Motorcyclist Archives: Jesse James and West Coast Choppers

From the Archives: Motorcyclist Magazine January 2000

2000 Triumph TT600
Motorcyclist was rolling into the new millennium with a production 108-horsepower Triumph TT600 on the cover.Motorcyclist Archives

Industrial Art: Beauties with some beast: the works of West Coast Choppers' Jesse James
John Burns penned this January 2000 article, painting a mysteriously beautiful picture of an industrial town in decay. The mighty port of Los Angeles which is situated at the end of the 710 Freeway in Long Beach, California, is the location of this story. A town that used to build things and was once home to Los Angeles native Jesse James and his West Coast Choppers shop.

Monster Garage and West Coast Choppers
Long Beach, CA, was once the home to world-renowned custom chopper builder Jesse James and the crew at West Coast Choppers. His show Monster Garage was shot on location not far from WCC in a nondescript building on Locust Street.Motorcyclist Archives

Situated in an old paint factory in a town that used to make things was a crew of 31 craftsman turning out a range of custom gear and machines. These things ranged from one-of-a-kind motorcycles to short-run semi-custom choppers, and other unique parts for the individualist building in their garages across the nation and the world. All of this lead by a rugged individualist and artist with a vision and respect for traditional building methods.

Dunlop tire ad from 2000
This ad from the year 2000 showed "What It Takes." Dunlop had an impressive bunch of talent riding for them on the dirt and at road course.Motorcyclist Archives

James’ history includes a wide range of careers including that as a nose guard at UC Riverside, going to an anti-terrorism school, being a bodyguard in Europe for bands, and as a hot rod builder for Boyd Coddington. Working for Boyd gave Jesse access to a lot of the old school builders that were masters of hand building techniques where he learned as many tricks and skills from as he could. Jesse also absorbed every book on metallurgy he could get his hands on and walked away from Coddington Customs with a respect for the clean aesthetic of his builds and a better knowledge on running a business.

Most of James’ business was made selling fenders, rigid kits, and merchandise. He also spent a fair amount of time in Europe building his brand.

West Coast Choppers
WCC was a pretty cool place to visit. The wrought iron gates, bedazzled toilets, a pool table and movie house seating fit the aesthetic of James’ style.Motorcyclist Archives

Regardless of what you think of the man, his WCC creations were sculptures in metal and are still highly sought after. He's currently building custom bikes and firearms in Texas.

Easy Rider movie bike
This repop of the iconic Easy Rider Captain America chopper was built in collaboration with Peter Fonda.Motorcyclist Archives

Captain America Replica: Wanna play Peter Fonda?
This feature from the January 2000 issue of Motorcyclist opened at a traffic light with something that could be the final scene to the iconic Easy Rider movie. Unlike the movie, Roland Brown (the author) was not blasted out of the saddle from a pickup but met with a beaming smile. As Brown motored away from the light he described his current tester as what must be the most evocative, and least practical of motorcycles to be put into series production.

What happened to the original Captain America bike is unknown. Two were built for the low-budget 1969 film Easy Rider. One was burned up while filming the closing scene and shortly after the film was completed, the second was stolen along with the other two bikes built for Peter Fonda's costar Dennis Hopper. Several people have built replicas over the years and occasionally tried to pass them off as the original, but the fate of the last Captain America bike is unknown.

Mat Mladin superbike
In this Yoshimura ad from 2000, Mat Mladin's Suzuki GSX-R750 racebike fitted with a Yoshimura RS-3 Oval Titanium Duplex exhaust system carried the Number 1 plate.Motorcyclist Archives

It wasn’t until later that Peter Fonda and his business compatriot Randy White partnered with California Motorcycle Company (CMC) to bring the movie back to life through replicas of the two famous choppers. In addition to the 750 Captain America bikes they planned to build, there was also a Billy (Dennis Hopper) bike planned to compliment it.

Captain America chopper replica
All of the stylistic elements of the original Captain America bike were there along with a few modern touches like a front fender and brake.Motorcyclist Magazine

Making this a contemporary roadworthy machine required a few updates. The radical forks which were 254mm longer than standard were raked out to 36 degrees compared to the 30-year-old original which had a 42-degree rake. The modern S&S motor is an 88 incher with period correct Panhead valve covers. Like the original, the Captain America reproduction had a 21-inch front wheel but this remake included a mudguard and a front brake.

Another feature that Fonda may have appreciated during production of Easy Rider might have been the inclusion of an electric starter, which the CMC machine got. During filming, Fonda managed to hurt his foot while kick-starting the machine.

print magazine ads from 2000
Back in 2000, print ad design elements like grids and ben-day dots personified quality and modern cool.Motorcyclist Archives

One of the first impressions the author felt was that the exhaust note from the fishtail pipes was more subtle than expected. The bike tracked straight and true. That said, in the corners the long forks and theincreased rake made the machine feel like it was getting tangled up. Although Brown did not ride this bike any real distance, he had the impression that it was not built to do so. He did find it to be fun to ride and as cool as the original.