Chopper History With Sugar Bear

4ever2wheels Interview Series

Article By: J. Ken Conte

Originally Published In The February 2018 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine

How does a custom bike builder go from marginalized to the undisputed king of springer front ends? One bike at a time. The story begins in Kansas City, Missouri, where Sugar Bear was born in 1939 and raised until 1953 when he and his family moved to Los Angeles for a better life. “The first thing I noticed was the weather. When we left Kansas City it was 6 degrees,” said Sugar Bear. He got a track scholarship to UCLA, and, after graduating, if there had been money in it, he would have been a professional runner. But there wasn’t money in it, so he hired on with the Los Angeles County probation department, working with troubled teens in forestry camps. One day while working, he noticed all the kids singing a familiar jingle: “Can’t get enough of the Sugar Crisps.” He told them they needed to keep it down, but the kids kept singing the jingle over and over. He pulled a boy aside and asked what it was all about, and the boy said he reminded them of Sugar Bear in the commercial, because he would go into a chaotic situation, deal with it and walk away like nothing had happened. You can Google Sugar Crisps Sugar Bear 1970 and get a good sense of what I’m talking about.

Later, while driving down a highway, he looked over and saw a woman on the back of a chopper, leaning against the sissy bar, reading a paperback at speed. She noticed him and flashed a peace sign—that was all he needed to get hooked on choppers. He immediately bought a bike and chopped it—and he didn’t even know how to ride. He experienced the somewhat typical story where he started building his own bikes, and then people he knew saw them and started asking if he’d do work for them.

Sugar Bear’s mentor was none other than Benny Hardy, know as the “King of Bikes.” Hardy, along with Cliff Vaughs and Larry Marcus, built the infamous Captain America and Billy bikes for the movie Easyriders. Benny stressed to Sugar Bear that he would never get credit or notoriety for what he’d done, but that his work would speak for itself. “Do your work, do it well and you will always have work,” was what Benny used to say. Benny never had business cards, didn’t advertise, but was one of the most sought after mechanics. He did a lot of work for 1% clubs, even though many of them had neo-Nazi regalia and sentiments. His work spoke for itself, and Sugar Bear modeled his own after that work ethic. He rarely advertised, kept his shop location virtually a secret and built his business one front end at a time.

In 1972, Street Chopper put Sugar Bear on the cover with one of his bikes, which resulted in the influx of the most negative letters they’d ever received. Because an African American was on the cover. He wouldn’t grace another magazine cover until 1996, but he had a thriving custom business and was known for his sweetriding long springer forks. In the same year Street Chopper put him on their cover, he started selling his own brand of springer front ends—but not until he’d done a sufficient amount of R&D and ridden one for almost a year. He wanted to make sure it was perfect, and he knew the construction that currently existed wasn’t safe. Today, almost all of the parts he has are interchangeable with his originals: down through the years there have been very few changes to Sugar Bear’s springer front ends. In the early days, Sugar Bear wasn’t credited with many of the ideas and concepts he developed, and others actually stole the spotlight.

Today, the industry has changed quite a bit, is much more accepting of builders, no matter their race—their work speaks for itself. But there is still racial tension. We see it with swastikas and SS lightning bolts on bikes, as well as German-style helmets and war eagles. “When I see guys with swastikas or German-style helmets, I just shake my head,” said Sugar Bear. “They’re either ignorant about what those things mean or they wish that Germany had won.” When you look at his logo, you see a heart and shield. Back in the day, in order to get a bar and shield patch, you had to ride a certain amount of miles. Broken wings were reserved for those who went down. When Sugar Bear earned his bar and shield, he had no interest in promoting the motor company, so he came up with his own logo: a bar and heart logo, because his chopper is his heart.

Today, Sugar Bear has a shop at his house; he is the sole employee. He still works all day, sells his front ends and builds custom bikes, but he is also heavily involved in protecting the history of choppers. He bought 100 acres in Sturgis, just north of the Full Throttle, and plans to open Choppertown Chopper Museum. It will be dedicated to custom motorcycles and their history. This year at Sturgis, he’ll be set up for people to see historic custom bikes, take in the scenery and learn about custom motorcycle culture. For those who want to be early members, you can purchase a picnic table for $300, and it will be inscribed. For more information on the nonprofit chopper museum project, go to www. sugarbearchoppermuseum.org or mail a check to P.O. Box 399, Springville, CA 93265. Be sure to stop by Choppertown in Sturgis and learn all about chopper culture; you can hear the whole Sugar Bear interview/podcast at 4E2W.com.