||This article possibly contains original research. (July 2013)|
A chopper is a type of motorcycle that is either modified from an original motorcycle design ("chopped") or built from scratch to have a unique hand-crafted appearance. Some of the characteristic features of choppers are lengthened or stretched frames, long front ends with extended forks often coupled with an increased rake angle, hardtail frames (frames without rear suspension), larger than stock front wheels, very tall "ape hanger" or very short "drag" handlebars. The "sissy bar", a set of tubes that connect the rear fender with the frame, and which are often extended several feet high, is a signature feature on many choppers.
Choppers typically are stripped down and have had many parts found on stock bikes "chopped" - that is cut down or modified to be smaller, or removed altogether. Parts often removed include the front fender, turn signals, one or more mirrors, speedometers and gauges, electric starters, batteries, chain guards, and various covers. Two anachronistic front suspension systems, the girder fork and the springer fork, are often used on choppers, to further differentiate them from the telescopic forks found on almost all modern production bikes.
- 1 History
- 1.1 The Bobber Era, 1946-1959
- 1.2 1960s - early choppers
- 1.3 The 1970s: iconic choppers, diggers and Japanese motors
- 1.4 The 1980s and 1990s: improved engineering and aftermarket suppliers
- 1.5 The 21st Century: Choppers on TV, Fat Tires and Big Power
- 1.6 2010: Backlash, Bobbers and the Old School Revival
- 2 Choppers in the UK
- 3 Choppers in Australia
- 4 See also
- 5 References
- 6 External links
The Bobber Era, 1946-1959
Before there were choppers, there was the bobber, meaning a motorcycle that had been "bobbed," or relieved of excess weight by removing parts, particularly the fenders, with the intent of making it lighter and thus faster, or at least making it look better in the eyes of a rider seeking a more minimalist ride.
An early example of a bobber is the 1940 Indian Sport Scout "Bob-Job" which toured in the 1998 The Art of the Motorcycle exhibition. Indian Scouts and Chiefs of the time came with extravagantly large, heavily valanced fenders, nearly reaching the center of the wheel on the luxurious 1941 Indian Series 441 while racing bikes had tiny fenders or none at all. The large and well-appointed bikes exemplified the "dresser" motorcycle aesthetic and providing a counterpoint to the minimalist bobber, and café racers.
In the post-World War II United States, servicemen returning home from the war started removing all parts deemed too big, heavy, ugly, or not essential to the basic function of the motorcycle, such as fenders, turn indicators, and even front brakes. The large, spring-suspended saddles were also removed in order to sit as low as possible on the motorcycle's frame. These machines were lightened to improve performance for dirt-track racing and mud racing. In California dry lake beds were used for long top speed runs. Motorcycles and automobiles ran at the same meets, and bobbers were an important part of the hotrod culture that developed in this era.
The first choppers were built in America, and were an outgrowth of the milder customization trend that had originated after WW2 when returning soldiers and others began modifying cars and motorcycles, frequently to improve performance in top-speed races on dry lake beds in Southern California and similar desolate spaces such as unused airstrips in other parts of the country, or on the street for street racing. These early modified motorcycles were known as "bobbers", and there are many common features between bobbers and choppers, with choppers differentiated being more radically modified, and especially by having the frame tubes and geometry modified ("chopped" by welding) to make the bike longer.
The earliest choppers tended to be based on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, at first making use of the Flathead, Knucklead and Panhead engines - many of which could be found in surplus military and police motorcycles bought cheaply at auction. As new engines became available they were soon utilized in choppers. British bikes, particularly Triumphs, were also a popular motor for choppers early on. As the Japanese manufacturers began offering larger engines in the late 1960s these motors were also quickly put to use by chopper builders. The Honda 750-4 was the most widely used Japanese motor for chopper builders early on. Choppers have been created using almost every available engine, but builders have always shown a preference for older air cooled designs. It is rare to see a chopper with a radiator.
Over time choppers became more and more about achieving a certain look, rather than being primarily performance oriented modifications. The modifications that had had their origin in hotrodding evolved into an artistic and aesthetic direction. By the mid 1970s stock Japanese and European performance motorcycles would outperform most bobbers and choppers. The one exception to this was the drag racing arena, which placed a premium on pure engine power, rather than handling over curvy courses. Chopper styling continued to be influenced by drag-bike modifications throughout the 1960s and 1970s.
While all choppers are highly customized bikes, sometimes even being built from scratch using all custom parts, not all customized bikes are choppers. In Europe at roughly the same era that choppers were invented and popularized in the USA, bikers modified their bikes (primarily English brands like Triumph, BSA, Norton and Matchless) in a different way, to achieve different looks, performance goals and riding position. The resulting bikes are known as "cafe racers', and look very different from a chopper.
As the popularity of choppers grew, in part through exposure in movies such as the 1969 classic Easy Rider, several motorcycle brands took note and began to include chopper influenced styling in their factory offerings. None of the factories were willing to go all out and do things like abandon rear-suspension to achieve the classic chopper look, however. As a result these bikes were given the name "factory customs" and are not considered choppers.
Over the decades since the first choppers were created many different trends and fads have taken hold and held sway, so that that it is often possible for someone to look at a chopper and say that it's a "1970s" style or fits into a specific era or sub-type. Currently some builders specialize in building choppers that very exactly fit into these styles, they are frequently referred to as "old school" style choppers.
1960s - early choppers
By the early 1960s there was a big enough contingent of people modifying motorcycles, still mostly big Harley Davidsons, that a certain style had begun to take hold. A set of modifications became common: the fat tires and 16" wheels of the stock motorcycles were replaced with narrower tires often on a larger 19" or 21" wheel. Forward-mounted foot pegs replaced the standard large 'floorboard' foot rests. Frequently the standard headlight and fuel tank were replaced with much smaller ones. Often upgraded chromed parts (either one-off fabricated replacements or manually chromed stock parts) were added. It is in this era that what we would today consider a chopper came into existence and began to be called the chopper.
During the 1960s, candy colored paint, often multicolored and metal-flaked with different patterns, became a trend that allowed builders to further express their individuality and artistry. Soon many parts were being offered by small companies expressly for use in building choppers, not necessarily as performance parts as was common in the Bobber Era.
The first famous chopper builders came to prominence in this era, including Arlen Ness who was a leader in the "Frisco" or "Bay Area Chopper" style. Ness's bikes were characterized by having long low frames and highly raked front ends, typically 45 degrees or more, and frequently made use of springer front ends. Many made use of the newer Harley Davidson Sportster motor, a simpler and more compact "unit motor" that included the transmission in the same housing as the motor itself, which lent itself nicely to Ness's stripped down style. Many of Ness's bikes in this era retained the rear shocks of the donor Sportster to provide a more forgiving ride than the typical hardtail chopper.
In 1967 Denver Mullins and Mondo Porras opened Denver's Choppers in San Bernardino, California, and soon became famous for building "long bikes", often referred to as "Denver choppers". These featured even longer front ends than the Bay Area style, and had a much higher frame (stretched "up and out"). Denver's was particularly well known for the springer forks that they fabricated, as well as the overall style of their bikes.
With choppers still not yet a mass market concept regional variations and formulations flourished in this period. Many innovations were tried in this period, found not to work that well, and then abandoned. A great deal of knowledge about how to build long bikes that handled well adjusting rake and trail was developed, yet less sophisticated builders also created a lot of bikes that had handling issues in this period as expertise was still scarce and closely held.
The 1970s: iconic choppers, diggers and Japanese motors
The huge success of the film Easy Riders instantly popularized the chopper, and drastically increased the demand for them. What had been a subculture known to a relatively small group of enthusiasts in a few regions of the USA was now a worldwide wave. The 1970s saw the first wave of European chopper builders, and the "Swedish Chopper" style has its roots in this period.
Custom shops multiplied, and with them the number and diversity of bikes. According to the taste and purse of the owner, chop shops would build high handle bars, or later Ed Roth's Wild Child designed stretched, narrowed, and raked front forks. Shops also custom built exhaust pipes and many of the “after market kits“ followed in the late 1960s into the 1970s. Laws required (and in many locales still do) a retention fixture for the passenger, so vertical backrests called sissy bars were became popular installation, often sticking up higher than the rider's head.
While the decreased weight and lower seat position improved handling and performance, the main reason to build a chopper was to show off and provoke others by riding a machine that was stripped and almost nude compared to the stock Harley-Davidsons and automobiles of the period. Style trumped practicality, particularly as forks became longer and longer handling suffered. As one biker said, "You couldn't turn very good but you sure looked good doing it." 
The Digger became another popular style. Similar to the Frisco choppers Diggers were frequently even longer than earlier bikes, but still low. The coffin and prism shaped tanks on these bikes were frequently mated with very long front ends (12" over stock and more), with the archaic girder fork often being used to accomplish this instead of the more common springer or telescopic types. Body work was also moulded to flow seamlessly, using copious amounts of bondo. New paint colors and patterns included paisleys, day-glo and fluorescent, along with continuing use of metal-flakes and pearls.
Honda's ground-breaking 750cc four cylinder engine, first introduced to America in the 1969 CB-750, became widely available from salvage and wrecking operations and became a popular alternative to Harley-Davidson's motors. Harley's then-current big-twin motor, the Shovelhead was extremely popular with chopper builders in this era, and use of the older motors, particularly the Knucklehead and Flathead declined as parts became harder to get and the performance of the new motors proved superior.
The 1980s and 1990s: improved engineering and aftermarket suppliers
In 1984 Harley-Davidson, who had been using chopper inspired styling for a number of years, released the 'Softail', a design that hid the rear shocks under the engine creating a profile that looked a lot like a hard-tail. This frame was initially offered in the Softail Custom, a bike that took many styling cues from choppers, including the narrow 21" front wheel. Buyers looking for the chopper look had a plausible factory alternative, and interest in choppers declined.
With some time out of the limelight chopper builders seemed to work on craft more than wild innovation in this period. While individual builders still built long bikes, the trend was towards more moderate geometries, and the basics of how to build a good handling but still great looking chopper became more common knowledge. In this period it became possible to assemble a complete chopper using all aftermarket parts, companies like S&S built complete Shovelhead style replacement engines, frame makers such as Paughco offered a variety of hardtail frames and many bikes were built using these new repo parts. Super long girder and springer forked bikes were less popular in this era, while the use of telescopic forks grew, and builders upgraded to larger diameter tubes in both forks and frames to gain more rigidity.
Japanese bike builders offered a dizzying array of new bikes, including full-faired racing styled machines as well as many 'customs' that picked at chopper styling in a random way and rarely achieved the powerful integrated style that more and more custom chopper builders in this era seemed able to consistently achieve. As materials, fabrication and knowledge improved the performance of the better choppers improved. More powerful engines drove the need for stronger frames, brakes and bigger tires with more grip. These trends worked together so that as the 1990s closed the modern chopper was larger looking, more powerful machine. The widespread use of CNC made it possible for even small shops to fabricate out of block aluminum, and billet components became a signature item often replacing stamped and chromed steel components of the earlier eras.
The 21st Century: Choppers on TV, Fat Tires and Big Power
The millennium began with the cable TV network "The Discovery Channel" creating a number of television shows around several custom bike builders who built choppers. Jessie James, of Long Beach, California was the first builder to be so featured, and that first special Motorcycle Mania provided both a vehicle for his stardom and a trigger to the second great chopper hype wave, much as the movie "Easy Rider" had kicked off the first wave 30 years previously.
The celebrity builders featured on the cable shows enjoyed a large following. Companies like Jesse James' West Coast Choppers have been successful in producing expensive choppers, and a wide range of chopper-themed brands of merchandise such as clothing, automobile accessories and stickers.
While Jessie James and OCC built different sorts of bikes, both were firmly in the modern school most of the time: aftermarket motors, frequently with huge displacements of up to 120 cubic inches and well over 100 horsepower, modern low profile tires in extreme widths sometimes on wheels as wide as six-inches, lots of fancy computer cut billet parts. The OCC team went a step further and built many bikes with themes such as supporting a particular company or product. The prices for their bikes, and similar bikes built out of all-new, high end and custom parts rose quickly placing such bikes out of the range of many enthusiasts.
2010: Backlash, Bobbers and the Old School Revival
This led to a backlash, and a renewed interest in home garage fabricated bikes built on a budget with available materials. Many builders eschewed Harley "pattern" motors and frames and started building choppers out of neglected bikes like Yamaha XS-650 twins, old Harley Sportsters, and various 1980's so called UJM bikes (four cylinder air-cooled Japanese bikes).
Another aspect of the backlash was a return to more traditional styling. Bobbers were again in style. Stock rake machines with a stipped down look, often with flat or primer paints in charcoal grey, flat black, olive drab or brown.
Modern bobber builders tend to distinguish themselves from chopper builders with bikes styled before the chopper era. Modern bobber builder Jan Bachleda in Colorado builds custom choppers and bobbers using Triumph engines and frames from the 1970s and earlier. The look, though chopped, is distinctly modern and low.
Three inch wide belt drives and 120 cubic inch motors were still appreciated by many, but an increasing counter-movement of people building bikes with Shovelhead motors and chain drive primaries has occurred. Springers and even girder forks have made yet another come back. Magazines such as Iron Horse, Street Chopper and Show Class cater to the retro, old-school and backyard builders, and feature more DIY technology than the TV builders with their million-dollar garages of the previous decade.
Choppers in the UK
In the UK, due to the cost and lack of availability of the v-twin engine, many chose to use British engines from bikes such as Triumph or BSA; lately as availability has increased, Japanese engines have seen more use. Some people feel that the variety of engines and other components used more recently (especially on bikes built outside of the US) is diluting the signature appearance of the chopper style.
Choppers in Australia
Australian Design Rules (ADRs) limit frame modifications and fork extensions to 6 inches (150 mm). The most restrictive rule allows a maximum distance of 550 mm from the front axle horizontally back to the steering head. Noise restrictions and handlebar dimensions are also regulated. However, in some states[which?] ADRs do not apply to pre-1977 motorcycles, so some older, more radical choppers are still seen on Australian roads.
- Wasef, Basem; Leno, Jay (2007), Legendary Motorcycles: The Stories and Bikes Made Famous by Elvis, Peter Fonda, Kenny Roberts and Other Motorcycling Greats, MotorBooks International, pp. 47–52, ISBN 0-7603-3070-0, retrieved 2011-08-29
- Bobbers are the new choppers, American Motorcyclist Association, 2009
- Edwards, David (2009), "Indian Invasion", Cycle World (Hachette Filipacchi Media, U.S.)
- Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Field Museum of Natural History, Museo Guggenheim Bilbao (2001), The Art of the Motorcycle, Guggenheim Museum, p. 198, ISBN 0-8109-6912-2[dead link]
- AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum (2009), 1941 Indian Series 441. The sun sets on the golden age of fours
- Brown,, Roland; McDiarmid, Mac (2000), The Ultimate Motorcycle Encyclopedia: Harley-Davidson, Ducati, Triumph, Honda, Kawasaki and All the Great Marques, Anness Publishing, ISBN 1-84038-898-6
- Doeden, Matt (2008). Choppers. Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group Inc. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-8225-7288-6.
- Discovery Channel documentary on biker culture
- Dictionary of Motorcycle Terms & Slang
- Media related to Chopper (motorcycle) at Wikimedia Commons