Best of Seattle 2010: Brad Johnsen

Best Eco-Vehicle Preserver

Brad Johnsen doesn’t look like Seattle’s best scooter repairman. At 29, and despite the visual trickery of stubble, he still looks like someone’s younger brother—the kid who hangs around the older boys in the hope that mere proximity might impart wisdom. Which is, incidentally, exactly how he became Seattle’s best scooter repairman.

Johnsen’s apprenticeship began on Bainbridge Island, where he and his older brother Jeff—a reigning American moped champion and owner of Los Angeles motorcycle shop Choke—stashed found go-karts and mopeds in the empty lot next to their childhood home. Dad restored vintage Chryslers and Fords new again in his shop on Rolling Bay.

But for the hyperactive Johnsen—who would later name his shop ADD Motorworks in honor of his quick-fuse attention span—meticulous automotive archaeology of the type his father practiced failed to provide the quick-and-dirty rewards he needed.

Johnsen’s love affair with things that move was diverted to the water for a spell. Despite an inability to swim, he worked an Alaska-bound cruise ship while still a teen, then pulled lobster traps in Maine. Post–9/11, FEMA poured millions into New York City’s ferry system—meaning that a captain’s license for a 130-foot boat in one of the world’s busiest harbors was suddenly within reach for even the most marginal of characters, including the 21-year-old who looked too young to get into a Pixar movie.

“We had heroin addicts driving boats,” says Johnsen from behind topaz-tinted shades in the alley abutting his Fremont shop. “We were glorified bus drivers. I’m amazed no one died.”

Five years ago, Johnsen returned home. And after a disastrous stint as a driver for an amphibious tour company—Johnsen sideswiped a Geo Metro in his first week—he came back to his original, two-wheeled love, honing his skills at Fritz Scooter and Motorcycle Repair in the University District before opening his own shop two years later.

Now, working out of a basement garage with three pinball machines and a cat named Pepe, he’s come full circle. As the only scooter mechanic willing to service older bikes—we’re talking anything built before Bush the younger took office—Johnsen is once again showing love to those found objects which might previously have been headed for the trash heap, and keeping people on the road, in low-emission vehicles getting 80 to 120 miles per gallon, who might otherwise have been forced to buy a crappy car.

“There’s not much money in them,” says Johnsen, who only accepts cash, and even then often reluctantly. “I’m not a very business-oriented type of person. That bites me in the ass sometimes.”

And whereas it’s easy, and profitable, Johnsen says, to send away for a fender on a new Vespa, parts for more mature models are harder to come by—an obstacle he clears in part thanks to his inheritance of an entire room full of old headlights, exhaust pipes, and carburetors from a former competitor, a Honda dealership which shut down last year.

Of course, Johnsen isn’t only the owner, he’s also a client, as his murderer’s row of ancient bikes outside makes clear. There’s the one that’s painted “like a Mexican bus stop,” and his personal favorite, a 250cc deathstar the size of a Cadillac, offering a pleasant riding experience that Johnsen likens to having “a wizard give you a rim job.”

Exactly what you’d expect to hear from your kid brother. Or the guy who happens to be the best at what he does.