Orange County Choppers - Inside The O.C. Empire

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. 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. To their credit neither Paul Teutul, Sr.-the beefy one with the walrus mustache-nor his son, Paul Jr.-the thoughtful, oft-abused one-cares whether visitors are in on the long-running cable-TV series that's made them the public face of motorcycling in the U.S. and 160 other countries.

"I know our main audience isn't motorcyclists but the general TV-viewing public," concedes a friendly 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.

The Teutuls, a semi-dysfunctional family of former steel-industry workers, may not possess the outlaw swagger of Jesse James or the made-for-TV good looks of Russ Mitchell, but their series has proved to be an unlikely hit-unlikely because watching bike builders at work wouldn't seem to be scintillating viewing. But the frequent clashes between the two Pauls as they struggle to complete cartoonish concept bikes are something many families find endearing.

"I think the family angle, that we can accomplish our goals even with conflict, is what people can relate to in any country," Paul Sr. says. His son agrees. "I don't need encouragement to fight, working with him."

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 what keeps us going."

Stepping outside we encounter a group of middle-aged fans clustered around the garage door. One of them speaks in a Scandinavian accent thicker than an IKEA catalog: "We came from 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.

"We meet people from 2 to 90 years old 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 by computer," says Paul Jr., who designs his bikes old-school-style with pencils, paper and brain power.

Even though this unlikely crew of motorcycling ambassadors has made bikers as accessible as the T-shirts 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. "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 is now en route to a small dealer network. "We have so many orders for our one-off bikes that it seemed like the right time to go into production bikes," explains Paul Sr., who owns more than 100 motorcycles, including three dozen OCC customs. Paul Jr., meanwhile, admits he's inherited only so much of his father's motorcycling DNA and prefers designing bikes to riding them. He's created 120 custom bikes in eight years as OCC's chief designer.

Monetary success and mad fame 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 a cottage industry of chopper builders when launched in 2003, but after five years you can count the survivors on a small Rolodex. Once the TV-inspired enthusiasm waned, the reality of buying, maintaining and especially riding a custom chopper sent many would-be Teutul-ers 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 TV series such as Texas Hardtails and Southern Chopper.

Not only is a lull in the custom market reflected in TV ratings, but for the first time in many years the Motor Co. 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. "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 rider? If it causes housewives and nonbiking families to embrace motorcycling, then chop away, fellas.