If you’re looking to make a statement and court attention with your motorcycle, there is no better ride than a custom chopper. There are a variety of styles for motorcycle customizations, and the chopper is undoubtedly the most extreme. Choppers are typified by their elongated look, taller handlebars and lowered suspension. While choppers are sometimes criticized for their lack of safety and poor handleability, no one can flaw their astounding aesthetics.
While the chopper entered the public consciousness in late 1960s, the true story of this marvelous motorcycle begins during World War 2. Unlike in the present day when choppers can be purchased new from major manufactures such as Harley Davidson, the term “chopper” originated because parts of the motorcycle had to be chopped off in order to achieve this distinct look. Choppers had to be uniquely designed, they did not simply come off the production floor!
As American soldiers returned from WW2, they quickly became dissatisfied with the motorcycles that were being manufactured by Harley Davidson and Indian. These servicemen, many of whom became excellent mechanics during the war, sought to strip away the superficial parts of their motorcycles and create sleeker, highly functional rides.
These early modified vehicles were known as bobbers. In your typical bobber, the front fender was often completely removed and the rear fender was cut-short, leaving a “bob-tail” (hence the name). Many other parts were also removed, such as the turn indicators, spring-suspended saddles and sometimes even front brakes!
This setup was highly effective for drag racing (which was a favorite pastime of many ex-servicemen in the 1950s) and the bobber played a distinct role in the hotrod culture that was prominent in America during the 1950s. However, it was the motorcycle’s distinct look rather than its functional benefits which propelled the chopper to blistering heights in the 1960s.
As the bobber evolved from drag racing purposes to typical street use, modifications such as taller handlebars and a sissy bar were added. This made it easier to carry an extra passenger or baggage on the motorcycle. Frames were typically chopped which changed the angle of the steering, the front tire was made thinner and the back tire was made fatter, and the headlight/blinkers were usually made smaller. This evolution lead to the motorcycle becoming known as the chopper - a name which will forever be ingrained in motorcycle folklore.
As this distinct style became popular, mechanics would offer their services to those willing to pay to have their rides customized. For the right price, a traditional Harley Davidson could be turned into an elongated beast with lowered suspension. All changes were completely individualized - motorcycle owners could stamp their identity on their rides, which was extremely appealing at the time. Arlen Ness, now known as “The King of Choppers”, is one mechanic who rose to fame during this period.
The silver screen
The chopper finally entered the mainstream as a result of the 1969 avant-garde box office smash, Easy Rider. It was the third highest grossing film of the year and covered a range of poignant cultural and societal issues, including hippie culture, communal living and drug use (real drugs were actually shown in the film). The film’s powerful soundtrack included the likes of Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds and Steppenwolf. Jack Nicholson also gave an astounding performance as one of the film’s supporting actors, which propelled his career to new heights.
The film featured two distinct choppers with hardtail frames and panhead engines. The huge success of this film dramatically increased the demand for this type of motorcycle. Peter Fonda was already a star, and people wanted to ride the exact type of motorcycle he was seen on top of in Easy Rider!
1970s and beyond
In the wake of Easy Rider, custom chop shops started appearing all over America - the demand for choppers was increasing rapidly. High handle bars and other parts typically seen on choppers were readily manufactured and delivered to these shops. As a result of laws that required a retention feature for the passengers, sissy bars became more prominent. Sissy bars are back rests, affixed to the rear fender struts, and often made from chrome-plated steel to create a unique aesthetic.
During this period, choppers became associated with criminal biker gangs, which lead to a drop in their popularity. However, during the 1990s, an evolved version of the chopper returned to the mainstream. SImilar to the choppers of old, these new rides featured a heavy rake angle and modified frames, however, rear tires became much fatter which improved handleability. Soliciting the services of backyard mechanics became less popular and new manufactures of custom motorcycles came to the forefront.
Jesse James, owner of West Coast Choppers, gained notoriety during this period. He was the star of Discovery Channel’s Motorcycle Mania series, which showed the inner workings of a modern American chop shop. The motorcycles created by West Coast Choppers were minimalist yet artistic, and created a strong demand for these motorcycles once again in America.
The economic crisis of 2008 affected many industries, and motorcycle manufacturing was no exception. Some of the most famous chopper builders went out of business, including the aforementioned West Coast Choppers (the company was later revived in 2013).
While the halycon of the chopper is long gone, the distinct, minimalist aesthetic will always be popular with die-hard fans. As a new generation of riders start to explore the various styles of motorcycles on the market, it’s likely that the distinct style of the chopper will appeal once again. For this reason, it wouldn’t be surprising if we see yet another resurgence of the chopper within the next decade or so. For those that want to assert their identity on the road, there can be no other style than the chopper.