Long before he’d earned the nickname ‘Fass Mikey’ for his rapid motorcycle painting skills, covering the entire factory Yamaha road-racing team practically overnight in the 1970s, Mike Vils was a legend.  He’d been building choppers and show bikes since the early 1960s, and worked at Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth’s shop from 1967-69, before branching off on his own, working for Yamaha in the ’70s before becoming a building contractor in SoCal.

Taming The Brute! Ed Roth hand-retouched his photo of Mike and The Brute for his first article on the bike in 1967. [Roth Family Archive]
When I first met Mike in the vintage motorcycle scene in the 2000s, and got to know him on the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball, I had no idea he had a significant history with custom motorcycles 50 years prior, until I started asking around for imagery and stories for my book ‘The Chopper: the Real Story’ (Gestalten 2014).  The book was my effort to give a historical, researched timeline on the development of this uniquely American-grown custom style.  ‘Talk to Mike Vils!’ was the advice from older motorcycle friends, many of whom had been ‘chopper guys’ in the 1960s and ’70s, before switching to the vintage motorcycle world in the 1980s and ’90s.

Ed Roth himself photographing The Brute for Choppers Magazine – Ed did most of the writing for the magazine too, under several psuedonyms [Mike Vils]
Mike first began working with Ed Roth the year ‘Big Daddy’ began publishing his seminal Choppers Magazine (1966).  It was the first print publication to focus on this custom motorcycle movement, and ran only from 1966-69.  In contrast to all later chopper magazines, Roth’s magazine was color blind, inclusive, and funny.  After the explosion of interest in choppers following the release of ‘Easy Rider’ in late 1969, an industry was created around choppers, with parts manufacturers and custom chopper shops around the world, and numerous magazines covering the scene.  But popular magazines like Easyriders were notorious for including content with nazi and white power symbolism, and never featuring the work of black or brown chopper builders.

Mike Vils with his grandmother, and his trophy room / her living room! [Roth Family Archive]
Chopper magazines of the 1970s and ’80s gave a sad distortion of this amazing, home-grown motorcycle style, and colored the public’s view of choppers for generations.  As did, of course, the choppers’ connection with 1% motorcycle gangs, who were in reality a minimal part (numerically) of the custom motorcycle movement of the second half of the 20th Century, but a huge part of the image projected by the media.  By telling the story of a chopper builder like Mike Vils,  it’s my hope that the chopper’s artistic merit can be appreciated without the social baggage that has deterred appreciation of this folk/outsider art movement.

Mike Vils in 1967 with The Brute. Note the shadow of Ed Roth’s ladder in the foreground. [Roth Family Archive]
While he was still a teenager, Mike Vils built a show-winning custom 1955 Triumph Tiger 100, called The Brute, that evolved over several years in different, increasingly radical forms.  The Brute was famous on the mid-1960s show circuit, and collected awards aplenty, as you can see in photos from his grandmother’s home! It was also featured in Choppers Magazine, as were others of Mike’s creations. The following is an excerpt from my 2014 book with Gestalten,  ‘The Chopper: the Real Story’ (which you can still buy here):

Mike Vils proving The Brute was a rider, not a show queen [Mike Vils]
“Mike Vils started riding homemade mini bikes in the dirt lots around his SoCal home when he was 10 years old.   In 1957, the hot rod craze was in full swing. “That was 47 years ago, and I was already into the whole custom thing, and put ape hangers on my Doodlebug. When I got a little older (all of 17), I bought a 1955 pre-unit Triumph 500 that had been a desert sled, but I wanted a street bike, so it became a bob-job. For the dirt I rode junky old crap like everybody else – stripped road bikes. I met Gary Deera who was an old ‘outlaw’ rider, who’d gotten into some trouble and retired from the 1% life, and he befriended me, and showed me how to build bikes. I bought an old Knucklehead, and helped me make a rider out of it. That freed up my Triumph to become a showbike kind of thing.”

Mike in Choppers Magazine with his huge collection of trophies won with The Brute over 4 years [Roth Family Archive]
That ‘showbike kind of thing’ started out as a very clean bob-job, as was the norm in the hot rod/custom scene at the time, with lots of chrome and a very cool paint job. “In those days we didn’t have catalogs to buy anything; you might buy a Webco peanut tank, or a Harley tank, but otherwise we had to make everything. I did all my own paintwork, and even polished all the metal before taking it to be chrome plated, to save money. Joe Perez did my upholstery – he did it for Ed Roth too. I had to lace my own wheels; nobody had any money. I was just a kid!”

Mike with an early bob-job version of the Brute, with Triumph telescopic forks and front brake, circa 1964. The frame had yet to be chopped and was still standard, although a bolt-on rigid rear end from a TR5 Trophy had been added. [Mike Vils]
That bob-job was The Brute, one of the most famous bikes to hit the show circuit in the mid-1960s, winning 22 trophies in 2 years, either 1st Place or Best in Show. The Brute was progressively transformed over three years, from a bob-job showbike to the radical chopper it became. “The custom bike thing was always about ‘no money’, it was all about low budget. Kind of like the original hot rod guys, those cars were just shitboxes they’d found and made something out of. Nobody had any money, there weren’t any rich guys into hot rods or bob-jobs at all, it was all about making it cheaply, by yourself in those early years. Nobody went out and bought a new bike; you might spend some money for someone else to build your motor, but the rest you’d have to build yourself.”

The Brute at a show in 1966, when black flames adorned the pink tank. [Mike Vils]
The Brute was transformed from bob-job to chopper with the addition of a pair of Brampton girder forks from a Vincent motorcycle, which Vils cut up and extended 9” himself, by learning how to weld using gas. “I think I had one of the first extended girder forks [1964]. I got a pair of Vincent-HRD Brampton forks from Freddie Elsworth, who won the Big Bear Scramble several times; I met him through Mike Parti. Those forks weren’t worth anything back then, as nobody wanted them. Freddie was in a club of some kind, a real riding club like the Boozefighters, who were into building bikes for performance, and a lot of them were riding Harley JD cut-downs. I wanted a girder fork for my Triumph, and Freddie had the Vincent forks, and I extended them 9”. I gas welded all that stuff. My question to all these new guys is, ‘what did everybody do before TIG welders?’ We did it ourselves; I learned to weld aluminum using a gas torch. Jim Buchanan helped me with narrowing the Vincent forks – they looked dumb, they were too wide. I didn’t have a lathe to do the shorten up the links etc, so Jim did that. I did the rest – the lengthening. It was trial and error as we didn’t know what worked, but the extended forks were where the whole change to a chopper started. It started out as a 1955 pre-unit Triumph Tiger 100, and I found a rigid rear section, so decided to build a show bike.”

The Brute in its 1968 form, with extended Vincent Brampton forks and tall exhaust stacks. [Mike Vils]
Mike lived with his grandmother at the time, building an incredible show bike in her garage, and storing the bike between shows in her living room! Plus an impressive array of trophies as time went by. His father was a policeman, and at times their relationship was rough, so grandma’s house made sense. As Mike grew in stature as a teenage chopper builder, the curious humor of a sweet old lady hosting a radical chopper beside the lace doilies and porcelain dolls was not lost on him, or his friends. But while Mike Vils may have looked the part of a teen badass in photos, his true nature has always been sweet. “I knew all the true modern outlaw guys, Buzzard and Foot and Dick Allen, but I never smoked one hit off a joint, I never took drugs or even drank beer. Which is the reason Ed Roth hired me in 1966; I wasn’t into all the macho bullshit.”

Ed Roth on The Brute in 1967. [Mike Vils]

Hired by Big Daddy

While making the rounds of the hot rod/custom show circuit, Mike met all the characters who also traveled the country showing their vehicles, one of whom was Ed Roth, who was already legendary in the Kustom Kulture scene of the mid-1960s.  According to Mike, Roth was a bit fed up with the hot rod scene by then, “Ed got away from cars at that time, as he saw motorcycles were the future, they were going to be a big deal.” Roth began hanging around with members of the Hells Angels like ‘Buzzard’ and ‘Foot’, and even began selling large black-and-white posters of bikers on their choppers at car shows, and via his latest publication, Choppers Magazine, which he started publishing in 1966. Roth saw something refreshing in Mike Vils – a young man with talent, who was creating artistic motorcycles, with no ‘attitude’ or axe to grind. Ed hired Mike Vils, who was “paid $35 a day, and all the cheeseburgers I could eat. I was 6’3” and 135lbs, so I didn’t eat many burgers! There was some cheap and horrible burger place nearby, but you’ll eat anything at 20 years old.”

Part of Ed Roth’s photoshoot for Choppers Magazine.  The Brute was among the first choppers to use Volkswagen back-up lights for headlamps!  [Roth Family Archive]
Mike and Irma Vils in 1981: Irma was always a co-rider with Mike, and they’re still married! [SuperCycle]
Mike in 1981, just before he sold The Brute…for $2500. A lot for an old bike in those days, and we’d love to know where it is today? [Supercycle]
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