The Truth About Orange Country Choppers

It's all about the bikes-sort of.

The cameras are rolling inside the vast, underlit workshop of Orange County Choppers in upstate new york, and it's barely past 10 in the morning. A visitor to this, perhaps the world's best-known custom-motorcycle shop, can't help but get caught up in the lights, cameras and slow-paced action that is american Chopper. Wandering around in search of a restroom, I stumble on-camera, like one of those publicity-starved yokels in the background of a good Morning america broadcast. To their credit, neither paul teutul sr.-the beefy one with the walrus mustache-nor his son, paul Jr.-the thoughtful, oft-abused one-care whether visitors are caught up in the long-running cable-tv series that's made them the public face of motorcycling in the u.s. And 160 other countries. And why should they? The cameras roll five days per week, 11 months per year, blurring the line between bike shop and sound stage.

"I know our main audience isn't motorcyclists, but the general tv-viewing public," Concedes a friendly and approachable paul sr. "I think what we've done is made motorcycling more accessible." This may sound immodest, but the man has a point. Anyone who's been into motorcycles long enough to remember when choppers meant gangs and drugs rather than rich men's toys would agree. Twenty years ago, riding a chopper meant getting to know the local gendarmes, and not in a, "yes, officer, i'll take two tickets to the policeman's ball" sort of way.

Ah, but here come the teutuls, a semidysfunctional family of former steel-industry Workers anointed by the cable-tv gods to pick up where early reality series such as Motorcycle Mania left off. The teutuls may not possess the outlaw swagger of Jesse James or the made-for-tv good looks of russ Mitchell, but their weekly series proved an unlikely hit-unlikely because watching bike builders at work wouldn't seem to be a popular viewing choice. But the frequent clashes between the two pauls as they struggle to complete their cartoonish concept bikes are something many families can relate to.

"I think the family angle, that we can accomplish our goals even with the conflict, is what people can relate to in all those countries where they've never seen a chopper," paul sr. Says. "I don't need encouragement to fight, working with him," his son agrees.

And for the record, the teutuls are proud of their work, regardless of their detractors. "When I was making steel, I would feel so satisfied when I finished a project, and it's the same here," says paul sr. "We're focused on constantly outdoing ourselves, and that's the key that keeps us going."

"We meet people from two years old to 90 who watch our show. It's rewarding to see chopped bicycles and think we've inspired young people to work with their hands instead of doing everything by computer," says paul Jr., who designs his bikes old-school-style, with pencils, paper and brain power.

Stepping outside, we encounter a group of middle-aged fans clustered around the garage door. Like bobby-soxers breathlessly awaiting a glimpse of Ol' blue eyes, some of the men clutch cameras while others hold magazine articles they hope to get autographed. And then one of them speaks, in a Scandinavian accent thicker than an ikea catalog: "We came from Malmo, sweden, to see Orange County," says Olaf garonkuist. "It is the bikes, yeah, cool, but it is the fighting with family we watch every week," confirms fellow swede goran abelson, a custom-hot-rod fanatic who admits to having spent several days hanging around OCC hq.

Even though this unlikely crew of motorcycling ambassadors has made bikers as accessible as the t-shirts, pez dispensers and plush dolls they hawk at their nationwide chain of retail stores, it's worth wondering whether they'll ever gain the respect of motorcyclists. For every soccer mom's prius festooned with a "Mikey rules" bumper sticker, there's a biker with a bellyful of simmering rage. "their bikes don't really run," the haters say. And, "nobody really rides a chopper."

Nobody is more aware of this than the teutuls. A need for respect among the biking cognoscenti is at least part of the reason why a quartet of production choppers (see sidebar, page 101) is now en route to a small dealer network. "We have so many orders for our one-off bikes, and we're so busy with the show, that it seemed like the right time to go into production bikes," explains paul sr., who owns over 100 motorcycles, including three dozen OCC customs. Paul Jr., meanwhile, admits that he's inherited only so much of his father's motorcycling Dna, preferring designing bikes to riding them. It's a job that's kept him busy, having created 120 custom bikes in eight years as OCC's chief designer.

Monetary success and the sort of mad, crazy fame that keeps nba stars in paternity suits may be theirs, but the teutuls also have a tough row to hoe as standard-bearers for the custom-motorcycle industry. American Chopper may have helped spawn an international cottage industry of backstreet chopper builders when launched in '03, but after five years, you can count the survivors in a rolodex. Once the tv-inspired enthusiasm waned, the reality of buying, owning, maintaining and, especially, riding a custom chopper sent many would-be teutulers screaming for the comfort of a stock harley. Over the past half-decade, dozens of high-profile custom- motorcycle firms have bitten the shop-floor dust, along with bandwagon chopper tv series such as build or bust, texas hardtails and southern Chopper. At this rate, don't be surprised to see choppers become as pass as battlebots in a few years.

Not only is a lull in the custom market reflected in tv ratings, but for the first time in many years, the Motor Company itself is cutting back production. The waiting list for bespoke OCC bikes may be longer than their raked front ends, but most of those capable of forking over six figures for a one-off chopper have names like sunoco, Intel and John Deere. Until now, requests for lower-priced OCC choppers (if you can call $30-50K "lower-priced") have remained unaddressed. So, with a growing staff of 80 concentrating on OCC retail stores and production bikes, the teutuls hope to ride out the lull in a new, multimillion-dollar factory. This will leave more time for their role as motorcycling's roving ambassadors. "We've focused on making a positive impact on motorcycling and people's lives, whether it's supporting the military or the Make-a-Wish Foundation," paul sr. Says. "Well, that and I'd love to have more time to get out and ride."

In the end, if he Who Dies With the Most toys truly wins, the teutuls can ignore the haters. Motorcyclists are famously tough to please, and so what if a custom chopper made to look like a toy fire engine doesn't appeal to some dyed-in-the-leather sportbiker? If it causes housewives and non-biking families to embrace motorcycling, chop away, fellas.

"I am the paulrus, coo-coo-coo-choo..." paul sr. Has no previous media experience, but now has three australian astra awards-the Down under equivalent of an emmy-to his credit.
Paul Jr. Prefers designing to riding, and pencils to computers
Production, however limited, means stockpiles of parts. Owing to popular demand, OCC will build some 200 production choppers this year, priced between $30,000 and $50,000.
Chop shop: paul sr., red-faced as usual, prepares to lay into one of his 80-strong workforce.
Protest signs outside OCC's new multimillion-dollar factory (below) voice the locals' disapproval of the teutuls' decision to use non-union laborers. Red-brick building (top right) is current shop.