Friday, May 14, 2010

Dick Allen article

From Garage Magazine

The origin of the custom chopper is a mysterious one, its history lost in a haze of drugs, sex and the illicit free-spirit. It’s a story that is not documented, save word of mouth and small town tales passed down from one person to the next and then ultimately, one generation to the next. Many have claimed to be the first to do this or that and we can never be too sure about who’s telling the truth, but there is one early pioneer who can undeniably be credited for elevating it all from just a chopped-up bike to a Custom Bike – and that’s Dick Allen.

Allen is an obscure legend among genuine bike builders. His obsession with riding and perfecting the chopper led him to create ingenious products but his lack of entrepreneurship, his voracious appetite for partying and a persistent trail of bad luck prevented him from ever making any money or becoming established as the preeminent chopper builder that he should have been. But maybe that’s the way he wanted it.

Dick was born in Rockford, Illinois in 1937 and began working in a motorcycle shop as a teenager where he immediately fell in love with bikes. He moved to Los Angeles in the summer of 1965 with his second wife and their two boys because the year-round good weather there was a much more ideal place for riding choppers than Illinois. He was a biker through and through – while others worked on creating their hard-ass biker mage, it all came naturally for Dick – it was in his blood. He loved to ride. He was always in front of the pack. He rode hard and fast and lived the same way. Dick was the epitome of the wild, crazy biker who loved to party and went wherever his chopper would take him and when it broke down, he stopped to fix it. He would round up his posse and ride cross country, park at a rest stop, sleep right next to his bike and move onto the next town the next morning.

Once Dick got to Los Angeles, he worked on bikes out of a small shop in Manhattan Beach. There, he got the idea to create a springer front-end from the ground up instead of just extending Harley Davidson springers the way everyone else was. While chopper history is not very clear on this point, most will agree that Dick Allen was probably the first to make an aftermarket, narrow springer – from 3 inches to 36 inches longer than stock. Some will argue that they were the best custom front-ends ever made. He set up his machining to do a few of these at a time but wasn’t prepared for manufacturing them on a large scale and making any money from his creation. He used chromoly steel and heli-arched the legs together. These were expensive to make and he felt bad about charging what they really cost to make them. His weakness for bikes combined with his lack of business savvy led him to sell these springers for about $100 less than what they were worth. Dick couldn’t keep up with the growing demand for his springers, so others who had the money and good business sense started producing them in mass quantities and charged a lot of money for them. This would become a recurring and all-to-common theme throughout Allen’s life.

Beyond this missed opportunity, he moved onto the next cool thing; the Dick Allen Exhaust – a creation that moved the two standard exhaust pipes into one muffler, now known as the Two-Into-One. He was the first to produce this gem of custom chopper parts on a small scale, but was once again trumped by others who had the means to produce cheaper knock-offs. Dick Allen was a great bike builder, but he never truly focused on how he could make a living from his passion and incredible skill. Dick’s love of riding propelled him to look for ways of improving the machines he rode and built parts for. But he never copyrighted an invention, leaving the door wide open for others to steal his ideas over and over again. With the little money he was making from the front-ends and exhaust systems, Dick opened a small shop on Artesia Blvd. in Redondo Beach. He, along with a few other bike builders in the area, became known as the South Bay group. Chuck Pilkington (a.k.a. “Outlaw Chuckie”) started working for Dick when he first moved to Los Angeles and continued to work for him until he died. Chuck was Dick’s main mechanic and became one of his closest friends, covering many miles on rides across the States and Canada. Chuck watched other people repeatedly steal Dick’s thunder from him. Chuck explains, “He was very bitter about it on the inside but he still

always managed to party hard and have a good time. Dick was a hell of an inventor but his partying did get in the way.” Soon after Dick opened his fi rst shop, he was arrested for possession of marijuana. Of a fi ve-year sentence, he only served half a year in prison, but that was long enough to lose his shop. Dick would go to jail a few more times, but being the consummate biker, he never gave up on his dream of working on choppers and making them perform better. Eventually, Dick opened up another shop, this time in Gardena, CA and Chuck was right by his side. There, he went on to adapt a belt drive used on blowers to the Harley driveline. The belt drive system was not a new idea, but making one that actually worked right was Dick’s focus. He ultimately made the fi rst belt drive for a Harley-Davidson V-Twin. Soon after that, to remain consistent with the Dick Allen legacy, these belt drives started showing up everywhere while Dick struggled to round up enough money to manufacture them, himself. His next innovation was a mag wheel for bikes. He made a few prototypes but, once again, couldn’t come up with the money to produce them and, as par for the course, someone else did. As the story goes, one of the mag wheels was stolen from Dick’s shop, only to mysteriously reappear after it was copied and in production.

Dick seemed pretty resilient to all these business heart-breaks, bouncing back each time with a new innovation that only made choppers better for everyone who really appreciated them. But there was one incident from which Dick would not be able to recover from. In the early Eighties, he was hit while riding his beloved bike, Locomotion. A woman driving a car hit him so hard, she broke the engine loose from the bike and severed his leg from the knee down. By a strange stroke of luck, the accident took place at the intersection of Crenshaw and Carson and Dick landed in the Los Angeles Fire Department’s front yard – probably the only reason he survived the gruesome accident. To add insult to injury, Dick was served with divorce papers while recovering in the hospital. Dick’s life just started falling apart: he lost his shop, his wife and he was no longer able to ride again. For Dick, that was the biggest loss of all. Shortly after his hospital stay, Dick ended up in prison again and moved into a guest bedroom in Pilkington’s house upon his release. Besides taking his leg, the horrible accident also left him with a serious head injury that caused seizures. Refusing to take medication to control the seizures, Dick passed away in his sleep on August 20, 1983.

In a perfect world, there should be a complete line of Dick Allen aftermarket products; from front ends, to belt drives to exhaust systems and wheels and Allen should have been very successful because of these innovations. But the world is rarely perfect and this was not Dick’s fate. His intense passion for bikes was outweighed by his love of partying and living the carefree biker lifestyle – the lifestyle that eventually killed him. He’s the guy in the biker world who everyone knew, but never received proper recognition for his contributions. Maybe he would prefer it that way; the bad-ass outlaw who would remain one of the most beloved, tragic figures of the real Chopper Movement.


  1. hi brother GG was pretty cool too.

  2. See kids? Don't smoke the marijuana cigarettes.

    ...and have a business advisor.

  3. "...and have a business advisor."

    ...and disability insurance. Furthermore, when the cops ask if they can have a quick look around the car, say NO.

  4. Great article on Dick Allen, I remember when Choppers were built out of wrecks bought cheap.
    Thanks again.