Feature: Wednesday, September 1, 2004
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‘I spent the last 20 years working hard... . Now it’s time to play.’
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Charles Strand provides bike buyers with a car-dealer-like showroom — a far cry from the “back of some guy’s garage” that used to be the norm.
‘The misconception around bikers is huge.’
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Bill Rucker figured out how to make customized choppers in a factory.
‘... the people coming to these biker rallies have money... .’
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Strand and Loretta Feister show off one of the choppers he sells.
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The flames on this chopper’s paint job aren’t as hot as the price tag.
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
HOGTOWN

Fort Worth is breeding a new generation of not-so-scary bikers.

By DAN MCGRAW

About 40 choppers are roaring down White Settlement Road, staying two-abreast, making lots of noise as they pass by the Autobahn Motorcars dealership, a business that specializes in BMWs and Land Rovers and Jaguars for those who can afford them. But these motorcycle riders aren’t out of their market when they cruise by the high-end car dealer. The bikes they are riding are custom-made choppers, the hottest trend in the motorcycle business, bikes that run between $25,000 and $40,000.

As they pull into the parking lot for Pedro’s Trailer Park, a restaurant that specializes in some high-end food and a pretend low-rent atmosphere, it’s hard to make conversation outside by the iced beer tub and the picnic tables. But there is a bit of excitement in the air, as most of these riders are sitting with their heads upright, smiling into the wind — some with tattoos, some with American flag bandanas — most with jeans and black t-shirts, cruising on the fat back tire and tightly grasping the “ape hanger” raised handlebars.

It’s another Thursday night in Fort Worth, and another “bike night” at a local bar. The events are being sponsored by Ironhorse of Texas, a local dealer that is selling bikes to a group of people most wouldn’t think of as motorcycle folks. It’s not just that many of the people coming out to bike night are rich lawyers and doctors and accountants. What’s different about this crowd is that most of them are not “bikers” in the old meaning of the term. Most of these bike riders drive cars and trucks to work, and the motorcycle is their choice on the weekends, not much different from people who take their boats out to the lake.

“What’s really driving this thing,” says Fred Lockhart, a local new-car sales manager and chopper rider, “is the lawyer or the doctor or whoever who works hard all day and for all these years. They get to that point where they think it might be fun to be a bad boy on the weekend. They get to an age where they can afford it. It gives you a sense of power, like you’re in control.”

There’s plenty of power — and money — evident these days in Fort Worth wherever bikers gather. At a Thursday night at Riscky’s on Camp Bowie, there might be a million dollars’ worth of gleaming machines lined up in the parking lot, their riders spilling out into roped-off areas outside the doors, and enough vendors and hubbub to make it feel like a county fair.

It’s a trend that’s gaining momentum around the country. For half a century or more, since Marlon Brando and The Wild Ones in 1954, motorcyclists have carried the bad boy image. They were the tattooed outsiders, wearing leather pants and vests, scaring the normal little people in normal little towns. “What are you rebelling against?” someone asks Brando. “Whaddaya got?” he replies.

Now, however, the wealthier crowd is making the bike scene — still looking for adventure as they fan out on the highway, but not rebellion. That might chip the paint job — or hurt the prospects for promotion.

John Kaemmerling, a 50-year-old General Motors worker, is one of those sipping beer at Pedro’s, dressed down in an old t-shirt and shorts. “I rode bikes as a young guy, until I got married in my 20s,” he said. “I started riding again after my divorce. But it’s different now because I can afford it better than I used to. Some of the old bike culture thinks it’s a bunch of rich guys taking over. But it’s not like that at all. Baby boomers have never had the feeling their parents have had about the social stuff with motorcycles. So when we get old enough to afford this and have some fun, we do what we want.”

Ironically, the folks who are making the biker image less dangerous in the community are finding that their new hobby can be increasingly risky to their own health, a point brought home tragically last week to a key figure in the Fort Worth and national chopper scene.

But whether you call these new bikers RUBs (Rich Urban Bikers), SUWERs (Suburban Weekend Riders), AHABs (Aspiring Hardass Bikers), or BASTARDs (Bought a Sportster, Therefore a Radical Dude), they make up one of the fastest-growing segments in the motorcycle industry. And though city leaders never like to give Fort Worth credit for cultural weirdness, Cowtown is one of the places where this phenomenon began, and it’s the place that is fueling the growth.

Charles Strand owns the Ironhorse of Texas motorcycle dealership over by the Ridgmar Mall on the city’s West Side. The dealership has only been open since April, but it has already become one of the nation’s top dealers of custom bikes and one of the top sellers of the American IronHorse line of custom choppers, manufactured here in Fort Worth. Strand had invested in American IronHorse early on, served on its board of directors, and then decided he wanted to get into the business of actually selling the customized high-end bikes.

“I could tell from the very beginning when I became associated with American IronHorse that people in the motorcycle industry really didn’t know how to sell their products very well,” said Strand, 44, who also owns a company that sells water purification equipment. “Basically, what would happen is that a customer would go to some bike shop, maybe the back of some guy’s garage, and the customer was made to feel lucky if anyone paid attention to them. It was kind of like joining a club.”

“What we’re trying to do is realize that our clientele for these bikes is a more professional clientele, not typical of what people have historically thought of motorcycle riders,” Strand continued. “When people are buying bikes now, they are approaching it like they are buying a nice car. They want something that appeals to them. They want choices. They want to know about financing and insurance. And they want to be treated in a way that doesn’t say they have to be part of the club to buy something they want.”

Motorcycles have traveled a bumpier road than four-wheeled vehicles to reach the mainstream of American culture. At the end of the 19th century, inventors around the world were figuring out how to put motors on bicycles. In Milwaukee, Arthur and Walter Davidson and their friend, Bill Harley, started fooling around with bicycles and engines in 1903 in the shed in the Davidson back yard. They had no intention of creating a business, but their friends kept asking, “Will you make one for me?” Still, it was the automobile that was becoming all the rage during this era. The car became gradually more indispensable to Americans, while motorized bikes remained in the hobby category.

During World War II, many American servicemen had a chance to ride motorcycles in Europe, and they found them lighter in weight and a better ride than the American-made Harley-Davidsons. After the war, those veterans started “chopping” the Harleys. First they would remove or shorten the fenders. Then they continued to chop off anything they thought was unnecessary. Off came the windshield, big headlights, crash bars, and big seats. Eventually they raised the handlebars and expanded the fork. What was interesting about this period, from the 1940s through the 1970s, was that Harley-Davidson never really responded to these changes being made by their customers. Harley-Davidson and the other American manufacturers continued making the bikes the same old way, leaving it to the buyers and their garage mechanics to do the souping up.

The advent of the American chopper brought about cultural disengagement for many of their riders. In July 1947, in Hollister, Cal., some WWII vets showed up in town and got drunk for a few days. There were no injuries, but the police didn’t like having their town invaded. The incident would have faded away, but a photographer for Life magazine staged a picture of a motorcycle rider sitting on his bike in Hollister surrounded by dozens of empty beer bottles. The bad image of the chopper bikers was born.

In 1954, Hollywood cashed in on the image with The Wild One. By the 1960s, the Hell’s Angels motorcycle club had taken over a lot of the drug dealing in major cities. In 1967, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga, by journalist Hunter S. Thompson, was published. It featured Thompson getting the shit beat out of him by the Hell’s Angels in a bar. In 1969, the film Easy Rider with Peter Fonda on a wild-ass chopper captured the imaginations of many young viewers. Not enough to take the chopper mainstream, however — especially not when, later that year, the Hell’s Angels stabbed a young black guy to death while they were providing “security” for a rock concert at California’s Altamont Speedway.

By the 1980s, Japanese motorcycles were moving into the American marketplace, fast little crotch-rockets as they were called. In response, Harley-Davidson moved back in time and started marketing its bikes to their loyal older crowd. Choppers were seen by many as the motorcycles that defined the bad guys of the 1960s and 1970s, but the mechanics who were slicing and dicing the factory motorcycles were nonetheless creating bikes that were lighter, better for the eye, and a more powerful ride.

It would take another 20 years or so before a few mechanics figured out that the chopper biz had a highly profitable and marketable side. Bill Rucker was one of those guys. He figured out how to do to choppers what Michael Dell was doing with computers.

Bill Rucker had fooled with motors ever since his teen-age days at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst. After high school, he started several businesses involving engine mechanics. He had his own filling station and garage on East Belknap in Haltom City at age 21. He started a shop that repaired and customized hot rod cars. He founded another company that rebuilt diesel engines and sold them in Asian markets. By 1994, the diesel company was in bankruptcy. But even before things went bad there, Rucker was on to his next idea. He figured there was money to be made through the conundrum of regularizing the customizing of motorbikes.

Rucker had figured out how to make custom motorcycles to compete against the big boys. Harley-Davidson and the Japanese companies had always made their bikes in a factory line. As with automobiles, about the only choice consumers had on a certain model was the color.

In the computer industry, by contrast, Dell Computers was based on the idea that while 80 percent of the insides of personal computers were the same, money could be made by configuring the rest of the computer to each customer’s needs as ordered and paid for. The idea was to abandon the old system of inventory and make items only as they were ordered. Rucker did likewise: He would make motorcycles only after the customers told the company what they wanted. But because 80 percent of the motorcycles were the same, they could be created in a factory.

The result was American IronHorse Motorcycle Co., founded in northwest Fort Worth in 1995. A few years later, Rucker explained to Fast Company magazine that he and partner Tim Edmondson saw the opportunity created by Harley-Davidson’s struggles with supply and demand and by the evolution of upper-scale motorcycle riders willing to pay handsomely for “factory customized, uniquely hand-painted, high-performance motorcycles” now sold through more than 80 dealers nationwide.

By 2002, IronHorse was the industry’s largest factory custom motorcycle business, with 300 employees. By 2003, the company was putting out about 3,500 bikes a year from its 224,000-square-foot plant on Blue Mound Road and bringing in more than $40 million in sales. The bikes can be built in 30 to 90 days. Customers help design them, from the paint job to mirrors to seat structure. In 2003, Inc. magazine named the custom chopper maker to its annual list of fastest-growing private companies, the only Fort Worth company named.

Such success, however was causing turmoil inside American IronHorse. Rucker had taken on many private investors to grow the company, and they in turn wanted to see better results. One of the major problems was that Rucker had always pushed the motorcycles through dealerships that were more like mechanics’ garages than the upscale showrooms that the new clientele were comfortable with.

That wasn’t the only problem. An internal company document obtained by Fort Worth Weekly recounts information that led the American IronHorse board of directors to ask for Rucker’s resignation. The report, from the board’s audit committee, lists the findings of an in-house investigation into thousands of dollars missing from a scrap metal fund, extensive reimbursements made to Rucker for what were apparently personal expenses, and questions about family members being on the company payroll. When he left in August 2003, sources said, the company agreed to pay Rucker a little less than $3 million over three years for his 510,000 shares of company stock, in return for agreeing to leave quietly.

When the Fort Worth Star-Telegram asked Rucker several months later about the split, he did not mention any of the topics covered by the audit committee report. He said he left American IronHorse, in part, because without college training he didn’t have the background to deal with Wall Street — in essence, that the company had outgrown him. He knew about engines, not about negotiating the best interest rates on long-term loans.

The departure apparently didn’t change his passion, however. When he left IronHorse, Rucker signed a six-month-long non-compete agreement. Earlier this year, on the day the agreement expired, he started a new high-end custom motorcycle company called Rucker Performance in Haltom City.

Rucker agreed to an interview with Fort Worth Weekly for this story, but a terrible motorcycle accident in Colorado about two weeks ago intervened. Coming back from the big motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., the 47-year-old IronHorse founder and his wife were reportedly involved in a head-on accident with a car. According to sources close to Rucker who didn’t want to be named, Rucker sustained multiple injuries, including a mangled left foot, and is currently in a hospital in Colorado. His wife, riding behind him on the bike, was not severely injured.

When Rucker left IronHorse, he left behind not only a company whose needs he could no longer fulfill, but one whose customers, too, were perhaps no longer those he understood so well. Buyers of custom bikes are no longer part of a group that understands the unique dynamics of a bike or knows how to work on one. Nor are they any longer exclusively male — the biker chicks are moving to the driver’s seat. In the past decade, women have gone from representing 2 percent to 10 percent of bike buyers; a third of those taking motorcycle safety courses are now female. The riders of motorcycles are changing, and the safety of these new riders is becoming a huge issue.

Inside the Ironhorse of Texas dealership on Alta Mere Road, Greg Tudor, a 45-year-old factory supervisor, is checking out the possibility of ordering an American IronHorse chopper for $30,000. Tudor is with his wife. The youngest of their three kids is in high school, and the couple would like to buy a motorcycle to travel around on after all the kids are out of the house. “College tuition is in the way of this motorcycle,” Tudor says, looking down at the price tag. “I’m not sure I want to spend that much money. But I like how it looks.”

Folks like the Tudors are increasingly the standard demographic for motorcycle purchasers in this country. According to industry reports, the median age for a buyer of a Harley-Davidson (which controls 25 percent of the U.S. market) is 45, with an income of $80,000. Both the age and income figures have been rising for the past five years.

A lot of the aging of the motorcycle rider population has to do with baby boomers and publicity. Most boomers are close to paying off the mortgage, and the kids are grown. This crowd has always worried about being hip and cool, and having a motorcycle gives the world a message that you are not yet past your prime.

Another huge reason for the growing acceptance of motorcycle culture among those old enough to know better comes from the tv show American Chopper on the Discovery Channel. The show started in 2002 and centers upon the Teutul family and their business of building choppers in upstate New York. It’s the highest-rated show on the cable channel, mainly because baby boomers love to watch how Paul Teutul Sr. yells at his three kids who work for him.

How much more mainstream can motorcycle riders get than the White House? U.S. Army Gen. Richard B. Meyers, chairman of the Bush administration’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a motorcycle enthusiast, as is Joshua Bolton, head of the Office of Management and Budget, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson. Even presidential candidate John Kerry was shown riding around on a custom bike, in a film clip aired during the Democratic National Convention.

But acceptance of choppers among riders closer to retirement than to graduation is causing real safety issues. According to the National Highway Traffic Agency, the death rate for motorcycle accidents rose by 60 percent from 1998 to 2002. The same agency reported that there were 21 deaths per 100 million miles ridden by motorcyclists in 1998, a figure that rose to 33.4 deaths in 2002. By comparison, in 2002, there were just 1.3 deaths per 100 million miles traveled by car.

There is evidence that the reason for this higher death rate is the aging of the riders. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that 14 percent of motorcyclists killed in 1990 were 40 years or older; by 2002, 44 percent of those killed in motorcycle accidents were over 40.

All of this is happening as motorcycle sales are skyrocketing. According to the Motorcycle Industry Council, sales for street bikes have risen now for 11 straight years and will account for just over 1 million new sales in 2004. Those in their 40s and 50s are a crowd whose parents warned them to stay away from motorcycles and their riders. If baby boomers have one thing in common, it is their desire to rebel. So perhaps, as they move into the sunset years, riding a motorcycle is one final way to piss off their parents — dead or alive —and society.

The new bikers are drinking more cappuccino and less Wild Turkey. Drunken weekends terrorizing the townsfolk have become group rides to check out rural antique shops. It’s not “Born to be Wild” out on a motorcycle any longer. More like “Born to be Mild” — except, perhaps, for the industry itself.

Industry experts expect the higher-end custom motorcycle market to grow significantly in the next decade. If American IronHorse continues its growth pattern, Fort Worth will be a big player. The motorcycle company has already hired a new CEO to replace Rucker: Wil Garland, whose resumé includes 14 years as an executive with Proctor & Gamble.

So what can a guy whose experience is in selling deodorants, laundry soap, and paper towels do to sell more motorcycles? First, he’s realigning the company’s dealership network. When American IronHorse started out, the company made dealership agreements with anyone who would sell its products. Many of these, under Rucker’s leadership, were in smaller markets. In the next few years, American IronHorse plans to take its products to the richer clientele of the big cities. Fort Worth dealer Strand is already preparing to open another showroom in Austin, then move on to San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Dallas.

This expansion could bring the company to more than 10,000 bike sales per year, which brings us to point two. According to several sources who asked not to be named, American IronHorse is planning an initial public offering, possibly as early as the second quarter of 2005, to take the company public. The goal is to sell initial shares for $40 (about 7 times what Rucker was paid for his shares last year), which would make those already involved with the company very rich.

Part of the goal of the public stock sale is to entice a company like Harley-Davidson to buy American IronHorse. Harley-Davidson already sells about 300,000 motorcycles per year, but buying IronHorse could be an easy way to grab a big piece of the emerging custom market without having to build it from the ground up.

Those in the customer chopper business believe Fort Worth needs one more element to make it a major player in the industry: a major annual biker rally that could draw visitors from around the country. Austin draws about 37,000 riders for its annual Republic of Texas Biker Rally, and most are the new breed of riders who’d rather rent downtown hotel rooms than camp out in the park or crash in the weeds.

Fort Worth will hold the Lone Star Biker Bash, its second biker convention, on Sept. 17-19, at Texas Motor Speedway. Last year, about 15,000 bikers came out, dropping $10-12 million into the local economy, according to Bash organizer Luis Rodriguez. Despite city leadership that’s usually cool to new ideas, the Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau is helping to promote the rally. “I think they thought last year it was going to be some big, drunken fest,” Rodriguez said. “But you have to see that the people coming to these biker rallies have money, are older, and they can really add to the economy for a few days. As cheesy as some people think the tv show American Chopper is, it has brought the motorcycle world into pop culture. Fort Worth can be a place that really takes advantage of that.”

Back at Pedro’s Trailer Park, about 75 bikers are sitting around listening to a band, eating, drinking beer, and making a Thursday night play out in the cash register like a Friday. “The misconception around bikers is huge,” says Shirley Mendoza, who recently bought Pedro’s and re-instituted the bike nights after a two-year hiatus. “They are good people and they are good business. And the next time they come, they’ll bring their friends.”

Fort Worth is still wrestling with a love-hate relationship with bike people. On one hand, bike nights and bike clubs are popping up all over the place. Hot Rods and Hogs, a bar and restaurant in Arlington, is doing big business with the biker crowd. Riscky’s BBQ on Camp Bowie is drawing huge crowds on Thursday nights. The 6th Street Grill has women in bikinis washing motorcycles on Sundays.

But motorcyclists say that many areas of the city are still off-limits to large congregations of bikers. The Stockyards, for example, used to be a good hangout, until police forced bikers to park their expensive machines around the corner and out of the riders’ line of sight. Downtown businesses have also pushed the bikers out, complaining to police if bikers park in the street or on sidewalks.

But in some ways, Fort Worth could be on the cusp on something really different. The city is home to one of the top custom motorcycle manufacturers in the country as well as to one of the country’s largest dealerships and to a biker rally that could bring a lot of cash to town if it gets firmly established. And if American IronHorse goes onto the New York Stock Exchange anytime soon, a whole ton of cash will land on Cowtown.

At Pedro’s it’s obvious that the local biker community carries out one Fort Worth tradition in its own way. Just as drugstore, rodeo, and working-ranch varieties of cowboys mix amiably in the Stockyards, in the same way that the breakfast diners at the Paris Coffee Shop can include mayors, judges, and janitors on any given day, it’s hard to discern in the Cowtown biker crowd who’s nouveau riche and who’s old-line.

Even those with the expensive custom bikes wear jeans, t-shirts, and bandanas — the same way the factory worker who rides a Harley-Davidson dresses. And while there is some banter and eyeballing between the weekend riders and the “real” bikers, the two groups get along because they have at least one thing in common: They like the freedom of riding fast down the highway.

It can be funny, who really gets into this stuff. Shannon Millsap, an insurance agent who works in Dallas, has had a new IronHorse bike for about a week. His gray hair is covered by a leather hat, his t-shirt is black, but he still wears his black dress pants and wing-tip shoes. The mix of his clothing kind of sums up the changes the motorcycle business is going through.

“I just came from work,” Millsap says with a laugh, looking down at the wing-tips. “I used to ride a lot when I was younger. But recently, I realized we had the largest custom motorcycle maker in the world here in Fort Worth, and I decided to buy one. I’ve spent the past 20 years working hard and building a business. Now it’s time to play.”

Some old-time bikers, guys who have been on the road for decades, may think that “time to play” isn’t quite the right image. But the new bikers think that their expensive toys will be a big part of a growing industry. Since play-time is usually followed by pay-time, that’s something Fort Worth could be banking on.


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