by Dave Nichols 7 min read

There have been relatively few television series focusing on the motorcycle rebel over the years. For a short time in 1969, NBC's Then Came Bronson filled the bill and many thousands of new bikers were born after watching laconic drifter Jim Bronson (Michael Parks) ride his Harley Sportster through picturesque America. In the 1990's a syndicated series called Renegade followed Reno Raines (Lorenzo Lamas) as a renegade cop turned bounty hunter astride a Harley Softail. Reno was on the run from the law after being framed for murder. Though the two TV series were worlds apart in concept, they both focused on the freedom found on the open road on two wheels. Only with Michael Parks, there was a lot of guitar playing and with Lorenzo Lamas, there was a lot of shooting of shotguns. Believe it or not, Americans are a pretty gullible lot and many ran out in a buying frenzy to buy motorcycles after seeing TV shows like these, eager to experience the wind in the hair stress management system known as riding a motorcycle.

Then, about 20 years ago, something happened which changed the motorcycle aftermarket in a major way, for both better and worse. Something called "Reality TV" appeared on television. Many of these series involved following someone, or a family, around with video cameras to record a "slice of life" for the masses to see and enjoy. This obsession with voyeurism focused on watching Americans of all kinds, from Ozzy Osbourne and his family, to Playboy bunnies shaving their legs. 

In the early 21st Century there was a short-lived TV series called On the Inside, which took in-depth looks at odd occupations. They had featured a rodeo clown and an underwater welder and were looking for a custom bike builder for their next episode. TV Producer Hugh King called me up (Hugh had worked as a video editor for Easyriders several years before) and asked me to help him find just the right bike builder for the program. This builder had to be young, off the hook, and work in southern California. As the editor of Easyriders, I was in contact with most of the quality custom bike builders around the country and a good source of information on the motorcycle industry in general. I was more than happy to help Hugh out. 

In early 2002, I took Hugh to meet Jesse James at West Coast Choppers in Long Beach. I pointed out the shark tank, the pitbulls, the spider web fencing, and Jesse with all his angst and edginess. Hugh knew instantly that Jesse would be "good TV" and the On The Inside show became Motorcycle Mania, which aired on The Discovery Channel. The episode brought in the highest ratings ever for a cable network show. Naturally, Motorcycle Mania Part Two and Three followed as did the Monster Garage TV series, and metal maverick Jesse James became a household name in the great tradition of that other outlaw of old who was also named Jesse James. Supposedly, Jesse the bike builder is distantly related to the original James family of wild west gangsters.

Jesse got his fifteen minutes of fame and then some. After several seasons of Monster Garage (a show about transforming cars into lawn mowers, boats, hot dog machines, flamethrowers and the like), Jesse married movie star actress Sandra Bullock, retired from TV and was living happily ever after until their divorce a few years later. But what Jesse did with Motorcycle Mania I, II and III ignited the whole country. For the first time, young people got the message that they didn't have to grow up and work in a cubicle. Jesse's mantra was that blue-collar jobs were respectable, even artistic. He would smash flat metal with a hammer, coaxing it into the shape of a gas tank and then lay down welds so perfect, they could be on a display in a modern art museum. Suddenly, working with your hands was cool, being a bike builder was ultra-cool, and riding a custom chopper was the coolest thing of all.

Motorcycle sales were on an upward climb, factory custom choppers were selling like hot cakes and The Discovery Channel had a hit on its hands. It took the powers that be at Discovery a while to figure this out. Executive In Charge, Jane Root, was newly arrived to The Discovery Channel offices in Maryland from her home in England. She disliked the trend of Discovery moving away from science and exploration in favor of what she called "Testosterone TV". While Ms. Root was not interested in seeing any more television in which the hosts have tattoos, the public clearly was in love with seeing how motorcycles were made.

At about this time, Pilgrim Films & Television Inc. out of New York, shot a pilot with a relatively new custom bike shop in Rock Tavern, New York called Orange County Choppers (OCC). The owner of the shop, Paul Teutul Senior, was a lifelong biker and ironworker who made his living creating ornamental iron fencing. His son, Paul Junior, was skilled in metalworking and wanted to build custom bikes. Orange County Choppers was the shop created by father and son and before they had a TV show, they showed up in Daytona Beach, Florida for Bike Week. The Pauls had created a lavish, weird, long bike themed after Spiderman. Paul Jr. even rode around Florida wearing a way too tight Spiderman costume to draw attention to the bike and their company. Some of the legitimate bike builders at Daytona just thought the OCC bike was goofy as hell. Then the impossible happened.

The pilot for a TV show called American Chopper featuring the crew at Orange County Choppers went before the big wigs at The Discovery Channel. Most of the show was about building a bike and that part was fairly boring. But there was one scene where Paul Sr. came out of his office and yelled at Paul Jr. to "Hurry up and get off his ass and get the freakin' bike done!" or words to that effect. The Discovery suits in series development raised eyebrows and evil smiles shown on their pallid pates. "We want more of that," they hissed… and a hit television series was born, whether Jane Root liked it or not.

The Teutul's hour-long shows revolve around building highly customized "theme" bikes against the clock. These bikes run the gamut from looking like a fire engine, to the space shuttle. As the series went into season two and then season three, four, and so on, the producers milked every possible "theme" for a custom bike imaginable, even making one that looked like a reindeer for the holidays. The series became known to Americans as, "That show where the dad yells at his kid." The custom bike building definitely took a back seat to the mockumentary drama of the Teutuls fighting. Though these badmouthing battles were not scripted word for word, they were created by the directors, producers and Teutuls in much the same way that TV wrestling is done. The result was that people tuned in to see if this would be the week Senior would smack the tar out of Junior.

Once again, America loved the idea of blue-collar workers making good and enjoyed watching the Teutuls' rise to stardom. As their bike business picked up, we soon saw the family trading in their rusty cars and driving expensive Hummers and Prowlers, we saw Paul Sr.'s new mansion, life was apparently good for the Teutuls. The message of American Chopper is less about bike building and more about how anyone can make it big in America. A nice plot device of most episodes includes the fact that the Teutuls often build bikes for charities and raise money for good causes. The boys from Rock Tavern became American heroes and ratings soared. They even appeared in TV commercials for American Online during the Super Bowl halftime show. Jane Root must have been seething.

Soon, the American Chopper merchandise machine kicked in, offering eager fans everything from OCC T-shirts and caps, to sunglasses, toy bikes, books, sheets, lunch boxes, video games, even cologne. While OCC was flying high, many venerable custom bike builders were appalled. One very famous upscale builder told me that the Teutul's show destroyed what legitimate custom bike fabricators had spent a lifetime building. Specifically, custom builders had been fighting the traditional biker image for over 30 years. Just when they felt they had been able to gain some modicum of respectability, dignity, and were taken seriously as artists, American Chopper showed up to prove that the best way to put a bike together was with a hammer and a lot of yelling. The thought of some builders was that American Chopper made custom builders look like the classic stereotype of the dim-witted, knuckle-dragging, bad boy biker, a stereotype they had worked hard to extinguish. 

I recall having a conversation with Paul Sr. about fame, fortune and the bike industry. He told me that he knew they were very lucky and had come along at the right place and the right time. He also knew that the TV circus would end as quickly and amazingly as it began. In short, he was riding the good fortune pony until the bitter end or until the wheels fall off, as bikers say. It's important to remember that the Teutuls are playing parts in their show; that each is playing a role. Despite his on-camera persona, Paul Teutul Sr. is a clever businessman, a good father and a compassionate and caring man.

Once the TV business suits at The Discovery Channel realized that Americans had a true love affair with custom motorcycles, yet another TV series appeared on the scene. Hugh King, who had produced Motorcycle Mania I, II and II as well as many episodes of Monster Garage, went on to produce the popular Biker Build-Off series for The Discovery Channel. It should be noted that Hugh worked for Thom Beers of Original Productions. Hugh became the Co-executive Producer with Beers on the Biker Build-Off series which moved from Discovery to The Learning Channel (TLC) along with American Chopper.

As fate, or luck would have it, when Hugh needed expert master bike builders to design and build a custom motorcycle against the clock (TV just loves when things happen against the clock), he would call me and ask, "Who's hot? Who's next?" So, dear readers, for good or ill, you have me to thank or blame for bringing such diverse and wondrous builders as Billy Lane, Paul Yaffe, Dave Perewitz, Indian Larry, Mitch Bergeron, Chica, Jerry Covington, Mondo Porras, Kendall Johnson, the Detroit Brothers, and others to the small screen. But the TV sword is double edged and, as we will learn in the next installment of this raging saga, fame has its price.

 

To be continued…

—Dave Nichols


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