Friday, October 8, 2010
Wednesday, April 7, 2010
by Dave Brackett
The mid 1960's in California was an exciting time for motorcycles. Choppers were becoming very popular and there was a demand for chopper parts. Numerous companies were providing parts and building choppers, most of these businesses were bikers who built there own choppers and started building parts for others. There was one company, that appeared in late 1967, which soon would eclipse the sales and success of the others, not only because they had collected a good team of designers, fabricators and sales promoters, but mainly because they utilized the potential of the media on a national scale to further their efforts. That company was "AEE Choppers" and this is their story.
The origins of this business started long before, when many people were living dreams of hot rods, being different, and enjoyed expressing themselves through their vehicles. A successful business generally grows from many seeds, not just one. In the case of "AEE Choppers", those seeds were collected and watered by Tom McMullen. They included Tom McMullen, Tex Smith, Jim Clark, Rosemary Genuso, Danny James, Dave Brackett, Bill Brundage, Lenny Cenotti, Brent Farlie, and Dean Rediger. Now all those seeds were created and in place for the birth of the company. Tom, who had met Tex, met Jim, met Dave, met Bill, met and married Rose, was enjoying life doing freelance writing and continuing his love affair with cars. He started seeing the trend toward customizing motorcycles and wanted to capitalize on that. In August of 1965, Jim Clark returns to Southern California and renews his friendship with Tom and new wife Rose.
At this time, Tom was a fulltime freelance photographer/writer for Popular Hot Rodding magazine and other Argus Publishing titles, plus doing features for other publishers, including chopper photo features for Cycle Guide magazine. His wife, Rose Genuso McMullen, helped with the writing and Jim Clark assisted with the photography.
Tom purchased a ’47 Harley Knucklehead from Ed Roth, so Tom and Jim converted it into a chopper in Tom’s garage. The bike, called "Mindbender", was a rigid frame Harley with all the trimmings. Tom joined the Hangman motorcycle club to acquire a source for feature bikes and coverage of club activities. Later Jim was a prospective member of the Hangmen after he acquired a ’48 Harley Panhead to convert into a chopper. This bike was later sold to Rose and turned into the "Women's Pride" chopper, often used to feature new AEE products.
Tom and Jim built Tom’s bike shooting photos of the process and Jim photographed some club runs while Tom and Rose participated. Then they put together a small digest-size book, called Outlaw Chopper, from that material. They created a couple of B&W collage posters of choppers and planned on placing an ad in Cycle Guide to sell them. Conditions were now ready for the birth of AEE Choppers.
In the fall of 1967, Tom was riding his 1947 Harley to a Hangman motorcycle club meeting with a fellow member, and was involved in a head-on collision with a 1965 Chevy. He received multiple serious injuries including: shattered right collar bone, broken left wrist, deeply lacerated hands, broken left ankle, and a severe concussion from a blow to the left side of his head. He was hospitalized and multiple surgeries were performed to repair the damage. He was sent home in a wheelchair to recover from the injuries. Tom was no longer able to do freelance articles
That ad, that was scheduled to run in Cycle Guide for the book and posters, was changed and a parts catalog for fifty cents was added. Soon, orders with two quarters taped to them poured in, so a four-page typed list with photos taped onto it, was copied and mailed out. Tom, Rose, Jim and wife Freda, spent their evenings opening the mail and collecting all the quarters.
Tom and Jim produced sissybars and a few other items in the garage, while buying the other items that were offered. Rose processed the orders and banked the money.Tom, Jim and a neighbor boy Robert K. Smith, who helped work on the cars and bikes, as well as the photo shoots, did the packaging and shipping. Rose was there to run the office and do the book keeping.
To avoid opening a new account for what was to be a temporary venture the money was deposited into the existing Auto Electric Engineering account. Tom was still selling some wiring kits that had been created in 1963 when he had opened Auto Electric Engineering with his partner Carl Sulkey. The custom wiring business lasted about a year before they both moved on to other ventures. When the chopper business took off, the name AEE Choppers was used, so that bank account (Auto Electric Engineering) could be utilized.
By February of 1968 Tom’s injuries had healed sufficiently to allow his return to the work force. The orders had picked up to the point that a regular place of business was needed. Jim had been laid off from his aerospace job in a slowdown and was available full-time, so they rented a building unit in Buena Park, Ca. and moved the business there from the garage. Tom and Jim ran the shop, retail counter and shipping, while Rose took care of processing orders, purchasing and bookkeeping.
They were having trouble purchasing fork extensions, custom tripletrees, handlebar risers, foot pegs and other machined parts so they located a couple of machinists that had a small garage machine shop operation. The two produced parts for a couple of months, then proposed moving into the third unit next to the two units AEE Choppers was occupying. Jim convinced Tom to rent the third unit and be their landlord. After producing product for AEE for a several months they started selling parts to others, violating their agreement. AEE bought them out and hired people to operate the machinery, producing parts.
To promote the business Tom and Jim designed and built a Corvair powered three-wheel bike, called the "The Corvair Trike". In early 1969 it was entered in the Oakland Car & Motorcycle Show. It won the Best in Show Sweepstakes award. In July 1968, Jim left the company in a dispute, primarily over operations.
AEE was growing, so in late 1968, Danny James was hired to run the newly acquired machine shop. Carl Sulkey comes in the evenings to machine parts to help keep ahead. Danny started increasing production in that portion of the business. Other areas of the business were unorganized and Tom and Rose wanted to some how reorganize things to produce products faster and more cost effectively.
Dave Brackett got out of the Army in January of 1969, returned to Southern California, and began looking up old friends. Dave and Tom had lived together in 1965, working on hot rods. He heard about Tom's new motorcycle shop, so he went by to visit. When he walked in the door, Tom saw him and immediately said "You are coming to work for me". So in January of 1969, Tom, Rose and Dave started to reorganize AEE and develope new products. Dave started by building fixtures to weld sissy bars, and mass produce the component parts. In April, Dave hired Bill Brundage to run the new welding department, doing mostly sissy bars and a few other components.
Tom and Dave had talked about expanding the market for choppers from the traditional Harley market, with a few British bikes, to include Japanese bikes. So they got a 350 Honda, stripped it and Dave started his first chopper. He fabricated a weld on hard tail section, to make a rigid frame, and raked the neck, then Tom said Harley makes a bolt-on hardtail for Sportster, but they are very hard to get, could Dave make those. So, while working on the 350 Honda called "Really" Dave built a prototype Sportster hardtail and jigs to produce them. An electric start Sportster called "Quickstart" was built to show this new hadrtail section and other AEE products. Dave continued work on "Really", but built more hardtails, including a bolt on for Harley. Then they decided to build weld on hardtails, so Dave designed and built weld on hardtails for Harley and Sportster.
By the end of May, "Really" is done, sporting a new gull wing style gas tank Dave built, with paint by Molly, and a seat by Whitey Morgan. In June, hardtail production was underway so Dave designed a bolt on Harley Sdie Hack for rigid frames. In July, Dave designs and produces more different hardtail units. Later on in July, Dave designed and built a three wheel bolt on hardtail for Sportster.This led to the "Sportster Three Wheeler", which showcased the many new AEE products.
When the magazine articles came out about "Really", AEE was swamped with interest in the front spool hub, custom nut covers, the Gull wing style contour gas tank, and solo sissy bars, so Dave and Danny geared up to produce these items.
Summer weather brought about outside lunchtime activities. Several Briggs and Stratton mini bikes appeared, a circle race track with high banked corners was built. Racing became the lunch activity of choice. Tom and Rose had a baby lion named "Boomer", he grew up at the business and loved playing with the employees at lunch. One lunch, no one came to play with Boomer, so he somehow escaped over the back wall. He was free and could have gone anywhere, but he went around the block to the front door of the shop, and waited to be let in to join the gang at lunch. Boomer was everyones' friend and really enjoyed the mini bike races.
In early 1969, Tom and Rose had contacted Tex Smith to assist AEE with the production of a subscription-only chopper magazine. It was titled "Street Chopper", because Ed Roth was already producing a small magazine called "Choppers". Starting with March of 1969, AEE produced four issues of "Street Chopper" in seven months. These were mail order only.
With the efforts of Dave and Danny, which increased production, and the results of increased orders from the new magazine, AEE was running out of space. They located a 10,000 Sq. Ft. building in Anaheim and in late 1969 moved. Dave spent most of his time using his carpentry skills, building offices, racks, shelves and oganizing the increased work space, while everyone else tried to keep up with the increased production. About this time, the movie studio that produced the movie "Easy Rider" contacted AEE to build two duplicates of the Captain America bike. These bikes, called the "Easy Rider Bikes" were finished in January of 1970 and the studio used them for advertising, placing them in theater lobbies around the country.
The setting was right for a big, innovative new project. Tom and Jim had won the bike sweepstakes award at the Oakland Roadster Show with the "Corvair Trike" back in 1969, and it was time to attempt that feat again. AEE was keeping up with orders and running smoothly, so Dave had time for something big. Around Christmas 1969, Tom, Rose, Jim and Dave came up with a concept for a wild new three wheeler, actually a five wheeler. It would have two Sportster motors, an automotive type tranny, and four wheels accross the back. Dave designed the bike and showed sketches to Tom and Rose. The rush was on, and "Big Twin" was born. By the time plans were done and all the parts had arrived, there were 32 days left till the show. Dave worked extra hours to finish the bike in time. "Big Twin" won the Sweepstakes Award at the 1970 Oakland Roadster Show.
February 1970 started with Dave and the gang putting together the "Wild Kit Sportster" to showcase AEE products in our new magazine and ads. In February, Lenny Cenotti visited AEE, he was on a trip from Connecticut to Southern, Ca., and wanted to see the company he had often read about in chopper magzines. Lenny noticed there was no counter sales person, so with his experience in automotive parts sales, he asked if he could apply for the job. He was hired, after an interview with Tom. He became an integral part of AEE, until the end. He ran the sales counter, pulled parts for shipping, built his own bike, and helped with ideas for all aspects of the business. He also became a friend of Tom and Rose and participated in many events with them. Later he became the AEE representative at the AEE booth in trade shows.
With the success of the four mail order issues of "Street Chopper" magazine, Tom, Rose and Tex decided to form a publishing company and produce "Street Chopper" as a monthly, distributed on the newsstands nationally. In March, the first nationally distributed copy of "Street Chopper" was on the newsstand. AEE was not ready for the instant surge in the mail order business. Orders started to pile up. Dave, who was busy designing new products, now had to try to increase production. He knew AEE did not have the internal ability to make all the parts they could now sell. Dave spent many months finding outside vendors to build products for AEE. Jigs and fixtures had to be made to allow mass production of many parts. AEE began casting many items, to reduce machining times. More companies to do chrome plating were contacted.
While all this was going on, Dave designed and tooled up for new raked triple trees, solo sissy bars, rams horn sissy bars, dual headlite brackets, 45 jockey shifters, knucklehead top mounts, and he designed a new coffin style gas tank. Dave found a source to buy old style Harley magnetos, thought to be extinct. He redesigned "z" style handlebars, narrow triple trees, and found vendors to make them. AEE was having trouble getting exhaust components from outside sources, they could not or would not supply AEE. With no other choice, Dave redesigned all the exhaust parts, added new style pipes, and contracted with Mitchell Manufacturing to mass produce these items.
It was through this period that Dave started to encounter industrial espionage. People would follow him when he visited vendors, then contact the vendor when he left trying to get access to AEE products. He would often get calls from suppliers saying they had been contacted by people wanting AEE products. Dave, being a diehard capitalist, would respond, if they were using AEE tooling to make products for other people, that wound be unethical, beyond that, the business should follow their own ethics.
On a lighter side, new exotic cats appeared. three cougars, Ciebie, Spoke and Wheel, a breeder. A bobcat also appeared, but Dave took it home as his pet. A new minibike race track was built behind the building, and lunchtime was fun again. When winter came, minibike drag races started inside the building, fun was had by all. Danny caught his boots on fire using his feet as brakes, and burned his feet.
Dave and Danny worked on designing new square springers. Tom and Rose got their first airplane, a Cessna 310, and they spent time with flying lessons and taking trips. Soon it was common for Tom and Rose and several others to fly to Las Vegas after work, enjoy the night, and return to work the next morning. These junkets continued for several years and were a joy for all who went along.
In May, Dave asked Tom about building complete new rigid frames for many bikes. He said "No". Dave thought it was a good idea, and the market was ready, so he started his own company, "Brackett Chassis Company", to build rigid frames for Sportster, 350 and 450 Honda, then later 500 and 750 Honda. Dave sold most of those frames to AEE for resale.
AEE hired J.L.Smith, a marketing specialist, to help AEE expand sales through their new magazine. J.L. soon created a ficticious character Rick Mason, who was reportedly a leading authority on motorcycles. In reality, the comments of Rick Mason, were the thoughts of Tom, Dave and others at AEE responsible for product development, safety and production.
Tom, Rose and Dave develope the idea for kit bikes, a complete kit of parts to transform your donor bike into a chopper, all the customer did was paint and bolt together. As a result, Dave and the gang at AEE build the first "Kit Bike", a Sportster, to use in advertising to promote the new idea. They had tried a similar idea earlier, but at that time not enough parts were available to create a complete kit. This new version was called "Sportster Kit Bike".
In the summer of 1970, Jim returns to become the VP for both AEE and the newly formed TRM Publishing Company. They soon created "Chopper, the Custom Motorcycle Guide", consisting of 200 pages, half magazine/ half AEE catalog. This again boosted sales for AEE, it continued as a quarterly publication into the mid 1970's, when Jammer Cycle Products was featured in the catalog section, after Tom and Rose had split up and seperated the parts company and the publishers.
In Aug 1970, Dave builds his first personal chopper, the first "Amani", a complete fabricated new bike with a 450 Honda engine. It was featured on the cover of Street Chopper to help promote frames and other new products for Japanese bikes.
AEE was having trouble getting custom wheels laced from other sources, so they decided to start their own wheel lacing division in house. Steve Jones was hired to run that department, which sped up deliveries on custom wheel orders. Dave and Danny were busy designing the first square glide front end. It was tested, tooling made and production started shortly therafter.
In July, Dave finishes the "Supersport", a Sportster rigid frame bike with new style countour gas tank, molded frame, paint by Molly with seat by Whitey Morgan. It showcased many new products, and would be redone often to feature new items. Around this time, Brent Farlie was hired to help in shipping, later he became a parts puller and helped at the sales counter.
By September, Dave had finished the "Shovelhead", a Harley with weld on hardtail, contour gas tank, molded frame, paint by Molly with seat by Whitey Morgan. It was around this time that during lunch minibike races, Dave gave Tom a fuel additive to make the bike run faster, and Tom put in too much. The minibike dieseled and would not stop running wide open. Tom bailed off and the engine blew up. Dave took the minibike inside, removed the motor, mounted a 12 volt battery, car starter, and poof, there was an electric minibike. Since there was no rheostat to control the speed, you had better hold on, it was quick. Tom soon adopted it to run around the plant.
In Mar of 1971, AEE moved to a 64,000 Sq. Ft. building in Placentia, Ca. With extra room, the parts company and the magazine company seperate their offices and become more independent. Prototype gets its own building, and there is plenty of area for photo work in another building. The business it still growing and more people are needed to take care of manufacturing. Dave hires four people to cover the jobs he used to do himself. Danny has more employees in the machine shop, and Bill has tripled the size of the welding department. Parts assemply, warehouse and shipping now use as much space as the entire previous building."Hot Bike" Magazine is added to the growing publishing company. AEE mail order business is so huge that the local post office sends their own truck every day to pick up postal shipments.
Tom and Rose are more interested in flying now, and the old Cessna gives way to two new 310 Cessna planes, one for Tom and one for Rose. Tom enjoys practical jokes. His favorite is to take a new clean shop rag, put a big glob of axle grease in it and place it on someones workbench, in a convenient spot. The unsuspecting person grabs the clean looking rag to wipe their hands, and gets axle grease all over. You could look around an see Tom laughing in the background.
Around this time, a new company was added, C.C. Industries. They sold AEE products at a discount to mail order customers only. Again AEE sales were increasing. Dave was busy designing new products, stylish chopper windshields and small front spools with brakes. Mario Illote from Italy came to visit and wanted to locate a manufacturing facility in Italy to send chopper parts all over Europe. Dave worked with him for a while, but that project did not materialize.
The Federal Department of Transportation contacted AEE to create minimum standards for motorcycle safety. Dave took on this task and created a 26 page report about standards for manufacturing motorcycle parts and minimum safety requirements. Tom and Jim flew the report to Wash. D.C. in the company plane, to present the recommendations to the Department of Transportation Board, to use as a guide for proposed motorcycle regulations.
The business continues to prosper, Tom buys a T33 jet airplane and has it painted by Molly. About this time, AEE agreed to sponser Leo Payne's Sportster, to break the land speed record for its class at Bonneville Salt Flats. The attempt was a great advertising effort to help promote AEE, Tom flew the AEE girls to Bonneville in the T33 jet, landing on the salt and showing off our products and bike. AEE also sponsored Mel Disharoon's Drag Bike, a Harley. As a result, AEE started adding performance products to their catalog.
In an effort to insure product safety, Dave got together with Magnaflux Labs in L.A. and did destructive testing on different front ends. The results of those tests were used to insure safe manufacture of AEE Springers and other front ends. Dave also wrote articles for "Big Bike" magazines about product safety and manufacturing standards.
Tom and Rose get more exotic cats, this time a black panther and a leopard.
During the summer, Dave and Danny design rigid front tubes, mono girder front ends, and ultra narrow springers. Dave gets together with his friend Dean Moon, who he had helped with several projects earlier, and Moon produced custom oil tanks for bikes. New performance products included custom intake manafolds, exotic carbs, and carb covers.
In November and December, Dave builds the second "Amani" motorcycle. His business, Brackett Chassis Co., acquired a license from the state of California to manufacture new chopper style motorcycles. The brand name was 'Amani", and there were five bikes built, four two wheelers, and one three wheeler. Dave discontinued the manufacture of the bikes at the end of 1975.
Tom finally sees the value of building complete rigid frames for choppers, so Dave designs and builds tooling so AEE can produce rigid frames for Harley 74's, Triumph and BSA. Together with Brackett Chassis Companys' Sportster and Honda frames, AEE is selling a complete line of chopper frames.
In January of 1972, Dave completes "Kit Bike Sportster", another Sportster, showing how to build a complete chopper with purchased parts, only this time including a new rigid frame from Brackett Chassis Co.. Molly did the paint with Whitey Morgan again suppling the seat. This bike was redone several times to showcase new AEE products, the last time sporting a Magnuson blower.
The publishing company had grown into a separate viable company by 1971 with two monthly magazines and the quarterly publication. Many new staff members had come onboard including Steve Stillwell, Brian Brennan, Robert K. Smith, Richard Bean, Dain Gingerelli and Paul Walker. They were car and motorcycle enthusiasts with varying degrees of education who became editor/photographers on the job. Tex had long wanted to add diversity to the company offerings so he convinced Tom to allow us to produce “Street Rodder” magazine, hitting the newsstand in 1972. A few issues after “Street Rodder” went on sale, Tex left the company in a dispute over various operation issues. Jim inherited management of the publishing operation.
In Feb of 1972, Dave moves into the front office to be general manager of AEE, he hired Stan Meyer and Jim Moore to take over his prototype and manufacturing duties. Around this time, "Big Four", a 750 Honda chopper using a Brackett Chassis rigid frame, was finished. The bike was an advertising effort to bring in more customers with foreign bikes. In March, Tom was at a bike show in Lincoln, Nebraska shooting articles for Street Chopper, and met Dean Rediger, who had a three wheeler in the show. Tom liked him and his work and hired Dean to work in the prototype department. He arrived at AEE a week later. Prior to that, Dave had started a new three wheeler called the "Trick Trike", it was about half done when Dean showed up, so Dean and Stan finished the "Trick Trike".
Dean builds his first complete bike, the "Panhead 74, How to Build the Chopper" bike, for articles showing how to build a chopper in Street Chopper magazine. AEE is now booming, there are over 100 employees, and it seems there is no limit to what the industry can handle. The combination of magazine articles featuring AEE bikes and products, lots of advertising, now including television ads, and producing quality safe products, has made AEE the leader in the industry.
Dave had started two choppers, a 500 Triumph and 650 Triumph, using AEE rigid frames. Stan and Dean finished them as the "7 Up Bikes".
By November of 1972, Dave was very overworked. His own business, Brackett Chassis Company, was taking much of his time and he wanted to pursue building his complete new choppers called "Amani". Tom had bought an F86 Jet airplane, and his new interests were pulling him away from the company. Dave did not get much time to build custom bikes and design parts anymore, which was his first passion. So Dave left AEE, but continued to sell rigid frames to AEE until March of 1975. Tom and Dave remained friends until Tom's untimely death. Shortly after, Brent Farlie leaves to other endeavors.
In December, Dean finishes a "750 Honda, How To Build the Chopper" bike. Again using a Brackett Chassis rigid frame and all AEE parts, the bike was utilized for articles in the magazine and Chopper Guide. About this time, the prototype department is moved to the manufacturing building as AEE is consolidating and cutting costs. Around this time, TRM Publishing produces a set of 66 bubble gum trading cards, that feature motorcycles. Seven of the cards are AEE bikes, two more were worked on by Dave, and the rest were choppers and street bikes from around the country. They are very collectible today.
In January of 1973, Dean finishes "The Street Digger" a blown Harley 74 on an altered AEE rigid frame. He lenthened and lowered the frame, utilizing a shortened front end, giving the bike a new low profile look. This bike started a new trend away from the long front end, high necked choppers of the past. In February, long time welding department manager Bill Brundage leaves. Around this time, Jim Clark leaves the publishing company. Not long after, long time machine shop foreman Danny James quits and in March, Stan Meyer leaves. It seems like the good old days of AEE are starting to wane.
AEE is still trying to show they are at the lead in the industry. In March, Dean finishes another custom bike called "Time Machine" using a 650 Triumph AEE frame, again sporting the long low look, and a unique body. After this bike, promoting AEE products with innovative bikes and products seems to fall apart. Dean leaves AEE in May 1973 and new products and bikes cease.
Later that year, Tom and Rose seperate, and decide to split the business, Rose takes AEE Choppers, and Tom takes TRM Publishing. In October, Jim returns to the magazine company to help Tom.
In early 1974, Tom and Rose got a divorce. The split of AEE Choppers and TRM Publications is now complete. With the lack of new bikes, new products and the magazines to promote the business, AEE sales continue to fall, and the company has reduced its building to one forth the original size.
In 1975, Rose and Lenny, the only surviving members of the once successful AEE Choppers, are left with a few employees, they struggle to keep the one time industry leader afloat. At it's peak, AEE had over 100 employees, built over 22 wild custom choppers, created many new innovative products, and were extremely successful because of the desire to create a nationally distributed chopper magazine, which increased their success tenfold. By the end of 1975, AEE Choppers, the dream of Tom McMullen, built from those many seeds and watered and grown through his own hand, had withered and died.
Monday, April 5, 2010
Today starts my renewal of the AEE legacy. I will be updating and renewing the AEE Choppers web site as time goes by along with keeping this blog fresh! I will be doing this with the help of other original AEE employees like Lenny Cenotti and Dave Brackett.
For any of you out there that are big AEE fans and have pictures or stories please feel free to post away, the more the merrier.
For any of you out there that are big AEE fans and have pictures or stories please feel free to post away, the more the merrier.