Road Test
Issue: Volume: 31 Issue: 4 (April 2008)

Road Test

If you are a fan of motorcycles or just interesting reality TV, chances are you have seen at least a few episodes of American Chopper, a popular documentary series featuring Paul Teutul Sr., founder of the famed Orange County Choppers (OCC), and two of his sons, Mikey and Paul Jr. (also called Paulie or Junior). The father and sons are quite the characters, and their bigger-than-life personalities make for entertaining television. But the real stars of the show are the custom motorcycles they build in their workshop in Montgomery, New York.

“We never do anything exactly the same way,” says Jason Pohl, digital designer at OCC. “We are a total custom shop, so every time we set out to do a design and a bike, it’s all new—new to us, new to everyone in the shop, because it has never been done before.”

It’s Pohl’s responsibility to integrate a customer’s unique identity, whether corporate or personal, into a one-of-a-kind customized chopper. And he shares the job with Paulie and Paulie’s father, Paul Sr. In fact, from the unique wheels, to the body design, to the exhaust pipes, no two OCC motorcycles are the same. “Every day is a unique challenge. We never know what we are going to run into,” Pohl says. By employing digital design and the horsepower of Hewlett-Packard workstations with Intel Quad-Core technology, Pohl and the rest of the OCC crew are able to put these unique visions on the road faster than ever before.

Short Road to Success
OCC actually transitioned from a rather low-tech machine shop into one using some of the most advanced digital design tools, all within a very short period. Paul Sr., a metalworker by trade, began building custom choppers out of the basement of his home in Montgomery in 1999. He was immediately joined by Paulie, who lent his creativity and passion to the process, and later that year, the two began their ride to success on the seat of Paul Sr.’s first bike, called True Blue, which became an instant hit at Daytona’s Biketoberest. Sure that more “hits” would follow, Paul Sr. established OCC before the year was out.

In 2002, the Teutuls—who were already stars within the cycling world—found celebrity status beyond those boundaries when Discovery Channel highlighted their unique bike-building ability on the hit series American Chopper, now airing on Discovery’s sister channel, TLC. Each episode focuses on the process of creating a bike—from initial concept to final product. In TV land, this occurs within a one-hour episode; in reality, it unfolds during five to six weeks, on average. And too often, time is one of the biggest antagonists, as OCC is nearly always facing an important deadline.

Also adding to the show’s drama are the antics of the Teutuls and the OCC crew. Big, burly Paul Sr. takes his job seriously. So does creative Paulie. Mikey, who is dressed in shorts no matter the season, acts as the comic relief, often incurring the wrath of his very vocal father. At times, tempers flare and frustration levels run high. And shattered windows and broken doors are left in the wake.

Paulie Teutul (left, at the computer) and Jason Pohl (right) collaborate on a custom motorcycle design that will be built by Orange County Choppers.

In fact, it was one such meltdown—this one by Pohl—that actually led to the HP/OCC relationship. During one particular American Chopper episode, Pohl became extremely frustrated when trying to design a particular part while using another manufacturer’s dual-core machine. “I got a little angry, I guess you could say, and I smashed my keyboard across my desk, and then I continued to hit it with a fire ax that we always keep close by for panic situations,” he recounts. “I just lost my cool because I was so sick of my computer crashing.”

That dual-core machine provided instantaneous power but did not have the necessary endurance and would overheat. “It just didn’t have the ever-lasting strength I needed to pull through an entire project,” says Pohl. “It was going down during intensive 3D applications—at a time when it was important to us as a company to continue moving forward. OCC and our clients were really depending on me to pull through the project, and I would just hit a wall. I was so sick of the computer quitting on me that I took out my frustration on the keyboard.”

That episode was viewed by HP product manager Mike Diehl, who saw a golden opportunity to forge a working relationship between his company and OCC. He continued to pursue OCC until he was finally afforded the chance to make a sales pitch. “He gave us the facts about HP and their intense R&D, and we decided to give them a shot,” recalls Pohl. After conducting some comparative research and taking the HP machine for a test drive, “we decided to give them a shot, and I will never look back,” he adds. “Everything is compatible in terms of what works with what so the machine doesn’t overheat and is quiet. It is just downright dirty. It just works.”

New Speed Limit
OCC took delivery of an xw8400, affectionately called “the eight machine.” It contains eight processors, 8 gigs of RAM, and an 800gb hard-drive space, runs 64-bit Windows XP, and was shipped on the eighth day of August. OCC relies on this HP workstation with Intel Quad-Core processors to run multiple applications, and to keep up with Paulie’s creative mind.

“It’s my baby. I put it to sleep at night, and I come in and read it lullabies,” Pohl says jokingly of his machine. Turning more serious, he adds: “It is the heart and sole of the entire design team here at OCC. I tried to crash it; I can’t crash it. It’s my job to work as fast as I can and do as much as possible, and see if it can keep up with me. And it does, every click of the way.”

The OCC crew uses SolidWorks’ 3D software running on an HP workstation with Intel Quad- Core technology to model its one-of-a-kind cycles, such as this Army Chopper.

OCC has built custom theme bikes for some of the biggest names in corporate America—Microsoft, Lincoln, Airgas, PEZ, and even HP and Intel—that use it as a marketing vehicle. The OCC Army Chopper was commissioned by the US Army as a recruiting tool; the Liberty Chopper’s copper finish contains pieces of copper from the actual Statue of Liberty. In contrast, the group also builds numerous choppers for individuals, both on-air and off-air. “Usually the client is corporate-driven and wants to promote their company and product,” says Pohl.

No matter the client, Pohl is usually the first to meet with the person. Together, they sit down and go over any design ideas the buyer may have, and Pohl obtains corporate logos and color information, among other data. He then shows the person various samples of previously built OCC bikes—from the old-school models to modern ones, from ones that are long and low, to those that are tall and high.

Next, Pohl works out conceptual drawings using pencil and paper, and then uses Adobe Photoshop to duplicate the drawings on the computer in 2D, adding color and shading, and ensuring that the corporate logos or artwork are in key locations. “I also design the wheels and other components found throughout the bike,” he says. 

The Road to OCC

Some may think Jason Pohl has the ideal job: designing dream machines at Orange County Choppers (OCC). And Pohl won’t argue that point.

Pohl attended The Art Institute of Chicago, graduating with a degree in media arts and animation. Afterward, he landed a job creating video games at Incredible Technologies (Arlington Heights, IL). There, he worked on an OCC-licensed title, and his work caught the eye of Paul Teutul Sr. “He liked some of my work and saw potential in me,” says Pohl.

After a number of early-morning phone calls from Paul Sr., Pohl visited the shop, liked what he saw in OCC and the area, and joined the unique motorcycle gang. “I wanted to produce something of substance, something real that I could touch,” he says. “Video games are great and I really love that industry. But there is a shelf life to games. We were doing bump maps and bit maps, and six months down the road, someone else was doing something different and better. Producing the virtual imagery wasn’t real enough for me. I wanted to create something more tangible.”

Designing a custom OCC motorcycle fulfills that desire. “When you see the bike rolling down the road, it is real and solid. It is going in someone’s garage for 30 years. It will turn heads for a long time,” he explains.

A farm boy, Pohl grew up with dirt bikes and four-wheelers. “I always had a passion for these
types of machines. In the end, everything sort of fell into place for me,” he adds. And he’s been living in the fast lane ever since.

After this, Pohl e-mails the imagery to the client. “During the approval process, they might want a different color on the frame, which is very easy to change on the computer. I can do it in a split second,” he adds. “Using the computer allows me to work on multiple designs in a given day.” The number of drawings required for each project varies. For instance, the HP bike required 12 iterations. Nothing radical, Pohl notes, but some back-and-forth work. In fact, the designer considers the overall style of the HP bike a homerun on the very first design.

For non-TV production bikes, the time from conception to delivery also varies depending on whether the client needs the motorcycle for a special event. “We have some very interesting clients and always have interesting situations thrown at us,” says Pohl, noting that on average it takes several weeks to produce an OCC custom bike.

The OCC motorcycles can be considered works of art. They are stylish, handcrafted, one-of-a-kind pieces that compliment their owner. But most important, these are high-powered, finely tuned machines that must be engineered perfectly—no easy task considering that every piece must be designed and then engineered and milled separately for each project.

So, once the approval process commences, the next phase begins: the 3D design process, accomplished mainly with Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro and Alias StudioTools for the design work and SolidWorks’ 3D mechanical design and CAD software for the modeling. “I take an engineering package, which is SolidWorks, and model all the wheels, the air cleaners, and various components, and then give the files to Jim Quinn, our engineer and machinist, who uses a CAM package to actually machine out those parts from steel and aluminum,” explains Pohl. That machining is done in-house at OCC.

HP was impressed by OCC’s craftsmanship, so much so that HP bought a custom cycle designed around its “The Computer is Personal Again” ad campaign.

“Everything is done under one roof, from the design drawings to the finished product,” Pohl notes. “And everyone here has the chance to see the drawing come to life with a heart and a sole as it rips down the road.”

OCC operates on a closed network, so after Pohl places the CAD file on the server, Quinn grabs it and takes it from there, milling out the parts. According to Pohl, once in a while Quinn will argue that he cannot mill out a certain part for one reason or another, and it is up to the two of them to come up with a solution that works.

“He is a machinist. He takes my surfaces and geometry and adds tool passes to it in the CNC machine,” says Pohl. In the past, prior to going digital, the CAD and milling were outsourced. “So we didn’t know what we were getting until the package arrived and we unwrapped it.” (The fabrication and mechanics, though, were done in-house.) But when Pohl came to OCC, the shop also acquired the Haas Automation CNC machines it currently uses. “It made a world of difference,” adds Pohl.

Design Evolution
Before Pohl joined OCC, Paulie was in charge of all the design work, relying more on his expertise and experience rather than on digital assistance. “He’d place a gas tank, and look at it. Then he’d determine whether it looked good,” explains Pohl. “He has an amazing eye for design as far as bikes go. He is good at what he does, but his process was more hands-on, more trial and error.” But as OCC grew, so, too, did the company’s need to meet the demands of its growing business. The design process had to be streamlined.

Like any company adapting to a new workflow, there was a growing phase. “At first, the drawings were more of a guideline, and then we got stricter and focused more on the drawings,” explains Pohl. “Now they are like a blueprint—you can hold up the drawing and match it to the bike as it rolls by.”

According to Pohl, using the digital tools allows him to make changes quickly and easily. If the client wants to change the gas tank color from blue to red, it can be done with a simple click of a mouse, whereas before it meant using the eraser and white-out and redrawing it. “I really respect Chip Foose, because that’s how he still does things—with an airbrush, pencil, ink, paper,” says Pohl. “But with Photoshop, I can do more than one design per week; I do multiple designs per day.” In fact, Pohl often shows clients multiple concepts at one time.

“I can send designs to clients anytime, anywhere,” Pohl adds. “I can also send pictures from my phone of the parts being made and the bike being built.”

Using digital design tools, such as SolidWorks, has increased the number of designs OCC can produce by nearly threefold.

Some of the more difficult designs that Pohl has done involved multiple surfaces, whether on gas tanks, fenders, or other parts—basically “any organic surface that is a challenge to model inside SolidWorks,” he says. Mostly, though, he finds the greatest challenge within the engineering portion.

“I am an artist, and to be thrown in as an engineer can complicate things at times,” Pohl adds. “They start talking about tolerances, finite-element analysis, things like that, and I try to wrap my head around it.” Still, he manages, thanks to the use of Cosmos, an integrated stress analysis tool within SolidWorks.

All Revved Up
With computer graphics technology and HP/Intel hardware, OCC has increased the design process threefold and has decreased its time to market by 50 percent on average. The tools have also increased communication between the design team and the client, as well as the design team and the part manufacturers. “It’s the way any artist should work,” says Pohl. “If Michelangelo had an HP with a digital canvas, he would have been going door to door.”

A "Personal" Touch
The relationship between Orange County Choppers and Hewlett-Packard runs deep. OCC has been road-testing a customized HP xw8400 workstation, while HP has been road-testing its own customized OCC motorcycle.

When HP visited OCC to deliver the workstation, the contingency—like most visitors—headed into the shop to look around. And what they saw was a huge marketing opportunity. “A number of companies have reaped success by having a custom bike in their ads or at conventions,” says OCC designer Jason Pohl. “It’s a crowd-pleaser; it never fails.”

The HP bike was designed around the vendor’s popular “The Computer Is Personal Again” advertising campaign. The HP motorcycle is long and low, with an inverted, all-chrome front end. It has a single-sided swing arm, a custom gas tank, and a custom dashboard that houses the HP GPS unit (making it difficult to get lost), and more. Furthermore, the bike boasts deep-dish wheels that are not merely an inch thick, but four inches thick in the front and seven inches thick in the back.

“The machine time on those was incredible. The machinists hated me for those wheels. Jim Quinn worked on those things day and night for three to four days on a very large CNC mill,” Pohl recalls.

According to Pohl, everything on the bike screams “HP.” The Personal Again campaign plays out in the various decals. “It says ‘Workstation Powered’ right there on the primary cover,” describes Pohl. There is also an image of a Zen garden that’s taken from the laptop design HP used this year, as well as blue LED lights, and a custom air cleaner that is chrome with black epoxy inlay. The part that Pohl is most proud of is the headlight, the first one he has designed.

“It’s an entire 3D model. It’s streamlined, and has a rib on the top,” Pohl says. “It is something that I really wanted to get out there, and when HP came along, I was able to make that happen. I had been thinking of the design for a long time.”

Pohl continues: “This is exactly what a premier chopper should be. It is a perfect example of quality, American craftsmanship. Moreover, it is a perfect reflection of HP. “It’s more than just the logos,” he adds. “The modern, sleek lines of it and how it runs. It’s a workhorse, with 135 horsepower.”

OCC and HP bonded even further with a 2007 Super Bowl ad starring the Teutuls and featuring HP’s workstations. “And all this started with a phone call from a guy who called to say, ‘Hey, I saw you on TV smashing a workstation keyboard,” says Pohl. “How cool is that?”

With this digital evolution, OCC has become more of a custom design shop in general. While custom choppers remain the top priority at the company, OCC is also producing various clothing (T-shirts, sweatshirts, and so forth, including its own Lugz boot line), a custom guitar produced from the ground up at the shop, a Peavey guitar whose 100-plus chrome pieces were CNC’d by Quinn, and more. The group has also worked on an OCC Chevy truck. “This is becoming a real passion of ours,” Pohl says of the extended design business.

Indeed, digital design has enabled the company to move from industrial applications into these other markets with ease. “We can explore different worlds and avenues, and totally dive right in,” says Pohl. “And we are playing alongside the big-boy designers. The opportunities are endless.” 

Karen Moltenbrey is the chief editor of Computer Graphics World.