Is the American chopper riding into the sunset?

Hank Young's motorcycle and hot rod shop tucked behind a residential Marietta neighborhood once buzzed with the clatter of building choppers, the stretched-out, chromed-out rough cousins of the motorcycle family.

Young Choppers & Hot Rods is quieter now. Young has taken to changing oil on motorcycles, doing repairs and rehabbing vintage cars. He once employed four workers, but now it's just him and a part-timer. Retro-look choppers sit in the lobby as reminders of rich times only a few years ago.

"The heyday is over," Young said on a recent steamy July morning. "It's back to reality. Everybody's struggling. A lot of guys are going out of business."

Once bolstered by in-your-face reality TV shows, ample disposable income and big personalities like Jesse James and Kid Rock, the American chopper industry has seen sales decline, customers disappear and shops close in Georgia and around the country. Potential customers have hunkered down to wait out an uncertain economy.

"Everybody's having a tough time right now," said Don Parkinson, co-owner of Bikers Dream of Atlanta, which opened in 1996. The motorcycle dealership, actually located in Alpharetta, sold about 275 bikes in its peak year of 2002, when guys -- they are mostly guys -- would plunk down $25,000 or more for tricked-out rides.

This year, Parkinson said his sales team might sell fewer than 100 motorcycles. His staff has shrunk from 17 to seven.

"The type of bikes we have, these are not necessities," said Parkinson, who said the bike downturn started at least three years ago. "They're higher-priced products. They're luxury items."

Biker lore holds that the American chopper dates to sometime after World War II and into the 1950s , when American servicemen returned to their garages and started modifying bikes, removing parts and lightening the load on the frame to create "bobbers." Then things started getting extreme.

The distinctive chopper look came to encompass a range of stylistic touches such as long wheelbases that can stretch to nine feet, large tires, skinny gas tanks, massive power plants, low-riding profiles and prodigious amounts of eye-aching chrome. The prices: anywhere from $23,900 to $120,000 for a new bike.

"There’s no end to the detail you can put into it, the level of customization," said Ty van Hooydonk, director of product communications for the Irvine, Calif.-based Motorcycle Industry Council.

As choppers grew in popularity, mainstream manufacturers got in on the act with bikes that borrowed elements of chopper styling, with names like the Suzuki Intruder, Honda Rune, Yamaha Raider, Victory Vegas Jackpot and Honda Fury.

About five years ago, choppers were rumbling out of shops as fast as doctors, dentists and construction workers could hand over their money. Young turned his hobby into a living and incorporated as Young Choppers & Hot Rods after building an acclaimed retro bike called the Flying Pan in 2002. He appeared on a reality television show called "Biker Build-Off" and started reaping the perks of minor celebrity.

A local dealer outfitted him with a truck and a gaudy 40-foot trailer. Diners began to recognize him in restaurants. He turned business away unless customers gave him the freedom to make bikes in his preferred retro styling. He might ask them what their favorite colors were, but then choose different ones. Young collected $10,000 deposits for bikes that would eventually sell for several times that sum. He delivered one bike to the Sturgis Rally to a client who had ordered it sight unseen.

A sign in his shop still advises potential clients that Young builds bikes his way, with your money.

"That was the way it was," Young said. "Not anymore. But for a while, it was like, ‘I hope you like it!'"

Exact sales figures for the chopper segment are hard to come by. But statistics from the Motorcycle Industry Council show a dramatic drop in sales of new on-highway motorcycles, of which choppers are one type. New motorcycle sales dropped to 358,000 last year, down 41 percent from 2008. In 2006, by comparison, 681,000 new on-highway motorcycles changed hands.

"That was the high-water mark," said Robin Diedrich, a St. Louis-based analyst with Edward Jones. But 2006 also showed serious trouble in the real estate market, with housing prices dipping and sales slowing.

The consequent evaporation of wealth has eroded demand for choppers and other expensive toys such as boats and recreational vehicles. Motorcycles are vulnerable to a pullback in demand, because most riders use them for recreation rather than just for transportation.

"We know it's not going to turn around before the end of the year," said John Nasi, director of marketing and dealer development at Wichita-based Big Dog Motorcycles, the biggest manufacturer of custom motorcycles. "[But] we're poised to maintain and stay in this marketplace."

In 2004 and 2005, Big Dog churned out about 6,000 bikes per year. This year, it will build fewer than 1,000. The company has laid off scores of factory workers and managers.

In the first six months of this year, sales of on-highway motorcycles totaled 181,500, according to the motorcycle council. The travails of the chopper category mirror the overall problems of the U.S. motorcycle industry.

"This has just been a dreadful couple of years," said Morningstar analyst Phil Gorham. "Industry demand just fell off a cliff maybe two years ago."

Bikers Dream is trying to compensate for the sales decline with service work. On a recent visit, the dealership's repair shop was stocked with used bikes of all descriptions, including those with fat rear tires, painted-on flames and one with a Bob Marley portrait on the gas tank.

"We still do a pretty strong business in servicing," said Parkinson. "We're trying to do more."

Hank Young of Young Choppers still has two customers, both in Italy, who order the occasional custom-built motorcycle. That trailer with the lights and speakers is long gone, sold off as Young sensed trouble.

Things are so rough in the motorcycle industry that Harley-Davidson's 20 percent drop in first-quarter U.S. sales was actually better than the overall industry. Bike analysts warn of a "consumer reset," and voice fears that the industry won't get back to its former size for a long time, if ever. The industry suffered an 8 percent volume drop in the second quarter.

With unemployment in the U.S. hovering close to 10 percent, "it is likely to be several quarters before consumers again feel confident to make high-ticket purchases," Gorham wrote recently in a note to investors.

Diedrich said one major problem for motorcycle companies is that first-time customers, who in years past might be counted on to buy cheaper bikes, have been battered by stagnant wage growth and unemployment. They are holding back on purchasing bikes. Meanwhile, long-time riders are hanging onto their bikes longer without trading them in. That dampens demand.

"In the U.S., we're looking for a down year this year and maybe low single-digit growth in 2011," she said.

Young said he doesn't believe the chopper business will ever return to the red-hot days of the mid-2000s.

"Not in my lifetime," he said.

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