My Years with "AEE Choppers"
by Dave Brackett
In late 1968, I was preparing to leave the Army after several years duty. I was looking forward to visiting with old friends and to get a new life started. Upon returning to Southern California, I started visiting old friends. I had known Tom McMullen since 1962, and we had shared a house in 1965, also working on hot rods together. I heard he had started a business building choppers and parts, so I went to visit at his shop in Buena Park, Ca.
When I walked in the door, Tom was talking with a customer, but when he turned and recognized me, his first comment was "You are coming to work with me". So I started working at "AEE Choppers" in a day or two. I had built many hot rods and drag racing cars, but never any motorcycles. The first several days, I spent talking with Tom about the business, it's good points and bad, and what we might do to help the company grow.
There were several major problems with the business. AEE Choppers had the ability to sell a lot of product, but production could not keep up with sales. Tom had recently hired a machine shop foreman, Danny James, to help in that department, but the welding shop was in chaos. Cash flow was another problem, money for building inventory was not available. When we looked into the cash problem, our discovery was, the cost of advertising was too great. The solution to this problem, was the key to the success of "AEE Choppers".
The decision was, to create our own magazine called "Street Chopper", it would be filled with our advertising, stories would be featuring AEE products, and others would pay us to advertise in our magazine. Tex Smith of Petersen Publishing fame, and long time friend of Tom, came on board to help. AEE made four issues of "Street Chopper" in 1969, but they were mail order only. This created a modest success, but we needed the time to get the production side of the company up and running.
I started making the company more efficient by revamping the welding department. I hired Bill Brundage to take charge of the new welding shop, I built fixtures to produce sissy bars previously built one at a time, and found outside vendors to mass produce components for them. I continued by building fixtures for other products.
Tom showed me a Sportster hardtail section made by Harley, but impossible to get. He wanted to build our own, so we bought a Sportster, and I designed and made a bolt on hardtail section. Fixtures were made and production started. We decided to finish the Sportster with the new hardtail, showing other AEE products and make it a feature in the new magazine. This bike was the first custom bike I built, called "Quickstart".
Tom and I wanted to expand our product lines to include bikes other than Harleys and a few Triumphs and BSAs. In an effort to start that in motion, I built my first true chopper. I used a Honda 350 twin, I made a custom weld on hardtail, raked the neck, and made a unique gull wing style gas tank. Trimmed with cool long nut covers and a machined spool front hub from our machine shop, and sporting a Molly paint job, we featured the bike in the next magazine. It was called "Really". As a result of the article, we were flooded with people wanting to buy the gas tanks, spool hubs and nut covers, so I geared up with our machine shop to make the hubs and nut covers, and got an outside vendor to build the tanks.
We could see that the magazine was increasing our sales dramatically. In June of 1969, I designed bolt on hardtails for other bikes, then built side hack kits for Harleys. In July, I designed and tooled up to build weld-on hardtails for many bikes. I followed with a bolt-on three wheeler kit for Sportsters.
Lunch time activities were fun at AEE. Tom and Rose had several exotic cats, we played with them and raced mini bikes on a track out back. As 1969 came to a close, AEE's growth was exceeding the size of our facility. In late 1969, we moved to a 10,000 sq. ft. building in Anaheim, Ca. I spent several months building offices, racks and storage for the new shop, and we built two copies of the "Easy Rider" bike for the movie studio.
1970 started with "Street Chopper" magazine going national on the news stands, and becoming the main magazine for the new publishing company, TRM Publishing, stands for Tom and Rose McMullen. In January, we finished the "Wild Kit Sportster" showing new AEE products. Lenny Cenotti joined the AEE team in February and ran the sales counter.
I was spending most of my time designing new products and finding outside vendors to build parts for the new products. AEE had a good machine shop with half a dozen employees, but they were no match for the sales potential of the new national magazine. In the spring, I designed raked triple trees, several new sissy bars, dual headlight brackets, 45 jockey shifters, top mounts for knucklehead motors, and a coffin style gas tank. Tooling and suppliers were put in place.
I found a source for early Harley magnetos, thought to be extinct, and they were added to the catalog. I designed "Z:" style handlebars, narrow triple trees, built tooling and got vendors to build those. We were buying and reselling lots of exhaust pipes for many bikes, but the suppliers could not keep up with our orders. I redesigned all of our exhaust systems and outsourced them to a local exhaust system manufacturer, including mufflers. Finding chrome shops to plate all of these products was difficult, we had over six different chrome shops doing mostly our work.
Lunch activities again included mini-bike racing, and in the winter, drag races inside the building. Tom blew up one of the mini-bikes, so I took it inside, removed the motor, welded in an old Chevy starter motor, added a battery, made a chain drive on the starter and added a switch. There was no rheostat, so the power was all or nothing. You had to hold on, and Tom soon claimed the bike for himself, to run around the shop.
We designed new square springer front ends and made tooling to build them in house. It was around this time that I encountered industrial espionage. When I left AEE to go see the many vendors, people would follow me and then visit with the vendors after I left, trying to get them to make parts for other companies. Most of the vendors contacted me, telling about the incidents.
In the summer, I talked with Tom about building complete rigid chopper frames, but he insisted my time was too valuable, and we could not sell them. I thought the idea was valid, so I started my own company, Brackett Chassis Co., building 350, 450, 500 and 750 Honda, and Sportster rigid frames. I soon started selling them to AEE for resale. My idea was good, as I sold almost 2000 frames from 1970 to 1975, when I sold the business.
Around July, Tom, Rose and I developed the idea for "Kit Bikes", a complete set of parts to turn a particular bike into a chopper. To start this process, we built the first "Kit Bike", a Sportster. About this time, "Chopper the Custom Motorcycle Guide" came out as one of our publications. It had feature articles, build articles, and a complete AEE catalog in the back. Again, orders came flying in and we were struggling to meet the demand.
We were having trouble getting wheels and spokes and lacing done by other companies. To stay up with orders, we bought spokes and wheels by the thousands from Japan and hired Steve Jones to run a new wheel lacing department. Danny and I designed and tooled up to build square glide front ends. This along with our square springers meant a lot of square holes to be made. Flame cutting was tried, but not real accurate, milling was time consuming and expensive. Then I found a machine shop that could drill square holes, yes there are drills that drill square holes.
The rest of 1970 was spent building two featured AEE bikes, "The Shovelhead" and "The Supersport". Both these bikes had many new custom parts I made and also all the latest new AEE products. Around Christmas, Tom, Rose, Jim and I got together to discuss a new custom three wheeler to take to the Oakland Roadster Show in February. Tom and Jim had won the sweepstakes award at the 1969 show, and we wanted to try to duplicate that feat. We decided on a five wheel version of a three wheeler. One wheel in front and four across the back, with two Sportster motors. I drew up plans, Tom approved, so I ordered all the parts necessary for the project.
Most of my time until the first of February was spent building the new trike called "Big Twin". From the time I had collected the motors and parts, I had 32 days to build the bike before the Oakland Roadster Show. The night before the show, I built an electric turntable for the bike, and Jim and I drove all night to get there on time. "Big Twin" was a big hit and we won the Grand Sweepstakes Award. I have always been amazed by what I did in 32 days.
In March of 1971, AEE had grown out of the 10,000 sq. ft. building, so we moved into a 64,000 sq. ft. building in Placentia, Ca. The publishing company used about 1/4 of the space, and now added "Hot Bike" to it's magazines. We decided to add another parts company to the mix. C.C. Industries was created as a discount competitor to AEE. I worked with Danny creating new chopper style windshields and small front brakes that looked like spool hubs. In June, I prepared a 26 page report for the U.S. Department of Transportation, establishing minimum standards for motorcycle safety.
AEE was going to get involved with performance parts, so we decide to sponsor Leo Payne's Sportster at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Tom wanted me to get more involved with running the business, so I hired four people to take care of the work I used to do, and I spent time trying to organize the parts business. I wrote articles about bike safety and product quality for bike magazines, and spent much time at Magnaflux Laboratories, doing destructive testing on various AEE front ends, to ensure safety.
Through the summer, I helped with design and tooling for rigid front tubes, mono girder front ends, ultra narrow springers, and worked with Dean Moon, of Moon Equipment Company, to design and build custom aluminum oil tanks for bikes. We designed custom intake manifolds, and carb. covers, and I built tooling and designed new rigid frames for Harley 74, Triumph and BSA. These three frames were built by AEE, my frame business had expanded to build new complete chopper style motorcycles, the brand name was "Amani".
1972 started with me finishing the AEE "Kit Bike", a Sportster in yellows, to feature new AEE products. The publishing company starts "Street Rodder" magazine. In February, I moved to the front office to become general manager of AEE, and finished "Big Four", a Honda 750. I then hired Stan Meyer and Dean Rediger to take over my prototype chores. In April, I started the "Trick Trike" and then let Stan and Dean finish it.
AEE now has over 100 employees. I had some success in hiring handicapped people, and even several people on a work furlough program from a local prison. These were dedicated employees. May led to the creation of the "How to Build a Chopper" Panhead 74. In late summer, we designed the "7 Up Bikes", a 500 and 650 Triumph on AEE rigid frames.
Having organized the manufacturing office, putting all the plans and suppliers in order, and creating files for all AEE products, I felt it was time to leave. My chores at Brackett Chassis Company were increasing, and the new line of choppers was taking lots of time. In November of 1972, I left AEE, but continued selling frames to them until they closed.
I shall always remember my tenure at AEE fondly, as I got to work with friends to help create a leading manufacturer of chopper parts, and build some of the most memorable choppers of the day. My fondness for motorcycles still continues, and I plan to rebuild several of the old "Amani" motorcycles this next year. I will think of Tom as I work on them, wish he was still here to enjoy them.