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Marcus Ellis: MMI Grad, Entrepreneur & Born Free Custom Builder

UTI Profile Image Universal Technical Institute Apr 9, 2020 ·

From wiring and electrical to building wheels and motors, MMI grad Marcus Ellis does it all. He’s worked in dealerships, custom bike shops, is a builder for Born Free and is even the owner of his own business, Terminal Speed.

With his experience and level of expertise, it’s safe to say Marcus knows a thing or two about what it takes to be successful in the motorcycle industry. Keep reading to learn all about Marcus’ story, including his experience at Motorcycle Mechanics Institute (MMI), his journey to becoming a business owner and his tips for aspiring technicians.1 

Meet Marcus Ellis

Marcus’ father and uncles rode bikes, so he grew up going to poker runs and swap meets. In his young mind, he didn’t necessarily envision this for himself—he saw the motorcycle industry as unattainable and never imagined he would be able to get into it. However, this all changed when he bought his first bike at the age of 27.

Marcus’ first bike was a 1975 sportster. He blew the motor up going too fast on the shore way and had to fix it, but didn’t know how. So, he started spending time in the shop learning from family friends who were Harley mechanics and taught him how to fix and operate his own bike. This sparked a passion inside of Marcus, and once he began working on bikes, he never looked back.

One day, Marcus saw an ad for Motorcycle Mechanics Institute. Eager to learn more about motorcycles and the industry, he decided to enroll in the Motorcycle Technician program. He packed up and headed to Phoenix, Arizona for his training.

Marcus’ Experience at MMI

When Marcus first came out to Phoenix, he connected with Jeremiah Armenta, a Harley builder who had just opened his shop. Marcus had an interest in vintage bikes, so he would go to school at MMI during the day and head to the shop after class to learn about working on older models. 

Marcus enjoyed his time in Phoenix and training at MMI. “The facility was top-notch. You couldn’t ask for anything better,” he shares. According to him, the curriculum was unmatched by any other school. Back home in Cleveland, he lived just two blocks away from another school, but he decided to travel across the country to complete his training at MMI.

“It definitely set me on the right track,” Marcus says of his time at MMI. He was able to gain a strong foundation of knowledge he could build upon in his career. Training on new, modern models in the MMI lab and also working on vintage bikes at the custom shop gave him a diverse set of skills he could use to work on a wide variety of bikes.5

The Start of Terminal Speed

After Marcus graduated from MMI, he returned home to Cleveland, Ohio. He worked at a dealership in order to complete his Harley-Davidson PHD certification, and he also worked at a local custom bike shop, The Gasbox. He worked at the dealership for a year, then went full-time with the custom shop.

After exploring both the dealership and custom shop side of things, Marcus decided it was time to utilize his work experience and training from MMI to create something of his own. He found a space for his shop, and Terminal Speed was born!

Terminal Speed is a motorcycle shop located in downtown Cleveland that builds, services and repairs Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Marcus works on Harleys of all makes and models, and his true love is building custom choppers. When Marcus first moved into his shop, he started with just a toolbox and a wooden bench he had built. Over the years, he’s been buying tools and building it up to what it is today.

Marcus does electrical, wiring, building wheels and motors and everything in between. According to him, the only thing he doesn’t do is paint and upholstery! He’s a one-man show and loves what he does. Being able to channel his creativity through custom builds is his true passion.

Getting Involved with Born Free

Customizing vintage motorcycles is where Marcus’ heart lies. His first experience with Born Free, the world’s biggest gathering for riders of vintage custom motorcycles, was Born Free 2, which he attended while he was still at MMI. He instantly fell in love with it and dreamed of one day being on stage.

After years of hard work and dedication, Marcus achieved his goal and became a Born Free invited builder. His builds are inspired by skateboarding and music, which he grew up doing. He prefers his bikes to be lean and mean—he’s all about performance. He builds his bikes in a way that makes them most effective for riding.

Video by Lowbrow Customs at www.YouTube.com/lowbrowcustoms    

Marcus’ favorite build was his first, a 1963 Pan Shovel he built when he was right out of school. He pieced it together from nothing—even the motor was made up of different pieces he assembled together. He loved the finished product and received an overwhelming amount of positive feedback from the community. The bike he’s working on now is similar to this model.

For Marcus, building bikes has become just as much of an addiction as riding them. According to him, “A motorcycle is not just a vehicle that physically takes you places. It takes you to places you probably wouldn’t otherwise be.” He loves the sense of adventure that working on bikes brings, which is the same sense of adventure he would get from skateboarding. “It’s an excuse to go explore,” he shares.

Marcus’ advice for those who aspire to build for a show like Born Free is to immerse yourself in it completely. Buy all of the books, old service and parts manuals, and do as much internet research as you can to learn the history. According to Marcus, once you learn the history and gain respect for it, your style and taste will develop as a builder.

“When you first get started, you have to know what’s compatible and how to make things compatible,” Marcus shares. It’s also important to know the value of parts so you don’t overpay for anything when completing your builds. There’s a lot of information to learn, and the best way to do so is to obsess over it, according to Marcus. 

Advice for Aspiring Technicians and Business Owners

If there was one thing Marcus could go back and tell himself when he was just getting started, it would be to take things more seriously early on. This industry requires a lot of hard work, dedication and persistence, and success doesn’t come overnight. “You get out of it what you put into it,” Marcus shares.

For those looking to start their own business, Marcus stresses the importance of commitment and being all in. This is a competitive industry, and it can be hard to make a way for yourself and stand out. However, when you put in the hard work, it’s worth it in the end.

“If you have it in your heart, go for it and really commit to it,” Marcus shares. “If you want to be successful in this industry, you have to give it your 100% focus and effort.”

Marcus also emphasizes the importance of establishing a good reputation for yourself. “As big as the community is, everyone knows each other. Reputation is everything,” he says.

While Marcus runs his shop on his own, he’s built a network of people he can reach out to when he needs support, whether it’s for a part, tool or word of advice. “When I travel, I have people around the country I can reach out to, and that’s priceless,” he shares. Marcus has also done a great job of using social media to connect with the community and build a brand for himself. 

Lastly, for those looking to break into the industry, Marcus recommends investing in your education and attending a school like MMI. “If you want to get into the industry, whether it’s becoming a technician, service writer, manager, or doing anything regarding modern motorcycles, I absolutely would recommend MMI. It was a fantastic facility and the curriculum was top-notch,” he shares.1 “If you want to learn the industry, there’s no better place to do it.”

Looking Ahead

In the future, Marcus would like to focus less on service and more on building custom bikes and motors. He finds the most enjoyment in building motors, refurbishing cylinders and heads, and building flywheels, so he would like to specialize more in those areas while continuing to grow his shop.

Marcus has accomplished incredible things in his career, and we’re excited to see what he does next. He’s a perfect example of what it looks like to follow your passion and work hard to get to where you want to be!

Want to learn more about potential careers you can pursue in the motorcycle industry? Check out our career guide.

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