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Southern Rail: Forks in the road

By Robert Filla


During a party back in the early 80’s, I walked outside to check on the bikes only to discover mine missing. I remember turning to one of my brothers in the club who was trying to console me (i.e., keeping me from ripping someone’s head off) and telling him, “Damn; I wished it’d been your Sporty and not my Shovel!” Brotherhood be damned.

The times were primitive, no Internet or social media, so I printed up a black-and-white “STOLEN BIKE” flyer with a photo and description of the pilfered machine (even color copiers were in their infancy). On it, in bold print, I listed a reward of $100, my life savings at the time. I then visited every shop in Houston, dealership and independent, putting out the word and putting up the flyer. Everyone hates a bike thief; no one said no. One of the last places I hit was Competition Motors down in South Houston near Hobby Airport. They had done some welding on my frame a year earlier (converting it from a perfectly good swingarm into an even better rigid), but I really didn’t have much of a relationship with the shop otherwise. Like all the shops before, the owner Lonnie had no objections to me placing the flyer in his window, wishing me good luck in my hunt.

A week later, I received an unexpected call—someone had spotted my beloved Shovelhead. After a successful midnight repo job, I was paying the reward to my savior and asked him how he knew the bike was stolen. He said he had seen the flyer in the window of Competition. And although I should have stopped back and thanked Lonnie for his aid, I never got the chance. I heard later that he relocated to South Dakota and was specializing in the manufacture of reproduction parts for vintage bikes.

Back around 2002, I was in Louisiana at the Steel Pony Express Rally. Walking around the various vendors, I came across a most unusual build—a bike with spider-web wheels, spider-web red-and-blue paint job, a spider-web sissy bar, damn near spider-web everything—a Spiderman Bike. Well, that’s a little different, I thought. It was parked alongside a small pull-behind aluminum travel trailer with a burly man sitting outside under a canopy. He was big and gruff with huge, tattooed arms and a walrus mustache. I introduced myself as being with THUNDER PRESS and he granted me a short interview. He mentioned that the Spiderman Bike was his son’s idea and not something that he was particularly interested in building again. But he said, his boy thought it was a great idea and had been bugging him to start working with him in the shop; Orange County something-or-the-other creating what he called “theme bikes.” He wasn’t sure if he really wanted to work alongside his kid and the entire theme-bike concept seemed like a stretch, to which I agreed—it probably only had two chances: slim and fat. But he had finally opted to drag the spidey-thing down to New Orleans to see what response it might receive. I wished him well.

Less than a year later, while flipping through the channels on cable, I was amazed to see him again. I shouted to no one in particular, “Damn! It’s that Turtle guy I met in Louisiana! And he’s got a TV series? What the hell?” The rest is American Chopper history.

During 2012 I ran into Lonnie Isam Sr. during Michael Lichter’s gallery show at the Buffalo Chip. I recognized him right away and had to go introduce myself. I told him the story about losing my bike and taping a $100 reward poster in his window down in Houston 30 years earlier. And then I relayed the part about how one of his customers saw it and contacted me, allowing for a joyful reunion of owner and FLH. He shook my hand, pulled me close and, with his arm around my shoulders asked, “Now… please tell me you still have the bike.”

“Well, hell yeah; of course I do!” Lonnie was all smiles. In the fall of 2013 Lonnie Isam Sr. was inducted in the Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

I just saw that the most dysfunctional motorcycle family in history is making another run on TV. Yep, that big-armed Teutul guy will once again take on the small screen with a new series. Whether it will include all the yelling and tantrums from previous shows is unknown, although it is a character trait for which Paul Sr. is well known.

Lonnie Sr. and Paul Sr. are about as polar opposite as two men in the same industry can be. I met them both in their early years, and both have gone on to shake the world of motorcycles in completely different fashions. Seems that taking the correct fork in the road was never more poignant.

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