By EZRA R. SILK, firstname.lastname@example.org
9:10 a.m. EDT, August 3, 2010
Andy and Jim Debaise tune up cars, repair motorcycles and manufacture airplane parts at their Wallingford shop, Debaise Brothers, seven days a week.
But in their spare time, the Debaises have been riding the Gatekeeper, the gleaming gothic chopper they dreamed up and built from scratch, to regional fame.
The $60,000 Gatekeeper, clad in black paint and custom leather along with sword-shaped handlebars and a dagger-shaped “suicide shifter,” won in the best-in-show prize at the Frank Maratta Auto Show in Hartford last year, and best in show at the Laconia (N.H.) Bike Show last month.
Thursday, the Debaises will look for some international recognition when they bring their prize chopper to Sturgis, S.D., for the 2010 AMD World Championship of Custom Bike Building.
The Gatekeeper, one of 90 custom motorcycles selected for the competition, will face choppers made in England, Switzerland and Russia.
“It’s tough competition,” said Jim Debaise. “We’ll be happy just going, happy just to be invited. They only take 90 people worldwide so someone must like what they see to pick us.”
Although the Debaises have found increasing recognition lately, they’ve been hammering away in their shop since 1991.
In the brothers’ Wallingford garage, five employees rev bike engines and reassemble cars as AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds” blasts over the radio. An unfinished silver dragster hangs suspended from the ceiling, and a 1931 black Chevrolet sedan sits in the corner.
In the front lobby, the Gatekeeper stands flanked by Jim’s personal chopper and the flame-red Woody, short for Woody Woodpecker. Behind the front counter, Andy assembles aircraft parts for Hamilton Sundstrand in an adjoining warehouse.
The brothers Debaise have Wallingford in their blood. As kids, they worked in their father’s gas station just down the road.
“My father worked with my uncle in a gas station garage on Route 5,” Jim Debaise said. “That’s all they’ve ever done. My grandparents came here when Route 5 was a dirt road.”
Although the recession has slowed business, the brothers say they’ve seen a steady increase in customers—”average, hard-working Americans” — ever since “American Chopper,” about Orange County Choppers, a New York state custom motorcycle manufacturer, debuted in late 2002 on the Discovery Channel. (It has since moved to TLC.)
“Every time somebody comes in they say something about [the show],” Jim said. “They’ve done a lot for the industry.”
Still, the brothers smirk when they discuss the show — “It’s TV, now,” Jim Debaise said. They say the Orange County Choppers would charge $150,000 for the Gatekeeper.
The Debaises have built 12 custom choppers in their career, selling all but one. Building motorcycles is just one part of their diverse enterprise, they say, and for that reason their shop has survived.
“I think if you had to build just bikes and survive and keep the business afloat with just bikes it would never happen,” said Jim Debaise. “We kind of do it all. We make parts, we service cars.”
“It’s very diversified,” added Andy Debaise. “That’s what keeps you going.”