Paul Teutul Senior: Ultimate Collector
THE DISTINCTIVELY MUSTACHIOED FABRICATOR of outrageous custom motorcycles for the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Russell Crowe, Bill Murray and Donald Trump is an in-your-face kind of guy, so don’t call him by his given name. On the premises of his fiefdom, Newburgh, NY-based Orange County Choppers (OCC), the boss is addressed as Paul Sr., or simply Senior. A totally reformed 12-stepper who at one time “had basically done any drug around,” the Yonkers, NY native is a self-made man. He arrived at his current dominant position from humble beginnings with the Orange County Ironworks, a shop where he built custom bikes for pleasure after being inspired by the many two-wheelers appearing on the streets and in films. In 1999, he co-founded Orange County Choppers with his son Paul Jr. and began building bikes for sale.
At the sleek, hi-tech OCC facility, Paul Sr. and his team of custom fabricators design, engineer and manufacture unique choppers built around a theme or, increasingly, for a broad spectrum of motorcycle enthusiasts around the world. Outfitted with sophisticated technology such as 3D printers that facilitate creation of ornate and decorous motorcycle parts at the touch of a button and the click of a mouse, the Orange County Choppers plant has been the center of the hit TV reality series American Chopper, which debuted in September 2002 on the Discovery Channel. The current Orange County Choppers on CMT and the forthcoming OCC American Xtreme, which premieres on A&E in August and features Paul Sr. and Sons of Anarchy/Illusion Cycles personality Rusty Coones, are the latest iterations of the brand Teutul has built.
Part of the draw of these highly popular shows is the behind-thescenes dynamic in the shop as the crew takes on the many requests that come in every day for ever-stranger and more ornate custom motorcycles. There is the all-powerful presence of Paul Sr. himself, a stickler for details and protocols with a kind of OCD obsession with neatness. There is the constant horseplay that goes on in this uber-masculine environment, manifested in often-elaborate Rube Goldberg treasure hunts for people’s tools and personal items. And there is a lot of noise, not only from the clank-clank of machine shop implements but also from the staff’s obsession with blowing things up. Bowling balls, big boxes of popcorn, chocolate sauce, even live ammunition have been combusted on the set of this slapstick world.
Paul describes a recent prank he played on a relative: “Yesterday my nephew…who is here—I don’t know if you’ve seen him—he doesn’t have a car. So I set it up where a buddy of mine brought this truck down and we brought him outside and said, ‘Look what your uncle got you! Take it around the block.’ And my mechanic had it rigged so that when you start it up it would smoke. So we said, ‘Take it around the block and see how you like it and then pull in front of the garage door.’
“So when he pulled up to the garage door, I said, ‘I think you need air in your tires.’ When I said that, the garage door went up and everybody in my shop had hatchets, they had sledgehammers, they had every tool that you could possibly think of. And they totally wrecked the car probably within 10 minutes, flipped it over on its side—he wasn’t in it! He was there watching it.
“He didn’t get a car after all of this. It was great. But yeah, we love pranks, blowing up stuff and, you know.”
This prankster activity helps relieve the deadline pressure of the often-elaborate works of industrial art fabricated here at the request of clients. “We built a bike for Donald Trump and it was all gold, well, black too, but all real gold. We’ve done a dragon bike that looks just like a dragon,” says Paul Sr., and here again he is modest. The “dragon bike,” built for a Chinese entrepreneur who is opening an OCC franchise in Beijing, is featured on this YouTube episode of Orange County Choppers:
Orange County Choppers OCC “The Dragon Bike S1 E6” (www. youtube.com/watch?v=yzjly819s0E).
And then there was the “Shaq episode,” which garnered millions of views, hits and comments. The Chopper guys made something special for Mr. O’Neal. “He is a funny guy. He definitely has a great sense of humor and he likes toys,” says Paul Sr. “The guy is 7’1”. It was a challenge building the bike. He was a cool guy. We didn’t really spend a lot of time together because he has a busy schedule, but the time we did spend was great. We have worked with probably every celebrity you could think of. Most of them were good experiences.”
Paul Sr. has appeared on several TV shows, including Celebrity Apprentice, Jay Leno, Letterman, GMA, Jimmy Kimmel Live! and other nationally televised talk shows. His tough-guy image is contradicted by a playful, sweet inner-child demeanor and a tireless involvement with various organizations such as Make-A-Wish, St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the U.S. military.
We sat down to talk with Paul Sr. as he was prepping for the photo shoot of HudsonMOD’s “Collectors Issue,” trying on an outfit he admits never wearing before: a suit.
How does a man who’s never worn a suit feel about being photographed in one? “You know what?” he replies. “I’m kinda looking forward to it! I think I look pretty good. I tried that suit on. I don’t think I look bad in a suit. I’m in good shape. It’s kind of cool in a sense, but would it be an everyday thing? No. But what’s cool about being Paul Sr. is that I could go to the President’s and I could wear a cut-off shirt, like when I rang the bell on Wall Street [referring to his appearance at the New York Stock Market]. People are envious because I don’t have to get dressed up.
“This has the cuffs and the whole nine yards. They tailored it and it fits perfectly. I’m a hard person to fit because I have really long arms. I’m kinda big in the chest and narrow in the waist and my legs are long. So it’s hard. I can’t go into a store to buy something to fit me. It doesn’t work.”
Paul is a natural fit for a Collector’s Issue because “I hold onto everything. I have all the memorabilia from day one when we first started the show. I kept it all. I have a small cabin, but the cabin I keep my bikes in is quite a bit bigger. The whole inside of it is all memorabilia I’ve collected over the years.”
While his car collection is not quite of Jay Leno proportions, he does own more than 30 four-wheel vehicles, mostly—what else?— muscle cars. “I go from GTO’s and Oldsmobile 442’s. I collect from ‘64 to ‘71 because that’s when they had higher compression in the motors, and they are all convertibles and they are all four-speeds.
“I just bought the brand-new Corvette Z06. I have six Corvettes. The Cadillac CTSV—it has the Corvette motor in it—parts of it are carbon fiber. I have a Mercedes CLS-AMG 63 that has the big motor—600 horsepower, twin turbo sedan, and they only made 30 of them. They are like a flat maybe goldish brown. Really nice car.
“I’ve collected every type of car: Fords, Dodges and multiple different-style cars. But again my first real car is a ‘70s GTO. I’ve always liked General Motors cars and the four-speeds are really desirable.”
Despite having so many vehicles to choose from, he prefers one above all the others for his daily driving: “Suburban. I love it.”
When it comes to luxury, his thoughts turn to motorcycles, even though he won’t admit it. “First of all, I don’t consider them luxurious. My favorite bike is a really all-out chopper with a real long front end. I ride that mostly on a daily basis. I enjoy building choppers that are era-correct for the ‘70s. I have road kings and touring bikes. If I’m going to go riding out West, I’m going to bring a touring bike. If I’m riding locally, I’m riding my chopper.”
Then again, if he’s going to ride a Harley, “I’m going to ride a CVO, which is what they call a Screaming Eagle. Top of the line, all chromed out with a bigger motor. It’s really a nice-looking bike. Has a huge frame, a backrest—like riding on a cloud.”
When Senior talks clouds, he means the fluffy, natural kind, not the high-tech metaphor for digital storage. Decidedly not. Growing up in Yonkers, he says, was a simpler, more vintage experience, like just about everything else in his life. “I had four sisters, so that was pretty interesting, back then in the early ‘60s. Growing up was basically the thing you did. Everybody on the block was either your age or a little older and there was a whole block of kids. Some of us were good friends; some of us just knew each other. Most of the things we did was play stickball, dodgeball. Things were simpler. Go to the lots and do stuff like that. There were no cellphones. Either your mother would whistle and you knew it was dinner time, or the lights would go on and you knew it was time to go home. It seemed to work before we had all of these cellphones and whatnot.”
Motorcycles were not part of Senior’s childhood, and his love for them came only later. “Nobody in my family was involved with bikes,” he says. “When I started my steel shop in 1973, a welding shop, I did ornamental work and then I did structural work. It was my partner from Brooklyn who was a real bike guy, building bikes from scratch, which nobody did that back then. That’s pretty much how I really developed an interest in motorcycles.”
He was 22 when he got his first one, a 1971 Triumph. “I paid $900 for it. In 1974 I bought my first Harley, and I still have it today. It’s hanging in the restaurant. It’s called Sunshine; I have a tattoo of it on my chest.” The restaurant, a bowling alley and retail store are part of the CC complex that has grown from those humble beginnings.
Not only has he done a few reality shows, but it also could be argued that, with American Chopper, Paul Sr. created the template for this modern-day genre. Teutul was once quoted as saying, “At first I wanted to control how I acted and what I said, but then you can’t—you’ve just gotta be yourself.”
How was just “being yourself” so key to the success of his show?
“Well, it was basically just you’re a guy working in a steel shop who barely has a high school diploma, and all of a sudden you get a phone call. And really, I’m actually a pretty shy guy and I’m not generally that outgoing, although I really like people. When they asked do you want to do a show, it’s like those are the things you think of when you’re a kid—you know, that would never happen. So you don’t entertain it too long. So all of a sudden you’re asked to do this TV show and I say to myself, what am I going to do? I’m going to be in front of all of these people. Do I lose weight, do I gain weight, do I work out more, do I dye my hair, do I learn how to talk different? Then I said, f*** it. I don’t have time for that BS and I’m just going to be who I am, and I kinda let it all hang out.
“That’s what made the show popular, the fact that people recognized they are not that different [from me].”
This easygoing rapport with his audience paid off big-time, and the effect on his business was felt right away.
“It blew up immediately. It was like opening up a floodgate. At first, it was really just me and my son. It was a hobby! I had my steel shop and I opened up a little shop down below, and I wanted to build 10 bikes a year, you know. Then boom! It was crazy.
“Merchandising, you know, all of this, I wasn’t prepared for any of it. It happened like [snaps his fingers] that. One show on the series and it just blew up. So people were coming to me wanting to do all of these licensing programs. I mean, we could not buy enough T-shirts. We could not keep up with the T-shirts and we had people, you know, just doing them at different companies because one company couldn’t keep up with it.”
There also was the Donald experience, his appearance on Celebrity Apprentice.
“I hated it, totally hated it. I wouldn’t have done it. I refused it a year or two before that, but then Mr. Trump ran into the head of Discovery Channel at a dinner or something and he said, listen we need Paul on our show. Discovery said in a few words or less: you need to go on that show.
“So I did. My plan was, get on the show, have the commercial and then just get fired on the first show. They have these tasks—nobody wants to be the task leader—so I raised my hand and said I’ll do it! And I won it, like hands down.
“Then I made another show and then another show and then I did, like 10 or 11 shows, before I got canned. I got canned because I was doing my own show too, and it was just too much.”
Paul Sr. has a live-and-let-live attitude, but if he were to give advice to other celebrities who are about to be on the program, he could do so in three words: “Don’t do it.”
Asked if, as he is today, he could give himself advice back then, before doing the show, he waxes philosophically: “You know, it’s a different world. I’m a bike guy, a simple guy. There are a lot of intellectual people on that show. I don’t have anything against intellectual people; I just don’t fit. I bring something different.”
Looking back on the whole experience, he says unequivocally, “I wouldn’t do it again.”
Not surprisingly, becoming a public figure/celebrity has affected Senior’s life generally. His close friends and family have noticed he’s changed.
“Oh, big time, but I’m pretty rooted. I came from the bottom and worked for everything that I have. I built my own business and whatnot, so I’ve pretty much made who I am.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the location of his home. His house—and headquarters—are still in Orange County.
“Home is where I live. I have 38 acres in a gated area. I have donkeys, horses, sheep, cows, three dogs and a huge farm. When I go there and the gate closes, there is very little noise and I have a pond where I can sit on my deck and fish. That’s home.
“I also have a small cabin about two and a half hours from here that’s in a mountain, and I am the only person in the mountain. There is no electric, but I do have it set up with generators. I do have AC,” he says with a laugh. “That and bike riding to me—well, you know, New York is beautiful. If you go riding around here, it is all mountains and reservoirs.”
Senior and his son Paul Jr. had a very public falling out. Father fired son, then had two businesses, tried to work together one more time and then, the public record tells us, they decided, okay, our relationship is more important than working together. Legend also says they love each other, and Junior is a little nicer than Senior, Senior a little tougher. What is Senior’s POV?
“Well, that is the perception,” he says. “I’ve gotta tell you, I am tough, and I have very high expectations. They [the network] edited me as the bad guy because they were getting ratings. They could’ve flipped it and made him the spoiled kid and me the good guy. Well, it hurt my business. There is a history to everything, and people need to know that in reality our relationship was always like that. Even before the show, we had that kind of relationship.
“You know, when you asked me before about how it changed me, it didn’t change me because I am grounded. Now you take younger people—you know, he was in his twenties—and you throw a bunch of money at them, they don’t know what to do with it and there becomes this entitlement.”
Still, a lot of what Paul Sr. calls “the drama” was amped up by the producers. “It was a forced issue; they forced all of that. You know the thing of it is, like the Shaq show, there was less drama and it was funny, and we got a good rating. I think people are sick of the dramas. Some of the shows are stupid. I don’t know how people can watch them, and they are getting great ratings.”
The new show premiering in August will be different, he says. “We’re back on TV, and I’m happy about that. When you go back on TV, a lot of things open up. We have a restaurant now, with a bowling alley and a retail store, so I think we are going to start franchising restaurants. Our show was the first reality program on TV. I always said that ours was the first reality show because it had no script.”
Discussing social media and its impact on his public figure, Paul Senior can’t help but give a quizzical look. According to different sources, he’s died a few times. He doesn’t know whether to laugh at or be hurt by such claims.
“I don’t get it! I mean the last time they said I was dead, in actuality we were out riding with a bunch of people and I missed the turn and we were on the freeway, so I turned around and I went the opposite way in traffic. But people mentioned the police officer’s name. My phone never stopped ringing from family to everybody. It was crazy, man.”
Although he has thicker skin now than when he started out, it still bothers him when he reads something that isn’t true.
“Listen, people get so caught up in it. My response is, dude, it’s really a TV show. It’s a reality TV show, but it’s a TV show. They have editing, this and that, so you are watching a TV show. So when you become a villain, like I did—I got such bad press! It did bother me because I knew the truth.
“You know what, I more or less redeemed myself. I think The Apprentice was good for me because people see me in a different light. One thing I totally believe is that people love to hate you. But people can say they hate me, and then they will see me in the street and they will want a picture.”
When it comes to his public life, he wishes for few changes, if any. “It’s a good question.
I’m not so sure I would change anything. I think there is a reason for everything and I think there is growth in everything that you do—good, bad, indifferent—and I think that you are always kind of evolving, like it or not. Then, no matter what you did, as you get older you can always look back at it. It’s a journey, an experience.”
It’s been a long road, and Senior doesn’t forsee many changes 10 years from now.
“I’ll still be doing what I’m doing. I just turned 66, so I’m getting up there. I work out all the time in the gym upstairs, but this [the shop] is my vacation. I come here seven days a week. I’m not a big vacation guy.”