The History of Orange County Choppers
Origins and Early Years
In 1973, Paul Teutul started a welding business with a single pickup truck and welding machine. Paul’s Welding was a small business serving the Orange County, New York area. As his business grew throughout the ‘70s and into the ‘80s, Paul needed to expand.
Seeking a physical home base, Paul opened a 7,000-square-foot warehouse in Rock Tavern, NY. In addition to opening the new facility, Paul rebranded his company as Orange County Iron.
Orange County Iron continued to be a profitable business through the remainder of the ‘80s and ‘90s, too. So much so that they had to make an even bigger expansion in 1998. Orange County Iron acquired another steel facility in New Windsor, NY.
The new complex was 10,000 square feet. Paul and company decided to keep the original location running while starting the new one. Soon after, the company began facing some logistic and communication issues. This was due in part to the facilities being located 20 minutes from each other.
Around the period of expansion in the late ‘90s, Paul started to manufacture custom motorcycles as an extension of Orange County Iron. In short order, he decided to turn his hobby into a business. In 1999, Paul Teutul founded Orange County Choppers (OCC) in Newburgh, New York.
As the Teutul family shifted into the 21st century, entrepreneurship became a family affair. Paul would hand over Orange County Iron to his son, Dan. Dan revamped operations of the company and rebranded as Orange County Ironworks, LLC (OCI). In addition to making over his father’s business, he created the steel company Gabriel Steel Erectors, Inc. (GSE).
Paul’s oldest son, Paul Jr., was formerly the head of the rail shop at Orange County Iron. Paul Jr. would soon join his father at OCC, serving as minority owner, chief designer and fabricator. OCC’s first bike, True Blue, was completed the same year the company was founded. It made its debut in October 1999 at Daytona Biketoberfest.
It was an exciting time for the Teutul family and their new yet already thriving businesses. As they moved into the new millennium, one must wonder if they had any idea of the success and fame that was set to come their way.
Breaking TV Ground
As the Teutul family continued to grow their chopper business, some notoriety started coming with it. Less than three full years after debuting True Blue at the ‘99 Biketoberfest, the Discovery Channel became interested in OCC. In an attempt to attract a broader audience at the turn of the century, Discovery began shifting its focus to reality series.
On September 29, 2002, the original pilot for American Chopper premiered on the network. The pilot revolved around Paul Sr. and Jr. building the Jet Bike. This bike was set to premiere at Laconia Bike Week in New Hampshire in June 2002. Things get tense with the Teutuls from day one as Paul Jr. neglects work responsibilities during crunch time to play golf.
The second pilot aired on January 19, 2003. This episode gave viewers a more in-depth look at the Teutul family. The history of how Paul Sr. founded the business is revealed, and he talks with Paul Jr. about past addictions with drugs and alcohol they both have faced.
American Chopper was a pioneer. Not many reality shows centered around a business and its day-to-day operations in a documentary style existed at the time. It was clear from the start that there was more to the show than building out-of-this-world unique, custom choppers. The dynamics of company personnel, clients and family would all come to light and help catapult the show into popularity.
The series was picked up full-time and the official S1E1 debuted on March 31, 2003. Much of the first season consisted of how the OCC team handled tight, fast-approaching deadlines for their ambitious projects. The family dynamic was also publicized early on; Paul Sr. as the stern, dominating voice and Paul Jr. as the son resistant to authority.
Michael Teutul, the youngest son of Paul Sr. and brother to Paul Jr., made his first appearance in season one. He fulfilled the role of assistant general manager for OCC, but served primarily as comic relief to the banter between his brother and father for the show’s run.
Chop it Up
While family relations were vital to the show’s success, OCC had a talented crew ready to take on aggressive challenges. The OCC team was already familiar with designing and building custom one-off choppers before their move to primetime television.
The first two episodes of season one highlight the “Black Widow” bike. It was primarily designed by Paul Jr., who wanted to showcase his fascination with spiders and webs. It is also notable for being the first bike Paul Jr. and his high school friend Vincent “Vinnie” DiMartino worked on together.
Season one of American Chopper also gave way to the “Fire Bike.” Everyone at OCC pitched in on this project, which became one of their most famous choppers of all-time. The bike was a tribute to the firefighters who gave their lives in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001.
The chopper featured a custom paint job with the number “343” on the rear fender. This number represents how many firefighters died while saving the citizens of New York that day. Paul Jr. welded a piece of steel recovered from Ground Zero to the top of the gas tank. This was the final touch as it was presented to the firefighters at their station.
In addition to many of the custom theme bikes built during American Chopper’s run, OCC also manufactured some unique choppers for big brands and celebrities. During season one, the OCC crew built the “Football Bike” for the New York Jets of the National Football League. Paul Sr., Jr., and DiMartino unveiled it before the crowd at Giants Stadium during the 2003 home opener.
Talk show host Jay Leno commissioned OCC to build a piece for himself, too. Leno invited the Teutuls to tour his garage, where he showed off his 1930 Brough Superior SS100. Leno wanted OCC to build a modern take on the Brough.
American Chopper dedicated two episodes on the creation of this bike, and gave it a custom license plate reading “OC3277”. This was an homage to Jay Leno’s first appearance as a guest on The Tonight Show on March 2, 1977, with OC representing Orange County. The bike was unveiled to Leno on an episode of The Tonight Show.
Discovery Channel sponsored a fan contest during season three of the show’s run. Four winners were selected to receive custom choppers. OCC designers personally visited the winners and asked them to describe in detail their dream motorcycle. It was a great way to recognize early fans of the show and create additional interest in the program moving forward.
OCC also partnered with the National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA) for a sweepstakes in 2005. Automotive service dealers who purchased $250 or more of NAPA brake and chassis premium parts were eligible for selection. Several winners were nationally chosen to receive blue and yellow custom choppers. One of these bikes was listed on ChopperExchange out of Madison, OH in February 2023.
American Chopper was a major success in the mid-2000s. The program moved to Discovery’s sister network TLC in 2007. They celebrated the move with an 18-hour marathon of past episodes. The new season debuted on the channel in January 2008.
Due to a combination of hard work and success the show brought OCC, they opened up a new world headquarters around this time. Just down the street from the original shop in Newburgh, the new HQ was a massive 92,000-square-foot complex.
The facility boasted a fully fleshed retail store and museum featuring some of OCC’s most recognizable motorcycles. The new garage was also able to handle both one-off custom and OCC production bikes simultaneously.
Not long after OCC and American Chopper reached their apex, things began to get a little rocky. The tension between Paul Sr. and Jr. began to rise, and regular disagreements became more common. In a heated exchange that went to air, Paul Sr. fired Jr. for violating his contract in 2008. The scene is so recognized that it became a popular meme years after originally airing.
In 2009, TLC threatened to cancel the show. The contract between OCC and Discovery/TLC stated that Paul Sr. and Jr. must both be a part of the show. Paul Jr. returned as a consultant for OCC shortly, but permanently left in April 2009 to found Paul Jr. Designs (PJD). This would lead to the end of the original run for American Chopper, as the season six finale aired on February 11, 2010.
During this time, Paul Sr. attempted to purchase Jr.’s 20 percent stake in OCC through the language in the contract. Paul Jr. appealed the attempt and countersued his father for alleged fraud.
Paul Jr. had a one-year non-compete clause with OCC after departing from the company. During the inaugural year of his new business, Paul Jr. worked on miscellaneous projects not directly related to choppers.
However, when the clause ended in 2010, Paul Jr. wanted back in the world of motorcycles. Paul Jr. recruited both his brother, Michael, and Vinnie DiMartino back to his side to get bikes rolling out.
Everything must come to an end eventually. However, Paul Sr. was not ready to concede to his son just yet. Could the second decade of the new millennium open up even more doors for OCC?
Spin-offs and Revival
Father vs. Son
Shortly after the professional divorce between Paul Sr. and Jr., the suits at Discovery found a clever way to continue broadcasting the Teutul family dynamic across America.
Less than two months after the series finale of the original American Chopper aired, TLC announced a new series involving the Teutuls. American Chopper: Senior vs. Junior premiered on the network on August 12, 2010.
The focus of the new series was to highlight the rivalry between OCC and newly formed PJD. Early episodes went into detail about the split between Paul Sr. and Jr. The Teutuls and production crews from both bike shops spoke on how the situation progressed to where it stood in 2010.
It was revealed that Paul Jr. opened up the new PJD shop across the street from brother Dan’s Orange County Ironworks location. In addition to poaching Michael and Vinnie, the show illustrates Paul Jr. going after even more of the OCC crew. Paul Sr. was not happy.
This series ran for four seasons. For the final season, Paul Sr. and Jr. got a bit nostalgic. At Paul Sr.’s suggestion, they decided to recreate the first motorcycle they ever worked on together. The original build goes back so far that it predates OCC entirely and was put together in their old steel shop. The temporary partnership saw the Senior vs. Junior subtitle removed for the final season
The finale, “The End,” aired on December 17, 2012. The episode primarily consisted of Paul Sr., Jr. and Michael reuniting and reminiscing about the past decade. They donated the “Teutul” build they worked on together to Motorcyclepedia, the Newburgh-based motorcycle museum.
Shaq x OCC
Less than a year after going off the air, Paul Teutul Sr. would again find himself as the face of a television reality series. On November 16, 2013, Orange County Choppers premiered on CMT. The show ran just eight episodes over one season, concluding on January 11, 2014. In the finale, National Basketball Association legend Shaquille O’Neal showed up and ordered the largest chopper Paul Sr. has ever constructed.
Shaq’s build was complete and televised less than a year after being ordered. On December 11, 2014, Discovery televised “American Chopper: Shaq Bike.” Although it is under the American Chopper franchise umbrella and both Paul Sr. and Michael are featured, there is no sign of Paul Jr.
The special featured an update on the OCC business while showing some new and familiar faces. Shaq was then presented his Superman-themed “Man of Steel” chopper. Shaq earned the nickname “Superman” during his time in the NBA, and even has a Superman tattoo on his arm.
Shaq’s custom chopper was an absolute unit. The handlebars were 50 inches wide. That’s over a foot longer than traditional OCC bars! The frame was stretched out and the front end was oversized.
The front headlight was a big “S” resembling the Superman logo. The air cleaner was customized after Shaq’s 2006 NBA Finals championship ring with the Miami Heat, including a 96 karat Cubic Zirconia stone.
While test riding the bike, OCC staff had to wear Shaq’s size 22 shoes to safely make themselves tall enough. Paul Sr. reiterated that it was the biggest bike ever built in the history of OCC.
The Last Ride
Discovery attempted to revive the original American Chopper series in the spring of 2018. The reboot dove into how the previous decade has played out for the Teutul family. Paul Jr. made his return to television as PJD was heavily featured in the series alongside OCC.
The two shops came together when Paul Jr. asked his father to restore their New York Yankees bike. The bike was originally built in 2005 and featured on season two of the original run. It boasted many signatures by players on the team at the time, but had been damaged and vandalized over the years.
Four-time World Series champion Bernie Williams joined Paul Jr. and Sr. for the assembly of the bike. The chopper was presented on MLB Network by the Teutuls. Network host Chris Rose asked if they would like to build a Major League Baseball bike later on, and Paul Jr. was touched when his father offered the project to him.
The revival ran for 16 episodes over a two-season stretch, concluding in April 2019. The next year would see the official finale of the Teutuls on your TV. In August of 2020, Discovery aired “American Chopper: The Last Ride.” It was a two-hour special highlighting the very first chopper officially built for a client by both OCC and PJD.
The build was for ABC Supply Company, the largest roofing company in the United States. The build deadline was tight, and not only because of television production. The original shop was set to be completely demolished.
After finishing the chopper in eight weeks and presenting it to ABC, the Teutuls rode off into the media sunset. Would OCC wind down with television production out of their lives, or would they lean into a second act?
Moving South to Sunshine
Shortly after Discovery’s final special aired, OCC decided it was time to make another major move. The Newburgh facility had been closed since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their retail business was suffering due to international shipments being cut off. OCC needed to adapt quickly or risk losing their business.
While in St. Petersburg, Florida at a 2019 beach bike show, Paul Sr. caught up with Keith Overton. Overton, the owner of TradeWinds Island Resort, expressed his belief that Paul should be in Florida. The two spoke about working together in the future and formed a great relationship.
As 2020 was wrapping up, an official decision was made. Orange County Choppers would move its headquarters to Pinellas Park, FL, adjacent to Bert’s Barracuda Harley-Davidson. The Newburgh HQ location was shut down, and hundreds of items from that shop were auctioned off.
Having worked with Paul Sr. at motorcycle shows together during the previous decade, Overton wanted to make the partnership official. He sold the TradeWinds resort to take on the role of investor and managing partner at the new location.
Orange County Choppers Roadhouse & Museum opened in June 2021. The 11,000-square-foot facility features a restaurant, museum, retail store and, of course, a bike building shop. Adjoining the roadhouse is a pavilion offering 25,000 square feet of space. The pet-friendly pavilion allows visitors to dine outside and shoot some billiards. On select nights, the pavilion hosts concerts, too.
Paul Sr. had several reasons for making the move. He already owned a home in Delray, Florida, so he was familiar with the state. He also realized at the height of the pandemic that his business would have more freedom in Florida than New York.
On top of that, Paul Sr. recognized that Florida’s riding season was much longer than New York’s. There are also motorcycle events and rallies all over the state year-round.
While Orange County, New York will forever be home to the Teutuls and OCC, the business made a successful transition to the sunshine state. What’s in store for their second act? May there be a third or even fourth?
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