TOM FUGLE REMEMBERED
The Chopper World Loses A Legend
Ithink that observation sums up chopper culture better than any I’ve ever heard. Choppers aren’t about what rolled out of a factory or off of an assembly line, to be ridden stock. We learned that lesson the hard way between 2000 and 2005-ish when start-up companies all over the place flooded the world with mass-produced “production customs” that didn’t even look all that different company to company.
While the general public flirted with the chopper image and did its damnedest to corrupt choppers into poseur- dom in the mainstream, the OG chopper builders kept on keepin’ on. They worked out of their garages, which were often stuffed to the gills with hoarded parts, handcrafting whatever the hell they wanted to ride, using skills honed over decades of bloodied knuckles gained through hard lessons learned by grinder and cutting torch.
Tom Fugle was one of those guys, and the chopper world lost a part of itself when Tom died Sunday, December 18, 2016, at the business end of cancer. If you’re holding a copy of this magazine in your hands, you probably know who Tom was. At the very least, you’ve seen his work or the choppers of others who were influenced by it.
The legendary builder co-founded the El Forastero Motorcycle Club in the early 1960s, along with Harlan “Tiny” Brower. Tom was born on January 10, 1941, in Sioux City, Iowa, the son of Salmer and Bernadine (Schumacher) Fugle. Tom graduated from Central High School in Sioux City. He married Connie Anderson in 1969, and together they had a daughter, Natasha. Connie and Tom later divorced. Tom started dating Jennie Decora on July 4, 1998, and they got married on October 23, 2016. Fugle and the legendary Dave Mann became very good friends. When Mann passed away in 2004, Tom delivered a eulogy.
I would say Tom was an artist more than anything else. His medium happened to be choppers. People all over the world requested he build choppers for them, from Italy to Japan and parts in between. In addition to his famous work creating truly unique bikes, he spent a good deal of time running a print shop and selling leather accessories. Later on, two documentaries featured Tom: 21 Days Under The Sky (which is on Netflix) and another by Jesse James called History Of The Chopper.
Tom was also an invited builder at Born-free 6, and the same chopper he built for the event would later be shown at the infamous Yokohama Hot Rod Custom Show in 2014.
Tom wasn’t a household name in the traditional sense. He was more like one of those artists who real- deal enthusiasts all know and many try to learn from or emulate. A lot of us, including many younger builders, cite him as an inspiration for their work.
Jeff Wright interviewed Tom for Street Chopper magazine back in 2011. It’s a great chance to hear from Tom in his own words, and you can read it below. RIP, Tom.
“Ridingamotorcycledoesn’treallymattertome.anybodycangooutand buyamotorcycle,butwithachopper,youbuildit.it’syouridingit. You’reshowingoffyourartworkeverywhereyougo.” —Tomfugle
WHAT GOT YOU INTO MOTORCYCLES?
When I was 14, I had a friend who lived next door. His dad had an old Army surplus Indian motorcycle with a driveshaft, for use in the desert. I was at his house, and his dad asked if I wanted to take it for a ride. I said, “Yeah, what do I have to do?” “Get on it and go,” he said. He showed me a few things and told me not to ride in the street but take it to the vacant lot. The bike was big and heavy. It was a pretty scary experience for me. I had never even been on the back of a motorcycle, let alone tried to ride one by myself. The only bike I had ever ridden was my bicycle and a doodlebug.
WHAT’S YOUR HISTORY WITH BIKES?
I was 16 when I got my first motorcycle. I traded my bicycle for an Indian Chief, which did not run. I pushed it home. Got to coast it downhill about three blocks. That’s the only time I got to ride it. Not knowing how to fix it, I took it to a shop. I waited a long time for them to fix it. Finally, I went to get it. It was still not fixed, and they wanted to charge me $35 for a storage fee. I left it there.
In the fall of 1961, a friend stopped over and told me he was buying a Sportster. We went to check it out. Sitting right next to it was a 1956 Harley-davidson full dresser. It had 3,000 miles and looked brand new. They wanted $800 for it. I bought it on the payment plan at $25 a week. That is the most I’ve ever paid for a motorcycle. I paid it off in the spring and chopped it within the first year. This was my main bike for many years. In the ’60s I bought many bikes for anywhere from $25 to $150. I used these for parts. In fact, I bought three different bikes at $25, $35, and $75 and built a ’36 Knucklehead chopper out of their parts. I later built a Shovelhead motor and put it in my ’56 frame. Built a rubber-mounted rigid-frame Evolution chopper, which I still ride today.
WHAT MOTORCYCLES ARE YOU CURRENTLY WORKING ON?
It’s actually a show bike. A bike that I had back in the ’60s. I’m rebuilding it. I’ll be using a ’56 Panhead motor. It’s strictly for show. The tank holds about a quart of gas, which is enough to ride into and out of the show. I plan on having it done this coming year. I also have to rebuild the bike I’m currently riding. It’s been together for over 15 years, with thousands of miles on it.
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR FUN?
I ride and build choppers, which is always fun. I also collect things. Consequently, I have lots of interesting things, past and present. Kind of a keeper of history. I do have some interesting hobbies, and I’m usually doing something most of the time. It’s hard to put my fun into words.
WHY DO YOU HATE CANADA?
’Cause it’s not part of the United States.
WHY DID YOU STAY IN THE MIDWEST?
I’ve always lived in Sioux City, Iowa. We’re in the center of the country here. I travel a lot, so it’s almost equal distance to either coast and down the middle. Also, I know so many people here— most of them for many years.
I KNOW YOU WERE A FRIEND OF DAVE MANN. CAN YOU TELL US A STORY ABOUT DAVE?
Back after meeting Dave in Kansas City in the early ’60s, he’d often send me some of his original paintings, the early stuff he did. He moved away and I hadn’t seen him in some time. In the meantime, I had developed a technique for removing ink from paper and putting the image on different items. For example, I would put a picture onto a rock; it would look rough as if it were hand painted. So I took one of Dave’s pictures, the El Forastero Cave Party from the Roth set, and transferred it on to a rock. Later in the ’90s, I was in Kansas City and went to see Dave. I brought him the rock. He and his wife were
standing there. I told him that since he always gave me paintings I wanted to give him a painting that I did. So I handed the rock to him, and his wife said, “God, he can paint almost as good as you can.” I said to his wife, “I can paint just as good as he can!” Then Dave said to his wife, “I painted this!” She said, “I’ve never seen you paint on rocks before!” We just stood and looked at each other and laughed.
WHAT ABOUT TINY? DO YOU HAVE A STORY ABOUT HIM YOU CAN SHARE WITH US?
Harlan Brower, a.k.a. Tiny the Beautiful, is an icon. He was one of my mentors and very best friends through my life. He was such a unique person that one story would not do him justice. We’ll save them for another time.
AFTER A LIFETIME OF FREAKING OUT THE SQUARES, WHAT FREAKS YOU OUT?
The fact that a lot of bikes are going back to what we built in the ’60s. Builders are chopping all kinds of bikes with old- school ideas. It freaks me out to grow older and see my past come back in such a big way.
WHAT’S THE LAST THING A BIKE BUILDER HAS DONE TO IMPRESS YOU?
It impresses me that guys like you [Jeff Wright], Bill Mize, and others have built their bikes Forastero style. Also, having been told by Mochi from Japan that he and his friends Gak and Hata Chang got inspiration from the ’56 Panhead chopper [Only One Love] that I had built in 1964. They were designing and building a chopper specifically in dedication to that bike.
DID PEOPLE LATCH ONTO TRENDS AS QUICKLY BACK IN THE ’60S AS THEY DO NOW?
Yes, they latched on as quickly as now. As trends go, they mean nothing to me. I’m doing the same thing I was doing 50 years ago. What was popular last year has faded today. Trends change with time. What I do is timeless.
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE HARLEY MOTOR?
My favorite is the Knucklehead. It’s nostalgic looking. Performancewise, I like the Evolution.
IS IT TRUE THAT A MOTOR RUNS BEST RIGHT BEFORE IT BLOWS UP?
I’ve heard that before, and I’ve seen some of them running good when they blew, but I’ve never had that experience. Seems like every time I blew one up it was running bad [laughs].
BLONDES, BRUNETTES, OR REDHEADS?
Well, I’ve been with them all. I couldn’t see the difference. Eventually, they all turn gray.
WHAT KIND OF MUSIC DO YOU LISTEN TO?
I listen to all kinds. Rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, blues, country. There’s only two kinds of music: good and bad.
I like AC/DC and some others, but mostly singers like Gene Vincent, Mickey Newbury, Lefty Frizzell, George Jones, Jimmy Reed, Lonnie Mack, Steve Earle, et cetera.
IS THERE ANYONE YOU’D LIKE TO THANK?
Thanks to Moose, John Paulsen, Humphrey, and all my club brothers for making it possible for me to ride the bike I do today. To you, Jeff Wright, for your support on the Church of Choppers site.
WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED IN THE NEXT STREET CHOPPER?
LEAVE US WITH SOMETHING.
I love to build and ride choppers, as it is an expression of my art. I guess that’s because I’ve always been artistic. I feel that those who ride stock bikes must be autistic. So what I’m trying to say is: “Ride choppers or fuck off!” SC