At first it seems that one of the most popular shows on television is powered by no more than a family feud, bent metal and a growing real estate empire. But a closer look suggests that American Chopper — the motorcycle-tinged saga of a family business that’s transformed into a winning TV narative — reflects a certain reverence for a time when physical labor, mechanical craftsmanship and an underlying sense of decency were more admired than executive bonuses.
The program started in 2002 and initially seemed to be an ongoing tale of a small motorcycle shop, Orange County Choppers, based in Orange County, NY, an area about two hours north of Manhattan. Each week Paul Teutel, his son, Paul Jr., and a small crew use various mechanical bits and pieces to create a chopper, a type of motorcycle with an extended front fork and low-to-the-ground profile.
More Than Motorcycles
The finished bikes are as much art as transportation, with exceptional mechanics and custom finishes that incorporate various design cues from themes and corporate clients. Even for non-mechanics and non-artists, — people who don’t particularly care about motorcycles, aren’t gear-heads and don’t know how to tune a motor — the show is fascinating. To watch someone physically bang and weld metal until it’s formed into a perfectly structured gas tank is something most of us don’t see in a world dominated by office cubicles and computers.
But there’s more to the show.
First, there’s the ongoing combat between the father and son, a psycho-drama worthy of Shakespeare. On one side is the huge, dominating father who with great intensity and laser-like focus built a successful business. On the other is a talented and insightful son who as an adult seeks both independence and recognition. For viewers, there’s a tragedy in seeing a father and son locked in a near-ceaseless war of words and wounded egos. In time Paul Sr. and Paul, Jr. split, becoming rival bike builders and opposing parties in a tough lawsuit. It’s both wasteful and fascinating at the same time. You hope they reconcile.
Second, the show is about growth. In terms of finance and real estate, the Teutels are a family that’s moving up when many families not on TV face tough times as household income is falling, jobs are being lost and the social safety net is eroding.
Over time the family houses get larger, the cars are nicer and the family business moves successively to bigger and bigger facilities, culminating in the construction of a huge production building — and then a dispute with a lender leads to foreclosure claims regarding the new shop’s $12.5 million mortgage.
Third, the show is about leisure as an offset to work. Paul Sr. takes Paul Jr., another son, Mikey, and often a few employees to Australia, South Africa and Great Britain. There’s hockey, volleyball, fishing and shooting. This is a bunch that both works hard and plays hard. Later, when the Pauls split, the father takes his crew to Alaska while the son heads to Florida with a group to frolic with dolphins.
Lastly, the Teutels always find time to help police and fire departments, to build bikes which are auctioned off for charity and to help vets and kids who have substantial health issues and medical needs. Sometimes they even pay top dollar at auction for their own bikes, with the cash going to a given charity or cause.
The final show for this season — the most-viewed episode of the year — featured a build-off sponsored by Cadillac. Paul Sr. and Paul Jr. each designed a bike for the car company and the bikes now are being auctioned off with the proceeds going to support the fight against Duchenne’s disease, a form of muscular dystrophy.
So which bike was better? Within two days the Paul Jr. bike had been viewed online more than 1.4 million times while the elder Teutel’s bike had been seen 1.1 million times. The Paul Jr. project, from his new company, Paul Jr. Designs, had attracted 69,000 supporters while dad lagged behind with fewer than 6,000. (Enlarged photos of the choppers are now online. The photos make it easy to compare each custom build.)
What to make of all of this?
At the end of the day the bike builders we see on television have something to show that’s tangible and real. Engines roar, metal is shaped and electrical devices come to life. But there’s a conflict: The mechanics and fabricators do hard work and get dirty; they’re emblematic of a kind of work ethic we admire — and the kind of work we increasingly automate, shut down, devalue and ship overseas.
The Discovery Channel’s American Chopper is compelling because it reflects a vision of America that used to be widespread, an admiration and appreciation for the guys (mostly) who were good with their hands, good in shop class and who had intelligence, mechanical skills and took delight in life. The guys with whom you had the most fun.