Orange County Choppers was a multi-million-dollar customized motorcycle-building business empire, established by Paul Teutul Sr. along with his son Paul Jr. in 1999. A reality-television series about them called “American Chopper” premiered in 2003, catapulting them to fame such that many chopper-style motorcycle enthusiasts, from regular folks to high-profile celebrities, wanted to commission a bike from their shop. For a time, the Teutuls lived the American dream, until they bit-off more than they could chew, and the company was forced to liquidate its assets. One of them was the Orange County Choppers headquarters which was valued at $13 million when they built it, but sold for just $2.3 million, a mere fraction of its original cost.
- 1 From the basement to Orange County Choppers
- 2 Road to reality-TV series, “American Chopper”
- 3 The success of Orange County Choppers
- 4 What happened to Orange County Choppers?
From the basement to Orange County Choppers
The fascination with chopper-style motorcycles was almost gone by the 1970s, but was resurrected when Jesse James came into the picture with his West Coast Choppers crew. Some bike builders were trying to be cool or snooty about it, but the Teutuls belonged to the group that credited Jesse’s contribution for its renewed popularity. As Orange County Choppers drew inspiration from that, coupled with hard work, skill and relentless drive, the small business they had started from the basement became a successful customization company. It didn’t take long for the Teutuls to become one of the world’s top custom motorcycle builders.
Started with Orange County Ironworks
Paul Teutul Sr. was a self-confessed late bloomer when it came to riding motorcycles. Back in the day, there were few bike riders going around in his community, and were even called rare creatures. It was only when he reached the age of 20, and after watching the movie, “Easy Rider” in 1969 that he developed an interest in building one.
This idea was shelved as he needed to make a living, but he realized early on that he could never work under anyone else, and when he had people working for him, he would give them opportunities that were never offered to him. Paul Senior was a risk taker, and so he provided iron and steel welding services from his truck, but later opened up a shop in Orange County, New York State.
Initially, he had a partner, Fred Gerini, and they called their business, P & F Ironworks. An accident burned the business down and they parted ways. He never gave up on the welding business, and so it became Paul’s Welding in 1986, which he later turned into Orange County Ironworks (OCI), involving his children with the business, and it was successful.
From ironworks to customized choppers
When Orange County Ironworks became a stable source of income for the Teutul family, Paul Senior left most of the running of the business to his children. In 1995, he and his wife separated, and he then wanted to reinvent himself. He thought that it was the perfect time for him to do something he loved, and so he started working on motorcycles in his basement, but he was Old School and he wouldn’t touch anything produced beyond 1984, whether it was an engine or a design frame at that time.
He started spending less time with OCI and more time in his basement, but his workaholic stance never changed, as he would get up at seven in the morning and work until around 10 in the evening. He would call his eldest Paulie, also known as Paul Jr., the Railings Manager at the steel shop, to help him work on his bike. His son was a great fabricator, and had an immense talent for designing, so they collaborated on many motorcycles.
From hobby to Orange County Choppers (OCC)
Each time Paul Senior looked at motorcycle magazines, he would go straight to the old bikes and was never interested in Softails, which came out in 1985. However, it bothered him that some of his younger friends in Daytona Bike Week doubted his claim that he could easily create Pro Street bikes at half the price that was being sold for in the market – Pro Street bikes and customized Softails were the popular designs in the motorcycling world at that time. He was challenged and at the same time inspired, so he built most of it from scratch while Paulie did some custom fabrication. When they finished, they called it True Blue Bike, and considered this as officially their first project for OCC. In the summer of 1999, Paul Senior decided to leave the basement, put all his savings into building more bikes, and established Orange County Choppers.
Road to reality-TV series, “American Chopper”
Paulie said that his father was a huge risk taker, because if Orange County Choppers didn’t work out for them, he’d ruined his future, as the money he’d invested in it was supposed to be for his retirement. He also said, ‘Hats off to my father. He went for it, took the blind leap, and didn’t think twice.’ Having great designs and quality didn’t mean that it would immediately translate to success, and Paulie acknowledged that if they hadn’t joined the world of reality-TV, the business could have ended in disaster.
The Teutuls weren’t supposed to be the stars of “American Chopper”
The CEO of Pilgrim Films based in Los Angeles, Craig Piligian, was tasked by Discovery Channel’s director of development, Sean Gallagher, to find people to be featured in a new motorcycle-building reality-TV series that they were creating. At that time, Jesse James’ TV series “Monster Garage” was doing well, and Discovery wanted something similar to it on their programming. The agreement was to get a cast, and film a pilot. After checking out online sites, the Teutuls made it to the top 10 list of possible stars, but Craig chose a bike builder from New Hampshire. However, after talking for some time over the phone, Craig had a gut feeling that he was making a mistake. It wasn’t that the New Hampshire bike builder said the wrong things, but it was how he said it; seemingly he wasn’t that passionate about his job. The executive producer then called Discovery, and said he would go with the Teutuls of Orange County Choppers of New York, the reason being that they looked and sounded better. He called the Teutuls and asked if they wanted to do the show with the – Paulie nodded to his father, and Paul Senior agreed.
While Senior is relying on Mikey to build an ‘Old-School’ chopper, Junior has proved himself again by designing an awe-inspiring bike for the client. Watch American Chopper tonight at 9 PM. pic.twitter.com/gpxmmdTbe8
— Discovery Channel India (@DiscoveryIN) December 25, 2018
Filming the pilot episode
When the production crew arrived at the shop, they thought they would film with Craig’s concept, but Paul Senior didn’t want that, and told them that it would be best to film them as they built a chopper that Paulie wanted in tribute to his grandfather. The producer in the field called Craig in L.A., and told him about Paul Senior’s demands. For whatever reason, Craig gave his blessing, and the filming went smoothly after that.
Paulie taught himself how to speak naturally in front of the camera, but Paul Senior said that he had a difficult time, because he was a control freak. Uncomfortable or not, they all soon forgot about the cameras, so the usual shouting and snarling between father and son was caught on film. When Craig saw the footage, he knew that he had something quite different from what he and Sean Gallagher initially envisaged. The bike building wasn’t the main star of the show anymore, but the relationship between father and son. He wanted more shouting from Paul Senior, and while Sean wasn’t sure about it, he let Craig follow his gut instinct.
The Teutuls thought the TV premiere ruined their lives
No-one in Orange County Choppers or the Teutul family weren’t given the opportunity to get a sneak preview, or even just a glimpse of a rough edit of what transpired following filming. On the night of the TV premiere of “American Chopper,” they learned that other motorcycle-themed TV shows were being aired in the same timeslot, and it made them more nervous. After they watched the pilot episode, they were quite shocked that all the arguments that the father and son had weren’t edited out. Paul Senior was quite angry about it, and even Paulie said, ‘We looked like a-holes.’ They thought no one would take them seriously after watching the episode, Paul Senior saying ‘All those builders out there watching us, laughing at these two New York jackasses.’ When Paul Senior talked with Craig that night, he screamed at him, and told him that he’d ruined their career and made OCC a laughingstock in the bike-building community. He wanted to hop on a plane, drive out to Craig’s studio, and beat him up.
Craig told him to calm down and wait for the ratings to come out, along with feedback from the viewers. Paul Senior slammed the phone down thinking all of it was bullshit, however, after lunch the next day, they started to receive calls at the shop, and they came non-stop. Everyone was leaving great reactions, and even Discovery’s website message boards were flooded with positive feedback. OCC’s own site was shut down, as it couldn’t handle the web traffic and the messages it received from the general public.
It finally dawned on Paul Senior that most viewers not only loved the bikes, but being real or too real on TV, specifically his relationship with his son, touched them as well. The ratings they received were surprisingly quite high, but Discovery executives felt that it might be a fluke, so they ordered another episode just to test if it was real, which proved that they had a goldmine in their hands; the Teutuls realized that their lives would never be the same again, and so willingly embraced it. They all signed up with Discovery for 13 more episodes, and the ratings increased after each episode. As a result, they became not only popular bike builders, but reality-TV stars as well.
The success of Orange County Choppers
The Teutuls’ appearances in annual bike events were huge hits – they said that sometimes it was difficult to distinguish what was real and what was just a dream. The first happened in Daytona Bike Week, as they experienced what Jesse James had when his reality-TV series became a hit – everyone was interested in their bikes, and people recognized them. However, it was at Louisiana Bike Expo in 2003 at the New Orleans Superdome that they realized how big they were, being mobbed when they rode through the crowd. Paulie rode in the Fire Bike and Paul Senior on the Black Widow – the older Teutul said that it was one of the unforgettable moments in his career. It was an emotionally charged moment, as the crowd cheered as if they were comic book superheroes, or real heroes such as firefighters or military veterans who were onstage.
Huge demand for their bikes
Paulie already knew that they were heading to something great, even back when they were still in the basement, he had so much confidence in his bike-building skills. However, he also knew that they would need something big to get their bikes out there to gain recognition. It was just luck that one of their theme bikes, Spiderman Bike, was bought by rapper-musician-actor Wyclef Jean, way before they appeared on TV. They were reluctant to sell it, but since they needed more money at that time to build more bikes, they agreed to give it up. However, sometime in 2014, they bought it back, and today it can be seen on the display stand in Paul Jr. Designs shop. The huge demand for their bikes started when they appeared in “American Chopper.” He felt that it was such a blessing that the reality-TV show gave them the ideal platform to showcase their skills. Many celebrities commissioned OCC to build one for them, including Jay Leno, Russell Crowe, Billy Joel and Shaquille O’Neal.
Top three themed bikes that came from their shop
One of the reasons why OCC made it to the top league in motorcycle building was their theme bikes. Even non-chopper enthusiasts were fascinated and intrigued by the various designs that the Teutuls came up with, each time someone commissioned them to do something for them. First on the list was The “Christopher Reeve Bike,” which was specifically made for paraplegic who were longing to be out there on the road, but could no longer do it. OCC customized it with push buttons and hand brakes, so that paraplegics could easily get on the bike and play with it.
The second one was the “Fire Bike,” which was built to pay tribute to the heroes who died during the 9/11 tragic events. Third on the list was the “Black Widow” bike, one of the bikes seen during the first episode of “American Chopper.” It was their first TV project, and a lot of bike enthusiasts felt that it was the best collaboration from the OCC crew. They used spider web-like fenders and painted the gas tank red and black giving it a cool and menacing vibe.
What happened to Orange County Choppers?
Due to many volatile arguments between Paul Senior and Paulie, the relationship between father and son deteriorated further, and came to the point of no return when the father terminated the services of his son on TV. However, he couldn’t cut ties with Paulie immediately because he’d given the latter a 20% stake in the company when they started it. A long legal battle between them ensued, ultimately resulting in the father paying for the son’s share in the company.
Orange County Choppers had expanded by building a massive headquarters in the town of Newburgh. It was a 61,000-square-foot building that housed a café, a shop, and a garage. The 2008 building cost around $13 million, but in 2016, it was auctioned off. Initially, everyone thought it was the business itself that was being sold, which created confusion for a while. The facility had a minimum bid of close to $1 million, and was eventually sold for $2,275,000, which for some reason didn’t have a direct impact on OCC’s business, as claimed by Paul Senior. Apparently, the real estate property was already surrendered back in 2011 to its lender to avoid foreclosure, and the Teutuls were only renting two-thirds of the property. At that time, they still used it for the filming of the reality-TV series Paul Senior had with A&E network, called “Orange County Choppers: Made in America.”
In 2020, when Covid-19 became a pandemic, OCC’s profits fell drastically, as most of its retail business involved the international market, which was cut off. The Teutuls didn’t have any choice but to close it down, and auction off most of the items inside the building. They relocated to St. Petersburg, Florida in the spring of 2021, and partnered with another businessman, Keith Overton, who became the managing partner of the newly-established 11,000 sq. ft. Orange County Choppers Roadhouse & Museum. In February 2023, even without a reality-TV series anymore, OCC remained an icon in the motorcycling world. Paul Senior was still the face of the business, even if his family no longer solely owned it. He was still building motorcycles at his age, with a new team, as most of his original OCC crew left to do their own thing, including his son Paulie who established a successful company of his own.