2009 Big Bear Choppers Dealer Summit

Exceeding Expectations

Sister city to Abtenau, Salzburg, Austria is Southern California’s Big Bear Lake, just a 2.5-hour drive from Hollywood. I’ve seen this mountain community receive more than its share of California fires yet it continues to grow. Now it’s got a world-famous bike-building company on its chamber of commerce roster: Big Bear Choppers.

Tiny as BBC might be in the overall motorcycling industry, its 62 employees produce a surprising amount of models and units from its single warehouse on the shores of Big Bear Lake. It fights for market share among the boutique manufacturers like Big Dog and Intrepid, which are a step above the one-off type of builders but well below the scale of a Victory or Harley-Davidson. With retail prices that range from $25,000 to northward of $35K, a BBC bike isn’t cheap, but the company notes that its prices are very competitive with its rivals.

The name says it all. 
BBC and S&S co-designed the X-Wedge motor boasting 97 horsepower and 113 ft-lbs of torque.
BBC believes it succeeds with its build-to-order production process, kicking the ass of the mass-customization process used by the other manufacturers in the class. Building bikes against a forecast of buying trends can kill a company. With the recent slump in consumer spending, BBC’s build-to-order philosophy is keeping the manufacturer alive and well. “It’s all about process,” states co-founder Kevin Alsop.

BBC intends to exceed the expectations of its buyers with attention to detail and impressive build quality. The company employs a pair of riders to put 1000 miles a week on the bikes with the intent to break them, assuring the quality necessary to offer a two-year/20,000-mile factory warranty. That kind of hands-on experience exemplifies its mantra: “The Revolution of the American Motorcycle.”

Nipping it in the Bud

I know you guys will think I’m crazy, stupid or both, but I just love these kinds of motorcycles. Like the “interwebs,” choppers are a fad that’s likely here to stay. Some of you will balk at the ground clearance or the steering radius, but be real. Being a premiere builder of one type of machine doesn’t mean their product has to hold up to all possible standards everywhere. BBC doesn’t make track bikes. Have you ever seen a Lamborghini on a jeep trail? I think not. Yet you would love the brand and not complain when you couldn’t drive over a curb in one because we all know the proper application for such a vehicle. When you think before you speak, you’ll come to understand, and maybe even accept, the chopper way of life. I’ll exit the pulpit now and give you a little tour of the BBC plant and its model lineup.

“The Latest and Greatest Shit” –Kevin Alsop, BBC co-founder

BBC started with very humble beginnings, following the typical American dream of making it big in America: Keep doing what you love and you will succeed. Build the company with intelligent planning, live within your means, and you’ll enjoy a recipe for success. Big Bear Choppers has been building that strong foundation for more than 10 years.

BBC’s custom bikes are hand-built, made in America and damn proud machines. Constructed entirely on location near Big Bear Lake, with the latest and greatest of components, BBC manufactures nearly 70% of the parts for all the bikes it sells, making almost everything but the tires and the motor. The remaining 30% is filled with top-quality names such as Brembo, Wire-plus, Baker, Drag Specialties, Avon and Michelin.

And even the engine is something BBC may soon have its name on. Despite the success of the BBC co-designed 2010 EPA-compliant S&S X-Wedge motor, delivering just shy of 100 horsepower and 115 ft-lbs of torque from its 56-degree Vee configuration and three camshafts, BBC is in the process of designing its very own S&S engine, a counterbalanced 45-degree V-Twin with a single cam that uses matching X-Wedge bolt patterns. No timeframe given, though.

The Devil's Advocate 2Up in action.Not only are BBC’s X-Wedge motors 100% emissions-compliant in all 50 states, so are the S&S engines in BBC’s EVO choppers, in both fuel-injected and carbureted forms, as well as meeting the Euro 3 standards.

Popularity is growing and the want for a BB chopper is going global – it’s now selling choppers worldwide with dealers stretching from Canada to Australia. And although sales have slowed down as they have for every OEM, the Build-to-Order process is helping to “save their asses,” according to Kevin Alsop. Instead of having hundreds of unsold stock sitting around showrooms, it has only 230 ’08 bikes left on the shelf through its 65 U.S. dealers. Having less overhead lends itself to more buoyancy in a sinking and confused marketplace – it’s what they call lean manufacturing. Building for the market as it shifts is just smart business. Last year BBC produced 700 bikes; this year it is on track to sell 650, with many more buyers on the hook. BBC knows its market well, and it serves it with one chopper at a time.

“Overseas came to us,” says BBC’s head honcho. And so Alsop and his company build to suit the market, being very hands-on and capable. For example, it produces a Venom chopper that complies with the maximum-length restriction for motorcycles sold in China. Alsop credits the global interest in BBC on the biker build-offs that are now circulating the world on television.

In the Saddle

Between the rain showers (yes, it can rain in California), the technical briefings and a factory tour, I did manage to get a few miles on a few models from BBC’s vast selection. With 17 frame jigs, the company has 15 models available, so there’s bound to be a frame that fits your body type and liking.

Of the nine models available to us to ride this weekend, I had the opportunity to sample only four of them in the few hours I had to ride. I got my paws on the new-for-2009 faired GTX, The Devil’s Advocate 2Up and the best-selling Sled Pro Street. Plus a model for the future, something that Big Bear calls the Super Sport. They’re way ahead of the curve with this bike!

Not quite able to give you full riding impressions, having ridden maybe 10 miles on each of these bikes, I can however give you a few thoughts about each bike.

Devil’s Advocate 2Up

BBC’s Devil’s Advocate 2Up

My first ride of the day put me on this raked-out 83-inch wheelbase chopper, and it felt tall at first, as it takes awhile to get comfortable with stretched-out rakes like on this bike. It’s been 10 years since I’d ridden my chopped-and-sprung BSA, but it came back to me quickly. This 100-cubic-inch Smooth-brand EFI motor and 6-speed RSD (Right Side Drive) tranny pushes the 90mm x 21-inch front and 280mm x 18-inch rear tires with ease. Smooth and steady, not one inkling of wobble when countersteered through the turns thanks to an industry-leading quarter-inch wall tube steel backbone frame, and it rides that way. Soild. All of the BBC frames use 1.5-inch steel tubing with 0.250-inch wall thickness for the backbone, with 1.125-inch, 0.160-inch wall tube for the rest of the frame; strong enough to carry you and the hefty lifetime frame warranty for years to come.

On my short run, I felt the bars could be a bit wider, adding more leverage for pushing the fork around, although the grips might then be out of reach for short-armed riders in the parking lot. The ‘09 version is said to be slightly de-raked compared to the current ‘08 model, by the way. It exceeded my expectations right out of the gate.

The MSRP of the Devil's Advocate line starts around $32,000.

Sled Pro Street

The Sled Pro Street in action.

Flipping over the bad-boy coin, I then dropped my ass on one of the lowest saddles I could find. The Sled Pro Street has a seat height of just 20 inches. With bars that feel as if they’re dipping below my waistline and coming back up to meet my hands, the bike stretched out before me handled even better on the road than the Devil’s Advocate.

Although the turning radius was less, I love the low and long style with the open primary drive and the Ducati-like dry clutch sounds entertaining me at the traffic signals. When in motion the whooshing primary belt did the same. In the saddle the Sled was more forgiving than the hardened saddle of the DA thanks to the hovering tail end of the saddle. The bike’s handling was unbelievably balanced.

The Sled comes in a few configurations, including either the co-designed BBC/S&S 100 SMOOTH™ Evolution motor (EFI or carbed) or the 114-inc BBC/S&S X-Wedge EFI. The Smooth model boasts 95 horsepower and 110 ft/lbs of torque. MSRP runs between $30,900 and $35,400 depending on the configuration.

GTX and Super Sport

The BBC GTX uses the S&S X-Wedge motor. Note how the passenger seat is located forward of the rear wheel.

On our second ride around the lake, we took the 2009 faired GTX and the 2011 Super Sport. Both of these models carried the BBC-S&S X-Wedge motor and throw a lot of heat. The designers know that and have accommodated our loins with carbon fiber and leather heat shields.

The new-for-2008 touring sled, aptly named the GTX – Grand Touring X-Wedge – comes packaged with a wide and wind-deflecting front fairing for 2009. It is replete with floorboards instead of footpegs, BBC’s highest seat height (at 25.5 inches), integrated saddlebags and a comfortable and roomy passenger saddle. This road machine is poised for taking the long way home.

The 2009 GTX has an MSRP that starts around $35,000.

A look at part of BBC’s future, the 2011 Super Sport. MO freelancer Steve Bohn is seen here performing as Fonzie’s stunt double.

The Super Sport is a bike from BBC’s future, and I’ve gotta tell you straight up, it’s a nut smasher. However, when you crack open that throttle… Wow! The nearly vertical rear portion of the saddle is a perfectly-designed necessity because this bike takes off like a rocket. Maybe it’s got a future as a drag bike.

There’s a 114-cubic-inch X-Wedge motor crammed in a custom BBC frame. It’s also got a Scotts steering dampener on it to help keep the 23-inch front wheel in line, and it has real Brembos to bring the beast to a halt – dual disc up front and a single rotor in the rear. Styling has the look of a skinned Ducati stretched it over a chopper. Estimations put this bike the $35-40K range, cheaper than a Desmosedici RR! It’s slated for production in 2010 to be sold as a 2011 model.

Kevin Alsop, the ringleader behind Big Bear Choppers.
Station 3 of 5 on the BBC assembly line

Lining up their Ducks

“We are going to be the leader in the custom market,” claims Dave Ryan, General Manager of Big Bear Choppers.

The “Dealer Summit” I attended was BBC’s national dealer meeting as well as a press launch. So while we were riding in circles for the camera, the more enthusiastic dealers in attendance were learning about sales networking and financing from the attending vendors. Don’t worry, they also got their share of riding.

Among the workshops available to the attending dealers were classes on retail lending and sales strategies mumbo jumbo, led by the very experienced Dave Ryan, a veteran operations and supply-chain engineer in the automotive and aerospace industries. A few months ago, Ryan was brought on by Kevin and Mona Alsop to reorganize the workflow of BBC, optimizing the operation to best survive in the current slumping economy. They understand that cowering into a little ball and waiting for the economy to turn around again is the wrong course of action, so the company reinvested in itself and is looking to continue its winning efforts.

With its build-to-order process and the newly streamlined production lines – trimming lead time in half in the last four months – Big Bear Choppers is poised to kick some chopper ass when the lenders are again ready to help buyers finance their passion for two-wheel hot rods. The turn-around time for a made-to-order custom chopper will only take four to six weeks instead of the previous eight to 10. That’s an impressive change, and the small company is still learning and adapting.

As an example of its dedication to building the best product it can, BBC learns from its buyers through its extensive dealer network and adapts its products as necessary. It has learned that its buyers want belt drives on the bikes, so they are currently re-engineering each model to carry the best available belts, the S&S Carbon Fiber. The models that have already been adapted include the Devil’s Advocates, the GTX Bagger and the Paradox. Soon to be belt-driven are the Venom, Sled and Athena lines.  The Screamin’ Demon and the Merc will never be converted because style dictates the chain, but you guys already knew that.

“We’re still in the womb,” says Andy Meadors, BBC Creative, Marketing & Media Relations Director, adding that the company looks forward to walking and then running when the time is right for BBC.

Widening the Horizon

With the addition of the bagger GTX and two-up models to its line-up in 2009, BBC is reaching into more markets, finding more buyers for riders who want custom style and the ability to pick up chicks along the way (or to take the “Ol’ Lady” along). With the SS model in the not-so-distant future, BBC will be hitting an even narrower niche of chopper lovers. With the right kind of marketing, that bike can be a bombshell, blowing away convention and perhaps creating its own market.

Alsop says he wants BBC to be the best manufacturer it can be. With such high hopes, smart engineering, incredible talent, and bad-ass bikes, I think Big Bear Choppers is right on track for its brightest future.

Related Reading:
Big Bear Choppers and the State of the Production Custom Industry
Mainstream Choppers Shootout
2009 Harley-Davidson CVO Models Review
2004 Big Dog Ridgeback Review

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