In today's chopper scene, the connection between hand-built motorcycles and BMX isn't as obtuse as you might think. If you're under 40, chances are you got your first taste of two-wheeled freedom aboard a "BMX Chrome." From the early 1970's through GT's collapse in the mid '90s, bikes like Torker, Mongoose, JMC and others were manufactured by ex-desert racers, machinists and fab shop operators in the Golden State. Some of the tools and machines that built those relics now reside in Chris "Mad Dog" Moeller's Santa Ana production facility. This is the story of how one 40-year-old soul rider built an American BMX dynasty one TIG welded frame, fork and handlebar at a time.
I met Chris Moeller in 1986. The then-16-year-old dirt-jumping pioneer had already made a name for himself as a multi-time coverboy at BMX Action magazine. Mad Dog's exploits are legendary to anyone who grew up on the BMX scene in those days. Unfortunately, his fearlessness far exceeded the yield strength of the wafer-thin dropouts and 1-inch down tubes that constituted "technology" in this days. To give riders like him a fighting chance, Moeller and a fellow racer named Swingrover started S&M Bikes. Because they were just kids with a dream, the first S&M frames were built at soon-to-be-defunct bike factories and muffler shops. Chris visited these vendors often, learning everything he could from the crusty con men who operated the foundering fab shops near his Southern California home.
Even as the popularity of Chris's American-made frames, forks and handlebars grew, the financial health of his vendors continued to wane. Most of Moeller's competitors—some of whom operated US-based fab shops of their own—eventually moved production overseas. Deterred neither by his vendors' incompetence nor his competition's lack of patriotism, Moeller scrimped and saved to buy a 10,000-square-foot building in Santa Ana, the epicenter of SoCal's industrial universe.
BMX trends move fast, and Moeller takes pride in setting the pace. Like most self-made men in his industry, Chris picked up his master's degree in metallurgy and manufacturing at the University of Hard Knocks. When BMX bikes were heavy, S&M's were the heaviest. When the near mutually-exclusive attributes of lightness, strength and affordability became the hallmarks of high quality, Chris and his fab-shop manager Jason Ball bent rules and tubing to make every S&M frame, fork and handlebar on US shores. It's never the easiest and rarely the most profitable way to do things, but that's they way Chris likes it. It works, and today S&M thrives on top of the BMX heap. After 25 years of hard work, Moeller celebrates life in the fab lane the same way he did when he was a kid—on two wheels.
In the winter of 2007, Billdozer and I drove Chris to Colorado to pick up his first chopper, a shovelhead with red, white and yellow pinstriping on black tins, the official colors of S&M. That spring Mad Dog rode his Black Widow on EDR 2. Many blown motors and aborted chopper hoedowns later, Chris replaced the cursed mill with an S&S crate motor and fortified his quiver with a more reliable FXR. Chris rides both motorcycles the same way he rides BMX—full throttle, with little concern for life or limb. Everyone who has partied with the man knows what I'm talking about, and those who haven't can enjoy the Mad Dog experience on EDR 4.
Why choppers, and why now? After 25 years of peddling BMX metal and mayhem, hand-built death traps are actually a gear down for this hero to a generation of dirt-jumping derilects. On a recent lunch with my old friend, Chris told me Street Chopper magazine editor Jeff Holt—another BMXer-turned-chopper dude—is helping him find a bagger. "How funny would it be to blow past Gilby Clarke on our way to San Felipe blaring 'Welcome to The Jungle' on the CD player?" Chris has a knack for mining comic gold in even the darkest corners of life and commerce. Given the most recent dead-end game to land in his lap, such optimism is a healthy attribute.
To shore up production flow during seasonal low spots, several years ago S&M started making handlebars for several SoCal chopper shops. West Coast Choppers was the biggest of these customers, and Chris has a rack full of unsold WCC apes to prove it. When Sandy Bullock's philandering ex-husband closed his doors, Chris was stuck holding the bag. To recoup his losses, Chris and Jason periodically drag unsold merch to the Long Beach Swap Meet. And therein lies the sweetest irony of all. Fifteen years ago Chris met with Jesse James to discuss fab services on his legendary BMX Pitchforks. That deal never materialized, and neither did his latest one with the moody chopper icon. A lesser man might lose his cool, but not the Mad Dog. Instead, Chris simply makes a joke and moves on. As Moeller has learned, when your life and livelihood are built on making better bicycles for children, taking anything too seriously is usually bad for business. Chris Moeller is a serious man who doesn't take ANYTHING seriously, and that's what makes him and S&M so unique.
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