About ten years ago the chopper world was at the apex of probably one of the largest ‘revivals’ ever. Jesse James started it all with his “Motorcycle Mania” on the Discovery Channel and began the avalanche of television producers all trying to put some kind of chopper builder show out to the masses. The new genre at the time was the ‘reality’ show and they wasted no time injecting fake drama into chopper building TV to try and drive up the ratings.
Hugh “the chopper” King and the Biker Build Off became must-see TV. There you could see the likes of Billy Lane, Indian Larry, Hank Young and a host of designated losers opposing them with impossible bike-building deadlines. Boutique bike-builder shops sprang up like mushrooms in a cow pasture almost overnight. Aftermarket retailers were suddenly everywhere with monster-sized catalogs full of parts that didn’t even come close to fitting the motorcycles they claimed they were for. Shady characters saw this as a great opportunity to get some huge down payments on ridiculous so-called ‘choppers’ and then abscond with the funds.
Sadly, some of that still happens today. New and ashy wide-tire bike builders would appear and then lobby to be in the next build-off. The very first Biker Build Off featured Billy Lane and Roger Bourget. After the bikes were finished they had to ride them to The Horse Backstreet Choppers Smoke Out Three in Salisbury, North Carolina. Billy was already a successful builder and had been featured in The Horse numerous times by then, but the TV coverage made things totally insane. We avoided bikes by Bourget because... well, they’re ugly. He had his fans of course and I’m betting the TV coverage didn’t harm business at all. This was in 2002. The next year, they revived the show and had three build offs. Billy Lane Vs. Dave Perewitz, Indian Larry Vs. Paul Yaffe and the great one, Indian Larry Vs. Billy Lane.
The Larry Vs. Billy was probably the pinnacle of these shows for me and it was all kind of downhill from there. That same year (2003) the first episodes of American Chopper (OCC) began production. Numerous other shows popped up, I always liked Russell Mitchell’s “Build Or Bust” wherein the ‘contestant’ had to hand build a bike in Russell’s shop and if he had it completed by the deadline and did a burn-out, he got to keep the bike.
It seemed like the public just couldn’t get enough of choppers, which was great for us of course, even though we tended to avoid the multicolored 360-tired ‘things’ that were getting more and more popular. “A rising tide oats all boats” to quote JFK, and it was a good time to be in the magazine business for sure. Certain people made out very well during this period.
Everyone rode the wave for a while but the inevitable over saturation of television led to the waning of interest in these shows. Some of the builders were pretty obscure and lacked the ‘star power’ of the earlier versions. Certainly the untimely loss of Indian Larry and Johnny Chop was a shockwave.
Here was the BBO line up for 2007:Gard Hollinger vs. Jason Hart
Paul Cox & Keino vs. Trevelen
Chica vs. Michael Barragan
Bryan Fuller vs. Greg Westbury
Dawn Norakas vs. Scott Webster
Andrew Williams vs. James Compton
Lets see, I know who Gard Hollinger is, also Paul Cox, Keino, Trevelen and Chica. These five are still contributing to the motorcycle world today. I’m afraid I could not pick the other builders out of a lineup is there was serious money offered to me. Maybe I just live in a cave. Maybe they are all still in business?
Things now have settled back down to where the successful builders are doing it the old fashioned way; producing great bikes for their customers. Billy Lane, Bill Dodge, Pat Patterson, Chris Phillips and a host of other well known names are steadily cranking out artistic, functional wonders without resorting to pandering to the big front wheel crowd. I’m always floored at how Jeff Cochran cranks out bikes seemingly every week all by himself at such a level of brilliance.
There does seem to be the occasional attempt to launch a new “chopper reality show” every now and then to appeal to the hipsters since they seem to have all the money these days. I can’t bring myself to watch them. I will watch “Counting Cars” on the History Channel whenever Shannon is doing a bike build as I like the stuff he turns out... usually. There’s also been a couple of shows aimed at the big front wheel bagger crowd but I suppose that’s to be expected until the ‘too much money’ crowd find something else to glom onto.
There’s a lot fewer fakers around, that’s a good thing. The people that are still around from back then have proven their worth over and over, we don’t need no steenkin’ TV show to tell us that.