"It started with a phone call." So says Paul Teutul Sr, of his project to customise a motorcycle for the Abu Dhabi Police. Teutul gained international fame seven years ago with the debut of American Chopper, a Discovery Channel TV programme about the bikes he customises at his very successful Orange County Choppers. When the police bike was unveiled at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec) this week, the healthy crowd was a sure sign that he has a serious following in the UAE. After the initial contact from Abu Dhabi Police, it was a six-week process to design and build a bike that the police force can proudly call their own. "Our designer has a computerised system to build the entire bike on screen, and then we submitted the design and made changed until everyone was satisfied," says Teutul. The process of going between New York and Abu Dhabi by phone and e-mail has culminated in a spectacular red bike, which incorporates the Abu Dhabi police logo, falcon claws and traditional Arabian towers for the handle grips.
"It will be used as a symbol for the Abu Dhabi Police force," says Teutul. "Maybe for safety procedures or ceremonial use, but I don't think it'll be used to patrol the streets at night." The process of designing and building the bike, as well as bringing it to Abu Dhabi, has been documented by the American Chopper crew and, while an airing date has not yet been determined, Teutul says that it will be edited quickly so it can be broadcast soon.
"This morning, I was out on the road with the bike and we got some great overhead shots," he says of his first visit to the Middle East. "And while we've been out here, we've been experiencing the culture - visited the mosque and the museum; there's a lot out here, it's tremendous, I have been surprised." But the Abu Dhabi Police bike is not the first commission Orange County Choppers has created for UAE clients. Two bikes are being made for two Dubai customers based on the World of Warcraft computer game.
"One bike is the bad guy, one bike is the good guy, it may be the most extreme bike we've done, it's off the hook," Teutul says. Another UAE customer, based in Abu Dhabi, also commissioned an interesting customised chopper. "It's a vampire-themed bike," says Teutul, grinning. "There's a coffin gas tank and a headlight shaped like a vampire head." The joy Teutul gets from building the choppers that are only limited by the clients' imagination and bank account is obvious, but there are two one-off bikes that make him really proud of his job. Teutul decided to build a chopper to honour the American veterans who have been prisoners of war and another to honour the New York City firemen who died in the rescue operation for the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
"I use the POW bike for memorial days and lend them out on certain special occasions," he says. "Nobody commissioned me to do them, it was just something I wanted to do." When he returns to the US, the next big project will be a bike for a native American reservation in Michigan. "I'm excited about that one, too," Teutul says. "We go from one project to the next and every one is different." For Teutul, customising bikes started out as a backyard hobby. "Back in the 1970s, my first business, for 27 or 28 years was a steel fabrication business, but I was always a bike enthusiast," explains. "So I used the facilities I had and started chopping up bikes - it was always a passion of mine."
"I was semi-retired but I was still chopping bikes as a hobby and people started to pay attention to the bikes I was building, so I opened up a shop in the same building as the steel business. "We have a few less staff at the moment because of the economy - we have about 50 people but our staff can be up to 70," he says. One of Teutul's sons now runs the steel fabrication business. Once Orange County Choppers attracted the attention of the Discovery Channel, Teutul's life changed forever. The show documents a different customisation job each week along with a fly-on-the-wall reality TV-style look at the interactions between his staff and family. What might be considered an invasion of privacy for some is now a way of life for Teutul and he doesn't seem to mind at all.
'You gotta do something with your life," he smiles. "There are pros and cons and sacrifices that have to be made but I love what I do. It's something I've always wanted to do so it's not really a job." There is a new series of American Chopper planned: "There might be some format changes, it's up to Discovery Channel," Teutul says - and after the success of the Abu Dhabi Police chopper launch, he is keen to return to the UAE.
The American Chopper live show, where a bike is built on stage as the Orange County Choppers' band plays, has been successful around the world. Teutul recalls a sell-out show in Australia and combined that trip with building three bikes for Academy Award-winning actor Russell Crowe: "We built bikes for his rugby league team and spent a few days at his place." Teutul is hopeful that the live stage show will come to the UAE later in the year. "Maybe around September," says. "It all depends on different things, but I definitely want to come back out here. The response has been great."
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