Donnie Smith bio-written by Marilyn Stemp.
Over the decades, custom motorcycling has seen good times and bad. Motorcycle builders have been on the top of the heap and relegated to the back alley. But for the faithful, those ingrained wrenches and riders who long ago claimed biking as their life's work, custom motorcycles are as sublime and necessary as ever.
Among those few stalwarts who succeeded in the game is Donnie Smith, a man known for his custom creations not only in the Midwest but around the world.
He'll be the first to tell you that his early riding experiences didn't exactly predict a happy life on two wheels; no, motorcycles were not his first choice. It was Uncle Elwood that got Donnie involved in bikes.
Donnie was raised on his parent’s dairy farm in Donnelly, MN. Donnie recalled that they had to work hard but it never killed them. Donnie was the oldest kid on both sides of the family and he says his grandfather was his hero. Donnie said, “He was my first friend. Grandpa was a storyteller.” I guess we can see where Donnie gets it!
He graduated from the West Central School of Agriculture in 1960 and moved to Minneapolis soon after. After a 2-year tour of duty with the United States Army, Donnie returned to Minneapolis and set up a performance car shop there.
One day in the early 1970s, Uncle Elwood brought his Sportster into the drag race shop Donnie ran with his brother, Happy, and buddy, Bob Fetrow; he wanted them to rake the bike’s neck. “We were three farm kids; we thought rake was something you did with hay,” said Donnie. Though they had day jobs and were busy working on the Barracuda Funny Car they planned to race, they did their best for Elwood.
Soon Elwood’s friends took notice and the shop, Smith Brothers and Fetrow, started getting more bike work. A while later, when someone wanted a Springer and there were none to be found, the guys gave that a try, too. Then girders, and tanks, and fenders and so it went. After a year or so their accountant said, “You know, if you got rid of that race car you could make a living out of this motorcycle thing”. So they did.
Known for decades as one of the top custom motorcycle builders in the nation, Donnie Smith Custom Cycles in Coon Rapids MN, produces motorcycle masterpieces. Along with American Thunder Productions, Donnie hosts The Donnie Smith Bike Show in Saint Paul, MN annually.
Donnie’s style is inimitable, from his DS Struts to the iconic Girder front end. He drew up the plans for them while he was on a duck hunting trip. He builds bikes that are not only functional art, but they’re also comfortable to ride.
Donnie Smith was inducted into the Sturgis Hall of Fame in 1995 and again in 2018 as a member of the Hamsters motorcycle group, of which he is a founding member. Donnie has lifetime achievement awards from V -Twin and Hot Bike magazines. In 2010, the mayor of Spearfish, SD proclaimed March 28th, Donnie’s birthday, as “Donnie Smith Day” and gave him a key to the city.
In 2022, Donnie was given a “Moxie Award” from the Sturgis Buffalo Chip. Donnie typifies that term, which describes persistence, longevity and determination. He said the best part of that award was being honored with two respected friends: Rick Fairless and Sugar Bear.
2022 was Donnie’s 50th consecutive Sturgis Rally. At over 80 years old, Donnie shows no signs of stopping.