements, if the customer resides locally, we want them to come back in for a fabric fitting. It’s us making a suit or jacket out of fabric and having the customer do a pre-fit in case they make changes, such as, gaining or losing weight. It’s a rough draft. It’s especially important with new riders or someone who’s never had leathers. It is a very precise process and welcomed by our clients.
Who are some of the most prominent people who have worn Bates, both past and present?
Harley Davidson’s Andrew Hines, Eddie Kraweic, Matt Hines, Terry Vance, Dave Shultz, Kenny Roberts, Mert Lawwill, David Aldana, Giacomo Augustini, FLO(progressive insurance commercials), Nicolas Cage, Jesse James, Brad Pitt and Arnold Schwarzenegger just to name a few.
Do you have a favorite jacket or suit you’ve produced?
Arnold, the jackets that we made for him. He’s my favorite.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned throughout this whole process since taking over Bates?
Patience. Be silent. I am bold enough.
What are some highlights for you so far in the 18 years since you’ve come to own Bates?
Dawn and I have had the pleasure of making some really nice products for some very important people. As a whole, I think I can speak for both of us when we hear of a customer having a get off and surviving the crash, and more so getting up and walking away from that crash. That to us means they can race or ride again. That is the ultimate fulfillment of owning this company.
Any new products or news coming in the near future?
We are re-introducing our solo seats and pillion pads at Born Free 6. We’re doing 8”, 10”, 12” and 14” and also some different styles. These are all HAND MADE in our factory. You will also see samples of tuck n roll, as well as smooth. We will offer all colors as well as entertaining custom orders. We have been reupholstering the seats for years but I think we did not realize how big the demand was for new seats and p-pads. I think what pressured us most to make seats again is when I was browsing on ebay and I watched a solo seat reach 3k and sell. That was it for me. Everyone should be able to buy an original Bates seat for a reasonable price if they want to. Hence, we are now making seats again.
Where do you want to take Bates?
Dawn and I would like to see Bates continue the way it is, making classic leathers, boots, seats, p-pads, and just maintaining the highest of quality in whatever we do.
Thank you to Dana for spending a Sunday morning chatting with us and showing us around the shop. You’ll be able to get the first batch of Bates seats at Born Free 6 and will be available for order at and after the show. And of course you can always visit the shop in the Long Beach area to order up some custom leathers or to pickup other stuff like boots.
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