Washington Choppers eat up the streets

Motorcycle shop makes custom bikes for clients around the world


Gary Stephens, owner of Washington Choppers, builds custom motorcycles and rolling chassis, basically bikes without motors. Stephens specializes in the bobber design, which he said is making a comeback.


Fast. Low. Mean.

That’s how Gary Stephens likes his motorcycles. So that’s the way he builds them.

Stephens owns Washington Choppers, a Bellingham-based custom motorcycle shop where he sells custom parts, rolling chassis, and on occasion, he builds complete bikes. But Washington Choppers isn’t like the custom bike shops you see on TV. He is a one-man business and he has one style that he sticks to: the bobber.

But what’s a bobber?

“For lack of a better term, I’d say it’s a retro look with 2008 components,” Stephens said.

Imagine the early era of custom bikes — the 1950s and ’60s — back when any custom job was called a chopper. Imagine the movie “Easy Rider.”

Now, after shows like American Chopper have made modern custom bikes a hit, the old style of bobbers is making a comeback, both nationally and internationally.

“We have a bike in Japan, we have a bike in Germany, I’ve sent rolling chassis to the UK, to Spain and to Australia,” Stephens said. “Europe and Japan are very in tune to the bobber look.”

In fact, most of the business that Stephens does is international. He admits that his designs and bikes are probably better known outside of Washington. But that doesn’t stop him from showing his bikes at regional and local shows, such as the Motorcycle Show-n-Shine on May 18 at the Depot Market.


‘It all starts with the frame’

Most days you can find Stephens working after hours at his shop in the Sunnyland Neighborhood, piecing together the project at hand. After spending a majority of the day on the phone with parts distributors across every U.S time zone, he finds his way out of his upstairs office and down to the shop by mid-afternoon.

“By 3 o’clock, it’s 6 o’clock on the East Coast,” he said. “That’s when I come down here.”

This month’s project is a complete custom bike based on one of Stephens’ “drag chop bob” rolling chassis.

“This is my first time using this frame with this configuration,” he said while finagling the timing belt into place.

Each bike presents a unique challenge based on the sought-after style. For example, a certain style of seat may require a creative arrangement of the mechanical parts that normally reside beneath the seat. Solving all of those small problems is what makes building a custom bike fun, Stephens said.

“It’s not extremely hard to build a bike,” he said. “You just have to know what you’re doing and know what works.”

As someone who started riding motorcycles at a young age and has built more than few bikes, Stephens knows what he likes and what works best. And in order to create the best performance characteristics, you first have to know where they come from.

“It all starts with the frame,” Stephens said. “It’s like a house: if you have a lousy foundation then the building is going to be crap.”

Stephens doesn’t manufacture his own frames — he leaves that up to the trained professionals at Daytec, a California company that specializes in motorcycle frames — but he is very involved in the design of the frame.

His designs have led to the creation of a custom series of rolling chassis, which are basically motorcycles without any mechanical additions. No engine, no transmission, no brakes, no lights. Just frame, wheels, gas tank and seat.

Rolling chassis have become a large part of Stephens’ business because they are more affordable than a completely custom-built bike. Plus, for those with basic mechanical knowledge of engines, the chassis give customers a chance to build their own custom bike.

“If you work on your cars or trucks, you have the knowledge to build a bike once you get a rolling chassis,” Stephens said.


The right style

All of the bikes that roll out of Washington Choppers are designed to perform — and look good doing it. But looking good is secondary to designing a bike that is safe, Stephens said.

“Comfort is one thing — granted, I will not build an uncomfortable bike — but there is no way that an unsafe bike will roll out of here,” he said.

Performance and safety are the reasons you won’t see a Washington Choppers bike with an abnormally wide rear tire, for example. Larger tires are flatter on the bottom and thus harder to handle when leaning into a turn. Thinner tires are more rounded and provide superior traction.

Stephens also likes to keep the suspension on his bikes on the stiff side, which allows for better handling at higher speeds, though it may be a tad bumpy for everyday riding.

“It’s not like a Cadillac,” Stephens said. “It’s more like a Porsche or Ferrari ride: the suspension is a little bit stiffer, but if you want to ride the corners, you’re able to do it.”

Beyond performance, there are other details that make Stephens’ bobbers stand out. Springer suspension in the front. A large, single headlight. Short handlebars. Nothing too flashy, but something that will make classic motorcycle enthusiasts take a second look.


One-man business

Each rolling chassis and custom bike with the Washington Choppers logo on it is a sign of Stephens’ handiwork.

“Everything is done by me and that’s the way I like it,” he said, adding that he is his own quality control. “I know how [the bikes are] built and I feel comfortable putting them on the street and on the open market.”

However, there are very few Washington Choppers on the open market. Since he works by himself, Stephens estimates that he produces a mere six complete custom bikes per year. Each bike can take anywhere from 90 to 160 hours to complete, depending on the complexity of the style and the availability of parts.

“It’s a hard way to make a living because there’s not a whole lot of people out there who are buying custom bikes,” Stephens said. “That is one reason why I don’t concentrate on completed bikes. I concentrate on the three-quarter completed bikes,” which he said require only 16 to 20 hours of labor to put together.

In the end, though, Stephens said he enjoys being his own boss and doing something he loves.

“Do I get frustrated now and then? Yeah. Is it one of those things where I wake up and say, ‘I don’t want to go down to work?’ That never happens here. Bikes are my passion.”


See the bikes

To see more of Gary Stephens’ motorcycles, check out his Web site, www.washingtonchoppers.com, or stop by the shop at 2120 Grant St. Unit 1. Stephens will also be showing his bikes, including the recently finished 2008 show bike “Street Fighter,” at the upcoming Motorcycle Show-n-Shine at the Depot Market on Sunday, May 18. The event is hosted by Catholic Community Services and is free to the public.


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