“Blackthumb” Ninja built for the Atlanta streets…
For years, the Kawasaki Ninja 250R — aka the EX250 — was America’s best-selling sport bike, offering a 37-hp liquid-cooled parallel twin engine and 6-speed transmission cradled in a tubular diamond-design frame. Our friends at Regular Car Reviews called it the Mazda Miata of motorcycles:
“It’s small and underpowered, but it handles beautifully, and if properly driven/ridden it’ll keep up with just about anything else in the corners.”
Not surprisingly, the Ninja 250 spawned multiple road racing series and remains a popular track/race bike throughout the world. But while the bike was well-loved by multiple generations of 250-class racers and street riders, it remained relatively unchanged from 1988 to 2007…and the bike’s dated design and aesthetics left much to be desired.
Enter our new friend Joe Flores (@makerofthings), a builder/designer/mechanic and all-around moto-mancer who forms half of Fitz & Flores — an Atlanta-based shop producing custom bikes and waxed canvas goods and apparel. An impetus for the creation of their shop in Decatur, the bike was the first of a number of collaboration projects produced and brought to market by the two over a number of years.
Joe, who has more than a decade and a half in the trade, finds inspiration in late 70s to 90s Japanese and Australian motorcycle culture, particularly the Mad Max genre of film, comics, and illustration. For this build, based off an ’02 Ninja 250R, his vision was a machine that was more elemental and detailed, while capturing some of that prior era’s aesthetic:
“This particular bike is a study in how to strip off the angular, almost sterile design of this 90s sporty bike and bring it back to a simple, detail-oriented, but not fragile aesthetic, kind of like the late 80s-90s never happened design-wise, but the engine technology kept going forward.”
The bike has been through several iterations, surviving on the back burner until it was brought to Atlanta’s community DIY motorcycle garage and cultural nexus, Brother Moto, where it was used as a teaching aid. In its current version, the bike is part of a series of bikes aptly known as the “Blackthumb Project.”
We particularly love Joe’s build philosophy, which relates directly to his family’s “built for riding” mentality:
“The philosophy I was taught was: every bolt, every bracket. Make sure it looks like you did it on purpose. Because people who know can tell if it’s an afterthought.”
Having seen this bike in the metal at Victory Moto Show 2019, we can attest to the level of execution and attention to detail manifest in this machine — a bike that you could spend a couple hours examining with a penlight, up close and personal, finding all the little ways Joe made sure to button up the build.
We’re also big fans of the collaborative nature of certain aspects of the build, where Joe enlisted the help and expertise of fellow artists and fabricators for such elements as the exhaust (Ross Gamble / @singlespeedross), the upholstery (Cheryl Lyons / @cherylyons), and the Blackthumb livery (Casey Russom / @russom_studio). Says Joe:
“I enjoy skill collabs so it’s got that sentimental vibe.”
While the bike has had a few different nicknames over the years, the current incarnation is “Quarterstack,” alluding to the bike’s displacement relative to its liter-size Ninja brethren. All in all, this is a stoutly-built street machine that exudes a certain toughness in the metal — possibly a trait baked into the very DNA of the build:
“This bike has survived a shop, a number of crashed relationships, numerous rebuilds, so seeing that constant gives it that survivor’s character I think.”
Amen to that. Below, we let Joe talk about the bike in his own words, and get show off some more stunning shots from photographers Drew Perlmutter (@drewperlmutter) and Cole Carpenter (@colecarpenter).
Ninja 250 Street Scrambler: Builder Interview
• Please tell us a bit about yourself, your history with motorcycles, and your workshop.
Joe Flores, builder/designer/mechanic. Half of Fitz and Flores. Third generation bike/auto builder with 15+ yrs in the trade. Builder for F&F. Formally shop runner, now a contributing member at Brother Moto.
• What’s the make, model, and year of the bike?
2002 Kawasaki 250R Ninja, mostly.
• Why was this bike built?
Originally meant as a way to bring both sides of F&F together (motorcycles and apparel), this bike in its current version is part of a series of bikes known as “Blackthumb Project.”
After some revision and some time as a backburner project, it was reintroduced as a project when the shop in Decatur was shuttered and brought to Brother Moto, where it was used as a teaching aid and intro project to the new shop environment.
• What was the design concept and what influenced the build?
It was part of a series of bikes called “Blackthumbs.” I’m heavily influenced by the late 70s into the 90s Japanese/Australian moto culture, Mad Max genres of film and anime/comics/illustration (Akira, Road Warrior, etc), and my family’s “build for riding” philosophy.
I’ve basically been building versions of bikes I would’ve made in those scenarios. This particular bike is a study in how to strip off the angular, almost sterile design of this 90s sporty bike and bring it back to a simple, detail oriented, but not fragile aesthetic, kind of like the late 80s-90s never happened design-wise, but the engine technology kept going forward.
The EX250 never had a “classic” counterpart, so making something that would’ve likely been made was the challenge, while still retaining its “custom” vibe.
• What custom work was done to the bike?
It’s almost a completely new and different motorcycle from its OEM version — only the motor, frame cradle and front end, and wheels are from the original bike. As much of the bike that could be handmade was, from the brake cables to the radiator and the exhaust, rear frame/suspension. Anything that isn’t made outright was upgraded or modified.
The philosophy I was taught was: every bolt, every bracket. Make sure it looks like you did it on purpose. Because people who know can tell if it’s an afterthought. So I try to accomplish that. It’s not perfection, but that’s not the point. It’s executing well with what you have. And I think this particular bike allowed me to accomplish that.
I like bikes you can go through from two inches away with a flashlight and see that I also did that and built the bike accordingly. When you have limited resources like any build, I feel the level of execution is always important to show that it’s not always about how big the pile of money you had was when you started, but how you are able to execute within those boundaries (time/money/skill etc) and find new ones.
You could spend a couple hours finding all kinds of little things I’ve done to keep the bike tight on tough ATL streets, haha.
-Custom cone exhaust with help from Ross Gamble (@singlespeedross) w/ Cone Engineering parts
-Customized AL radiator and Sil hose setup
-Scratch-made electrical system w/ Eastern Beaver Junction and KOSO tnt-02 instrument
-Scratch-made rear section with various AL parts
-Custom seat designed by me and upholstered by @cherylyons
-Custom-made tool roll by Fitz @fitzandflores
-Custom-made Aeroquip brake lines / hardware
-Converted 80s CX500 tank w/ custom Blackthumb livery by Casey @russom_studio
-Numerous AL parts made from scratch (light brackets, rear section splash plate, fender, etc etc)
-Wrinkle black powder-coated frame from DGS powder
• Does the bike have a nickname?
It’s had a couple. Originally it was “King of the Quarters” from a mag article I read once about them. Now it’s “Quarterstack” or “Wallflower” as it sat for a while as I was engaged with other projects for about 18 mnthso while it waited for its chance. Quarterstack is a term for 250/1000 or $250 — good way to classify next to its liter-bike brethren.
• How would you classify this bike?
I’d say a street scrambler, the high exhaust and flat spine are kinda the main cues. But it’s not umm “dirt-centric.”
It’s def an ITP bike. (Editor’s note: “Inside the Perimeter” aka the Atlanta city limits.)
• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?
The exhaust for sure. Ross Gamble assisted in the fabrication early on and it’s the only piece that hasn’t been reconfigured on the bike, we wanted to make it a statement point for the bike and for the fancy Cone Engineering bits we got from them. Plus I enjoy skill collabs so it’s got that sentimental vibe.
This bike has survived a shop, a number of crashed relationships, numerous rebuilds, so seeing that constant gives it that survivor’s character I think.
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