INDIANAPOLIS – The words “Love” and “Life” are tattooed across Don Cornwallis’ knuckles.
These thick letters can be lost in the kaleidoscope of ink decorating Cornwallis’ body, but they perhaps say more about the man than anything else.
“It used to say ‘Hell-Fire,’” Cornwallis said, “but I changed my outlook on life.”
Better known as “English Don,” Cornwallis, 52, is an icon in the hard-drinking and hard-living motorcycle culture. In the 1990s, he lived in New York City, where he built custom cycles often featured on the covers of the most popular biker mags.
Born in England and established in the Big Apple, he has now landed at Intensity Cycles on Indianapolis’ Southside with his best friend, Joe Bull, an English Staffordshire bull terrier.
“Life is where it takes you. You can’t plan. If you plan your life too hard, you end up stuck in one spot,” he told The Indianapolis Star.
Settling in Indy makes sense for Cornwallis. This small shop – run by his friends Kevin and Deb Alexander – is doing the same kind of work he helped to pioneer.
His bikes, including his most famous, the Babylon Taxi, have gained him notoriety but haven’t made him wealthy.
Cornwallis said he left home at 16 and moved to New York at 21 with about $1,000 in his pocket. He came to America to become a rock star. Cornwallis played music for about 10 years but found his calling in motorcycles.
It’s hard to classify what Cornwallis does. Like others who build these motorcycles, he’s as much artist as mechanic. They use hammers, welding torches and hacksaws to piece together parts that were never meant to fit together. The results are one-of-a-kind motorcycles with names such as the Babylon Taxi and Slimy Limey.
Motorcycles have been Cornwallis’ ticket into some amazing places.
He built bikes and toured the country with his former business partner, “Indian Larry” DeSmedt, a colorful bike builder who gained fame on reality television. DeSmedt died in 2004 from injuries he suffered while performing a trick for fans after filming an episode of Discovery Channel’s “Biker Build-Off.”
Do a Google search of “English Don and Indian Larry” and among the many images you’ll find is one by famous photographer Timothy White of the two bikers hugging a nude Liza Minnelli, their tattooed arms her only cover.
“You can’t help but be impressed with the life he’s led,” said David Gregory, editor of The Horse Backstreet Choppers magazine. “He’s always done it under his own circumstances.”
Gregory, 55, another English-born biker who now lives in Detroit, met English Don about 20 years ago. Cornwallis had been writing and getting published regularly in biker magazines when Gregory was just starting out.
“When I first saw what he was doing for a living, it’s what I wanted to do,” Gregory said. “He didn’t have a real job per se. He always had something going. It sounded like a great life to me.”
But it wasn’t always a great life, Cornwallis told Gregory when the men met in 2000 at a fellow rider’s Kentucky farmhouse.
Booze, drugs and hustling for a buck, Cornwallis said, will exact a toll on a man’s body.
“I told him how much I admired his life,” Gregory recalled. “He took me to the side. He told me candidly that it’s not all beer and Skittles.
“It was a reality check. I decided it was best to stick with a real job.”
Cornwallis dropped out of the U.S. bike scene and, around 2003, moved back to England, where he helped care for his ailing parents until they died. He returned to the U.S. in 2011.
About a year ago, Cornwallis moved to Indianapolis to work at Intensity Cycles, 3510 S. Keystone Ave.
It’s here that he and Kevin Alexander – with the help of many others – rebuilt his classic Babylon Taxi (he sold the original decades ago).
The Taxi has a black-and-yellow checkered paint job, no front brakes and a suicide stick shift, which means the rider has to take a hand off the handlebars to shift the gears.
“The way they are built is very hard-core. They have to be ridden, and ridden hard,” he said. “It’s not for beginners.”
The “Love” and “Life” tattoos are reminders that life now is harder.
Cornwallis struggles with an array of ailments, mostly caused by the days when he was loving life much too much.
He walks with a limp and sometimes a cane, the result of broken bones from multiple wrecks. He said he also has liver disease and figures time is running out.
Cornwallis hopes to soon tour the country on his Babylon Taxi II, visit some old friends and maybe say goodbye.
“What I’d really like to do,” he said, “is put a sidecar on the bike, put my dog in it and get one last ride out there, before I’m too ill to ride anymore.”