Big Bear Choppers opened shop in 1998 and has been making a name for itself in the custom-production motorcycle world since.
“I don’t do this for fun.”
So said Big Bear Choppers’
Kevin Alsop. The line of glass-encased US Patents perched on his desk is evidence to the engineering aptitude of the man behind Big Bear Choppers’ success. Alsop wasn’t granted those patents by taking business lightly.
It was a hectic weekend for Alsop and Big Bear Choppers (BBC) when we visited. In between granting Motorcycle USA an interview and going for a quick ride around the lake with us, Alsop managed to squeeze in the city manager of Big Bear Lake as the two finalized plans for BBC’s yearly ‘Ride the Mountain’
rally while fielding a call from Criss Angel’s
manager as the MindFreak star was coming to town to pick up three custom motorcycles Big Bear Choppers had built for him.
Big Bear Choppers is a small motorcycle manufacturer that specializes in custom-styled production choppers and Pro Street motorcycles. The company was founded in 1998 by Kevin and Mona Alsop in Big Bear Lake, California. Alsop is what you would call an American success story. Hailing originally from Australia, he grew up around motorcycles thanks to his father who was a professional racer. What started as a job building custom bikes at a small chopper shop in Pomona, CA, evolved into a repair shop run out of a small shed in Big Bear Lake that eventually grew into one of the most-respected factory-custom motorcycle manufacturers around.
When asked what contributed to Big Bear’s success, Alsop replied, “Passion, the love of motorcycling, wanting to build bikes that people are proud to ride. And pushing the design envelope.”
Fenders with fresh paint come back ready to be mounted on the final product. Big Bear Choppers prides itself on doing most of its manufacturing in-house.
Pushing that envelope is easier to control when you make most of your own parts. The fact that Big Bear Choppers does most of its designing and motorcycle manufacturing in-house is a source of pride for BBC. From motorcycle frames to tanks, fenders, handlebars, front-ends, foot controls, primary drives, mirrors, down to minute details like pop-up gas caps are all made by the BBC crew. What better way to manage quality control than by doing things yourself?
Alsop and his wife Mona, who serves as BBC’s Executive Vice-President, are savvy businesspeople who run an efficient shop by utilizing lean manufacturing techniques derived from the Toyota Production System. Lean manufacturing means there’s not a bunch of excess inventory lying around gathering dust. In its ideal form, the system “produces goods using less of everything compared to traditional mass production: less waste, human effort, manufacturing space, investment in tools, inventory, and engineering time to develop a new product.” Alsop utilizes the proven Toyota system for lean manufacturing in every phase of his business, from engineering to warehousing to product scheduling and accounting.
Kevin and Mona prepare to unveil the official MindFreak Season 5 motorcycle as Criss Angel anxiously watches.
Alsop’s success also hinges on his ability to keep his eye on the big picture. When Big Bear Choppers was invited to appear on Discovery Channel’s Biker Build-Off in 2006, Alsop entered the contest with the mindset that not only did he want to win, but whatever he built had to be capable of being released as a new model for the BBC motorcycle fleet. Alsop won with a stretched-out, heavy-raked chopper with Big Bear’s patented Devil’s Tail swingarm with a matching rear fender and in a build he dubbed ‘Athena.’ After a few modifications to make the motorcycle street-friendly, the Athena became a member of Big Bear’s production line the following year.
As far as pushing the design envelope, Big Bear Choppers was one of the first motorcycle manufacturers to utilize S&S Cycles’ EPA-compliant X-Wedge engine, a revolutionary new powerplant with three belt-driven camshafts, a completely new internal oil pump, and a one-piece crankshaft. His forward- thinking is also demonstrated by his G.T.X. bagger
where Alsop experimented with the bike’s center of gravity and passenger positioning by adding a 12-inch stretch to the frame’s backbone and placing the passenger in front of the back tire instead of directly over it.
Besides innovations in motorcycle design, Kevin and Mona have also realized that with a slumping domestic economy, the time was right to look toward the international marketplace. The chopper craze may have reached a crescendo locally, but owning an American-made chopper powered by a big V-Twin is still en vogue overseas.
That’s why Big Bear Choppers has recently passed strict European emission standards. All 18 Big Bear Choppers, including carbureted and EFI engines, meet Euro III certification. This has led to a stronger international network of dealers, and BBC now has six dealerships in Canada, two in Germany, two in Australia, and has branched out into Switzerland, Germany, France, South Africa, and Brazil.
“We realized that making such a large investment in time and money to obtain Euro III certification was a risk, especially during a recession and credit crunch, but we are convinced that this will pay huge dividends as we will stand out as the leader in international market for high-end American motorcycles,” said Alsop.
Big Bear has created a motorcycle aimed exclusively at the international market called ‘Rage.’ The chopper features a clean tank mounted high on the stretched backbone. The tank is as high as the triple clamp holding the BBC handlebars that angle down both sides of the bike. The bars are connected to a BBC Springer fork set out at a 48-degree rake angle, with a 21-inch tall billet wheel squeezed in between. The 100ci S&S SMOOTH engine is built by the Wisconsin-based engine manufacturer based on specs supplied by Alsop, and connects to a Baker 6-speed transmission that propels the 250mm Avon rear tire via a chain final drive. The meaty rear tire is mounted on Alsop’s patented Devil’s Tail swingarm, and a chopped rear fender prominently displays the muscular back-end. A cone-shaped, forward-facing air filter juts off the engine’s right side, adding to its custom-bike cred.
The motorcycle is very similar to one that BBC built for TV star Criss Angel as his daily rider. There are a few cosmetic differences, but for the most part, the motorcycles are the same. This is another demonstration of Alsop’s business acumen and his adherence to Toyota’s lean manufacturing system. Not only did he create a one-off custom for a high-visibility client, but the prototype laid the foundation for a production motorcycle. It is loaded with Big Bear proprietary parts, which gets them off the shelf and into the money-making arena, and fills a niche in the newly expanded international market.
Criss Angel was excited as he talked to Kevin about the three custom motorcycles Big Bear built for the MindFreak star.
But don’t think Alsop is forgetting about the market right here at home. He’s also working on a new chopper to debut here in the States for under $20K, a magic price point that no other Big Bear Chopper to date has been able to match. The new chopper is going to be built for the working-class guy who wants to own a high-styled scoot without sending him to the poorhouse. It’s something Alsop has wanted to do for three years.
“It’s flat black, with raw machined aluminum and yellow or silver cad plate. All components are US-made,” stated Alsop.
And while stretched-out choppers and beefy Pro Street motorcycles are his forte, Alsop also has a need for speed. His father was a racer, after all, so it’s in his blood. We learned this firsthand when he ripped off a half-block long smoky burnout pulling out of the shop on our very first ride together. Later in the day he zipped past a ¼-mile long line of traffic in the left-hand lane around blind corners. Needless to say, we didn’t have the sack to follow. His penchant for going fast can also be seen in the project he built for S&S Cycles’ 50th Anniversary, a V-Twin sportbike.
Alsop’s ‘Super Sport’ project bike features a 114 cubic-inch X-Wedge engine and BBC’s proprietary primary drive. The high, rounded tank and twin air scoops built up front have a Buell-like appearance. It has duel fuel cells, with the second one hidden under the seat, an extended swingarm with a built-in belt compensator, and a monster 23-inch front tire. Ohlins suspension, Brembo brakes, a Scott steering damper, and carbon fiber bits on the fenders and belt guard add to its racing credentials. Knowing Alsop, who doesn’t do anything without ulterior motives, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Big Bear Super Sport on the market in the near future.
With the expansion into the international marketplace while still currently building all the bikes in the Big Bear shop,
BBC's Kevin Alsop is the 'King of Big Bear Mountain.' Don't let the looks of his bike fool you, that thing can lay down the wickedest burn-outs!
there’s little down time for Alsop. He and Mona recently traveled to Europe to attend each of the product launches and international grand openings. They also traveled to Sturgis to participate in the 2009 AMD World Championships. When asked about what he likes to do in his spare time, he laughed.
“I think about bikes. If I’m not doing that, I’m worrying about it.”
It’s this type of dedication and passion to the art of motorcycle building that has established Big Bear Choppers as a major player in the custom-production biz. He’s already made a name for himself in the States. Now he’s got his sights set on conquering his niche in the global marketplace.