What is a Chopper

Starting back in the late twenties and going on well into the fifties motorcycle racers used to modify their bikes to reduce weight by discarding a lot of the nonessential factory parts and by cutting down the side skirts and 'bobbing' the ends of the fenders by removing about half of their stock length. Such bikes were referred to as 'Bobbers' or 'Cut-downs'. The old snapshot below illustrates a typical bike from the fifties.


Nobody knows for sure but somewhere around the mid to late fifties these same guys that returned home from the war and built their Bobbers started to build bikes from old surplus Harleys that carried the 'Bobber' concept one step further by performing customizations and modifications to the bike's frame by 'chopping' it up and welding it back together in different configurations.

These modifications usually consisted in lengthening and lowering the frame to give it a longer wheelbase and lower center of gravity to improve high-speed stability and hill-climbing ability. Somewhere along the line somebody had the bright idea of changing the stock steering neck angle as well and this is where the first classic chopper was born.

We used to say that these bikes had a 'chopped' neck, not a 'raked' neck. This first bike, wherever it is, was probably set up for drag racing as most of the old-timers I knew as a kid credited the development of raked and customized bikes to those builders who were heavily involved in legitimate straight-line racing and illegal street races. That's where I got my start, building drag bike frames.

Basically then a Bobber was simply a stock factory scooter that had been stripped of everything except the frame, motor, transmission, forks, handlebars, wheels, tires and basic electrical wiring. Most didn't have a front fender or a front brake and the rear fender barely covered a quarter of the tire. These were light bikes with big engines designed to do only one thing and that was to go as fast as possible, but they were still designed basically as road racers where handling was an issue.

The 'straight-line' crowd however had a completely different set of criteria and this involved extreme high-speed stability and neck breaking acceleration. To achieve this half way safely required modifications to the frame to make it longer and that's why the Chopper was developed, probably somewhere around the late-fifties because by the early sixties the style was already firmly entrenched as an American art form, at least in Southern California. I remember seeing bikes with extended front-ends and long wheelbases being ridden on the streets, as early as 60-61 and by 1962 they were fairly common.

Ironically, as much as most of us today hate to have our 'choppers' equated with 'customized' show bikes these early chops were typically called 'customs' by their owners to differentiate them from Bobbers which to chopper folks were still factory bikes using a lot of 'bolt-on' parts.

Interestingly it appears that a good portion of the original evolution of the typical Southern California bike style came from the membership of African-American motorcycle clubs in Los Angeles where builders like Cliff Vaughs, Al Grant and Ben Hardy were already doing significant custom work as early as 62. Vaughs was quoted as saying that "a Chopper is the final romantic expression that is left in this country. The cycle is the one thing that you can build from nothing, just a basket case, and make into something very beautiful, and really put yourself into it".  Vaughs is shown below on one of his bikes. The snapshot was taken around 1973.



Obviously the frontier is gone but the spirit remains. It's interesting to see it put this way because the American Chopper has long been associated with the replacement for that final romantic expression which was the frontiersmen's horse. That's why they're often referred to as Iron Horses. Ben Hardy is pictured below. I personally think this man is almost solely responsible for the development of the so-called 'California Long Bike' concept. He was years ahead of his time.




I went to school one year in Massachusetts back in 68 and stayed in New York during the summer and nobody back there had an idea of the the bike development being done on the west coast. Most of the guys I met thought I was crazy when I started talking about extended forks and raked frame necks. One of my classmates back then was a guy named Arlo Guthrie who wrote a nice little ditty about his motorcycle that's still one of my favorite songs.

It's also interesting to know that Hardy and Vaughs are the guys who built the two Choppers for the movie Easy Rider that had a tremendous influence on chopper design and even the entire social subculture for several decades yet only one chopper magazine of the period gave them public credit for the work they did. My old mentor, Ed Roth was the first to publish the real story about how these bikes were built. Most of the popular magazines of the time gave building credit to Dan Hagerty (Grizzly Adams) for the work while in reality all he did was handle the bikes in-between film takes.



Why were two black guys selected to build bikes for a white hippie movie right in the middle of the civil rights turmoil? Well it's because at the time they were the most experienced custom builders around who actually had a chopper shop and knew how to do the work. In the early sixties these guys were the best of the best. In the Biker community back then nobody cared what your color was. The Iron Horse was perhaps the first social equalizer but it was the black Bikers who made the first move and formed the first truly integrated clubs by accepting white members.



Prior to around 1966 if you were into building bikes you had to do all of the modifications and make everything yourself or at least find somebody to make the parts for you. Chopper building was truly a personal experience. Beginning around 67 however we started to see the emergence of a small industry built around supplying bike builders with a variety of basic parts. To some people this period in time marks the point where the chopper trend really started. To others, myself included, it marks the point in time where a large part of the personalization of choppers began to disappear and 'bolt-together bikes' first appeared on the scene. Prior to 67 riders just built their own putts. After 67 anybody could just buy the chopper 'look' and bolt it onto whatever they happened to own.

Shops that catered specifically to the chopper crowd prior to around 1968 still didn't really exist. The component manufacturers were advertising for sure but the guys who put those parts onto bikes and did 'custom' work still did so mostly in 'underground' mode during 'off-hours'. The late sixties were a time of general paranoia and everybody felt like the 'man' was constantly watching every move a person made. Most people don't realize that modifying bikes back then was actually illegal in many states. My first real chopper was never registered or licensed since it wouldn't pass muster at the DMV as a 'Harley-Davidson' so I rode it mostly at night, way out on country roads. The place I worked at was officially an 'Upholstery Shop' but after hours it was a dedicated Chopper Shop. Things changed pretty rapidly and by 1973 you could license just about anything you could hack together, at least in California and Nevada.

There is trend today, especially in America, to call almost any custom-built bike a chopper but some of this new generation of 'customs' and 'theme' bikes weigh a ton, are as wide as a small car and look more like lawn furniture than a motorcycle. In some cases the frames are so large and out of proportion that the rider and the motor look like miniatures on a parade float. In other cases the chassis is so distorted that you can pass a basketball through the airspace between the engine and frame. It's not uncommon to see the riders of these so-called customs sitting off-center in the seat so they can peer around the huge high-mounted fuel tanks to see where they're going while at the same time using body English to counterbalance the weight of the extremely offset engines.

Ironically the riders of these malformed monsters don't really ride them very much because they're usually ill handling punishing beasts that exhaust the pilot even on short trips to the local watering hole. They look cool though, especially when they're standing still, which is the way most of their owners prefer it.

Fortunately there still are individuals and small shops creating clean, lightweight rides that are incredibly beautiful because they are so simple and well proportioned.

Unfortunately not to many of these bikes are making it into the popular cycle magazines who can sell more copies by featuring the freakish, outlandish, or downright ugly so-called customs. Can you remember the last time you saw a nice little Bobber on the cover of a mass-market rag?

A real Chopper is any motorcycle stripped down to the bare essentials, to a minimum weight, and modified to make maximum horsepower and to go as fast as possible especially from a standing start. Anything that doesn't contribute to this objective is dispensable including such nonsense as swings arms and softails with all of their associated excess weight and mechanical contrivances developed to make it a little easier for posers to enjoy their cool pseudo rides without having to learn how to deal with potholes and other inconveniences of the highway lifestyle.

It's fun to watch these 700 pound slammed softies with their big 45 pound Avons beating the frame to death as they flop over highway expansion joints while the Rigid bikes just seem to keep gliding along after almost sixty years of supposed obsolescence.

The whole point of building a chopper is to create a ride that is simple and unfailing on the one hand yet extremely complicated and sophisticated on the other. It's like building a Rolex watch that you ride. Remember that the Rolex, like a good Harley chopper is considered obsolete by today's standards but what watch still dominates the marketplace?

Old technology is not necessarily bad technology and this is the point that many people miss. If it works, and works well, then use it! Old classic Choppers can run circles around today's fad bikes and these old rides will still be around and be providing good service long after the street/show creations of this era are long gone. In fact I'd be willing to bet that there are more old choppers on the road today than there are recent vintage so-called modern choppers that have been built during the last ten years.

An extremely telling fact is that no aftermarket demand has developed for used softail frames yet there is still a huge market for used and even ancient hardtail frames. When was the last time you saw an ad stating 'wanted, used softail frame for chopper project?'

My guess is that you've never seen such an ad because nobody wants one. Harley has sold a ton of softails just because they look like hardtails but promise a 'soft' ride. That soft ride comes along with the cost of an extra 150 pounds of weight that make the bikes bloated land boats having nothing in common with their old rigid ancestors beyond a certain 'look'.

My personal opinion is that a Chopper is a bike that is made as small and light as is humanly possible having no electrical system beyond the head and tail lights. A good chopper can be completely disassembled using three or four wrenches out in the middle of boondocks. A good Chopper is a 'riding' bike that can carry the pilot over thousands of miles of open highway without needing a backup crew following behind. A good Chopper is cheap and easy to build without needing special custom made proprietary parts that will someday need to be replaced. A good Chopper should last decades and be passed down to future generations. A good Chopper will never become obsolete or out-of-style. A good Chopper is handmade from the ground up and custom tailored to it's builder.

Now that I've had my say please remember that it's 'your' bike and you should build it any way you want to and use any type of frame or motor that you desire no matter what anybody else says. That's the other nice thing about choppers. They're personal. They are built, not bought.



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