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Keeping it real: interview with the Burbank Choppers

19 December 2015


The Scroungers’ Aaron Carson get up close and personal with one of the world’s most renowned traditional hot rod clubs to talk road trips, toilet techniques, and cars

Some follow the pack and some follow their hearts. Some are cheap replicas, facsimiles, and wannabes, while others stand for style, cool, and authenticity. Some remain credible, while others sell out. The ones who are driven by passion rather than fashion could never sell out — that would be tantamount to murder of the soul. Some want it real bad but very few have it. Some cats are real and understand feel — others just steal. Sonic Youth never sold out. Nick Cave never sold out. Johnny Thunders never sold out. The Cramps never sold out. 

Hailing from Burbank, California, the Choppers have never sold out. They know their groceries and respect the guys who kicked this whole hot rod thing off. They are one of the longest standing “traditional” car clubs around and the members show no sign of slowing down anytime soon. They do what they do regardless of trends, fashion, or hype — to hell with pretenders! With the return of the Hot Rod Blowout earlier in 2015, Auckland’s Scroungers have invited the Choppers to attend the event and we thought it was high time we spread the word about what they’re all about. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the Burbank Choppers!

For the uninitiated, could you summarize what the hell this thing called the Burbank Choppers is all about?

The Burbank Choppers is a hot rod and custom car club. When we started the club, hi-tech street rods dominated the hot rod scene. That’s not what we were into. The style we preferred was that of the original hot rod and custom car builders — we always looked to guys like George and Sam Barris, Harry Westergard, Von Dutch, Larry Watson, and Ed Roth for inspiration. The Choppers began building and driving a style of hot rod and custom that was very different from what was popular at the time [street rods]. Because of this, when we drove into a show, we got noticed. “Traditional” later became the label used to describe what we do, but at the time most really didn’t know what to make of us. To this day, we never refer to ourselves as “traditional”; we have always felt that our cars are hot rods and customs — period. 

The Burbank Choppers have been around for 20-odd years and are still seen as a very strong and active club. What is the key to the group’s longevity?

Most of us have known each other for a very long time and our families are also close. We obviously have similar taste and style in cars, but also in most other things, such as music, art, and so on. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot from each other and had countless great times and adventures together. We are a car club, but first and foremost we are the best of friends. 
The Choppertown movie about the Sinners motorcycle club is pretty cool, but they kiss each other a lot. Do you guys kiss each other much? This may affect the trip to New Zealand, but just be totally open; it’s cool!

OK, fine then! No kisses for you guys! [Laughs]

The Choppers formed long before tradition became a trend and will most likely be around way after the trend has passed. What do you think the future holds for the Burbank Choppers?

To keep doing what we’re doing. We have a lot of projects in the works so you’re still gonna see us around for a while. It would be nice if someday we are the old-timers bench racing with each other at the car show; I think nothing would make us happier. It would make it all worthwhile to know that the Choppers was a club that was able to keep it together over the long haul.

What are some of the more memorable or defining moments for the Burbank Choppers?

Initially, meeting each other and then each of us getting our cars on the road — those times are very memorable. The first trips driving to car shows together as a group — that was pretty mind blowing. Naming the club “Choppers” and making our plaques and jackets — that was all very important to us. As far as defining public moments go, our Hot Rod magazine article by Gray Baskerville, the first Hot Rod Deluxe cover story in ’99, Hop Up issue No. 5 cover, Rides television show, The Electroline Diaries, Gearhead Magazine cover, Burbank Choppers Hot Rod TV episode, The Devil at Your Feet documentary, and taking Keith’s and Verne’s hot rods to Japan, and driving them around Yokohama and then into the Mooneyes show, are probably our most well known.    
What clubs do you interact with — other than the Shifters, which has stuff going on right now?

The car club scene here is really not what it used to be, although there are probably more clubs than ever. It’s just hard to know who is in what club or what club is who anymore! At one time, the car club scene  was simple, tight, and defined — but not anymore.
Have you ever lost members, and, if so, why? How have you dealt with that difficult situation when it’s not been the individual’s choice?

We have lost a few members over the years, some amicably, by their choice, and some not. It really comes down to how honest they are with the rest of us Choppers. If you lose interest and you want to leave, that’s fine — you can go on your way and we can all be cool with that. On the other hand, sometimes personalities clash or someone chooses to do something that is offensive to the rest of the club; then it’s probably not gonna go down the nice way. Either way, it is difficult at the time but always the best for all involved.  
Do you have regular meetings or is it not that formal? What’s your favourite thing to do as a club?

We’ve never had regular scheduled meetings, but we do call one if need be. Our favourite thing to do as a club is just get together, whether it’s at a car show, a party, or something else. We are really looking forward to this New Zealand trip — the thought of it, meeting new people, seeing cars we’ve never seen, the Hot Rod Blowout [2015]; yeah, we’re really looking forward to it.
You started as a bunch of friends. For those who were not part of that initial group of friends to have joined the club, there must have a very natural fit. What, if any, was the motivation to grow bigger than the original group? Do you feel new blood is important, or is it more a matter of timing and personality?

After more than 20 years we now have basically the same number of members as we did at the start. We’ve lost a few members over the years but also gained a few along the way. We’re never out there trying to fill gaps or bulk up the club. For someone to join the Choppers, we must feel it’s really right.  

How did the Rides episode come about? That was pretty “big time” — it must have introduced the Choppers to a lot of people?

The Rides producers approached us looking for something different from what they usually filmed, which was pro shop-built street rods and such. They said they saw something interesting in our cars and in what the Choppers seemed to be about. They asked if we could meet with them at their offices. At the time, none of the Choppers had ever seen an episode of Rides. We met with them and came up with the idea of building the Model T that Aaron’s grandfather had given to him some 30 years before. The producer agreed, and the next Saturday it was on! 

During filming, the director basically let us make the show that we wanted to make. They filmed us once a week over two months while we built “Bad News”. A couple of months after we finished filming, the show aired. None of us had seen the episode until the night that all America was able to watch it. It was a quite a pleasant surprise, really; it was a very honest representation of the club. 

The show did introduce the Choppers to a lot of people. We got flooded with emails from nearly every country in the world. To hear that our episode had connected with so many people was very rewarding. We got emails from Russia, China, Europe, Middle East, South America, everywhere. A friend of ours was in Brazil at the time and he said he turned on the television at his hotel and our episode of Rides was on, dubbed in Spanish. The show still airs here in America. 
It also crystallizes a period of time and preserves it forever on film. I watched the episode again the other day and it’s interesting how much things have changed, even since then, yet it is a small period of time in the big scheme of things. How do you think the hot rod and custom scene — and the traditional car scene within it — has changed for the better or worse in the last 20 years?

Yes, it catches that moment in time; we could not have predicted how much bigger and more influential “traditional” hot rodding would become. We heard from a lot of people how that show changed their way of thinking, “I was a street rodder” or “I was into muscle cars, until I saw that show”. We heard similar accounts when our first Hot Rod Deluxe [article] came out in 1999, with guys saying they stumbled on to Hot Rod Deluxe and thus got turned on to “traditional” hot rods, that they didn’t know a hot rod scene like that even existed. It’s all for the good. It’s flattering to see how the style of car that we’ve always liked is getting more and more popular. 

Your lives have undoubtedly changed in the years since the club formed — sometimes people’s lives take very different courses. How does that affect the club?

When we first started the Choppers we were down for anything and everything. If something was happening, we were there. There’s a saying “First to the party, last to leave”, and that was us for a lot of years. We had a running joke that once we were at a show we had to “close the place down” — well that was before most of us were married and with kids. [laughs] It’s all good; we’ve seen a lot of car clubs come and go over the years, and we are still there occasionally to “close the place down”! 
Got any good “break down on the road” stories?

We have spent a lot of time on the road, so there are a few stories. One that stands out is a trip to “Viva Las Vegas” years ago with Deron’s ’41, Verne’s ’40, Jon’s ’36, and a friend, Skinny Jeff, driving his Model A pickup. In the California desert, Verne’s ’40 was acting up, sputtering and stalling; it just wouldn’t run right. We had to pull over off the highway three times, and by then it was getting late — a four-hour trip was turning into an eight-hour trip, so we sent Jon and his wife in their ’36 on ahead of us to Viva. On the final breakdown, we even had the carburettor pulled off and apart on the side of the road, desperately trying to find the problem. A van pulled over up in front of us. It had Mexican licence plates, which you never see here. The driver, this big guy, gets out and says he saw us at a previous breakdown and we had left some tools behind on the side of the road. “OK,” we say. “Give us our tools.” 
“No,” he says. “I want you to fix the tail light on my van.” 
“Give us our tools,” we say again. 
“No,” he says — he’ll wait for us, then drive down to the next off ramp. ”You fix my tail light down there and then I’ll give you your tools,” he says again. 
Then we see guys peeking out of his blacked-out van windows. We don’t know how many guys are in the van. We’re thinking that these guys are gonna jump us, but it would be better where we’re at, up on the highway, than down off the highway where no one would see us. It was getting dark and nobody was around — we just wanted to get the hell out of there. We put Verne’s ’40 back together, cranked it, and it started — it seemed to be running okay. The guy then got in his van and he turned on his lights, which we noticed were working! The van led the way as we all pulled back on to the highway. We got up to speed, and, closer to the off ramp, Verne’s car smoothed out and we were going pretty good. The van was still in front of us and the first to exit, then at the last moment when he was far enough down the off ramp, we quickly pulled back onto the highway. We could see them off the highway yelling at us from the van. Verne’s ’40, Deron’s ’41, and Skinny Jeff’s pickup soon made it to the Nevada state line, where we stopped at a well-lit gas station. We were all tripping on just what the hell those guys in the van were all about. We never saw the van again.
Madness! What do you think are the best, most relevant, and most fun events on the car scene calendar these days? What events have gone off the boil, and why?

Our favourite shows are what they’ve always been, and we try not to miss them — Hot Rod Reunion and the March Meet, both at Bakersfield. For vintage-style drag racing, these shows are the best. The LA Roadster show is a great event, and the swap meet can’t be beat. The Rockabilly shows here were fun early on, but they’re not really about the cars any more. The one event that we miss the most, our favourite show of all time, would be Paso Robles — that car show’s gone but never to be forgotten. 

It’s interesting seeing [American] Hot Rod magazine reinvent itself with online content like “Roadkill”, which, ironically, will probably save the brand/publication. As with music, people will hunt out what they want and the authentic shit will survive. Who do you think is getting it right as far as media/publications go right now?

Well, the corporate magazines seem to be having a really hard time, as witnessed by the recent demise of Rod & Custom. The overheads for some of the bigger publishers must be crazy; they really have to show a substantial profit to make ends meet. We do enjoy getting Rodder’s Journal, Hot Rod Deluxe, and Rod & Kulture. That being said, we Choppers are old magazine whores who would most times rather pick up an early Hot Rod at the swap meet than any new magazine. 
Has the hipster motorcycle trend jumped the shark yet?

Funny you should bring that up: biker-hipster, that’s kind of an oxymoron, isn’t it? We do live close to ground zero for all that shit; Silverlake, Echo Park, and now it’s creeping over here into Burbank. Everyone’s buying an old bike, and now there are stores where any square can walk in with $600 and walk out dressed head to toe in your fashionable biker outfit — it’s all kind of silly. There used to be more to it than that.
Keith [Weesner] gets around a bit due to his art, and you have travelled internationally over the years. How much travel do you do as a club, and what have been the highlights over the years?

Yes, Keith is a lucky man — he has travelled extensively. As a club, though, it’s harder. Each of us has travelled to different car shows across America as time and finances allow, so we do hear details about a lot of different shows. As a club together, we hit mostly California car shows, with the exception being Japan, where we all went, and which was a blast. We also went to New Jersey Dragway a few years ago for a drag racing event. The owner of the drag,strip, our friend Mel, set that up and helped fly us there. That was a good time. New Zealand is our next big one, and all of the Choppers are going, so that should be a nice adventure.  
Tell us about Keith’s roadster getting written off. It sounded gnarly and could have been a lot worse?

Keith’s roadster crash was a very scary accident. Aaron was driving the roadster to the Mooneyes Christmas Party, along with the rest of the Choppers. Aaron’s car was down and Keith was going to be selling his merchandise, so he offered up his roadster for Aaron to drive. While exiting the freeway, the roadster’s brakes failed. A car hit Aaron and he ended up being thrown from the roadster. He suffered scrapes, bruises, and a few broken ribs. When something like that happens, it puts things into perspective — they are old cars and must be watched over, but accidents can still happen. The roadster was totalled but is slowly on its way to being rebuilt, and hopefully will be back on the road soon. 
The same type of accident happened to Verne’s ’34 about 10 years ago. As far as brakes go, we’d recommend putting a dual master cylinder in place of the single.  

I accidentally got driven around the LA Roadster show in a golf cart last year by Jack Stewart, who has since passed away. I think they thought I was someone else, but it was a great experience. He was so funny — completely ancient and missing several bits, but he had such a great sense of humour and took time to show me and talk to me about a lot of stuff. We’re at a time when a bunch of people who have been so instrumental in the history of hot rodding and customizing are passing away — the same with great musicians and bands. Based on the current breed of enthusiast or fan, how do you think the future of traditional rodding looks?

Being in Southern California (SoCal), we are truly lucky to have our hot rod heroes all around us. A lot of them are friends, and others we might know from a distance, but we appreciate them all. Like Jack Stewart, these old-timers are all funny, seem ancient, and are missing several bits [laughs]. But what great guys they are — and to think of what they’ve lived through, seen, and experienced! You can go to a show here and still see Tommy Ivo, Gene Winfield, Ed Iskenderian, or George Barris; we are very lucky in that way! That said, it wasn’t that long ago that we could also have seen Kong Jackson, Dean Jefferies, Wally Parks, or Jack Stewart; we are grateful to all of these men who invented hot rodding. They are national treasures who have paved the way for each of us, and for everyone who drives a hot rod or custom car. We can’t predict the future of hot rodding, but we can say that the soul of hot rodding lies in its “traditional” beginnings.
It seems that, after many years of the manual trades not really being something that kids pursued — resulting in a generation of people who can’t actually fix anything — getting a trade or learning a manual skill is now getting more popular. Do you think this is cyclical in nature or is it a backlash against the realities of living in a physical world, no matter how flash the virtual one gets?

Well, we’re all manual guys for the most part, who have to live in the real world. So it’s always going to be good to be the guy who can create something special, or figure out a problem with just his hands and tools. The better you are at what you do, the more in demand you will be.

What are some of your favourite swap meet stories?

The best swap meet stories are the ones where you find something you know you’ve gotta have but think you could never swing it [buy it], and somehow you end up pulling it off: 
Deron found his ’32 three-window on a trailer at the Hot Rod Reunion swap meet but didn’t have the money to buy it. He was making phone calls from the parking lot, trying to borrow the money so it didn’t get away. Well it didn’t — Deron borrowed all the money he could possibly borrow and made an offer to the owner, but still was turned down. Verne offered to buy the Halibrand wheels off the car to knock the price down further. The offer was accepted — and Deron bought, and still has, the ’32 three-window.
At the Pomona swap just a few years ago, in the very last rows, Verne and Deron spotted Ken Blackwell’s 1961 Hot Rod magazine cover car for sale. Verne didn’t have a fraction of the money to buy it, but sometimes you just have to figure it out. It took a couple days, but Verne begged, borrowed, and figured it out. One week later, he bought the roadster and drove it home.
What is the one thing you didn’t buy when you saw it and have regretted since?

There have been a few things, but normally not much gets by us. One of us usually steps up and pulls the trigger on a good deal. Jack Stewart’s ’41 Kustom got away at the big Ralph Whitworth auction — that auction had some amazing hot rods and customs going for relatively cheap prices considering how famous the cars were. If we had a chance to go back in time and revisit that auction, one of us might be driving around in the “Boothill Express” right now. [laughs]
What did each of the Choppers’ parents do for a living, and, for each of you, what were your earliest hot rod influences?

As boys growing up in SoCal in the era that most of us did, it would have been hard not to have become a hot rodder. Hot rods were all around us — hot rods were cruisin’ the street; we had hot rod model kits, slot cars, and Hot Wheels; we had hot rod trading cards, stickers, and Rat Fink! There was no shortage of hot rod influence for us as kids. Keith’s dad is a hot rodder who wrote for many hot rod magazines. Aaron also had a deeply hot rod family; his dad, Alan, still has the Model T coupe he built in the ’60s. Aaron’s uncle is well-known artist Robert Williams, who also became a huge hot rod influence on each of us Choppers.
What do you all do for a living now?

Because of where we live, most of us are involved in some way behind the scenes of the Hollywood entertainment industry: Deron — props for television commercials; Jon — cartoon animation; Keith — hot rod art; Steve Uhl — special effects; Aaron — art director for Galpin Ford; Jack and Verne — building television and movie sets. 

Do you care that the Scroungers have the same coloured jackets as you? 

When we first saw Scroungers jackets at a Ventura event some years ago, we did do a double take — whoa, those look a lot like our jackets! But we have always liked the Scroungers. In our book, you guys are all right — but if you weren’t, it might have been different! [laughs]
How long did Laurent Bagnard take to shoot the pictures and write the text for The Electroline Diaries — which is awesome, by the way? 

Laurent told us he first heard of the Choppers after seeing the Rides TV show in France. He said he was so inspired by the show that he wanted to meet us. He emailed us and booked a flight to Burbank. Even though we had never met him before, being with Laurent was like reconnecting with an old friend. Laurent told us that he was a photographer and was interested in working on something with us. We mentioned The Bikeriders by Danny Lyon. Laurent wasn’t familiar with the book but liked the idea. He returned home to France but soon came back to Burbank, staying for about six weeks while shooting pictures with us in and around Los Angeles. He then met up with us on our trip to Japan, and once more came back to Burbank to finish his photos. The Electroline Diaries was published by CarTech and distributed to book stores all around the world. Both the soft-bound and the limited hard-bound versions of the book have long sold out. The Electroline Diaries was a project that we feel very fortunate and proud to have been a part of.
[Scrounger] Chris Piaggi wants to know how you guys became so photogenic — is that one of the requirements of joining the club?

Thank you, Chris. Yes, it is a requirement — but we did make an exception for Steve.

Some of you guys have/had kustoms, but now seem to be more hot rod orientated?

With his ’32 Ford, Aaron was one of the first younger guys in SoCal to have a running hot rod; he was literally known as “that guy with the car”.  Aaron’s ’32 was also the first Choppers car on the road. Jon Fisher and Weesner both had ’29 roadster projects coming together as well. Deron and Verne did choose kustoms as their first priority — Deron had a shoebox then his ’41, and Verne had his ’40 kustom. Keith then got his shoebox on the road and a little later Jon did the same with his ’36, so we did have both hot rods and kustoms from the beginning. We never really preferred one to the other; to us, hot rods and kustoms went hand in hand. The reason we got labelled as a kustom club was that back then there weren’t many early-style customs driving around, especially as a club, so if we drove our kustoms they really stood out. Eventually, with Verne’s ’34 and Deron’s ’32, and then Steve and Jack’s ’32s, everyone in the club had hot rods.  
If you were at a swap meet and the bathroom ran out of paper, would a spinning bicycle wheel work — we heard a dubious story of exactly that happening; no names and no admissions?

Bathrooms at swap meets are rare here — they all just seem to have those plastic outhouses. It might be kind of difficult to fit a bicycle in one of those and still get the wheel spinning, but we must hand it to you Kiwis for your inventiveness. We Americans would probably just find an old corn cob to use, or something simple like that. 
During a recession, prices seem to come down a bit. What’s your take on the escalating price of vintage speed equipment, old Ford bodies, and parts, and how easy is it to find good shit at swap meets these days?

The price of vintage speed equipment has definitely gone through the roof! That’s what happens when everyone wants to play but there are only so many toys to go around. We’re very glad we picked up a lot of stuff early on. Considering what some guys are now paying for one small vintage part, we’d hate to see the cost of building the entire car. There are quite a few guys throwing a lot of money around — probably the same guys who were once building street rods. [laughs] There is always hope — just a couple months ago, at a local swap meet, Verne found a pair of Evans heads and intake, three Scott-topped 97s, a Harmon and Collins dual coil distributor, and a ’39 Zephyr geared trans box, all recently pulled off a ’32 three-window flathead — to be replaced by air conditioning, a serpentine belt system, and so on. Good deals on vintage speed equipment are still there if you’re willing to get out and find them.

Good to hear. Thanks for your time, guys, and we look forward to seeing you at Hot Rod Blowout [2015]!

This article was originally published in NZV8 Issue No. 118. You can pick up a print copy or a digital copy of the magazine below: