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Monster Garage 50th

Bandit And Team Build WCC Chopper

By K. Randall Ball with photos by Tom McMahon, Tod Mesirow and Hope Moore
6/14/2010 2:29:28 PM

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Bike Building Boot Camp or A Crash Course In Chopper Building

MG group 
shot w sigs
The 50th Team.

A rare e-mail address flashed across my in-box. Jesse James from Monster Garage wrote, "Wanna help build an Old School Chopper?"

I wrote back, "I'm not a master builder, you have a number of talented builders at West Coast Choppers. I'm just an old school hack."

My mind whistled with considerations. Would the 2004 Harley become a protein shake blender? I was assured that the historic 50th segment would mirror the Old School '54 Chevy Custom Build--a group of classic masters, in the custom car art, turning a stock coup into an unreal lowered cruiser. Our team was made up of accomplished chopper industry innovators and suddenly I was of the age to fit that seedy category, 56.

MG don 
Don Hotop

The Old School Chopper Team fell into place with Don Hotop from Don's Speed and Custom in Fort Madison, Iowa, a master mechanic for 30 years and builder of over a half-dozen Drag Specialties project bikes; John Reed, a wry Englishman, and master product designer from Custom Chrome for 20-odd years; Carl Morrow of Carl's Speed Shop in Daytona, Florida, a man whose entire family has devoted their lives to making Harleys fly, (His son Doug just broke a Land Speed Record at 183 mph for an unfared Sportster on Gas); Finally Marc Rowe of Rowe Engineering in New Hampshire, a master hotrod frame manufacturer who was encouraged 15 years ago, by a Hells Angel friend of mine, to build chopper frames. He's been building them ever since.

MG carl 
The famous speed freak, Carl Morrow.

One item struck me immediately. I've known all but Marc for almost 25 years, as the editor of a motorcycle magazine. They've all been distant friends and men I respect. Suddenly I was thrust into a dark garage to work 10-12 hour days with them to build a old school chopper out of a wrecked 2004 Heritage Softail in five days.

The dynamics of our relationship would certainly change, hopefully for the better.

I assumed that I was about to face a crash course in Chopper building, fabrication, frame geometry, welding, machining and design from accomplished masters. Sure, I built a few bikes and rebuilt engines along time ago, but I never worked with both arms elbow deep in metal shavings daily. I was humbled by the challenge.

Day One: Carl Morrow hauled his entire rig from Florida with his son, Doug, and quiet race team member, Serge. They brought a state-of-the- art dyno. It was parked out front so we hauled the dented Softail into his rig and dyno it for a 61 hp result, from the stock 88-inch fuel injected twin cam engine. We watched Doug peel the race rubber off the back of their award winning Sportster as he performed a masterful burnout and peeled up Lindon street next to the abandoned Chrysler dealership, now Monster Garage, anchored in the coastal Long Beach ghetto.

MG john fitting 
Custom Chrome's Designer, John Reed.

First the camera crew, directed by Episode Producer, Brian Lovett, positioned the chopper team on elevated scaffolding for the designer meeting. While Jamie Seymour, who designs for Thor and studied at the Pasadena Art School of Design, sketched as we discussed the various elements of the bike with Jesse James. The bike would surely contain a West Coast Choppers' theme. Jesse explained that WCC wheels, including a 21 for the front and 200-18 for the rear waited in the offices below along with a Baker 6-speed, over-drive transmission set up for a chain drive to utilize the modified stock rear swingarm.

As we discussed the design, and the artist sketched, our minds whirled. We didn't need no stinkin' renderings. We knew exactly the direction to take. But even in the beginning obstacles emerged. John Reed rode his hand built Rev Tech 110 inch, prototype V-kit sportbike to Long Beach. He bounched off a woman's car, who pulled out in front of him on the 400 mile road south and bent his air cleaner.

A few years back John endured a stroke, "It burned the common sense portion of my brain," John muttered in his slang ridden English accent. "I'm lucky, I never used that area." He was as spry and agile as ever. Jesse recently slammed a NASCAR into a wall at 130 mph, fracturing several ribs and broke several bones in his left foot.

Barely released from his hospital bed he raced a Monster Garage SUV project in the Pikes Peak hillclimb event the day before our start date.

During the design meeting he announced his goals to hand-form a classic copper metal tank, fender and seat pan, but, all the while, his foot hammered with pain and his chest creaked as he breathed.

That wasn't all. Don Hotop, who I looked up to as one of the finest builders in the country, recently endured throat surgery and still couldn't eat solid foods. He lived off Boost vitamin and energy drinks, but never blinked or complained. Hell, I recently discovered the constant pain in my hips was arthritis and I had to give up martial arts to get a good nights sleep. We were old farts, as my pappy use to say. Marc couldn't hear a word we said unless we were standing face to face. But the group cooly ran at the challenge.

MG kb, marc n 
Marc Rowe, the frame master, and Don Hotop. Oh yeah, I'm there wiping tools down.

While in the design meeting Carl explained that he would tear the engine to it's roots and bore the stock cases to allow 4 1/8 pistons (from 3.750 stock) to fly through Carl's Axtell big inch cylinders. Coupled with the stock 4-inch stroke the engine would jump to 107 inches of Twin Cam energy. West Coast Choppers planned to polish the cases and heads and Carl would install his polished signature barrels, gear-driven performance cam set (Carl Morrow or CM 600 lift), chromolly Andrews adjustable pushrods, Carl's priority cylinder heads with 2-inch intake and 10670 exhaust valves ( stronger valve springs and titanium valve collars) and his torquey 2-inch, constant velocity Typhoon carburetor.

His goal was to boost the bike to 120 hp with 118 pounds of torque.

The design discussion called for John Reed's old school notions, use of the stock triple trees with classic rubber fork boots, a chopper fender mounted to the swingarm, a traditional solo seat, short apes with WCC risers, a traditional chopper headlight, WCC pipes although Carl pushed for his new-tuned performance system that was ready to rock.

A Rivera belt drive system was already nearby. We needed an alternative wiring system. Jesse pushed for 2000 Softail front foot controls and Brembo Brakes front, rear and Brembo hand controls. We needed a new petcock, coil, ignition switch, taillight and Genny at Custom Chrome was poised to help order components. Marc Rowe was responsible for modifying the heavy Softail frame.

We returned the lumpy stock Softail to the power lift and tore into it like mad dogs. We were burnin' daylight and needed to strip the frame, and pull the engine for Carl's team to dissect.

I looked to Don for everyday mechanical guidance as we tore the Heritage down beginning with the gas tank working rearward until the rear wheel was removed. After lunch I sorted tools for workable access while we discussed the safety aspects of the build with the on-site EMT, Moose. After 50 episodes the tool selection was scattered and worn. Suddenly we were surrounded by cameras from Dylan O'Brien, Director of Photography, and a jib arm aimed by Chris Deichl with his assistant Jason Lange. Tod Mesirow the producer and Brian, jetted in and out of the scene with constant questions.

MG kb thru 
Yeah, a horrible shot of me through the frame.

We were given a tool tour by Ben Wood and he pointed out the massive, impressive wall of Mac Tools, English wheels, two tube benders, tubing notcher (wish I had one of those), broken drill press, cut off saws, mig welders, three grinders, TIG welders, torches, plasma cutter (another handy device), radial cut-off saw, band saw and we went back to work.

We tore that bastard to the ground and Carl's crew hauled the engine to a bench for tear-down. Don Hotop and Marc Rowe lifted the frame to a reasonably flat metal table and discussed the frame gig that needed to be fabricated in order to modify the chassis. At 7:00 p.m. they kicked us out the door.

Day two kicked off with a flurry of activity at 7:30 a.m. I ordered parts from CCI while Carl figured gearing for the new monster. Marc headed to West Coast to manufacture the components needed to build a quickie frame jig.

"When we watched Mark lay down his first TIG weld and saw that it was perfect," John Reed said, "Don and I looked at each other and I knew, that for sure, I wouldn't need to do any welding."

Jesse started massaging the soft copper into a rounded shape using two mighty-loud stretching and rounding machines, while his foot throbbed. John Reed, who pissed off Carl Morrow the previous day, when he suggested an alternative engine, if Carl couldn't complete his mods, showed his masterful talents immediately shaving the heavy lumpy frame with a harsh array of grinders, sanders and saws.

The parts list called for Custom Chrome fork boots, coil, ignition system, headlight, trees (maybe), WCC risers, H-D forward controls, lowered shocks, throttle and throttle cables from Carl's truck. We needed a chain, an '03 Softail manual, and '03 Softail wiring harness, sprockets, petcock, grips which Bill Dodge made us at WCC along with pegs. Hope Moore, assistant producer, kept track of every part that rolled in or out of the Garage. We all had a crush on the gleefully inspiring blond, although the entire crew was tops.

MG kb n don h 
working on bike

Day two was a dream/planning/preparation day. Several interesting elements surfaced. Although we had over a century of experience, this was a new motorcycle with new trials, parts and scenario. We were bound to run into blind curves. Like anyone facing a five day project, prior to a run, we tried to over-order to prevent last minute snags. We attempted to second-guess any future mishaps. Jesse supplied a frame neck and WCC internal fork stops and we began to slice and dice the stock wide-glide trees only to discover that the internal fork stops won't work with the customary bottom tree. Don suggested we flip the neck before the frame was welded and fasten the fork stops under the top tree. Another possible dilemma solved.

Marc stripped the frame of its stock backbone and Don and Marc worked diligently to remove the down tubes without damage to the factory castings. Again at 7:00 p.m. the staff kicked us to the streets.

Day three, another 6:00 wake up call and I rolled up to the Monster Garage aboard my 1948 Panhead. The helpful enthusiastic crew of Original Productions fed us three squares a day, but at every meal I looked at Don, as he swigged down a Boost and dove back into the project. I gazed longingly at the exotic chow, grabbed a bite and followed the master back to the fray. Two problems surfaced regarding television set working conditions. This was the 50th episode and the tool array was battered, lacking and saw blades were dull. Since this was a stage, lighting wasn't set up for working conditions but filming, adding to the challenge as we squinted to see the chuck on the beat-up drill press.

Custom Chrome 

garage logo

We needed a solvent tank badly. Parts rolled in from Custom Chrome, WCC, H-D and Rivera. Ben, the Monster Garage tool man, made runs for hacksaw blades and our parts cleaner tank. The polished cases slipped in the door from West Coast Choppers and Carl went to work on the engine. We discovered that Jesse's chosen brake calipers were sans the front fork bracket and John Reed grabbed a chunk of billet aluminum and attacked the project.

Marc Rowe and Don Hotop did their best to figure wheel spacer lengths and headed to WCC while I dug through the Heritage parts pile and reassembled the rear brake controls and shifting mechanism using the new 2000 Softail H-D parts. I figured that anything that was bolted together and ready for final assembly would save time down the road. As it turned out, WCC had a bracket for the rear brake caliper. Don also suggested that we contact Motorway in New Hampshire for an Evo/Twin Cam ignition system that would eliminate all the trying Twin Cam wiring maze for a two-wire ignition system. We ordered and received the proper coil from CCI and were ready to rock.

It was day three and we were praying that the engine would be assembled, the frame modified (we were waiting for a tubing delivery) which would mean we had two full days for assembly. I have so much respect for this team, for a myriad of reasons, but one sticks out.

They went at this project as if we were snorting valiums during the perfect storm.

Everything didn't fall into line ideally, yet when member of the team experienced a glitch, they stood back, shifted direction and went at it again. We made parts like a handmade Softail fender extension and threw it in the trash. We ordered parts that didn't fit Carl's performance package and tossed them in the trash.

Marc Rowe and John Reed were uncanny. Marc took to any job with the calm of a sea captain on a flat ocean. He never flinched. His welds were perfect, his fabrication abilities excellent. John Reed constantly had a humorous quip coupled to an artistic solution. The front brake caliper to the wide glide bracket was precision made but lacked aesthetics. John whipped it off the front end and the "Grinder Bitch" (our nickname for John as the week rolled along), went after it and formed the bracket into a work of art.


Another element of the old school chopper build surfaced--Quality. This wasn't a slam-bam build by any means. It was a timed challenge, but every aspect was handled as if the bike would be ridden to Sturgis the following week and compete in a master builders' show. We weren't building just a chopper quick, but a world class custom within old school principals in five days. We still needed Terry Component battery cables, a battery and a high/low beam micro switch for the headlight. We needed fork oil, tranny fluid and fortunately Carl had motoroil. Don Hotop and Marc Rowe constructed the frame jig on a large 1/4-inch thick steel table and the frame began to fly back together. Marc hand manufactured a boxed-in neck gusset, but couldn't start on the top motormount until the engine was in place.

The motor was flying together, but the polished heads weren't back from the WCC's polishing shop. Famous dirt riders raided the shop after lunch, then we were lead on a field trip to watch as these world class two-wheel competitors performed jumps in a dirt lot behind Jesse's shop. We watch them and our watches in awe. We wanted to be back in the shop under grinding dust, welding slag and nut-and-bolt drawers. They kicked us to the street at 7:00 and we rolled to the new Headquarters for a quick tour. My lovely assistant, Nyla, was even pulled into the battle and made runs to Radio Shack and Home Depot for high/low beam switches, stainless Bucking rivets, and a brake light switch.

Day four, we made a pact, no more field trips. We would ditch the crew, sort the tools, make sense out of the nut and bolt bins and keep working. They cut us a break and announced that launch time wouldn't start until 8:00 a.m. I was grateful for another half hour of sleep, but wanted my hands in the tool boxes quick. I pushed for Thursday assembly to afford us additional glitch time on Friday, but that wasn't the case.

We welded the neck on upside down to accommodated the stock trees then used WCC wide glide, three-degree trees. Marc set up the neck for 35 degree rake so the trees took the bike to 38 degrees; a moderate angle. Unflinchingly Marc looked over the problem. Don consulted and Marc, with precision accuracy, TIG welded beads along the bottom of the neck cup forming the internal fork stop tabs, then Don carefully ground them to perfection. Another obstacle overcome.

MG jesse on 
Jesse ended up on crutches to prevent more damage to his foot.

John Reed carefully ground factory welds and formed the swingarm into a final slim, sleek work of art. The frame was ready to rock. The controls were waiting, the Baker Tranny also lingered on another bench. We set up a parts counter to house any products that rolled in including a spare tank and several sets of handlebars from headquarters. As the week rolled on Jesse's foot swelled with growing pain until he was forced to escape for medical assistance. By Thursday his foot was bandaged and he was compelled to hobble around on crutches. We weren't sure his piggy bank shaped tank would make it, and although he spouted that the fender would only take a couple of hours, we nodded and went back to work. Our plates were full, so we kept the fires burning with our own projects.

Finally, in the afternoon the frame returned to the center lift and the driveline was ready to install, along with the Rivera/Primo open belt drive and Rivera hydraulic clutch cover. As the sun waned the polished engine was mated to the polished Baker Tranny and swingarm. I installed the shocks and adjusted them low. Marc went to work on the top motor mount and John Reed grabbed another bare chunk of aluminum and began to blacksmith the coil/ignition mount between the heads. In the afternoon Don and I escaped the garage for a hardware run for the fork spring extensions. WCC cut the tubes exactly to Don's specifications for perfect ground clearance, but we needed simple PVC pipe chunks for the 14- over front end springs. Unfortunately two runs to the hardware store scored the wrong diameter. We went as a team to insure that the job was handled correctly. Some 24 feet of PVC pipe was purchased for a measly 28 inches that was used.

MG tank on 
Jesse's copper gas tank.

Finally we could fit the front end together, oil it up and mount the front wheel. From time to time we ran into like glitches. Such was the case with the front wheel spacers. We couldn't seem to get them right and kept running back to WCC for lathe time. I don't remember why, but from time to time we installed the rear swingarm for the final time only to remove it once more. For instance the chain alignment became a problem with the wide 0-ring chain and the Grinder Bitch was called to duty once more to notch the swingarm.

At 8:00 p.m. they production crew showed us the door.

Day five started with a bang. I installed most of the controls and shifting linkage. Don hand fabricated a Don's sprocket alignment tool and aligned the rear wheel with the tranny sprocket for the final time and proceeded to poor over manuals and wiring diagrams since we couldn't use the Motorway Evolution ignition.

tool on floor
Don's handmade alignment tool.

Carl's performance upgrade called for his CM600 cams and a gear-driven assembly to replace the chain driven stock unit. The Motorway system was designed to connect with chain driven cams. Don's challenge was to create a ground-up wiring diagram that would transfer the fuel injected system to a carbureted model in less than a day.

Jesse struggled into the shop on crutches and handed Marc a WCC rear fender. He was determined to complete the tank. Mark would need to modify the WCC unit and create brackets to secure it to the swingarm. John Reed and I started making hydraulic clutch and brake lines when Jesse announced that we needed to make the seat pan. I took over the hydraulic brake project while John began to hand fabricate and create a mounting system for the one-off seat pan.

MG jesse n 

In the meanwhile Carl installed his Typhoon carburetor. I made the hydraulic brake lines, installed the inline brake switch, which was a project in itself, and began to bleed all the systems and discovered that I had installed the Rivera pressure plate on backwards. Chopper Dave wandered in from WCC with more brake line components and informed me of the secrets to bleeding Brembo controls. They actually have bleeders in the reservoirs.

Mark Rowe never quit, as he built the top motormount to match his neck gusset. He modified the old school headlight to fit down on the lower tree in WCC fashion which was a thin-as-paper welding challenge. He handled it like a champ while Don wired, John finished one seat pan, shit-canned it and started over. I drilled and ran wires through the frame. Jesse crawled around the frame with his leg bandaged while under severe pain medication and welded tank tabs in place.

The Chopper Challenge flew together as the hours swept past. Hydraulics were complete and bled, Tranny and oil tank filled with fluids. The front end was oiled and the brakes were centered over the rotors. We installed WCC pipes and they ran into Carl's billet carb. We shifted gears and grabbed another set of WCC pipes. This time they ran too close to the Custom Cycle Engineering starter button mounted to the Hi-Tech starter solenoid. We cut the pipes, Marc rewelded them and we were good to go.

John's fabrication talents shinned while Jesse explained that the molecular structure of copper wouldn't allow us to use the sharp copper gas tank unless it was lined and we wouldn't have time. Mark from WCC darted for the door. He returned with a gadget they use to fuel bikes without tanks.

We were ready to rock by 9:00 p.m., but when Don turned the ignition switch it wouldn't fire.

We pulled the plugs, spun the engine and made sure it was oiled for the start, but spark eluded us. Don wired in the VOES switch, the vacuum sensor, the ignition module, circuit breakers, and the flywheel sensor, but no security module, still no fire. He began a careful investigation. We switched coils, checked the plug wires and took voltage readings. New 2004 models come with a security breaker that's involved with the turn signals. If it's tripped or disturbed, it shuts off ignition power. Don removed it during teardown. We considered it, then Jesse mentioned that he had ran into a similar problem. We had to dissarm that system, by grounding the link to the missing TSSM unit. Don researched the wiring diagram and powered that plug on the ignition module--nope. Then ground the #10 wire and it fired.


The chopper came to life like a beast from hibernation. It stood tall, sleek, contoured and alive and I was stunned.

"My heart gave a tweak at the end when it fired," John Reed said. "I apologized to Carl about my engine comment, and he said that we will always be friends and gave me a hug."

I immediately shook each member's hand including the Carl Morrow's race team and the staff of Original Productions. We did it. Whatta rush, and I hope that this segment of Monster Garage conveys the pure adrenaline high this opportunity afforded me, coupled with the superb opportunity of working with this highly respected team. But that wasn't all.

MG chopper 
on dyno
The Carl's Speed Shop Dyno.

Carl warmed the motor to a temp of 180 degrees and let it cool three times while adjusting the massive carb. Then the doors of his impressive trailer swung open and the dyno was charged to life. We rolled the chopper onto the ramp and onto the rollers. Doug Morrow climbed on board and fired the Monster Garage, 50th Segment, first motorcycle build, machine to life. The O-ring chain flexed and spun through the gears like the wake behind a competition ocean going cigarette boat. It sang and screamed as the rear wheel spun faster and faster to a top power rating of 117 hp and 115 pounds of torque.

We hadn't built just a sharp, stylish chopped Heritage, but Carl Morrow made the bastard run like a raped ape. It couldn't have been a finer week. That's my Monster Garage tale and I'm sticking with it.

MG full left 
indoors final
It was stripped, chromed and Jesse painted it (first bike he ever painted), by the WCC crew. Then they put it back together--not bad.

MG full right 
outdoors final

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Reader Comments

This is still one of my most beautiful machines. I'm currently setting up my home garage, where I will be doing custom building. I'm in need of a picture of this chop for the garage.

While searching pictures I ran into this site again. I still tell stories of riding and servicing this Chopper, while at New Orleans Harley. Prior to my experience with this Chopper, it was my background on my computer, for almost 2 years. I still remember how it felt walking into that show room and there it was to the left, right next to the front door.

Saturday, August 19, 2017
Editor Response Great story and terrific memories.
This bike was my computer background while I was going to M.M.I's Harley program. I got a job at New Orleans Harley and saw it in the showroom as I walked in.

I got to service and do minor work to this Monster Chopper. I hated to see it go I also wish I would have gotten a picture with it.

St. Petersburg, FL
Sunday, August 19, 2012
Editor Response Where is it now?
great blast from the past ! this was one of the better episodes of that show. great looking bike, a real chopper!

houma, LA
Thursday, June 24, 2010

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