Jesse James Stayin’ True

June 16, 2009
Steve Atlas
Steve Atlas
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Professional-grade speed and an attitude to match, Steve Atlas is the new blood at MotoUSA. Atlas has AMA racing creds that are even more extensive than his driving record.

Jesse James is no stranger to media exposure, with the Spike TV show Jesse James is a Dead Man just the latest in a string of cable television hit shows.

Once a biker always a biker. This is a mantra Jesse James lives by. Even with a handful of hit TV shows, larger-than-life personality and movie star wife, James still shows up at his Long Beach, California, motorcycle shop, West Coast Choppers, getting his hands dirty every day. How many other celebrities do you think can say that?

“I feel cheated if I’m not welding something everyday.”

“I’m still here every morning ready to work. I think if I ever get to the point where I don’t work I’ll just get rid of the place. I think TV and everything else takes me away from what I really should be doing, and that’s working, and I feel cheated if I’m not welding something everyday,” says James, looking every bit as sinister as always; tattooed arms draped over the front of an evil looking chrome, black and red chopper.

The thing is, James is far from sinister. An extremely smart businessman and an even nicer guy, he’s always talking your ear off with a host of incredible stories, most involving death-defying antics.

We’re at his Long Beach shop for the cover shoot and one look around the massive warehouse reveals exactly where these stories come from. 

“It’s like WIlly Wonka Land for grownups” is what Jesse says when asked about his old car collection, off-road trophy trucks and the nitrogen-powered land-speed car sitting in his Long Beach shop. Yes, you read correctly, James has a hand-built nitrogen-powered, tube-framed rocket car in which he is going to attempt to set a land-speed record. Why, you might ask? Because he’s Jesse James and that’s what Jesse James does.

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Hear what celebrity custom bike builder Jesse James has to say about his new show in our Jesse James Interview video

It’s for one of the episodes of his new show, Jesse James is a Dead Man. The show has been a project of his for the past year, in which each episode James is put into extreme scenarios of all different kinds. One episode has him riding a BMW GS up to the Arctic Circle the first week of December in 65-below-zero weather, while another sees him race a trophy truck in Baja California.

An episode that brings about a host of good stories is when he raced a US Hare Scrambles for the first time. However, in typical Jesse fashion, it didn’t go quite as planned. He was training at Supercross star Jeremy McGrath’s ranch and the day before the event almost put himself totally out of commission. We recently rode with Jesse at a BMW intro and he was still hurting from the mishap, though keen to tell us the story.

For one of the episodes James runs from the police in a mock-chase. You’ll have to watch the show to see who wins…
“The show is a different death-defying  race or adventure every week…”

“As part of the training I went to McGrath’s place to ride, I trained for this race for months. He had a 100-foot water crossing set up where you try to pin it and make it across. Of course, he does it no problem. And me being a dumbass, I’m like, ‘Yeah I can pin it and do something Jeremy McGrath can do,’” laughs Jesse. “Well, I did it, but the bike popped in the middle of the water and sent me sailing. It knocked me out and hurt my back. I still had to run the race and it was pretty brutal, but I didn’t embarrass myself too bad.”

“Basically the show is a different death-defying race or adventure every week,” he adds. “One week it’s a car or motorcycle race and the next it’s an off-road truck race, or trying to ride where someone never has before.”

James on sidecar racing: “It was fun, I’ll give them that, and those guys are all nuts. There’s even one girl up there that does it and she’s nuts too; it’s their own little secret society.”

James even ran an F-1 sidecar race at Willow Springs, finishing second in his first-ever outing.

“It’s really not that fast. I thought those things were way faster than they are,” James says of the hand-built sidecar he piloted. “I’m used to 800 horsepower trucks and stuff. It was fun, I’ll give them that, and those guys are all nuts. There’s even one girl up there that does it and she’s nuts too; it’s their own little secret society. I would like to do one again with a Hayabusa motor and run it at the Isle of Man. Now that would be crazy.”

With plenty more madness where that came from, we’ll no doubt be sure to watch and set our TiVo on SPIKE TV. It should be extremely entertaining.

But with all this chaos going on outside the motorcycle world, what’s up with West Coast Choppers these days?

“We’re still building bikes for customers,” says James. “We probably build 10-15 bikes per year and we still customize stock Harleys and stuff like that. I’m actually doing a BMW for someone that saw mine – they wanted it all blacked out. We’re a motorcycle shop and we’re trying to keep it just that. I still have three or four guys who I personally build bikes for each year; they are good guys and I like to be creative and stoke them out.”

Buy a West Coast Chopper and theres no doubt Jesse James took a major role in building it despite his hectic schedule as a celebrity.
Buy a West Coast Chopper and there’s no doubt Jesse James had a major role in building the machine despite his hectic schedule as a celebrity.

So, what does the “man with all the toys” keep parked in the garage as his personal motorcycles? Not what you may think.

“I’ve got my little Harley Dyna Louisiana Police bike and I’ve been riding one of those K1300 BMWs. The Police bike is a sleeper, though. It has $10,000 heads on it, among other internal modifications, and though it looks pretty haggard it puts out 160 horsepower to the rear wheel. No one expects it, it’s really fast – I love it!”

And when James says he rides, he rides… “I put in probably 20,000 miles a year still. I have a house in Austin (Texas) too and I have a couple bikes there, a ’37 Indian Chief and one of those Harley Rockers that I’m kind of making cool to keep down there and ride. How can you own a motorcycle shop and not ride? C’mon.”

What’s next for Jesse James and West Coast Choppers? Well, it’s pretty simple. “I’ve been building bikes since ’91 and I plan to keep on doing just that,” he says with a smile. And we believe him. Jesse James is a biker, and always will be.

So You Want a West Coast Chopper?

Like what you see? Want Jesse James himself to build you a West Coast Chopper? Good luck, right?! One would think with all his fame and everything he has going, getting him to lay a hand on a customer’s bike would take an act of Congress. But if you read the story you’d know this isn’t the case at all. Jesse’s in his Long Beach, or “Strong Beach” as he calls it, shop every morning welding and getting his hands dirty, a lot of the time on customer’s bikes. Now you have to remember, getting a custom bike from West Coast Choppers isn’t cheap. But neither is the quality.

“We still build 10-15 bikes per year for customers and we still customize stock Harleys. We’re still a motorcycle shop first.”

Is Jesse James a dead man? We’ll see…

I’ve seen my fair share of expensive one-off motorcycles and, while some have been extremely nice and very well done, there are always little details where you can tell it’s handmade, some minor flaws. After spending a day with James and a few of his customer-built customs, I didn’t find a single imperfection. Not one! Perfect welds, no yellowing chrome – finite detail right down to the last nut and bolt. In fact, his signature piece is a round clamp or cover with the back of several .44 caliber bullets inset in it. He even takes it one step further, having “Jesse James .44” engraved in each one, ever so small, to add the finishing touch. This is what West Coast Choppers are all about.

Cost totally depends on what you are looking for, though I can tell you they start in the six-figure-territory. Basically, if you have to ask, you can’t afford one. Surprisingly, though, one isn’t just paying for the name.

“I have $80,000 in labor alone into making each one of these, sometimes more,” said James, who quickly points out the details. “Check out that frame, it had to be perfect before getting nickel-plated and chromed so as not to get any yellowing. This bike here would go for about $120,000 or so, but I’ve got almost that into it. This is no way to get rich, this is just what I do, ya know?”

It’s for this reason not many are built each year and they take time to complete. “We build 10-15 bikes per year,” he adds. That’s one a month, maybe less. These are no cookie cutter customs. There are months of blood, sweat and tears in each one. So while it’s not cheap, when it comes to custom choppers, West Coast Choppers stands head and shoulders above most others I’ve ever seen. In this case, you really do get what you pay for.

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