Madhouse Madam

Words and Photos by: Tom McCarthy

Custom motorcycle builders, like the bikes they create, come in all different sizes and shapes. Yet they have commonalities inherent to one another. Each is committed to doing a build their way; they exist in a world where individuality is their trade mark. But passion is also a requirement, not a buzzword. There are no dispassionate custom bike builders. Period.

J. Shia, of Cambridge, Massachusetts is a custom bike builder on her way to stardom like others before her. Like Dave Perewitz of Cycle Fabrications in Bridgewater, MA, or world famous Jesse James of West Coast Choppers fame. Becoming a custom bike builder starts with a passion for motorcycles and it all starts in the garage out back of the house, not in a fancy modern shop with a few hundred thousand dollars of modern welding and fabrication equipment. It all begins with a passion for what you love and the courage to go for it.

For J. Shia, the owner of Madhouse Motors in Cambridge MA, her enterprise started in her parent’s back yard in a garage with motorcycles and their various components strewn about the property like a Toys R Us store struck by a tornado – there’s goodies everywhere you look. A motorcycle frame in the living room, bike parts in the kitchen, carburetors being cleaned out by a mechanic on the porch, only people who live and love motorcycles would understand this life. She’s doing what she loves and loves what she’s doing.

At Madhouse Motors, J. Shia will not take in modern motorcycles for repairs or modifications, that’s not her thing. She likes the old bikes. When asked why she replied, “They have so much history to them, so much emotion; you don’t know where they’ve been.” Her eyes sparkle when she speaks the words, her heart beats just a little bit stronger – she has a connection to the old motorcycles.

Her forte in custom bike building is the “Café Racer” style of design for motorcycles, sleek and low, nimble quick handling bikes built for zipping about narrow city side streets. They hearken to her youth as she grew up amid the streets of Cambridge where narrow streets are normal and people fist fight over parking spaces during cold hard winters.

Her dad, her uncle’s - all are metal smiths of one sort or another, machine shop, welding, general fabrication, you name it, and they’ve done it. They have all contributed to J’s education over the years. Her dad taught her how to ride a motorcycle when she was about age seven. And while she loves to ride she’s older, wiser, and more selective now about where and when she rides. A bad crash will have that impact on a motorcyclist.

It happened May 12, 2012, while riding one of her motorcycles; she was T-Boned from the left while passing through an intersection in Roxbury, MA, a suburb of Boston. She remembers waking up in the hospital, “I had over fourteen broken bones the worst of which was a shattered pelvis.” It took multiple surgeries to correct her many injuries but today she is undaunted and more selective about when and where she rides her motorcycles. As a matter of due course, she test drives every custom bike she builds. Her current street bike is a 1200cc Harley Davidson Sportster she’s altered to her taste – gritty and street worthy.

At Madhouse Motors, her enterprise has grown from a back yard/garage operation with close to 50 motorcycles in the back yard into a satellite shop effort about a fifteen minute ride from her house where a full service shop is growing beside a wood-working operation. The two businesses coexist under one roof in a city where shop manufacturing space is at a premium. She commented “In 3 to 5 years I want this to be a stable business that can stand on its own two feet providing me with a stable income.”

Madhouse Motors is so named as a throwback to J. Shia’s youth. Her parent’s house was always a mad-house. People coming and going all the time, visitors and family alike at all hours were welcomed in. “Sit, eat something” were words often spoken during her formative years as her Syrian and Lebanese family embraced life welcoming extended family equally without prejudices. Today she carries this tradition forward as she boldly moves her business along.

In three to five years, don’t be surprised if you see her on TV. She’s twenty-five now, independent and as beautiful as the motorcycles she creates. Her business and her shop may be a madhouse with motors, but she’s got this and her future is bright. She does it all, the welding, the fabrication, engine assembly, even the painting of the motorcycles. There’s no stopping J. Shia and her art.

To see their newest creations and to follow J. Shia and the team, check out or follow @madhousemotors and @jshia on Instagram