When Jesse James and his West Coast Choppers first appeared on the Discovery channel the world got a small taste of what custom motorcycles were all about. The economy was good and many men started to dream about having their own custom bike. Of course many of them being upper middle class soccer dads thought the biker lifestyle as portrayed by the great Jesse was a little too scary for them.
Then the Teutels came along. American Chopper struck a chord with men that Jesse failed to do. It made them spend money. Suddenly every man in American over thirty wanted a custom motorcycle. And those that had the money bought them up in droves. Custom bike shops sprang up in almost every small town in the country and many a custom motorcycle builder thought they had hit pay dirt.
Even people who really didn’t plan on buying one ended up buying a bike because we got caught up in the phenomenon that was American Chopper. Five motorcycles later and two custom builds under my belt, I can honestly say that if custom bikes had not been all over the TV, I probably wouldn’t have a garage full of them now. The country just went nuts over custom motorcycles.
Doctors and lawyers gladly shelled out for $30,000 bikes so they could join the custom motorcycle fad. Along the way a few production custom motorcycle companies went into business and made their fortunes in a very quick time. If you had the money and wanted a cool bike without the worries about getting parts and such, the production chopper fit the bill. Many of these fad riders actually turned into true motorcyclists, myself included, but that’s where the trouble began.
If you’ve ever ridden a chopper or a bobber, you’re well aware that these things are great for bar hopping and to parade around at your local bike night but as a full time rides they just don’t work. Trust me I know; after a 400 mile ride to Niagara falls I quickly realized that have a low long custom bike wasn’t what I wanted to ride on long trips. And many other new riders learned the same lesson. As sales of touring models soared the custom motorcycle industry started to hear the death knell that was around the corner. Then tragedy struck the motorcycle industry in general.
As the US economy fell demand for custom bikes fell with it. Many newcomers to the bike building business whom had lucked into a full time career out of a hobby soon discovered that when only real bike riders wanted custom bikes built, only hardcore established custom motorcycle shops got the business. Even the well know OCC felt the pinch as their once coveted theme bikes became a low priority for corporations who were now on a budget.
Watchers of the show watched as Paul Teutel Sr had to lay off a bunch of workers and fans could only wonder if their new building was ill timed. The custom motorcycle fad was over.
So what does all this mean for the custom motorcycle business in general. Is it dead? Hardly. It’s way bigger than before the fad started. A lot of upstart companies have managed to survive because they created a good product. Some production chopper companies have fallen by the wayside. But the most important thing, to me is that motorcycling in general has finally become main stream. In spite of a tumbling economy and HD in financial trouble more people are riding motorcycles now then ever before. And that means more people will be customizing them also.
It’s a rare sight to see a motorcycle that hasn’t been customized in one form or another and I confidently predict that after this economy bounces back the custom bike industry and custom parts industries will flourish. How do I know all this? Because in spite of lagging sales and the passing of the fad, websites about motorcycles are busier than ever. People may not be spending money right now but they’re doing something almost as important. They’re making their bike parts wish lists and in some case determining who they are going to get to build their custom dream bike when things turn around. Which they will.
Take heart my friends, the custom industry is not dead, just taking a much needed siesta.