A.E.E. Choppers came about literally by accident in the fall of 1967. While riding his 1957 Harley to a Hangman motorcycle club meeting with a fellow member Tom 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 performed to repair the damage. He was sent home in a wheelchair to recover from the injuries.
Prior to the accident Tom McMullen was a fulltime freelance photographer/writer for Popular Hot Rodding magazine and other Argus Publishing titles plus features for other publishers including chopper photo features for Cycle Guide magazine. His wife Rose helped with the writing and Jim Clark assisted with the photography when he was not busy with his day job as a wire technician/quality control inspector in aerospace.
Tom and Jim had been building and racing Tom’s now famous ’32 roadster on the street and at the drags since they met in 1959. They built other cars during the period, including the ’32 Vicky sedan that Jim had bought from Tom when they met in 1959. Tom’s roadster was featured heavily in the articles for the magazines with much of the work being done by them in Tom’s two-car garage.
By the mid-sixties factory muscle cars had replaced the early hot rods as the main focus of attention among car enthusiasts so the roadster spent more time in the garage under a cover and new toys were built. Among them a twin-engined (two Chevy V8’s) wheel-standing Austin sedan that they raced and drove on the street.
To expand the market for freelance articles Tom contacted Cycle Guide magazine and was assigned the job of testing and writing reports on some Suzuki motorcycles for a one-shot magazine on Suzukis. Tom and Jim tested and photographed them while Rose worked on the writeups and the reports were included in the publication.
Cycle Guide asked if Tom could provide some photo features on choppers. We located some and he submitted the features to them for publication. Tom decided to buy a bike that he and Jim could convert into a chopper and use the process to produce articles for the magazine. Tom purchased a ’47 Harley Knucklehead from Ed Roth and Tom and Jim converted it into a chopper in Tom’s garage. 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.
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. When Tom got into the bike accident he couldn’t work as a freelancer so a means of earning a living was needed until he recovered.
The ad was scheduled to run in Cycle Guide for the book and posters so an offer of a parts catalog for fifty cents was added to it. 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 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 that helped work on the cars and bikes as well as the photo shoots did the packaging and shipping.
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.
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 and processed orders, purchasing and took care of the bookkeeping.
They were having trouble purchasing fork extensions, custom and raked 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 A.E.E. Choppers was occupying. Jim convinced Tom to rent the third unit and be their landlord. After producing product for A.E.E. for a couple of months they started selling product direct to A.E.E. customers bypassing the agreed upon deal. A.E.E. 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. In 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.
In 1969 Tom contracted Dave Brackett to produce new rigid frames for full-size Harleys, Sportsters, Hondas and Triumphs. He also produced three-wheel conversion kits and hardtail extensions to replace the swingarms on 1958 and later Harleys. In late 1969 A.E.E. moved into a 10,000 square foot facility and hired Dave Brackett as a full-time designer and prototype builder.
In early 1969 Tom, and Rose had contacted Tex Smith and had him assist A.E.E. with the production on a subscription-only chopper magazine. It was titled “Street Chopper “ because Ed Roth was already producing a small magazine called “Choppers”. Jim Jacobs, later of Pete and Jakes and “Rod & Custom” fame, was his editor.
After producing four issues of “Street Chopper” in the first seven months, Tom, Rose and Tex decided to form a publishing company and produce “Street Chopper” magazine as a monthly, distributed on the newsstands. Jim was convinced to return as Vice President of both operations working on the magazine and assisting with A.E.E. In the summer of 1970 they introduced a new publication titled “Chopper the Custom Motorcycle Guide”, consisting of 200-page half magazine / half A.E.E. Choppers catalog. It boosted the sales for A.E.E. so well that the book continued as a quarterly publication into the mid ‘70s when Jammer Cycle Products was featured in the catalog section after Tom and Rose had split-up.
At A.E.E. in 1970 a new custom trike, actually 5-wheeler, powered by two Harley Sportster engine packages, was designed by Tom, Rose, Jim and Dave Brackett, then produced primarily by Dave in the A.E.E. prototype department. It was entered in the Oakland Car & Motorcycle Show and won the Best in Show Sweepstakes award.
A.E.E. Choppers sales continued on a dramatic upward path so in early 1971 they moved the operations to 64,000 square feet of buildings in Placentia, CA. A third magazine titled “Hot Bike” was introduced focusing on the performance side of the motorcycle market. A.E.E. had added a line of performance items to the catalog and this was a good way to promote them. A third company called CC Industries was also introduced at this time. It offered products from the A.E.E. Choppers line at discount prices, mail order only. This was done to compete with the smaller competitors under cutting prices with some poorer quality items.
A.E.E. spent considerable time and money designing and testing before introducing a product. A perfect example of this process was the A.E.E. springer front end. Independent lab tests of prototypes revealed that 4130 chrome-moly, though a strong grade of steel used by others in similar applications, was prone to breakage under repeated flexing. That 1020 mild steel tubing was the safer material for this application. The redesigned rocker assembly allowed the front end to be on a more radical rake while retaining stock front end geometry (rake & trail).
A.E.E. Choppers and the magazines also championed or opposed legislation that had an effect on the chopper market. As an active member of SEMA and an exhibitor in the early days, when motorcycle companies were members, they tried to educate the industry and public through information presented at the shows and in the magazines. In 1971 Tom and Jim flew back to Washington in the company plane to present a package of recommendations to Doug Thoms and the Department of Transportation Board to use as a guide when writing the proposed motorcycle modification regulations. FHTSA had already enacted a set of regulations for cars and was trying to establish the same for motorcycles. Eventually the proposal was dropped.
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. Tom and Rose insisted that “Hot Bike” had to cease publication though as they didn’t want to spend the money on an addition publication. 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 February of 1973 Jim left the company in another operations dispute and returned to head the operation once again in October of 1973 after producing “1001 Rod Ideas” for “Popular Hotrodding” for three issues.
In early 1974 Tom and Rose decided to get a divorce and she insisted on retaining control of A.E.E. Choppers. Jim and Tex convinced Tom that he should go with Jim and operate the publishing company as a separate entity. Rose continued operation of A.E.E. for about a year before shutting it down. The publishing company grew over the years adding many titles, eventually being sold by Tom to Primedia in 1995 for a reported $65,000,000 dollars.
By Jim Clark
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