Ready for more bickering, bluster and contrived nonsense? The Discovery Channel is rebooting “American Chopper” after a five-year hiatus and the reaction so far has been predictably polarizing. Some riders never want to see the battling Teutul clan again, while rubberneckers wonder about the current status of Orange County Choppers, its rough-hewn owner Paul Teutul Sr., estranged son Paul Teutul Jr. and that other more goofy son, Mikey.
We’ll find out this winter whether O.C.C. is still relevant or if it’s a has-been brand like Titan motorcycles. Remember Titan? Thought not. Titan was a company that launched in Phoenix in 1995 and sought to produce custom-style, American-made motorcycles in volume. Titan models were sort of like O.C.C.’s bikes but without the bling. The company went bankrupt in 2001. I used to live not far from the factory and would see them being tested.
Getting back to O.C.C., there once was a time in the days before streaming when “American Chopper” was a cable TV hit. It averaged 3.4 million viewers at its peak and lasted 10 years after premiering in 2002. The show went away but, individually, the Teutuls had staying power as celebrities. This was evident by the lines that formed at the Springfield Motorcycle Show in Massachusetts in January and at the Cabin Fever Custom Car and Motorcycle Show in Naugatuck in March to get Paul Jr.’s autograph.
Times have changed, though, in the motorcycle biz. The appeal of expensive choppers has cratered. Bobbers and scramblers are now the thing. Witness the most popular new models from Triumph, Indian and Ducati. There’s no harder sell than an item that’s passé. Remember pet rocks or, better yet, pogs? Choppers today rank in popularity with station wagons, land lines and Lum’s restaurants, which had hot dogs steamed in beer.
So, in an optimistic belief that reinvention is possible, here are five unsolicited suggestions for “American Chopper” to be viable again:
1) Rebrand – Change the name of Orange County Choppers to a broader Orange County Customs, and start building bobbers, scramblers and distinctive rat bikes as well as an occasional chopper. Say what you will about the comfort level and street practicality of O.C.C.’s machines, they nonetheless exhibited imagination and creativity. No reason that same flair cannot be brought to other types of motorcycles.
A name change isn’t unprecedented. Didn’t World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) used to be known as the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) until a dispute with the World Wildlife Fund (now known globally as the World Wide Fund for Nature) prompted the grappling company’s shift to the WWE designation? A shift to Orange County Customs would mean the O.C.C. initials would stay the same and not render all its swag obsolete.
2) Tone down the contrived tension – No need these days for bombast and badgering. We have the political arena for that. In fact, “American Chopper” should eliminate the family feuding altogether and script it so Paul Sr. (and O.C.C.) and Paul Jr. (and his Paul Jr. Designs company) work together in harmony to strategize a way back to relevance.
In an interview in the local “Times Herald-Record” newspaper when Discovery announced the revival of “American Chopper,” Paul Sr. suggested that the show will indeed have a softer tone because of “age.” The story noted that Paul. Sr. is 68 and Paul Jr. is 42. There’s no need for either to act like petulant school kids. Business realities – finding new customers and foot traffic – should provide drama.
3) Build bikes that are somewhat affordable and ridable – Motorcycling is losing participants these days because older riders are aging out of the recreation and are dying off and they aren’t being replaced by youths. Two reasons for this are cost – new bikes are just too pricey – and a lack of models for newbies, although the manufacturers are now finally coming up with product.
If O.C.C. could build bike models that an average person could legitimately yearn for, and possibly acquire, and that appealed to a younger audience, it might actually build viewership of the program. And there’s no reason the bikes can’t be fun and comfortable.
4) Ditch the corporate-branded bikes – I’m guessing that corporations pay big bucks for exposure through company-branded bikes. Seriously, who cares? A bike more suited to being parked and displayed in the lobby of corporate headquarters than actually being ridden is a non-starter. Make the models about the riders; not about art or big business.
5) Show some smarts – As a reality show, “American Chopper” was a made-for-TV contrivance, with the key players having roles and becoming characters with blown-up personas. That was then, this is now. Having once visited O.C.C.’s old shop and having chatted with Mikey, I know that he’s smarter, more thoughtful and savvy than he was ever portrayed on television. Why not reveal the real smarts of the participants more? Show them in a favorable light and give viewers, even those who’ve distained them, a reason to root for a comeback.
Having covered the TV industry for a dozen years earlier in my career, I know how it works and how phony baloney and embellished “American Chopper” was. Times change. With the political world seeming so unreal at times these days, “American Chopper” needs to be grounded and real. The real-world challenges of having a motorcycle business in today’s environment are sufficiently dramatic without the need for ginned up controversy. A storyline of the Teutuls being underdogs is all that’s required.
(Originally published in the “Republican-American” newspaper on Nov. 4, 2017.)