This past June, the people at American IronHorse Motorcycles celebrated their 10th Anniversary by inviting a bunch of journalists to their factory in Ft. Worth Texas. The reason you’re just hearing about this now is that they put an embargo on the gift of prose you’re about to receive so it wouldn’t pre-empt their annual dealer meeting announcements on Sept 11. We’ve been sitting on this hot potato all summer long, and it’s ready to be mashed.
If you’re not already up to speed on what’s going on in the small manufacturer/semi-custom bike world, allow me to help you find the throttle. Way back in the mid-Nineties when there were too many customers and not enough Harleys, a few forward-thinking entrepreneurs smelled an opportunity, and some of them are actually still in business. Among them, American IronHorse. They’ve been through some rough times, but have found ways to weather the storms that have sunk other, sometimes far larger ships (Indian, Excelsior-Henderson) by improving the consistency, quality and reliability of their bikes.
Of course, there has been some turnover: one of A.I.’s founders, Tim Edmundson, recently moved on to what I’m told is an exciting career in the patio furniture industry (though he remains a board of director and also has his own boutique bike and hot rod shop). His replacement: Wil Garland, their new CEO whose solid corporate credentials include a stint at Procter & Gamble. If this smells like big business, that’s because it is. In fact, there are plenty of market indicators that prove what you already know: that America is going nuts for Choppers.
But if you’re like me and are more interested in the bikes than the stock, this is still good news. Corporations hate recalls, product liability problems, lemon law hassles and other issues that screw with the bottom line. So at the end of the day, their motivation is parallel to yours, and the end result for consumers interested in these $30,000 machines is that when you throw a leg over on Sunday mornings, odds are the thing will start, run, and get you there and back with far more style/less hassle than any mass-produced bike an average guy could pimp up in his own garage.
Okay, so it’s off to Texas we go. From the point of view of this particular trip, this is the land of Beef, Beer and Big Shiny Motorcycles. Our trip starts at American IronHorse’s rather impressive 224,000 square-foot factory (no, we didn’t measure it). In it, a surprisingly large workforce flows a whole bunch of bikes through every day. Sorry I can’t be more specific, but they were very tight-lipped about how many bikes they were making and selling each month. Suffice it to say that while we were there the place was humming, with people looking like they had plenty to do at every phase of production, from prepping the frames, through the busy paint shop with several big booths and no less than 20 hand workstations, to the CNC mills making brake parts and wheels, to the various stages of assembly. Final testing takes place on two dyno setups that seem to run constantly.
American IronHorse bikes are divided into two categories: the Cruisers and the Choppers, ranging in price from $27,995 to $34,995. VP of Design Jeff Long painted the very first American IronHorse project bike and has been with the company ever since.
If you’re gonna get into this kind of machine, you have to pick a bike that fits who you are, and to do that, you have to understand a bit about yourself. Or more to the point, what kind of message you want to send the world about who you are. All of these bikes make a strong statement, but the difference in stance between the types is significant. They’ve got three models in each family of bikes, with a mix of suspended and unsuspended models from which to choose. The Cruisers include the Slammer with air suspension, the softail Outlaw and hard-tail Tejas models. On the Chopper side, they offer the Texas Chopper, the softail Legend and the hardtail LSC models. Some models come with 240mm rear tires, others with fat 280-series meats.
Standard on all AIH bikes is a 111 cubic-inch S&S engine that VP of R&D Scott Waters tells me is “reworked” to American IronHorse specifications. Apparently, the engines arrive in Texas from Wisconsin in a kind of kit form, and it requires a five-stage process to build them up to running order. Interestingly, when buyers opt up to bigger engines, there’s a trade-off in warranty durations. The basic bike comes with a two-year warranty. Order one with a 117c.i. engine and it drops to a year. Go big for the remarkably more fun 124 c.i. mill and you’ve only got 6 months of included coverage. Big pistons flailing on long stroke arcs are tough on powertrain durability. The bigger you go, the more this is so, and the warranty coverage reflects that.
After an evening filled just past the brim with the aforementioned beer/beef combo, we met up at the next day back at the factory and waited all morning for a nasty electrical storm to pass before we could go for our ride. During this time, I had a chance to bench race with some of the people there. The cool thing is that while they had an obvious vested interest in selling bikes, they all had a primary interest in riding them. Most of the key players there are honest-to-God motorcyclists, so it’s cool to just hang out and talk.
I learned that one of the biggest challenges facing manufacturers of these kinds of bikes is government compliance. Scott Waters is literally losing sleep as he works with S&S to try to figure out how to maintain power and driveability as new DOT and EPA rules come into effect in the coming years. No more can AIH act like a backyard builder: the new bikes have DOT-legal pipes, horns, reflectors, turn signals and all the other things that get either stripped off or just plain left off show bikes and one-off customs.
When the weather cleared, the factory guys and all the journos saddled up and headed south to Austin where the Republic of Texas Rally was already underway. This is their mini-Sturgis weekend, so it was fitting that we joined the pilgrimage. The route took us through farmland and low rolling hills on mostly two- and four-lane roads. We stopped a few times along the 190-mile ride to trade bikes, stretch and fuel the bikesâ€¦ and ourselves. We each had our preferred “keep going” ritual: I opted for a potent maintenance-dose of Red Bull and ibuprofen. It was hot and muggy, and some unnamed people were probably hung over, and these are not touring bikes.
Steve Natt enjoys sampling all manner of Texas wildlife, from the big, juicy bugs dying on his teeth at 80mph, to the endless parade of thick steaks served up in one BBQ joint after another.
I had ridden the Texas Chopper pretty extensively in 2004 for “American Thunder” on Speed Channel, so for this trip I wanted to see how the new one was improved and how the other bikes stacked up. They’ve gone to different supplier for clutch components, thankfully, as that was the Achilles heel of the previous generation TC. Actuation is easier and more linear with a longer friction zone, making off-the-line launches a lot more fun. Their right-side drive setup and Baker six-speed tranny combine to form what is pretty much the state-of-the-art ticket for shift quality in big American Twins.
One thing right off the bat that is true but doesn’t seem to make sense when you just look at the bikes: the Chopper types are more comfortable for shorter guys than the Cruiser models. I think it has to do the shorter Cruiser bars, as the frames of each are of similar length (top tube). I’m a few inches shy of 6 feet, and the seated stretch just to maintain control of the hardtail Tejas cruiser was quite uncomfortable. The bike rides well enough for a rigid, but the combo of way-out forward controls and the pro-street type handlebar puts guys of average height in a “bend over and touch your toes” riding position. All your weight is on your coccyx, which is a bad place for it to be when you hit a rut or pothole. Ergo, the ibuprofen.
Luckily, I did most of the long ride on a sweet Texas Chopper with the phat 124 engine, good for a claimed 130 horsepower. On a bike that weighs in around 600 pounds, that’s a perfectly respectable ratio. Ah but with these machines, the torque’s the ticket my friends, and there you’ll find great, thick, flowing gobs of it pounded out through that great new clutch and straight into that 10-inch wide chunk of rubber under your butt. With long front ends and skinny front tires, burnouts aren’t possible on dry pavement – the back tire hooks up and just shoves the bike forward as though it was a sled. But any of these bikes love pulling hard through that sweet zone of 40-80 mph, to the point where you hope there’s someone to pass up ahead. You find yourself grousing into the wind, “come on, gimme a reason to twist that throttleâ€¦ please!”
Switching up from the 111 to 117 to 124 is a real eye-opener, to the point that the smaller mill feels almost underpowered in comparison-even though it’s 50% stronger than a stock Harley engine. If you’re gonna spend this kind of money, I recommend you pony up at least for the 117.
If you’re new to this and are thinking of heading over to a local dealership to try to talk them into giving you a test ride, take this word of warning: you want to be delicate with that throttle hand on corner exits. All that big torque, the long wheelbase and that fat rear tire conspire to make the machine understeer. It’s not that big a deal, just be mature about it and get it turned, pointed where you want to go and then nail the gas. And when you do, I challenge you to try and avoid screaming, “Yee-hah” like some tanked-up rodeo has-been. Also remember that the limited ground clearance means it helps to lean off the inside, roadrace style, if you want to maintain speed and not grind off your pricey bits. Even though this doesn’t look “cool,” it works.
You can order your American IronHorse motorcycle with either a stock 111c.i. engine, or pay extra to move up to a 117 or a 124. Each engine is treated to final assembly and testing in Texas, even though the parts are all built by S&S in Wisconsin.
A switch to the top-of-the-line Slammer reveals that bike’s Jekyll/Hyde personality. The Progressive-sourced air shock system can be purged for a super-low stance, which may look cool when parked but makes the bike ride horribly. Just press the button, the electric pump comes on a la Gold Wing, and then at full height it gives reasonably good ground clearance, even if it is a bit of a choppy ride. The feel is not quite hard-tail, not quite softail. Compressed air isn’t a particularly good spring. So until they come up with an oil-based hydraulic system to allow you to change a bike’s ride height/parking stance, this one will have to do.
I found the Slammer to be far more rideable than the Tejas, but still wished either the bars came further back or the seat was a bit farther forward or the foot controls more midset or, perhaps most honestly, that I was built more like a Volleyball player and less like a road racer. Be 6’2″ and you’ll be very comfortable on this machine.
The Legend is far and away the most rideable of their choppers-even though their Texas Chopper model outsells it by far – only because of a subtle difference in looks. Those of us of normal stature should be happy to trade off the 10% differential in the cool quotient (the Legend isn’t as extreme-looking as the TC) for a bike that is far more of a rider than a poser. In fact, it’s amazing how much a mere 2 inches in downtube stretch can change the entire character of a bike. The Legend’s bars and controls feel more natural and are at a height that doesn’t cause the blood to run out of your hands over time. It can be turned in a tighter radius and generally feels more responsive, which to my mind makes it the right choice if safety in an emergency situation is a factor for you. So given all this logic, why is the TC their best seller? Because logic, my friends, has very little to do with why people like this type of motorcycle.
Case in point: their LSC model, which shares overall geometry with the Texas Chopper but is a rigid-frame machine, and rides like one. Unless you have something to prove, like for example, that you don’t need a functioning spine, or that you want people to think you’re tougher than other mortals, I see no reason to buy an LSC over a Texas Chopper or a Legend. The ‘softail’ has just as much street cred without the broken teeth and sore back. It’s also safer-the idea behind suspension is keeping the tires on the road when the road gets bumpy. You can’t turn or stop when the ass end of the machine is in the air.
That said, smart geometry (38 degrees of frame rake with an additional 4 degrees in the trees for a total kickout of 42 degrees) blends into a good feel with their reasonable trail figure, and good build quality make the LSC as good as any of the competition’s rigid choppers. Just don’t try to tell me you’re buying one because you like how it handles.
Make sure you air up the suspension on the Slammer model before doing this, or SLAM is exactly what the lower rear corners of the frame will do when you throw it into a corner. You find the right pressure level for your weight and riding style by working the toggle switch on the right side of the bike.
The one machine we didn’t get to ride was their limited production Tenth Anniversary Texas Chopper. It comes with a trick Barnett clutch pack that works like the clutch on a dragrace car: a series of springs and weights around the perimeter allow easy clutch pull at low revs, but as the basket spins up, increasing pressure is applied against the plates so you don’t get slippage/disc burn as all that torque gets fed in. It sounds great in theory, but again, they didn’t give me the keys to one so I could tell you for sure. Otherwise, the Anniversary bike will function identically to the standard issue model, but will be tarted up to full show bike level. The 124 engine is fully polished with diamond cut and powdercoated barrels. The entire frame is chromed, as are all the faceted controls, of course. The sheet metal gets a custom two-tone red and silver candy sparkle paint job that is so shiny you have to look at it with sunglasses. It’s a beautiful piece of work.
And here’s the kicker for all of the AIH ’06 models. Every single bike worked as designed during the four days we beat the crap out of them in the Texas heat. I looked, hard for faults in fit and finish and didn’t find any. Honest. The chrome work was uniform and clean. The paint is as good as you could hope to get from any top-line custom house, regardless of price. And with a bit of judicious borrowing from the AIH parts and accessories department, every bike looked like a unique, custom original “one-off,” even though there are but six main variants. And with a bit of judicious borrowing from the AIH parts and accessories department, every bike looked like a unique, custom original “one-off,” even though there are but six main variants. Of course, if you’re ponying up for a high-buck factory custom, you deserve nothing less.
TX Chopper $30,995
Limited Anniversary Edition Texas Chopper $50,000
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