- March 06, 2012
- By Rob Fleming
- Motorcycle Accident Info
Russ Brown Motorcycle Attorneys: There are many unsung hero’s within the motorcycle industry who have helped shape the industry and culture with their individual contributions to motorcycle design and custom paint work: while there are many notable custom Harley builders within the motorcycle industry few have achieved the level of success like Mike Toupin’s Chopper Design Group. Based in La Habra, California, Mike and his design crew bring an old school approach to the design of the sexiest custom Harleys you have ever seen.
With over 4 decades of hard work perfecting the art of building custom Harley motorcycles, Mike Toupin has earned continued respect by the local motorcycle community with his unique custom Harley designs, and recognition by his peers and motorcycle publications by stacking up multiple wins at Motorcycle Shows across the U.S.
Mike’s career in the motorcycle industry starts in his teen years; Mike was gear head from an early age wrenching on cars and learning how to paint, and by the time he was 18 he had saved enough money to buy his first motorcycle, a 1938 Knucklehead which was almost a basket case. He dropped every penny he earned into that bike and in short time had it tricked out with plenty of chrome and custom paint.
Hungry to learn all he could, Mike got his first real job as a painter’s helper in 1967 working for the “Chop Top King” Larry Watson. Learning the tricks of the trade in prepping sheet metal for paint and developing the skill required to apply custom paint came easy to a young Mike Toupin and as his skills and reputation increased he soon out grew Watson’s shop and earned a spot working with Junior Conaway who had a plenty of customers who needed a skilled Harley mechanic and painter. For the next 10 years Mike would refine his skill and knowledge of custom paint working for Bill Stroppe, Parnelli Jones, and Bill Hines who were influential pioneers within the custom paint industry.
As the years rolled by, in 1978 Mike found work as a senior painter at Lockheed. While he wasn’t applying slick and sexy pearls and candy paint to those commercial airplanes, Mike was learning the technical side of commercial painting, which he used to earn his master custom painter certification. The advanced training he received while working for Lockheed would become the foundation of his career as a custom motorcycle painter. Working for Lockheed not only helped Mike develop project management skills, but also provided financial stability while he continued to refine his art of custom painting.
While Mike continued working for Lockheed he built and sold custom Harley choppers on the side, quickly earning him a solid reputation with local bikers. “Things were a lot different in the 70’s, if you rode a Harley you were already considered an outlaw or simply no good by the general public, and I guess that is how the motorcycle culture grew. Bikers were generally untrusting of those who didn’t ride and felt that we could trust a fellow biker”. Working out of his garage Mike had an established customer base and had enough work coming in that in 1981 he left his 9 to 5 job painting airplanes and began wrenching and painting motorcycles full time.
“Custom Harley design and painting styles were totally different than they are today. Almost all of the custom bikes I built were choppers, and as far as paint was concerned, they weren’t as dynamic or detailed as they are today” Said Mike.
Along with Mike’s newfound popularity came the opportunity to expand his custom Harley design into a full-fledged business after being approached by another custom builder. According to Mike, things started out very well, but quickly became a nightmare. With a failed business partnership and a few more in later years, Mike had lost his taste for the business world and dropped out of sight. “All I ever wanted to do was just build custom Harley’s, not deal with greedy and dishonest people, so I took a break and moved to Reno”. It didn’t take long for bikers to begin showing up at his house with money in hand hoping to get him to either build them a new custom bike or paint their current motorcycle. While in Reno Mike painted custom luxury cars for Something Exotic Motorcars.
Regaining his composure and determination to make a name for himself, Mike made the trek back to Southern California and began turning out custom Harleys for his customers and it wasn’t long until word of mouth became his best advertisement tool. Being a team player, whenever Mike needed custom parts made, or chrome work he always took it to local shops and businesses in the area. His philosophy of outsourcing work locally was well received by other motorcycle industry craftsmen. Another thing that set Mike apart from other custom builders was his willingness to share his ideas and techniques with other builders, and those hungry to learn. “I learned a lot of what I know by trial and error while working on my motorcycles, and just about everything I do when building a custom bike isn’t rocket science, so why not share what I know?
As the ‘80’s drifted into the ‘90’s Mike Toupin continued to design and paint custom Harley’s and as the motorcycle lifestyle became less underground and more widely accepted by the general public, it was common to see people from every walk of life at Mike’s shop, and some of his best customers were doctors, lawyers and other professional types. After winning a few local motorcycle shows he was approached by Easyriders magazine who sent out a photographer to his small shop in Santa Fe Springs California to get some pictures of his work, and soon Chopper Design group made it into the back pages of the magazine.
As work began flooding in, Mike expanded the shop and soon he had employed a small crew handling repairs, and walk in customers allowing him to concentrate on his custom design projects. Around this time Mike had begun sketching ideas for new custom bike to replace his current mostly stock Shovel. With the steady stream of projects for his customers demanding most of time, his own custom Harley project would remain nothing more than a collection of rough sketches, ideas and dreams for almost 10 years.
While most of Mike colleges in the local industry struggling to make ends meet, Chopper Design Group enjoyed a non-stop flood of customers who wanted Mike’s one of a kind artistic style adorning their motorcycles. While Mike’s shop was considered a first class choice for motorcycle repair and aftermarket customization, it was his stunning custom designs that continued to fuel his popularity with motorcyclists seeking one of a kind custom Harley paint and graphics.
In late 2004 after a visit from city zoning officials the future of Chopper Design Group was in danger. The City of Santa Fe Springs was revamping zoning ordnances and with new rules in place Mike’s options were either upgrading his spray booth or moving to a new location. The current shop layout wouldn’t accommodate these new zoning requirements without spending a substantial amount of money, and since Mike didn’t own the property, relocating was his only option.
With a plan in place, and help from friends, local industry merchants and even some of his customers, Chopper Design Group made an almost over night move to their new shop in La Habra California. After settling in and finishing his current custom design projects, Mike pulled out those old design sketches he had made years earlier and attempted to begin work on his own custom Harley, as luck would have it new design projects came in and always having a hard time saying no to his customers Mike put his bike project back on the shelf and resumed working on his customers new projects.
As time would allow Mike began slowing working on his own custom Harley project and at the same time he also started on a friends project bike, the “Diamond Back”. Both projects slowly took shape and more than once work was halted to finish customer projects, one named “Road Kill” Which would win first place in the street chopper class at the 2008 Easyriders motorcycle show in Pomona California.
In late 2007 work resumed on Mike’s custom bike named “Nervous Wreck”. Mike choose that name because every time he began working on it a new customer project would come and pull him off of it. Shortly after finishing Nervous Wreck, Mike worked overtime and finally finished diamond Back. With both bikes finished, plans were made to enter the 2008 Easyriders show at Pomona, along with Road Kill.
Motorcycle shows were nothing new to Mike, but with the recent explosion of popularity due to the bevy of reality TV shows promoting custom motorcycle builders, the 2008 Easyriders event was over flowing with new and long time builders eager to take home a first place win in their event class.
All 3 of Chopper Design Groups motorcycle entries won 1st place in their entry class, with Nervous Wreck also winning an entry into the builders invitational in Kansas City, Missouri. With 5 more regional show dates left before the Kansas City show Mike and the Chopper Design Group crew went back to work doing what they did best, building the finest custom Harley motorcycle for their customers. Along with the Pomona show trophies, Mike had also picked up some custom paint projects for In and Out Burger, as well as a hand full of Harley restoration jobs.
The Kansas City show was equally packed with entries from around the world, and competing against 300 stunning custom Harley motorcycle designs, Nervous Wreck won 3rd place in the builders choice class.
The main focus of Chopper Design Groups work has always been aimed at building custom Harley’s that are daily riders first and foremost. “I find it is much more complicated building a custom motorcycle that my customers will be riding on daily basis than it is designing a show bike” said Mike. As with all motorcyclists, their greatest joy is being in the wind, and Mike has truly mastered the relationship between artistic design and riding functionality with his one of kind Harley creations, while still finding time to get in the wind and ride.
With 4 recent Easyriders wins under his belt, Mike wasted no time in getting back to the shop resuming his on going project builds, and by June 2008 Nervous Wreck would make the cover of Biker Magazine, and both Diamond Back and Road Kill would be featured in issues of Easyriders and V-Twin magazine.
The renewed attention from the motorcycle industry would also help bring in many new custom projects from motorcyclists who had to have Mike’s fresh artistic paint on their bikes to other industry professional’s commissioning him to paint motorcycles owned by Magician Chris Angel, creating slick graphic designs for some up and coming NASCAR teams, and even old school Pin Stripper Dennis Jones became a shop regular with steady flow of paint work ranging from classic Hot Rods to high performance snowmobiles.
Having met Mike in 2003, I tried to stop by his shop whenever I could, and each time I entered his shop it was jam packed with dozens of new projects in various stages. It was mind blowing to see all of the totally fresh and unique designs. One bike named Kona Gold had a rich gold pearl finish that sparkled and glittered, and just seemed to take on a unique hue when looked at from different angles. There was bagger with a rich dark blue color adorned with a sexy pirate chick on back fender, and many more custom motorcycle, each one a new study into the art of design, graphics and paint.
One of the last times I visited with Mike was right after the 2010 Sturgis rally. Mike was hard at work with his newest project named Bobb-IT, and from what I had learned from the guys at the shop was clearly the toughest project Mike had ever worked on. This project was going to be the newest Chopper Design Group entry for the Crafty Custom class at the 2011 Easyriders bike tour at the Los Angeles Convention center. It seemed that what made this project so tough were the build rules for the class. In order to enter the class, the motorcycle had to be a street legal and registered 1990-1999 Harley big-twin motorcycle and the build cost could not exceed $10,000 and receipts for everything were required.
Building the bike wasn’t the problem; it was gathering the right parts and keeping the costs down which made it somewhat complicated. When I first saw the Bobb-It it was little more than a frame, gas tank and some sketches. During business trips to and from Los Angeles I missed seeing the bike being built, but it was no surprise to find out that Chopper Design Group had won the regional LA show and was a contender for the national event in 2012.
The only reason Mike chose to enter the crafty custom class was to show case what could be accomplished in designing a 100% street legal show quality Harley for under $10,000. Mike had dozens of offers to sell Bobb-It at the 2011 show, but knowing he stood a solid chance of wining the national event in 2012, he respectfully declined the offers and parked the bike in the back of the shop awaiting the 2012 Easyriders event at the Anaheim convention center. With the 2012 show held in January I was fortunate to have been in attendance to see Mike Toupin and Chopper Design Group win the national event. Easyriders in currently working with Mike to schedule a photo shop for Bobb-It for a feature spread in their magazine.
Being a motorcyclists first and a shop owner, builder second is by far the most important reason why Mike and Chopper Design Group has become an influential contributor to the motorcycle industry and culture. “I put everything I have into each motorcycle project I work on, as if I was working on my own bike,” said Mike.
With his current project schedule keeping him going 6 days a week, it is hard to believe Mike even finds time to get in the wind, but I know he does, as I have made a few runs with him and friends to some popular hang outs in and around Southern California.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Mike and his crew are busy with their current build projects that include a restoration job on one of Big Daddy Roth’s V8 Trikes, and a dozen other custom design projects that he picked up at the 2012 Easyriders show, and if that wasn’t enough, one of CDG crew let it slip there is super secret build in progress for some popular Hollywood star…All I have to say is where do these guys find time to sleep! Check out Mike’s Amazing work @ www.chopperdesigngroup.com.
There is beauty and indescribable freedom that from riding motorcycles and being in the wind. Don’t let a motorcycle accident take away your freedom. If you or a loved one has been involved in a motorcycle accident, Call 1-800-4-BIKERS to speak with a motorcycle accident lawyer who rides and knows the law!