Heavy-Duty Chopper

Monster Garage host rides the Peterbilt chopper.

The challenge was formidable.

Take a 1972 Peterbilt chassis with a 3,000-pound Cummins diesel engine and send it on to its next life as a chopper, do it in seven days and spend no more than $3,000.

No problem, at least not for the team The Discovery Channel assembled for its hit television show Monster Garage. The show, which attracts millions of loyal viewers to the cable channel each week, takes ordinary automotive machines like cars and trucks and turns them into something more akin to Frankenstein’s monster. In other episodes, the team, always led by famous custom motorcycle designer Jesse James, turned a school bus into a partying pontoon boat, a mini car into a snow mobile and, more recently, two straight trucks into fighting machines.

For Episode 34, which first aired in December, the team was charged with turning the 158-inch long Pete chassis into a two-wheeled motorcycle patterned after the famous choppers James churns out at his West Coast Choppers shop in Long Beach, Calif. At least that’s what James wanted to do.

Enter teammates, crazy hotrod designers and artists Michael Leeds and Randy Grubb. The two, who were selected for the Monster Garage team based on a vehicle Grubb designed and sold to The Tonight Show host Jay Leno, convinced James a tricycle, or trike, would be more likely to hold the weight of the Cummins and still stand upright.

“Jesse wanted it to be a two-wheeler,” says Leeds, who formed the design team Blastolene Brothers in Santa Cruz, Calif., with Grubb. “He thought the motor weighed 700 pounds. But we had done a little bit of homework. He had no experience with semi trucks. We’re a little bit more familiar.”

That included knowing how much large-bore diesel engines weigh. “The first thing you do on the show is have a design meeting,” Leeds says. But at that meeting James made it clear what he felt about trikes – three-wheelers are for wimps. “He’s the boss. It’s his show. He wants a two-wheeler. When we pulled the motor out of the truck, he was standing next to the motor. That’s when the reality set in on him. He and a half a dozen guys couldn’t hold it upright.”

The team decided then the bike would have to be a trike, employing some form of outrigger. The final design, which Leeds says came along smoothly, used the Pete’s air brakes, foot pedals, air horn, five-speed transmission, clutch, cooling system and steering box. The end result was a head turner, even for the show’s star. “Jesse had a huge grin on his face. He was there a lot. He got his hands dirty. He loved it.”

So did truckers who saw the rod on the street and a number of individuals who are now pestering Grubb and Leeds to build them a diesel-powered trike. Unfortunately, while the design was cool and attention grabbing, Leeds says the trike is “exceedingly unsafe. The brakes are one of the scariest things on it. They’re stock brakes, and there’s no suspension. It’s all rigid. If you apply the brakes too much, the whole thing rocks like a hobby horse. The feeling is like being tied to a boulder.”

The whole Monster Garage experience was a little unusual for Leeds, who says he won’t be back on the show any time soon. Leeds had never seen the show when he was asked to do it. In fact, he doesn’t own a television. “When we got asked to do the show, we went to someone’s house to watch the show,” Leeds says. “It’s amazing how many people watch it. People come up on the street and tell me they saw me on the show.”

Leeds and his partner Grubb are familiar with a certain amount of fame. Both are successful artists, but their biggest brush with notoriety came from a car they built called the Blastolene Special. That car, which started life as a weapon of war – an M47 Patton Tank V12 engine built in the 1950s – was designed to attract the attention of one person – Jay Leno, car aficionado, collector and talk show host.

“Randy had it in his mind: ‘I’m going to sell this car to Jay Leno,'” Leeds says. Grubb did just that, after arranging a contact through Leno’s chief mechanic. Leno was intrigued by the project and called Leeds’ cell phone. The deal was eventually consummated, and the two partners subsequently got the attention of the Monster Garage staff.

That appearance is now providing Leeds with inspiration. While he has already built a hotrod named Big Bertha out of an old fire truck, he now wants to build a hotrod out of a diesel truck engine. “It’s going to kind of look like a chopped 1934 Ford with super single wheels on the back,” he says. “I’ll put little small wheels way out in front of the radiator.”

Leeds says he’ll probably use a Pete or a Kenworth because of their classic styling. “What I like about the semi-trucks is the styling was not an important part of the commercial vehicle,” he says. “It was the performance. If you look at a Pete – from the ’30s to ’70s – they’re essentially the same.”

Car models, on the other hand, change dramatically from year to year, Leeds says, because builders are vying for the attention of consumers. While the design of his new project will likely rely on classic truck styling, he knows the engine will be a diesel and hopes it will be modern.

“My experience until the show had been limited to gasoline-powered engines,” he says. “The turbo-Cummins really turned my head around. I’ve been chatting it up with truckers, and I’m excited and amazed at how much horsepower you can generate from a big cam motor.”

The ability to use a computer to customize modern diesels also appeals to Leeds, who hopes to get some help from an engine manufacturer to build the new rod. One thing is for certain. Once he builds it, heads will turn. “Jaws hang open and people are dumbfounded when they see a big car like this,” he says. “Truckers love it. They love the big cars we build. You don’t see a lot of people hot-rodding in semi trucks.”

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