by Gus Breiland
We as Americans needed to be resourceful and self-sufficient in the beginning of our history. The corner market, instant access to shopping and food, and $4 coffee are all inventions of our modern lifestyle. If I want it, someone must be making it and I should be able to have it here within 3-5 business days.
The ’80’s and early ’90’s were defined by the rise of computers; skilled labor was replaced by overseas mass labor and instant gratification. Today, we continue to see large corporations move their manufacturing overseas, while small manufacturers struggle to remain afloat. We watch our society become less and less capable of existing without the help of others. Changing a tire is a difficult task covered by a little blue button on the rear view mirror.
“Boutique” has entered our Motorcycling culture, too. With the onset of “Orange County Choppers,” bike build offs and $40,000+ garage art, bobbing, chopping and motorcycle modification has become a trophy for the wealthy versus neighborhood kids and their weekend projects. We teach our students that manufacturing is for the unclean masses, that life behind a desk is better for you, and to leave the “cuts on the hand and grease under the fingers” to the other guy.
Kevin Baas, a Technology Instructor for Kennedy High School in Bloomington, MN, sees choppers as a chance to teach kids a skill while including them in his passion. There are still those kids who want to understand what it takes to fabricate a part. How to make those parts with their hands and how to put those parts together to make something that not only looks cool, but functions.
For the past 5 years, Kevin has been running the Kennedy Chopper Class. An extracurricular activity where students fabricate and build Choppers, putting their welding, machining and sheet metal skills to the test and putting bikes on the road that never will be factory stock.
Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly sat down with Kevin and Ryan Kaulbars, a student builder.
Ryan walked me around the shop while class was getting ready to let out. He showed me the display case with the trophies that the class bikes have won over the years. In the shop are magazine articles about their class, sponsor metal work signs made by the class, and pictures on the wall that tell you motorcycles are made here. The shop has a wall of welders, a metal casting bench, manual mills and lathes. Hands get dirty, parts get made, teamwork and pride come together to fit up a bike and make custom out of stock and catalog.
This is a “make due” shop, a space where you make it by hand out of necessity, not by choice. Donations drive the project. The bikes start as donated rolling chassis and motors. Sometimes piece meal, sometimes as a whole. Due to liability, the shop’s frame jig cannot be used. Thank you litigious society. One less skill taught.
Their first bike started with a frame, front end and an open house for the parents and community to see what Kevin had in store for Kennedy High School. Donnie Smith came by and asked “What do you need?” and Kevin said we’re looking for a motor and tranny. It wasn’t more than 2 days later that Donnie called and said he talked with S & S and they are going to send a motor. “Thanks Donnie.”
A bike can’t just be a frame. It needs a motor. With both pieces in place, Kevin had a rolling chassis and parts that could be fabricated to make it a bike. This was the start of the Kennedy Chopper Class and after 5 bikes the Chopper Class has morphed from an after school project to a class on the roster for next year (2007-08).
Kevin: Being a class is going to help allow these kids to work on it during the day instead of losing a talented kid to after school sports, etc…obviously I want the student to go to practice, but it sucks when you have a good kid that you just can’t have because they have practice.
The new class will be 18 weeks long instead of a month and a half crunch. This will allow for some extra time to get the bike ready for the Donnie Smith show.
MMM: Is there enough demand where you have to say, No, you can’t be in here?
Kevin: Not yet. I did make a prerequisite; they have to take Intro to Manufacturing before they can sign up for the chopper class. That way I know they have had me with basic welding, machine work with Joe (a retired volunteer who helps teach machining in class) and safety. I can trust them when I say, Hey, you have to go weld this piece, or cut that piece out. At least I know they’re pretty close to being good at it.
Two bikes were up on workbenches in the classroom. Last year’s bike is a rolling chassis. This year’s bike had to use last year’s motor, as there was no sponsor for a motor this year. The rolling chassis will be sold to finance the next bike; and so the cycle continues. Public schools have only so many resources, and as most Administrators hold classes such as shop, band and orchestra, etc. hostage for more traditional classes, public and private assistance is needed.
Kevin: I travel with these bikes in the summer and that’s where I meet a lot of people that say, “Hey I wanna help next year, I want to donate.” That’s where Sucker Punch came in last year. They saw that first year bike (Kevin points to the wall of pictures) three years ago, that black bike, when I took it to North Carolina. They said “Hey we wanna help you man, wadda need?” And I said “Well, everything?” So they donated a rolling chassis (last year’s bike). They sent us the tires, rims, wheels, brakes, forward controls, stock oil bag, stock peanut gas tank, handle bars, risers, a headlight; one of their working man specials they call it.
Paul Cox donated that dish gas tank so we were able to modify that. Crime Scene donated that gas cap so we cut that and welded it. Spartan Frame Works from Tucson, AZ, gave us that cool, riveted front end so we put that on and then we started hand-fabricating stuff. Once the riveted front end got on, everyone said this is what we want to do. The kids came up with all these designs for riveted pieces. The oil tank we built. The rear fender was cut and modified. Struts were made. We made a stainless steel seat pan with brass rivets in it.
That bike kind of came together pretty easy. I don’t know, just everybody meshed. This year’s bike we went through quite a bit of R&D with trying stuff for 2 weeks and then Nah, this isn’t going to work.
MMM: Mostly from cutting stuff that doesn’t work?
Kevin: Yeah, like Ryan here had a lot of ideas of molding things in…so we gave him cardboard templates to make up and stuff. We would then start making the metal work and step back and look only to realize that nah, this ain’t gonna happen. For the most part it’s the student’s bike. I don’t want to be standing there telling them “No, No, No, you can’t, you gotta do this” but it comes to the point where I’ve built bikes, I know, and when it gets close to crunch time I start telling them “Guys, there’s no time…”
Ryan: There were a couple of things where he just did that to us, said there’s no time…
Kevin: …and I don’t want to shut them down ‘cause I love their creativity and all they want to do but realistic wise, I know, you can’t. These guys, they’re optimistic “No, we can get it done.” and I’m like, “It’s not going to get done. I know.”
Next year’s bike is totally different than the last bike…none of them are ever going to be identical and I want to make sure of that. That’s why I am really strong on trying to find a mixture of donations. We’ve got Leroy Thompson’s Choppers giving us one of their Ethyl frames that we can build off and they are going to modify it to a big twin motor.
That’s got the holes in the down tube and its wicked looking. We also have S&S getting us a motor again; they wanted back in our bike.
During the entire interview, the topic of donations continued to come back to the forefront. Ideally another motor would be donated to get last year’s bike up and running. A running bike vs. a rolling chassis means a little more money going back into the Chopper classes’ budget. Materials, another Tig welder, an English wheel along with consumables like shield gas, grinders, grinding wheels…manufacturing goods are all items that, besides money, Kennedy Chopper Class could use. There was a CNC mill occupying space waiting for end mills, clamps, and collets. Even something as basic as hand tool sets for the classroom, extra bike parts to draw from when the donations times are tough…if it has to do with bike building, they could probably use it. Anything that reduces the demands on Kevin’s budget, makes the class that much more successful.
Reference material such as books like The Art Of The Chopper are useful, as students will draw on that history and those images for future products and design ideas.
Kevin Baas continued to talk about the successes that they have had and the value that the Chopper projects bring to his students.
He is focused on having projects that succeed and that continue to draw attention to the skills that his students are developing. These are important lessons. Manufacturing still exists in the US today and understanding not only how to fabricate, but timing, relying on suppliers to keep their time lines, relying on investors (the public in this case) to come up with the capitol to drive a product from paper to rolling out of a classroom ready to start and ride, are valuable lessons kids need to understand as they develop their plans to become cogs in the machinery called society.
The public can donate anything from cash, to parts, to machinery. It just depends on how you want to support. Kevin also asked me to promote their t-shirts as a fundraiser. They are available in long sleeve ($20) or short ($12), s-xxxl. Add $5 to each shirt you order if you can, it will help pay for supplies that help students create and build.
Contact Kevin Baas for sponsorship opportunities, donations big and small, and T-shirts. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The class has a web site at http://www.kennedychopperclass.com/. Otherwise you can send T-shirt purchases to Kennedy High School, C/O Kevin Baas, 9701 Nicollet Ave South, Bloomington, MN 55420. Look for them this summer and next year with a new bike.
Builders / Students
Ryan Kaulbars • Jason Conner • Navin Prasad • Preston Dvorak • Logan Ryan • Russell Arlett • Kevin Kirk • Eric Hake
Baas Metal Craft • Little Fish Designs • American Thunder • Twisted Choppers • Pearson Customs • Goblin Millworx • Dumbass Biker • S & S Cycle, Inc. • Biker’s Choice • Ghostriders • Klockwerks • Trik Shift • Fab Kevin • Kil • Avon Tyres • Donnie Smith • Nothern Tool • Milwaukee Iron • Beezachoppa Seats • J&D Custom Plating • Broadway Choppers Solutions Machining • Anoka Powerhammer • Sucker Punch Sally’s • Hering Kustoms Paint • SE Custom Powdercoating • Leatherneck Motorsports • Kendall Johnson Customs