NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - In a scene from "Pulp Fiction," a gang leader orders Bruce Willis' character, Butch, to get out of Los Angeles right away and stay out forever. Butch steals some wheels to pick up his girlfriend, who asks where he got "the motorcycle." He's in a huge hurry. But he takes the time to correct her. "It's a chopper, baby, hop on."
With its gleaming chrome and steel body and fork stretched to the limit -- like a racehorse striving to win the derby by a nose -- the chopper has for decades given riders an open road sensation, a manifest destiny to get somewhere and be cool while doing it.
Even though the distance between the front wheel and the rest of the bike is a key distinguishing feature, for bikers the difference between a chopper and a motorcycle is much greater.
After booming in the 1960s and '70s along with the success of "Easy Rider" and a motorcade of other biker movies, the chopper craze has again shifted into high gear. More recently, reality TV has jumped on board with The Discovery Channel's "American Chopper," depicting the highs and lows of running Orange County Choppers, a family-owned custom motorcycle company in upstate New York.
Another family-run chopper business has seen less limelight but nevertheless changed 52-year-old Nick Genender's life. He and his wife own NYC Custom Motorcycles, which builds choppers from the ground up until they're ready to hit the streets.
"This is what saved me," Genender said, recalling how opening the business in 2000 helped him pave a road to recovery from depression. "This whole thing was therapy." Genender was in the women's sportswear industry for 20 years, but he says it became too stressful and profit-oriented.
In the back of an auto repair shop on Manhattan's west side, Genender's employees work for weeks and sometimes months to build about a dozen NYC Choppers a year. By comparison, leaders of the pack like Honda generally assemble a motorcycle in hours.
|A newly finished chopper about to hit the road.
So far a diverse group has thought it's worth the wait. Off the top of his head, Genender remembers customers such as the two New York City police officers, one of them a woman, a National Hockey League player, a CEO of a public company, plumbers and apartment building superintendents.
And they're willing to pay prices that would easily buy a new car. Depending on the quality of components, Genender's custom bikes range from $15,000 to $80,000.
Compared to the myriad small custom chopper shops around the country, those price points are affordable and appeal to average motorcyclists, according to Mike Seate, author of a new coffee table book called "Choppers: Heavy Metal Art."
''Choppers are just 1,000 watt ghetto blasters for white people,'' said Seate, a journalist who has been riding on two wheels for a quarter century and seems to be proud that he still does not know how to drive a car.
He also likens custom choppers to haute couture -- runway designs people ogle but can't afford. With fashion, ''we may admire and aspire to their creations,'' he said. ''But we can only wait for the prototypes and one-off designs to trickle down through the discount stores.'' Similarly, the parts on expensive bikes often later appear in a slightly scaled down form in motorcycle parts catalogs, Seate explained.
|Nick Genender, owner of NYC Custom Motorcycles.
Many of Genender's customers pick designs from photographs in the many magazines geared to enthusiasts. So they come into the shop knowing exactly want they want. "You give me a budget, I build to that budget," said Genender, whose tough but softly-spoken Brooklyn accent backs up the statement with an air of authority.
Genender keeps overhead down with a small staff of mechanics and designers, and he gets help from eager custom chopper fans who volunteer because they want to learn the business.
Still it's not easy making a buck on bikes. Genender says the business was slightly profitable last year and he expects to make money again this year.
Rather than installing ready-made parts from a distributor, many of the components NYC Custom Motorcycles uses -- including the motor -- are specially manufactured. Typically, the most expensive items are the motor and paint job, which is done by a former tattoo artist.
But even after the bike is finally finished and out of his hands, Genender really hasn't let go. "They're always going to be mine," he said. "We're building them. They're ours. 'Nick built that bike.' That's what you're going to hear."