Denver’s Choppers Celebrates 50 Years
Article By: Chris Callen
Photos Courtesy Of: Mondo Porras
Originally Published In The March 2018 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
How do you get yourself ready to write an article about a legend, one of the chopper OGs, a person that is responsible for everything you think is cool today, or ever will? This is the question I asked myself as I sat down to write this article about Denver’s Choppers 50th Anniversary, but in truth, I was, in fact, writing about two of them! The two men I speak of are Denver Mullins, whom many say practically invented the chopper in the late sixties and another man they call the Godfather of Choppers; Mondo Porras. Having never had the chance to know Denver, I am, however, lucky enough to call Mondo a friend, and a brother.
During the lead up to Sturgis 2017 Mondo and I started to kick around the idea of a tribute article about Denver that would commemorate the 50th anniversary of the shop he had created with a rag-tag group of chopper freaks back in Berdoo. The Iron Horse was hosting two shows in honor of Denver’s anniversary, something I didn’t fully understand until I wrote this article. It is indeed a story about the first 25 years, the next 25 and the two men who forged the hopes and dreams of an entire culture.
The Birth Of The Chopper
You see, in the late sixties, there was no aftermarket industry for chopper parts. Choppers were just being born, and little shops across the country were defining what they looked like. Regionally, each part of the country had its own take on that. Of course, you know the big ones like the St. Louis D-rake, with their sky high tall front ends. The East Coast Bling Bikes that were made for ripping the city streets, and then there were the California Diggers, classic styling that stands even now. This is not to say that those were the only styles that came out of the choppers birthright, but for this article, they will do. At 139 Baseline in San Bernardino, CA there was a shop that got started in ‘67 by a man named Denver Mullins. Although it had humble beginnings, it would forever memorialize Berdoo as one of the epicenters of the chopper movement. Denver had a custom autobody shop before this where he did a lot of chop tops and custom paint jobs. He developed quite a following for the work he was putting out with his cars in the sixties, and this is where Mondo comes into the story. Still, in high school, Mondo was building a Model A Ford and used to hang out at the shop. For some reason, Mullins took a special interest in him and started to show him a thing or two about bodywork. There was a group of guys there, both Freddie and Jr. Hernandez, Bob McCarren to name a few and everyone just started hanging out at that shop. Denver bought an old Panhead one day and right away tore it apart, raked the neck, taking model A radius rods and made a long springer front end. He painted the bike orange with purple flames; it was just a beautiful bike. Other guys that hung out at the shop got bikes, and they all started customizing them, building their own choppers.
All of a sudden people were following what these cats were doing. Now, remember, at this time you couldn’t pick up a catalog and just buy chopper parts. You either had to do it yourself, which a lot of guys were starting to do, or you had to know a guy in a machine shop that could make you a part here and there. The group that was hanging around Denver’s, ten or fifteen at this point, were building these killer bikes and riding all over Southern California; just blowing people’s minds. It was around the close of the sixties when Street Chopper Magazine came along, and Easyriders followed. The group’s bikes started to get recognized as they frequently showed up in the pages of these publications and were a nationwide hit. Suddenly the people showing up with requests for stretching frames and building front ends was off the hook. It was right then that Denver developed the now iconic Denver’s Springer Front Ends. Each guy in the shop had their specialty. Little Freddie Hernandez built the frames, his brother Junior built the front ends, Bondo Mondo, as they called him, did all the frame molding, Butch Araiza built the motors, Upholstery Bob did the seats, Mike “Mafufa” Craig, did all the paint after Freddie passed the torch to him. But it was more than a job or a business, they did everything on bikes and did all of it together. They’d work like hell all week, and then on the weekends, they took off on a trip to Big Bear or up into the San Bernardino Mountains. Other times they’d end up cruising the Sunset Strip, straight out of a Dave Mann Painting and as a matter of fact, these bikes and times were exactly where the inspiration for some of that most iconic artwork of our culture’s history came from.
No Man Was Left Behind
They had a deal that “No Man Was Left Behind” when it came to their crew. If you only had ten bucks, or twenty, or five, it didn’t matter. Everyone threw it into a pot, and everyone went on the road trip. If someone’s bike was broken down or not together, they’d stay up all night getting the bike right so that cat could make the run. If he needed a part that you had you just gave it to him and later you’d either get the part back or something else you needed in trade, it was a real brotherhood. They’d take off on a run, and if your bike ended up breaking down then it got thrown in the back of the chase truck, and became the parts bike. See, everything back then interchanged, so it was up for grabs. You might come back with a half a bike from everyone getting parts from your bike all weekend, but that just meant the next week you’d go around and visit the guys who had your parts, have a beer, grab your stuff and then you could put your bike back together, but no one got left behind.
“No one ever got left behind. You’d throw a sleeping bag on your bike, we’d take a toothbrush and cut it in half and stick it in your back pocket, a change of underwear and an extra t-shirt and you were gone for a weekend. A trip to the Colorado River that was two and a half hours by car would take us all day because we’d hit every bar along the way. So it was the journey, not the destination” – Mondo
These guys were living the motorcycle life 24/7, and that was on and off the road, in and out of the shop. They partied together, they looked out for each other’s families, took care of each other. It was completely natural to them and everything just grew out of what they were doing anyway. Eventually, they switched gears from just modifying frames at the shop to building fully custom, one off frames from scratch. Well, this put an end to the car part of the business and launched much of what we know today as the custom motorcycle aftermarket.
The Birth Of An Industry
The crew at Denver’s were in high gear now advertising all the parts, and custom services in the magazines, the frames, the front ends, handlebars, molding, paint jobs, even turn-key bikes. Looking at the prices makes me wish I could go back in time. Complete paint jobs for $125 and that was frame, tank and fenders, that included metal flake if you wanted and pinstriping. But not only was that way early on in America; it was a time when more guys were doing this just because they loved it. These cats pumped out work for the sake of the creation more than just the bread they were stacking away. Denver’s had a lot of frames to choose from, but you might be surprised to hear that this included frames for Kawasaki’s, Honda’s, BSA’s, they even did Trikes with Ed Roth. The Swedish Style Bikes that everyone still drools over today were actually a Denver’s design that they used to ship over to Sweden. There’s even a bike club in Sweden called Denver Choppers. The bikes that came outta that shop in Berdoo were unmistakable with their crushed velvet seats, six bend handlebars and Denver was the mind behind it all. He was a real visionary that laid out the whole plan for these cats to follow, and they did, and so did the world. The chopper culture was taking off like wildfire, and the parts were pouring outta that shop.
Original Metric Choppers
From coast to coast people were digging on the west coast version of cool and even the most well-known people of the day like Indian Larry, Dave Perewitz, and Jerry Covington used their frames and parts. This went on and on; then they started developing choppers out of Honda fours and the Kawasaki. These bikes had a ton of horsepower, no front brake, a mechanical rear brake and a stretched out frame. They were the original thrill seekers bikes, and Denver got pretty famous for them. He had been quoted as saying the metric bikes had more reliability and performance, and in that part of the country you didn’t want a bike that couldn’t run and run hard, it was part of their fabric. The original rice rockets, as Mondo called them, developed a cult type following of their own that lives on to this day with KayJohn and ChopperJim out on the hunt to grab any survivors for their collection. This generation is going through a massive resurgence right now, and many of them pay tribute to this original style.
“This thing of ours, this chopper deal has never been a real lucrative deal. I mean I’ve rode this roller coaster up and down for years, through the highs and lows. When the economy goes down, we’re the first guys to suffer and were the last guys to come back. Through the years, it’s had a self-cleansing of all the guys who came in for the wrong reasons, just the money and the glory. They pretty much washed away and the guys that are really in it, the survivors as I call it, well they’re the ones that are still rollin today.” – Mondo
Public Enemy Racing
All these guys had other hobbies too, Denver was into hot rods and was even in a car club called “The Over The Hill Gang.” Eventually, their weekend trips to Parker Arizona led to the idea of getting a couple of boats to hot rod up and down the Colorado River in. Before you knew it, Denver and Mondo both got boats, a couple of the other guys did too, and they would all hit the floating bars and tear ass up and down the river on the weekends. That was good fun, but eventually, it wasn’t fast enough for them, so Denver and Mondo decided to enter the world of professional drag boat racing. One of Denver’s most notable of these was featured on a Street Chopper cover called “The Big Swap” were Denver traded two Honda 750s to Bob and Doug from Eliminator Boats for a seriously fast machine that had flames painted on it with a polished big block Chevy motor. From there it got serious. Eventually, they had a three boat team comprised of a Top Fuel boat, one in the Blown Alcohol class and a straight gas boat. They dubbed the effort “Public Enemy Racing” and started moving up the ranks pretty well over a four-year stretch. Makes me wonder if the “Straight Outta Compton” kids ever gave old Denver any royalties for that name… Anyway, during this time they developed the safety capsules with the F-16 windshields that would detach from the boat in a crash, keeping the pilot safe in the capsule. As you can guess, this new passion fastly became a whole enterprise in itself. It seemed whatever Denver did he did exceptionally well, and other people wanted in on it. So, an additional shop was created just to handle the drag boat industry where they built hulls and capsules for pretty much everyone who raced. Sadly, this would lead to a significant tragedy in the story. On October 4th, 1992 Denver Mullins was racing his Top Fuel drag boat at Puddingstone Lake in San Dimas, when the boat became airborne and plunged to the bottom of the lake, taking his life. At 48, Mullins, who launched the chopper culture and designed a device that is credited to saving countless lives in a sport that sees racing boats traveling well in excess of 200 mph, had been lost enjoying the sport he had helped make better.
A Pact Between Brothers
Spending as much time together as Denver and Mondo did, of course, you get to watch each other grow up, have families and start to have talks about mortality. Denver had another accident about six months before in his top fuel boat that he walked away from but the stuff these cats were doing, it’s not like you don’t realize you’re on the edge. They did as well, and both agreed that if anything ever happened to either one of them, they would take care of the other one’s family and keep Denver’s Choppers going. Being true to his word and a man of commitment, Mondo bought out the shop in 1992 when Denver passed away and went about the business of running it in the original spot. He started out by making a list on the wall of all the bike and boat projects that were incomplete, the money that was owed and he made his way through that list to fulfill Denver’s commitments to their customers. For Mondo personally, this was a difficult task. Denver was his best friend, and at the same time, he was and still is a legend. Trying to fill his shoes was incomprehensible, and that was never what he had in mind. Mondo’s purpose was to keep Denver’s memory alive, the style of bikes he made famous, the vision and all that made that time so special. As you can imagine, this would be no easy task; not everyone was happy to see someone else taking over the shop that made choppers famous. Right from the beginning, Mondo got a lot of grief from some of the old-timers who also loved Denver but told Mondo “You’re not him.” He answered again and again that he was not even trying to be Denver, but he was going to do whatever it took to keep his name going. In every magazine article or TV appearance, Mondo tells the same story that he was only the guy that stepped in, but Denver was the man who made it all happen. Looking back today, he’s had the shop under his watch as long as Denver did in the beginning and while the struggles have been many Mondo comments that somehow it always came through. Hurdles of how to make payroll or how to get the parts that were needed, it all came through in the end. The most significant obstacles have arisen of late with the way the customer has moved to a financebased proposition. With the ability to go into a dealership and get a bike and throw everything into a deal and just finance it all, that makes things tougher for the builders like Mondo. For these shops and their bikes, the customer’s gotta have cash.
“The cool thing about building our style chopper is they never go outta style. Maybe we’re only half of one percent of the industry, but people see a bike going down the road, and they could tell by the front end, or the stretch and they’d say hey, there goes a Denver.” – Mondo
Since Mondo took over the shop, he has done as much with the shop that was done in the beginning but always keeps true to the fact that it’s Denver’s Choppers. He has built bikes, in Denver’s design theme, taken them all over the world to shows, been in countless magazines and television shows and even appeared in the last Biker Build Off that featured Indian Larry. That was a bittersweet experience for Mondo. I mean, on one hand, he got to be part of the most anticipated build off of East Coast Meets West Coast, probably ever. He got to ride with Larry handlebar to handlebar, and it was a blast. In the end, however, the heartbreak of watching the world lose Larry first hand and seeing the group of guys from his shop start down the same road that he has endured for so many years, was just ironic. We had some very, very deep conversation about this time, some of which I’m going to hold from this article to let you hear the story straight from Mondo in a podcast of our interview on 4ever2wheels.com. For now, I’m just gonna let him tell you what that moment in time was like.
“I was talking about Denver and the legacy he left behind (on the show). And I’m here trying to carry on his name, and it’s not an easy deal and what a great man he was and what he meant to the industry. At the end, when Larry got killed, I was up on stage, and I turned around and looked at those guys and said I know what you’re going through, now you gotta pick up the torch and do what I’m doing, and that’s to carry on the name Indian Larry.” – Mondo
The accolades and awards over the years have been many for Mondo, he was a regular on Blood Sweat & Gears with Billy Lane, was named “Builder of The Year” in 2001 by Easyriders and has been featured in books and movies worldwide. One of the other very honored achievements on that list was his appearance in the very last David Mann painting, it was to honor Easyriders Magazine’s 30th year, and the editor’s wanted to have a bike built that would embody the Easyriders image. How could it have been anything other than a Denver’s Chopper since it was Denver’s that drove the movement from the start? Mondo built that bike and with him on it, along with another bike he had built 30 years before were the very last subjects of the late David Mann.
In Denver’s Honor and Beyond
Like I said early on, this is the story of two men, a great time in the history of chopper culture and the pride that Mondo gets when he tells the stories is plain to see. He has spent his life chasing the dreams of young men and keeping the memory of his brother alive. 25 years after he picked up the torch from Denver; he can look back and see that not only did he accomplish that, but he has added to that mission, keeping our culture alive as well. Mondo is the kind of man that you get inspired by because you know he loves doing this. Not for the money, not for the glory but for the pure pleasure of creating and helping others do the same. You can regularly hear Mondo utter one of his most famous quotes “To know where you’re going; you have to know where you’ve been.” This is a constant mantra for him and proof of what his inspiration is today; reaching out to the young guys and giving them a look into the history of this thing of ours. I’ve known him for some time now, known about him even longer but I have to say that every time I talk with him I am more impressed with what he stands for and the man he is. An example, for sure, that we could all measure our resolve and determination by but also a humble human being that is good to other people. He never misses an opportunity to pass on some credit or tell you who he admires for their abilities or passion. For this reason, he will be a man revered exactly as he should be in our pages of history, a great man.