Michael Czysz, a designer who abruptly dropped his successful architecture career to design and build one of the world's best racing motorcycles, died Saturday at his home in Portland three years after being diagnosed with cancer. He was 51.
Czysz, an architecture and design school dropout who went on to design high-end casinos, hotels and celebrity homes, had single-minded focus on his chosen careers. When he abandoned architecture to build motorcycles — with no formal training — he set out to compete with the world's best performance bikes, most of which had previously been designed overseas.
His prototype was hailed by critics, and his electric motorcycle in 2010 became the first American-built bike to win a race at the elite Isle of Man TT since 1911.
Czysz was born in 1964 in San Bernardino, California. His grandfather, an engineer for the city, built racing motorcycles, and a young Czysz spent hours at the track.
He moved to the Portland area while in high school. During school breaks he would work on farms to earn money to buy his first motorcycle, a motocross-style dirt bike. Along the way, he picked up an interest in design.
"He always looked at something and wanted to understand why they did it a certain way," said his father, Terry Czysz. "And how he could make it better."
Czysz attended Portland State University, where he met his wife, Lisa Elorriaga Czysz. He transferred to the Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York, but dropped out.
"He was just eager to work and make his mark in the world," said Lisa Elorriaga Czysz. "He never followed any rules, didn't go with any patterns anyone else set for him. He just wanted to do it, now."
He moved to Orange County, California, and opened a one-man graphic design studio. That soon led him back to architecture — though he had to hire licensed architects to sign off on the designs.
His firm, Architropolis, designed homes for celebrities including Lenny Kravitz, a onetime friend and neighbor, and Cindy Crawford. He also designed high-end hotels, including the W Hotel in Miami, and Las Vegas casinos.
Cyzsz seemed well on his way to becoming a superstar architect, but at some point he no longer found the career exciting. On his wife's 40th birthday, he said he wanted design a high-performance racing motorcycle.
He wanted the bike to compete with European and Japanese superbikes that dominated racing. Czysz drew inspiration from famed New Zealand motorcycle designer John Britten, who similarly designed innovative bikes with a small group and little professional experience. (Britten, too, died young of cancer.)
Motorcycle design became Czysz singular focus. He shuttered his architecture firm and started working on the new endeavor.
"He committed everything into it, I think to his detriment," Lisa Elorriaga Czysz said. "He was so obsessed by it. I think he lived himself to death."
Czysz had no formal experience in mechanical engineering — he hired engineers to assist in the work — but had a hand in every piece of the motorcycle's design. He also demanded perfection from those who worked on the project.
The prototype MotoCzysz C1 was built in his home's carriage house. It featured an innovative front-end suspension that allowed racers to brake later and harder in a turn, as well as a reconfigured, more compact engine.
The bike was critically acclaimed for its performance and design innovations, but changes in racing rules rendered it ineligible for MotoGP racing.
With the bike ineligible, and without a market for replicas, Czysz turned his attention to electric motorcycles — an emerging technological frontier.
"We felt that actually we were coming to the end of an era, of internal combustion engines," said Terry Czysz. "We wanted to get an edge on the new technology."
Motoczysz created four successive models of its E1pc electric motorcycle. The first failed during a race, but the later models went on to win four consecutive electric bike races at the Isle of Man TT, one of the world's toughest motorcycle proving races, setting speed records along the way. The 2013 bike set a record average lap speed of 109.675 mph and hit speeds of more than 140 mph.
By that 2013 race, Czysz was too ill to attend. MotoCzysz nearly dropped out, but his wife said the team should go — if they promise to win.
"In his honor, we wanted to do that, and we wanted to win," said Terry Czysz.
Czysz is survived by his wife; his sons, Enzo and Max; his father and stepmother Debra Czysz of Newberg; his mother, Trish Goldman of Portland; his sisters, Tami Czysz of Puyallup, Washington, and Brianna Schafer of Gig Harbor, Washington.
His family is planning a public memorial and asked that memorial contributions be made to the Oregon Health & Science University Knight Cancer Institute.
-- Elliot Njus
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