Customized motorcycles were synonymous with the name Jesse James and his West Coast Choppers. His success in the hot rod industry was catapulted not only by his impeccable motorcycle-building skills, but with the popularity of his reality television series “Monster Garage.” Having a dysfunctional family growing up, it was quite incredible that he built an empire from the ground up. From motorcycle to custom weaponry, he had everything going for him, although it almost blew up due to a series of mistakes that he committed in his personal life. It led to a stint in a rehab center, with the paparazzi making him and his kids lives hellish for a time. When all was said and done, fans were curious to know if his personal notoriety affected his business ventures and his net worth.

Posted by Jesse James – West Coast Choppers Austin Texas – Unofficial on Sunday, March 4, 2018

The volatile upbringing of Jesse James

The life of Jesse Gregory James, the motorcycle builder, might not be as violent as his infamous namesake, the notorious 19th-century American outlaw of the Wild Wild West, but he didn’t have an easy time growing up, which is perhaps why he made those unfortunate decisions in life.

His childhood

He was born on 19 April 1969, in Lynwood, Los Angeles, California, to parents who split up after having an insane yelling battle when he was six years old, so at that age he had a difficult time especially, since he would go back and forth to each parent’s house. He never had a role model for a parent, because both displayed no interest in providing him with a great life. While he learned so much from his father, who was a welder and furniture maker, he was somehow terrified each time he would go back to his  house – some people said that his father was abusive, but the court granted custody to his father when the divorce was finalized. On some good days, his father would give him toys such as a dirt bike, which Jesse loved so much. He developed an interest in motorcycles early on, as his father’s antique store was located beside a motorcycle shop, and listening to Harley’s engines was music to his ears.

He was a juvenile delinquent

Jesse became best of friends with a fellow teenager named Bobby as they shared the same purpose in life back then, which was stealing stuff from the local mall during weeknights. He was greatly influenced by his friend, who was best described as an enthusiastic thief and led him deeper into this dangerous and criminal activity. It started with candy bars, to gadgets and then they elevated their game to cars that they could chop and sell.

He even adapted to Bobby’s style of stealing, which was thru intimidation. For instance, he would just pick fruit in a supermarket, take a bite, and go out without paying. No one stopped him due to his hefty physique, but somebody eventually did and reported him to the authorities, so as a juvie, his rap sheet became quite long. Neither parent ever tried to keep a close eye on him, so Jesse was mostly left to his own devices, except when his father needed his help at work. Even during school days, his father insisted that his son pretended to be sick just so he would have an assistant. Jesse was eager to do that, because at that time, he wanted to gain his father’s approval.

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Accused by his father of burning their house down

Growing up, he already lost count of how many ‘stepmothers’ his father brought home, and by the time his father took on another woman permanently, with young kids of her own, things became more difficult for Jesse. He had to place a bolt on his door when he discovered that someone stole money from his desk, and when he confronted his stepmother, she insisted that her children weren’t brought up to steal anything. A fire broke out when his father and new family were on a weekend vacation, and their house was burned to the ground. His father accused him of arson, which he denied because there was no reason for him to do that as he wouldn’t have any place to live in. It was the first time that he swore at his father out of frustration, and it led to a physical fight between the two – firemen had to separate him from his old man.

A promising football career ended even before it started

Jesse was gifted with a physique that fitted the sport of football, which was what saved him for a time when he was in high school. He was doing great, so that Division 1 schools were lining up with offers for him. However, he was arrested for a burglary committed by Bobby along with his cousin, Dave – it was ironic that it was one heist that he refused to participate in, because of his football duties. Apparently, when the stolen items were traced back to Bobby, he told the police that he was just holding the items for Jesse, and that they would find more of the stolen goods in Jesse’s home. Some of the items were indeed in Jesse’s room since Bobby asked that he hold on to them for him until he found a buyer. The reason for this betrayal was that Dave was already an adult and would be incarcerated, while Jesse was still a minor and would only end up in a juvenile detention center, where he only spent 90 days since his football coach spoke up for him in front of the judge. Offers from universities were withdrawn because of this, but it wasn’t the end of his football career. After matriculating from high school, he was given a football scholarship at a local community college. However, he suffered a major knee injury that ended his football career.

Jesse James’ Path to Success

With his kind of upbringing and misguided decisions in life, one would think Jesse would have given up and led the life of a felon, but he was relentless in his pursuit of becoming someone other than what was obviously laid out in front of him.

His early career as a welder and bodyguard

After having a huge fight once again with his father, he left and went to his mother, who welcomed him into her home – Jesse said that he would stay only until he found a place of his own. He immediately looked for a job, and found an ad looking for a welder with experience in Seattle. When the manager asked what kind of experience he had, he replied that his father was a welder and assisted him in his work. That secured him the job, which paid $1000 a week. He stayed there for a while and saved his money, while sending some to his mother until the weather in Seattle bothered him so much that he decided to return to California.

Someone recommended Jesse to a security team to guard a singer during performances. His build was perfect for bodyguard duties, and through hard work and the right attitude, he became known to the industry as someone very reliable, becoming a bodyguard to some popular rock and metal bands, especially during concert tours not only locally, but also globally. He was quite frugal and only spent money on his motorcycle-building research. Some band members were motorcycle enthusiasts too, and would have him fix up their bikes for them. However, during a stupid stunt, he injured himself, and so gave up being a bodyguard.

Started working with installing brakes

Jesse began planning a career in customizing motorcycles. For almost a year before he resigned from bodyguard duties, he built his custom Harley straight–leg frame in his mom’s garage. He spared no expense, and took time in making it, so it came out rather better than he expected. When he rode it around, the bike caught the attention of bike enthusiasts, and it became his calling card. He went from one shop to another, and was eventually hired by Perry Sands, the owner of Performance Machine, the largest local Harley shop that made custom brakes. He perfected installing brakes, and on the side honed his motorcycle-building skills.

Hired by Boyd Coddington, a legend in the auto customization industry

Jesse’s skills soon reached Boyd Coddington’s ears, who wanted him to be part of his team. The biggest custom car builder in California was interested in Jesse, because he wanted to tap into the motorcycle market. Jesse accepted the offer, but was quite intimidated by Boyd’s team, who included experts in the field such as George Gould, Roy Plinkos, Steven Greninger and Chip Foose. At first, he couldn’t jive well with the other guys, as they were mostly in their 40s and he was half their age, but eventually they became good friends and Roy Plinkos became a mentor. He loved being there in the shop, as he became part of many great builds for a lot of high-profile personalities and celebrities. He only earned a fraction of what he was making as a bodyguard, but it didn’t matter since he loved his job, and knew that the experience he would gain there was priceless.

Jesse James became successful and popular

While working in Boyd Coddington’s shop, Jesse started making customized fenders for motorcycles. Eventually, he was making more money from it than he earned by working for Boyd, so resigned from his job to focus more on his own business. Some people thought it was an insane decision on his part, but he proved them all wrong.

Established West Coast Choppers

With his skills, he was confident he could make it on his own, but he didn’t want to compete with Boyd, so refrained from doing anything that had to do with car customization. He established his own business called West Coast Choppers, and his girlfriend then and future wife, Karla, helped him run the business. It was an uphill battle with no marketing team to help him, but if there was one thing he was sure of, it was that the quality of his work would lead to his success, saying ‘Ever since the 1950s, Harley had used great motors in their bikes, but their accessories were just short of shoddy.’ He knew that the bike company cut corners, and most of their manufacturing was done overseas. Only a few bike builders invested in producing quality components, so Jesse’s vision was to provide motorcycle enthusiasts with the best out there, no matter what the final cost might be, and he put his name on it along with the Maltese cross as the logo of his brand.

During his first bike convention, no one was shelling out money for his creation, but just as he was about to quit, someone noticed it, and he had his first business deal with the biggest motorcycle parts distributor in the world, Custom Chrome. Initially, the company thought they could haggle a cheap deal with him, but Jesse knew the quality of his work and rejected the initial offer, only agreeing when the offer was amended to his terms.

Became a huge reality TV star with “Motorcycle Diaries” and “Monster Garage”

With his shop growing bigger and bigger, Jesse James was approached by Thom Beers, a producer from Discovery Channel who invited him to do a documentary about what he did for a living. He was reluctant at first, but then told himself ‘It couldn’t hurt to try.’ The filming was incredibly disastrous, as he wasn’t used to having a production crew following his every move inside the shop. Eventually, “Motorcycle Diaries” aired, and Jesse waited for national humiliation, as he felt that the whole thing would ruin his career. However, the exact opposite happened, because most gearheads loved his spontaneity and his motorcycle-building skills. Through the popularity of the docu-series, the price of each chopper from his shop increased, and no one raised an eyebrow when he sold special bikes for $100,000 apiece.

It was just the start of something even grander, because Discovery returned to him with an offer to headline his own reality TV series called “Monster Garage.” This time the concept came from him, and the cable channel agreed. It premiered in 2002 and lasted until 2006 with 80 episodes over five seasons. It was such a huge success with consistently high ratings, that it turned Jesse James into a huge reality TV star.

More business ventures and personal life

Jesse James became even more successful over the years, but his personal life suffered greatly. By 2022, he already had three children, and had tied the knot five times. The first four marriages ended in divorce mostly due to infidelity on his part except for the second, in which he ironically he was physically abused by his now ex-wife. His entrepreneurial spirit never died though, even if his personal life had gone awry. Here are some of his business investments over the years:

Cisco Burger

In July 2005, he tied the knot with America’s sweetheart, Sandra Bullock. After a year, he and Sandy co-owned a burger joint called Cisco Burger, also located near his shop in Long Beach. They served food without preservatives, and promised that everything in their restaurant was eco-friendly. However, Jesse couldn’t remain faithful, and by 2010, a scandal erupted with several women claiming that they had an affair with him. He eventually came out with a public apology, and his third marriage ended with a divorce – the burger restaurant closed down as well.

Jesse James Firearms Unlimited

In November 2013, Jesse launched a custom firearm business, Jesse James Firearms Unlimited. His unique creations came with a very steep price; for instance, a gun named “Lady Liberty,” a Full Damascus Cisco 1911, sold for $85,000 each. In 2017, he only made three of those because it took around 500 hours of labor to make one. As per the official website, by 2023, there are variations of pistols and rifles that his company offers to the public, with the price of each dependent on the design and material used.

Austin Speed Shop

When he was still married to Sandra, he became a partner in another car customization shop, Austin Speed Shop. It started when he borrowed a workspace from the owners, and used it to film another reality TV show called “Jesse James: Outlaw Garage.” It didn’t flourish, and stopped after airing only four episodes. He helped in marketing the shop, but he was no longer involved in the daily operations, although still having investment ties with it.

Jesse James’ net worth

By 2009, West Coast Choppers focused on selling motorcycles, apparel, and non-bike merchandise. He closed down the manufacturing parts department, claiming that he wanted to discourage those who produced replicas of his work. After the huge scandal that ended his marriage with Sandra Bullock, he decided to close West Coast Choppers located in Long Beach in October 2010, and everyone thought it was the end of his business, as at that time, he entered a rehab center to help himself deal with his personal problems. After three years, he opened a smaller version of his original shop, in Austin, Texas.

According to authoritative sources, Jesse James’ net worth varies. Some of them would list it at $100 million despite the closing of some of his business ventures, but others listed his net worth at $50 million, as he was just starting over again in Austin.

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