Article By: J. Ken Conte
Originally Published In The July 2016 Issue Of Cycle Source Magazine
I distinctly remember the first time I saw Paul Yaffe in person. It was August 2001, and I was attending the Sturgis® Motorcycle Rally™ for the first time. We stopped in Spearfish on the way into town, and he was at the gas station, on what I believe was an Aces and Eights rigid chopper. I was a bit star-struck. Paul is one of the most influential bike designers and builders in the world—a legitimate trendsetter. But more than anything, I was so stoked on the bike he was riding. I later learned he’d road-tripped from Phoenix, and that he’s ridden to Sturgis for the past 30 years, typically on a new custom motorcycle he builds each year. It’s now 2016, and he is celebrating his 25th year in business. I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him a little bit over the years. His story is a modern business success tale, replete with struggles, victories, heartbreak, loss and tremendous tenacity. I will attempt to cover the significant points of Paul’s storied journey through the motorcycle world, and, hopefully, as I do it, I can convey the passion he still has for the brand that has grown up around him. He stills refers to himself as lucky—but you will see that his I luck has run both ways.
Born on December 16, 1963, Paul was adopted by a family in southern California. He was always fascinated with motorcycles, and, by the time he was 14, he’d take the bus from North Hollywood to Bike Night at All American Burger, where he first met Hamsters Grady Pfeiffer, Alan Deshon and Billy Westbrook. Those evenings changed his life and heavily influenced the style of bikes he would soon build. His teen years were hard on him—he got in some major scrapes with the law, but by the time he was 17 he had straightened out. By age 22, he was working as a popular shoe designer and manager for Zodiac, and he’d purchased his third bike, a Harley-Davidson Sportster. That started his customizing bug, and, after spending hours hanging around Showcase Cycles in Hollywood, and going through a Softail, he realized that, in order to be the customizer he aspired to, he would need to learn the basics at the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute.
Paul packed up everything he had, which wasn’t much, and headed to Phoenix, only to find that there were no jobs. The recession had hit the area hard, and he couldn’t even land a cashier gig at the local 7-11. It was going to take all of his savings to pay for MMI. In his first year at school, a student got kicked out for violating his parole. Paul soon learned the kid was on a full scholarship, just for trying to clean up his act. Paul looked into it, and after a lot of hard work—forms, applications and other bureaucratic hoops—he became the recipient of a full scholarship to MMI through the state of Arizona. He made friends with Jack Gould (now his shop foreman), and they began taking redeyes to California, buying FXRPs and riding them back to Phoenix in time for class the next day. They took those FXRPs, stripped them down and made custom FXRs out of them, which were all the rage at the time. By the early nineties, Paul was ready to start a shop, and ended up opening American Legend Motorcycle Company before he even graduated MMI. In another “lucky” turn of events, Showcase Cycles had shut down in California, and its contents had been moved to a storage unit. The owner called Paul and told him if he came and got it, he could have everything. Paul found himself set up with tools, machinery and even some inventory. He built a couple bikes and continued to see custom parts as a real way to make money. In conjunction with graduating from MMI in 1992, Paul came out with his first parts line, called Beyond Bolt-On. That same year, he entered two FXRs and a custom FLHS in the Laughlin River Run custom contest and won with all three, going up against the builders he’d looked up to for years.
1993 was fast and furious. Paul’s reputation continued to grow. Keith “Bandit” Ball gave Paul his first magazine feature in VQ, and he changed the name of his shop to Paul Yaffe Originals. Paul had taken on some partners by this time, one of them a fellow named Joel Null. Joel and Paul became fast friends, did a lot of wrenching and riding together. Early one morning in 1996, on a trip to a HOG Rally, Joel and Paul were cut off by a lady making a left-hand turn. Joel hit her car at full speed and died in Paul’s arms moments later. Paul knew he had to keep the shop going, and for years after the accident he dedicated many bikes, shows and trophies to Joel. In the late nineties, Paul continued to add parts to his catalog, and his custom choppers were in high demand, garnering him worldwide appreciation. But he wasn’t without setbacks: in 1998, he introduced an aftermarket parts line for baggers to his catalog. They failed miserably. No one was interested, and people called him crazy for making bagger parts. But he continued to build groundbreaking and popular custom motorcycles, and that same year, 1998, he won his first of three “World’s Most Beautiful Motorcycle” awards at the world-famous Oakland Roadster show with Cashmere. He won again the following year with Sliver, and took the hat trick in 2000 with Prodigy. Prodigy had a Hot Wheels™ toy modeled after it, and that win marked the end of Paul actively competing in motorcycle shows.
In 2001, Paul featured in the second-ever Biker Build-Off on the Discovery Channel, competing against Indian Larry, with a bike equipped with flame-throwers. His parts business, including rollers, frames and sheetmetal, was humming. Custom bike builders were appearing everywhere. Choppers featured at the heart of this bikebuilding boom, and Paul had gotten out ahead of the trend—but with every boom comes a bust. 2005 was a turning point for a lot of companies. It was sink or swim. The economy slowed way down, the market was oversaturated with “production customs” and riders weren’t willing to pony up the kind of money they had been. Paul was nervous— he had seen trends come and go, but he had put a lot of eggs in the custom-chopper basket. On a trip to Seattle, he saw his first Street Glide in 2005. He bought it and had it shipped to Arizona with the intention of customizing it. He quickly realized the 2007 would have a 96-inch motor and 6-speed transmission in it, so he sold the ’06 and bought a 2007. He jumped headfirst into customizing it, pulling out all the bagger parts he’d written off in ’98. That year, on the Easyriders tour, he sold through his entire inventory of bagger parts and realized it was fast becoming a Bagger Nation. The next year, Paul fit a 23-inch wheel on a bike and didn’t even have time to paint it the way he wanted: it ended up a primer with low-brow art. He showed the bike and people went crazy—they couldn’t believe how cool the bagger looked.
Everything snowballed from there, and he quickly learned he was once again at the head of a major trend. In 2009 he conspired with Mark from HHI to design and manufacture a 9 and 9 rake kit for baggers that would allow a 26” front wheel and still maintain a 6.5” positive trail which kept it handling perfectly. The race to be the first shop to fit a 26” wheel to a Bagger was won by Paul when he debuted Chupa Mi Rueda (Suck My Wheel). He and his wife Suzy rode that bike over 3000 miles to Sturgis and it was widely lauded as the beginning of the big wheel bagger trend. He rode 26 inch front wheel bikes to Sturgis the next 3 years and in 2013 he and his stepdaughter, Sarah rode through 8 states, and 8 National Parks over 3800 miles on a 30 inch front wheel Road Glide, because that was all she wanted for her 18th birthday. Today he is building a bike as a tribute to his 3 year old son Nash, which he intends on presenting to his son when it’s time for him to take his first ride beside his father to the Black Hills. It is full custom raked big wheel FXR with a fairing that he is intending on riding to Sturgis. Always pushing the envelope of design you can be assured there will be many more trend setting customs coming out of Paul’s shop. Today, with his tireless team in Phoenix, Paul Yaffe’s Bagger Nation has over 3,000 parts that are mostly Made in the U.S.A. that they sell worldwide through their website and a dealer network, as well as a robust customizing shop. Paul is recognized as one of the biggest trendsetters in custom motorcycle history, but he doesn’t act like it. He just acts like a guy who loves motorcycles and lives to build them. If you’re ever touring through Arizona and have the chance to stop by Paul’s shop, you should—there is so much history on display, and you might even get a chance to see some of it from the man himself.