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Speeding Beauties

His custom-built choppers have won over many celebs. Now Jesse Gregory James has attained star status himself in biking circles.

July 10, 2002|MICHAEL P. LUCAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You might want to bring ear protection if you visit Long Beach's unlikeliest tourist attraction, because Jesse Gregory James' workshop is a temple of glorious thunder: It rumbles deeply from oversized stereo speakers drumming out punk music; it rings dully from a 50-ton power hammer; and it cracks sharply from the chrome pipes of freshly minted $100,000 motorcycles.

West Coast Choppers sits in an aging building on a gritty corner of Anaheim Street in the city's industrial district. But thanks to a new TV series fueling James' mystique as a remarkably creative builder of muscle bikes, a crowd gathers here every weekday morning.

Middle-class couples in Hawaiian shirts mingle with barrel-chested and beefy-armed men in gray ponytails and ZZ Top beards. Most tote cameras, a few carry babies, and all hope to meet the impresario of all the noise and chrome: the 33-year-old descendant of the fabled Old West outlaw. Well over 6 feet tall, with dirty-blond hair and striking blue eyes, James says his great-great-grandfather was cousin to the notorious bank and train robber. If looks are any indication, this James might have run with the same crowd had he lived then. His rock-hard and sinewed forearms are tattooed with orange flames, skulls and his fiancee's name, Janine.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 11, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 21 inches; 763 words Type of Material: Correction
Weapon brand--A story in Wednesday's Southern California Living section about custom motorcycle builder Jesse Gregory James misspelled the brand of shotgun he owns. He has an Ithaca double-barreled 12-gauge.

But when asked to explain his growing popularity, he flashes an incongruously boyish smile. "I don't know; I'm just a metalworker," he says with a shrug as he strolls through his shop past a welder forming a part through a shower of yellow sparks and past that power hammer, which is gaily painted with orange flames and nicknamed Thumper. He points out a bike he's building for actor Keanu Reeves. "I think people like watching somebody who knows what he wants and does it and doesn't care what anybody thinks."

The son of a Lynwood antiques/castoffs dealer ("He was kind of a white Fred Sanford," James quips of his father), young Jesse was fascinated with motors and began tearing them down and rebuilding them before reaching his teens. He got into a few scrapes with the law--"the usual adolescent stuff," he explains--and ended up in continuation high school.

It was there that he decided he would someday own a custom motorcycle shop. He even had a bundle of T-shirts printed with an iron cross logo, which he still uses. He started his business in a garage, moved up to a small shop of his own and expanded to this location five years ago. Along the way, he built bikes of such distinction that word spread through the motorcycle community.

He also attracted the attention of producer Thom Beers, who created a pair of TV specials around James' artistry, titled "Motorcycle Mania" that aired last year on Discovery Channel. Ratings were so high that the network and Beers spun that project into a miniseries called "Monster Garage" that recently aired. The network has ordered nine more episodes that will go into production later this summer. On the show, James comes across as kind of an easygoing foreman, conducting teams of mechanics transforming ordinary vehicles into weirdly functional Frankencars--as when they turned a Mustang into a lawnmower on super-steroids.

Beers says the show works in large part because of James' intriguing on-camera persona. "He's the perfect Gen-X antihero," he said. "He doesn't want to be worshiped ... he really believes in what he does, and he has a great sense of style."

If you've ever watched Alta Loma artist Sam Maloof build a rocking chair, you'll get an idea of what James does with metal. His bikes all have certain trademark embellishments such as the iron cross that appears on brake pedals and air cleaners, and faux revolver cylinders loaded with .44 magnum shell casings on the handlebar risers and more on the oil and fuel filler caps. But the look he gives to the frames, forks, gas tanks and fenders creates a striking fluidity of line. James builds about 12 bikes a year, with starting prices now a bit under six figures, and has a growing list of celebrity clients such as Reeves and Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal, Ty Law of the New England Patriots and wrestling star Bill Goldberg.

As a knot of fans gathers outside his shop to watch through a wrought-iron gate in the form of a giant spider web, James pauses at his latest great work, a bike he is finishing for actor Tyson Beckford, who later says that he had only one specific request of James.

"I told him he could do anything, but the one thing I wanted was that the bike be red," Beckford says. "I wanted a red bike. But he had to go do his own damn thing."

"He wanted it in all red," James admits, "but I took the chance to do it in two different shades of white with red highlights, and he was pretty worried about it, and my girlfriend was saying, 'Why don't you do it the way he wanted and everything will work out.' "

"When I finally saw it," Beckford says, "I just had to cry. It's the most beautiful thing I've ever owned."

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