TV show puts vroom into national bike sales

This isn’t Orange County, N.Y., home of the popular cable television series “American Chopper.” It’s far from it.

Big Springs is a Douglas County farming community about 12 miles west of Lawrence. But the success of the Discovery Channel’s American Chopper series has filtered down to this wide spot in the road along U.S. Highway 40.

Meet Randy Lester, owner of Hog Works, a Big Springs-based custom cycle shop similar to the Orange County cycle business that is profiled each week on the “American Chopper series.” If life were a reality-television program, Lester would play the part of Paul Teutel Sr., the Orange County owner who storms around each week kicking tail and taking names to make sure his shop’s bikes are completed on time.

That’s not exactly the way it works at Hog Works, although the company does build bikes from scratch like they do on the TV show.

“It is not even close,” Lester said of the show’s spin on reality. “You can’t get anything done yelling that much.”

But almost grudgingly, Lester admits the program has been good for the industry.

“There’s kind of been a mystique created by the show,” he said. “It has gotten everybody thinking they can build motorcycles in an hour, but that’s not the way it works.

“But it has put more of a spotlight on the industry than it has had in years. It has got a new group of people interested.”

Going mainstream

Mike Munoz, Topeka, checks out a Hardcore II 2004 Kit Bike at Hog Works in Big Springs as the store's owner, Randy Lester, looks on. The store is among motorcycle stores across the nation that have benefited from the reality-television show American

For those not familiar with “American Chopper,” the show has been a hit for the Discovery Channel since it went on the air in early 2003. The premise is that cameras film the day-to-day life at Orange County Choppers and give viewers a glimpse at how a custom motorcycle is built.

But most reviewers agree it is not the building, but the bickering, that keeps viewers tuning in.

“It is about the characters,” said Dave Scott, director of communications for Custom Chrome, a $200 million-a-year California company that sells kit bikes and after-market Harley Davidson parts. “When you put characters like that on TV, it is going to create a following. That’s what has happened. What it has done for the motorcycle industry is brought it into the mainstream.”

Scott said the show has been a boon for the motorcycle industry.

“I can’t tell you how crazy it is,” Scott said. “There are more guys springing up in the industry all the time. They’re trying to catch on to this wave. I would have to say this is as good as it has ever been for the industry.”

Watch “American Chopper” at 9 p.m. Mondays on the Discovery Channel, which is on Sunflower Broadband Channel 24.According to Nielsen Media Research, during the first quarter of 2004, four of the Top 20 episodes watched by 18- to 49-year-olds on cable were “American Chopper” episodes. That was the most of any single series other than MTV’s “The Real World.”

Baby boomers return

But pegging just how good the show’s popularity has been for the industry is difficult. Most businesses either were unwilling to share sales numbers or unable to determine how much of their increased sales could be attributed to the program.

Nationally, sales in 2003 did post impressive gains despite a weak economy, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. The California-based trade group estimated sales increased by 6.4 percent during the year, to just less than 1 million bikes.

Those numbers don’t include sales of bike accessories and clothing, which have become popular with the emergence of the TV show.

“It is one of those things like advertising,” Scott said. “You can’t measure exactly what it is doing for you, but you know it is helping.”

Ray Moorhead, general manager at Topeka Harley Davidson, said his company’s sales had risen in 2004. He thinks the media’s newfound fascination with motorcycles is at least part of the reason why.

He theorizes that American Chopper, and other shows that have followed in its footsteps, have gotten baby boomers thinking about their younger years.

“A show like that kind of gets your juices flowing again,” Moorhead said.

Jim Hopson, a Eudora resident and Harley rider, said he could see how the show has helped the industry.

“It (the show) didn’t cause me to buy my Harley. I was driving Harleys when it wasn’t the thing to do,” Hopson said. “But I can definitely see how it has helped the bike cause. It has absolutely made it more mainstream.”

“I don’t even own a bike and I like watching the show,” said Hopson’s wife, Shelly. “People at work talk about it all the time.”

Rick Combs, owner of Combs Custom Cycle in North Lawrence, also sees that type of excitement.

“I still build about the same number of bikes, but I do get more phone calls,” Combs said. “It is definitely bringing new types of people to the shop.”

Scott, of Custom Chrome, said the industry was focusing on a new type of buyer. No longer is its biggest customer group the hard-charging, hell-raising biker that has become an American stereotype.

“You still have the core, the guys with the tattoos and pony tails, but those guys are getting old and dying off,” Scott said. “Who everybody is talking about now are the RUBS — rich, urban, bikers.

“They’re lawyers, they’re bankers, they’re professionals who want to blow off a little steam over the weekend on a bike. They’re a big part of it now, and getting bigger as these shows get more popular.”

Impending crash?

At Hog Works, Lester said interest in his work had increased but business was far from booming. The 28-year-old business still only builds about three to four custom bikes a year, which sell between $8,000 and $25,000 apiece.

The business, which includes Lester and one full-time employee, supplements its income by selling parts and doing repair work.

“But I enjoy building bikes more than anything else,” Lester said. “That’s the whole thing with motorcycles. You can make them individual so they don’t look like everybody else. You can make them look like you.”

Lester, though, isn’t convinced that the public’s fascination with choppers and custom motorcycles is here to stay.

“It is the same old thing,” Lester said. “Everybody wants one, but people don’t understand what it costs and the time and work that is involved in owning one. I think this is going to be more of a fad for a lot of people. But I thought it would have tapered off by now, and it hasn’t.”

Scott’s not so sure it will. He has no doubt that the show’s popularity will wane. Like many in the industry, he confesses that he rarely watches a full episode.

“All the yelling gives me a frigging headache,” Scott said.

But he thinks the show and the resulting publicity has given the industry a long-term boost.

“The show has already created new money and new blood for the industry,” Scott said. “Sure, there will be people who get into it and say this isn’t for them, but for most people, once they get on a bike, they don’t get off.”