by Neale Bayly
Just for one day in your life wouldn’t you like to be Billy Lane: crazy, wild dreadlocks, film star looks, a bunch of tattoos and a “My way or screw it attitude.”? To beat, bend and grind lumps of raw metal into some of the coolest looking choppers on the planet with your own bare hands. Then, jump on and ride them across this vast country with your own personal television crew in tow capturing your most heroic moments for the masses. To have your drink of choice be Jack Daniels from the bottle and your marital status quoted as, “Very single, but he likes exotic dancers.” I guess TV land is pretty good at making reality into a sort of fantasy, and while all the above applies to Billy Lane, there is a lot more to the Florida based bike builder as I found out recently.
Making my first trip to Melbourne, Florida, since 1986 when I rode a 13 year-old Honda 550 bound for Alaska, I checked out of the airport into a typical summer’s day: swollen rain clouds dominating the skyline and maximum humidity. A short drive from the airport, Choppers Inc is located in a pretty innocuous looking building on North Harbor Boulevard. Only a few signs, some radical looking choppers and a couple of street rods parked outside giving any clue of the sheer magic being produced inside. No huge glowing bar and shields, theme restaurants or hot dog ladies here, just a bunch of people dedicated to one man’s vision of building the coolest, wildest choppers on the street.
For those of you that don’t watch television or read custom bike mags, Billy Lane burst onto the exploding chopper scene in 2001 with the bike that has come to be known as the “Psycho Billy Cadillac.” Although, with Choppers Inc. being in business since 1995, and Billy having been regularly featured in magazines world wide, he was already making a name for himself with his incredible choppers and unique range of “six gun” parts. These include six gun- style handlebars, foot pegs, shift knobs and oil caps, all of which he holds patents for.
Shortly after, an invite by his friend Jessie James to be on Monster Garage led to the Discovery Channel asking Billy to compete in the “The Great Biker Build-off series.” Last year Billy went up against Californian Roger Bourget and then duked it out with Dave Perewitz, both well-respected bike builders, beating them both. This put him in the most recent Discovery Channel build off against Indian Larry, culminating in a huge showdown at Sturgis. Interestingly, build-off bike number four was just a bare metal frame while I was visiting, the front wheel in one corner or the workshop and the rear wheel in the other; pretty amazing to think that in three short weeks it was finished, then taken out to Sturgis, South Dakota to take part in the competition.
Actually, with time a little short this year; Billy trucked the bike up to St. Louis to meet Indian Larry and the two friends rode on from there together. The entire week at Sturgis was a fantastic success with a huge crowd packing the Main Street Road House for the build-off judging. Who took the honors? Well, in the tradition of great tales, it was a fitting finale that a winner could not be chosen, and the two builders ended up sharing the honors. The atmosphere was electric with Billy and Indian Larry cutting up the trophy on stage and throwing pieces to the screaming crowd. Billy then proceeded to do a massive burnout, blowing the motor in the process, before throwing the shifter into the cheering crowd. A few minutes later he had to ask for it back so he could get the bike into neutral to roll it out of the burnout pit. Then, as if all this excitement wasn’t enough someone walked up to Billy and bought the bike. You can’t make this stuff up.
Entering Choppers, Inc. you walk into a reception area with a pool table, sitting area and small bar set up to the right. The wall is covered with blow-ups of Billy’s many magazine covers and sitting in front of the posters is the bike Billy built named “Miss Behavin.” Currently owned by his director of sales, Ruskin, it is an extremely clean, minimalist chopper and is the bike featured in Billy’s trademark burnout picture from Sundance last year. The work area is sectioned off with large scaffold poles and a lockable gate to keep customers from getting too close.. With all the welding, grinding and action that takes place it is a good move and also lets the work continue without too many interruptions. Up front, General manager Suzanne Obst takes care of everything from incoming phone calls and e-mail to organizing for Sturgis, dealing with T. shirt and apparel sales and journalists as part of her busy day. As bright as she is beautiful, Suzanne could not have been more helpful as I constantly interrupted her during my visit .
Behind the barrier, and working away on the Discovery Channel bike is Billy’s friend and right hand man, Nick Fredella. He, in Suzanne’s words, is “the glue that keeps everything together.” A constant source of inspiration and encouragement to all, Billy makes no bones about his feelings towards Nick and his respect for his talents. Able to bounce creative ideas around with Billy, and with the practical skills to make them happen, Nick has been working full time at Choppers, Inc. for more than five years, and is a major part of the current success.
As business has grown so has the staff, and the most recent addition to the crew is the lovely Jennifer Schneider. Having previously worked for Camel in the public relations department, Jennifer met and developed a relationship with Billy while he was building the “Camel Bike” you see here in the photos. Heading south for Florida, she is now in charge of PR for Choppers, Inc., and is very excited about her new job.
My main mission while visiting was to film a segment for “Corbin’s Ride” On, that will be airing on Speed Channel here soon, and we couldn’t have done it without Jennifer’s help. She also jumped in her car while we were filming Billy out riding the “Camel Bike” and drove behind us, holding the traffic off so we could get some great shots.
The last member of the crew I met was Carlos who works in the back of the shop processing the mail order parts and accessories orders. His department is basically in the machine shop and he is responsible for the part of the business that allows Billy the freedom to create his bikes and to take part in the Discovery Channel projects. You have to realize, there is no payment for making the bikes that get featured on the show and, apart from some help from certain manufacturers, Choppers, Inc. has to provide everything including many, many hours of Nick and Billy’s labor. Of course the notoriety that has followed helps sales, but it all adds up to a lot of work.
As wild as Billy looks and as outrageously as he behaves at shows and events, he is very polite and soft-spoken around the shop. Hailing from Miami, Florida, Billy attended Florida State University earning an associate of Science degree in mechanical engineering. Following this, he went on to Florida International University to complete his Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering. Very articulate during our interview, it was interesting to learn that his parents had forbidden him to have a motorcycle or tattoos as a young man. There is a wry smile on his face when he tells me about his parents reaction when he did, but all is forgiven these days when they see what he has gone on to achieve. This engineering background has been an enormous help, especially with his hub-less bike projects, and the manufacture of the many parts he sells.
One of the things I liked best about my time at Choppers, Inc. was the state of the bikes. Left out in the rain, ridden hard and put away wet, these bikes are not fragile show bikes that get trailed to shows, spending more time under the polishing rag than on the road. Billy’s bikes are built to be ridden, and built to be ridden hard. The Camel bike he took out for the Speed Channel camera was in dire need of a serious clean and also a little mechanical attention. It had apparently been sitting a long while, but once started, Bill showed it no mercy. Since my visit, it has actually been sold, as has the Psycho Billy Cadillac, which brought $75,000. Seventy-five large I hear you say for a motorcycle, isn’t that a little steep? Maybe, but the lucky owner has basically bought a total one off, hand made motorcycle that he is positively guaranteed to never end up parking next to anything remotely similar. And, one that has been the featured on television and magazines around the world as well as being one of only two hub-less choppers ever made.
All too soon my time was up, and it was time to get back in the big bird and fly home. It is always a buzz to get around people that are living and working with their passion and Billy Lane and his staff personify the dream. As the rising star of the Chopper world, some of the coolest bikes ever built to his credit and a head full of ideas for his next ones, Billy Lane is indeed flying high. Many thanks to all at Choppers, Inc., and all the best for your exciting future.