Most magazine readers of today will associate my name with truck publications, as they have been my mainstay since 1984. However, from 1971 until the mid-80s, I produced motorcycle magazine articles and features. My very first publishing job, which launched my long career, was with TRM Publications' STREET CHOPPER and Chopper: The Custom Motorcycle Guide. The latter was actually AEE Choppers' parts catalog made into a magazine so it could be distributed as a newsstand publication. On the other hand, STREET CHOPPER was one of the first successful custom motorcycle magazines, soon followed by a host of chopper titles from numerous other magazine publishers. Imagine having consumers purchase your catalog of parts from the newsstands nationwide, and then making millions off of the parts sales. Cha-ching! The novel touch was topless models with every form of chopper motorcycle we could find, sometimes photographing five a day. But that's a whole story in itself.
Back in the late '60s, my dad began to hunt for some safe form of performance for me to enjoy. We had pursued go-kart racing with great success, eventually adding dual two-stroke engines to a pro-fabricated Dart Kart chassis to ensure we ran at the front of tough competition. But when one of our friends was seriously injured in a head-on crash into a track barrier, my dad thought twice about where that sport was headed. We had gotten way too fast for him to be comfortable watching me race. Instead, he introduced me to a much safer sport of motorcycling. Like before, I started with a small dirt bike, then one thing led to another and I was soon tossing a leg over a rigid frame 1953 Panhead Harley. In the pursuit of more chrome plated parts, I sent a dollar for an AEE Choppers catalog, like thousands of other people were doing at the same time! It was a small ad in Cycle Guide magazine for sissy bars. Little did I know at the time that Tom McMullen suddenly began to reap the benefits of the chopper frenzy created by the movie Easy Rider!
Oddly enough, Tom McMullen was really an avid hot rodder who loved competition, whether it was on the street, racetrack, or dry lake beds. Tom grew up in Ohio and enlisted in the Navy when he reached draft age. (Back in those days, everyone served in the military, so the Navy was Tom's choice over being drafted). Being of slight build, he served his time in submarines, and just days after his release from duty, he packed his belongings and headed to California. This was the land of movie stars, sun, motorcycles, and his passion-hot rods! Tom actually had jobs with some of the best customizers California could offer, but was short on talent when it came to the serious metal massaging work. He worked for the biggest names in the business-even George Barris fired him.
Wanting to stay close to the automotive and street rod industries, Tom then began to pursue a career as a freelance photographer and writer, soon contributing to all of the major automotive, performance titles, even Hot Rod. What he lacked in talent he made up for in volume as he photographed events, tech articles, and features-lots of them. Tom discovered that a large majority of the hot rod crowd also shared a passion for custom motorcycling. They rode stripped-down Harleys and British bikes that were loud, flashy, and fast. It was like a drug for him and he was quickly hooked, which would soon change his life and the course of the chopper industry.
California did not have a helmet law and Tom loved the wind in his face while riding Harley choppers, even after a driver turned left in front of him. The crash would have killed him if he weren't a man of slight build, but he was seriously injured, and was relegated to a full body cast. One of the few things Tom could still do was weld, holding a torch in his one free hand. With help from close friends like Jim Clark, he produced those sissy bars which he marketed under the AEE Choppers brand, spun off his Automotive Electrical Engineering business for wiring street rods. To market them, he purchased that small ad, which ironically netted him more money from catalog sales than the sissy bars.
A light bulb went on and TRM Publications became a reality. If you are working on a trivia contest, TRM stood for Tom and Rose McMullen. Tom wanted to call his custom cycle magazine Chopper, but Big Daddy Roth had beaten him to the punch with a brochure and claimed that moniker. Tom simply added Street to the title and continued. Little surprise some years later his hot rod magazine would be called STREET RODDER.
The first issues of STREET CHOPPER during 1969 featured heavy cover stock and a total of 40 pages. Key staff members were Tom and Rose McMullen along with his best friend Jim Clark serving as Managing Editor. Mike Shire handled the art directing. Subscription rates were a modest $9 for 12 issues, with no cover price printed on those first issues.
Since I had previously paid $1 for a 25 cent catalog, little surprise that I also purchased a $9 subscription for 12 issues of STREET CHOPPER. The January 1969 issue had two tech articles (raking a Harley three wheeler and installing square handlebar risers) along with six feature bikes. The key article to the issue was Tom McMullen having a grudge trike race against none other than Big Daddy Roth. Tom later told me that all the photos were staged, from him getting stuck to a cop pulling them over. By the way, it's no big surprise that all the ads and new products in the first issues of STREET CHOPPER were exclusively for AEE products. It didn't matter to me; I had the disease and needed to fuel the passion. Visiting California for the first time in 1970, I made a point of visiting AEE Choppers to find out why I had received a few issues, then the publication stopped. I was shocked to actually find Tom working the AEE Choppers parts counter, who explained how they were reorganizing their publishing efforts and were in the process of staffing up to produce STREET CHOPPER and the AEE catalog.
Tom summed me up, asked questions that only a guy who wrenched on Harleys could answer, then asked me if I could write.
I had taken technical writing in college, but had not written anything you could categorize as creative. But what the heck. That same night, I wrote an article titled "History of Handlebars," based on East Coast motorcycle riders cutting out the bottom loop of shopping carts and making ape hangers out of them. Little did I know that magazine contributors normally take weeks to produce a magazine assignment! I impressed Tom by walking in the next morning with my very first article. McMullen raised an eyebrow and asked when I had written the piece. "Last night," was my reply. Tom disappeared with my story in hand, only to reappear with Leroi "Tex" Smith in tow. I guess Tex, who was formerly a key guy at Petersen Publishing and Hot Rod magazine, was impressed enough to give his approval. Not only was I paid for the article on the spot, but heard the words, "Well, Steve, are you looking for a career in magazine publishing?"