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Born to be Wild

The success of "American Chopper" rests not only on the beauty of the bikes the stars create but on their combative relationship as well.
Phil Scott
From the Print Edition:
Jimmy Smits, May/June 2005

(continued from page 2)

"Choppers are brutal," says David Seidman, executive features editor of Boating magazine and a veteran biker. "They're very uncomfortable, but they look cool as hell."

Senior grew up in Yonkers and Rockland County, New York. Admittedly a poor student, he graduated from high school and went into business for himself, assembling metal construction frames. He built the successful Orange County Iron Works from the business end of his pickup. And he rebuilt bikes. One of his first was a Harley-Davidson in 1974.

Senior married and had four children. As the Iron Works grew, so did his hobby—and his addiction. He doesn't like to talk about it, but he admits that he didn't spend too much time raising the kids, and about seven years ago, the marriage disintegrated. Trying to reconnect with his children, Senior started working with Paulie on a bike in Senior's garage in 1999. Like younger brother Dan, Paulie worked at Senior's company, and he knew his way around the metal shop. But what also became apparent in the garage was that Paulie had a gift for building choppers from scratch. And for pushing Pop's buttons.

Senior saw another successful business in the making. In 1999, he formed OCC, appointing Paulie chief fabricator and designer and bringing in mechanic Vincent DiMartino to help out. He put the whole works in the lower shop of the Orange County Iron Works building.

All the bikes OCC builds do run—generally, Senior or Paulie rides the completed cycle at the end of the two-arc episode—and OCC guarantees their work for six months. "Things break due to vibration; gas tanks will start leaking," says Michael Burkhouse, OCC's only full-time salesperson, who also handles any warranty problems "and crazy fans."

"I always tell people it's like buying a race car: you drive it two hundred miles, something breaks," he adds. "Definitely when someone spends 60 grand, don't tell them, 'Sorry, take a walk.'"

But the bikes really aren't for riding; they're typically for promotion. Most don't even have odometers. OCC can build an entire chopper in a week as long as it's assembled from parts it has in stock. Those bikes start at about $40,000. Building a unique frame, gas tank, etc., adds a lot more time and money. The costliest ran above $1 million. As part of that deal, however, the Teutuls had to make public appearances.

So why does Senior get so angry at Junior? Paulie is an artist, after all. No doubt about it. It's amazing to watch him conceive an idea, sketch something out on a piece of metal with a Sharpie, and punch it out on some machine or cut it with a torch or grinder and tack it into place. And then you think, what does Senior do except blow up at Paulie the artist? He'll fly into a rage because the shop is messy or because Paulie is running behind schedule. The apple, however, didn't fall so far from the tree; it just rolled a ways after it hit the ground. Senior's gifted, too. On a few episodes, he's fabricated a couple of bikes, and they've turned out as beautiful as any of Paulie's. And when he's mocking them up or assembling the parts, he never loses it, never explodes. He's as patient as Junior.

According to an article in a magazine whose name no one around the shop can quite seem to remember or find, Orange County Choppers is the third-fastest-growing company in the United States. Four years ago, OCC had three employees; today, there are 50. The company has opened a museum-slash-gift shop (there's now a director of retail operations) in an otherwise typical strip mall in downtown Montgomery, and someone besides Mikey answers the telephones in the shop. Orange County Choppers has signed up nearly 70 licensing companies that produce everything from OCC T-shirts to OCC belts to those OCC pocketknives and even OCC cologne. Most carry the logo that Paulie designed, the letters "OCC" in the shape of a chopper.

Overexposed? Try those AOL commercials with Paul, Paulie and Mikey. Try the Travel Channel's "Poker Challenge: American Chopper vs. Trading Spaces." How long will the fun last? It's anyone's guess, but Professor Robert Thompson's the expert. "It's not wearing out as quickly as I would have predicted," he says. "Ten years? Probably not. Reruns? Probably so."

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