Chopper – Do you know what that means??

A chopper is a radically customized motorcycle, archetypal examples of which are the customized Harley-Davidsons seen in the 1969 film Easy Rider. Many of today’s custom motorcycles are sometimes mistakenly called choppers, but a truly custom-built motorcycle has additional – usually chrome – accessories and billet parts added on to the bike for aesthetic value, while originally such modifications were purely functional in nature.

History

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 absolutely 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.

Forward-mounted foot pegs replaced the standard large ‘floorboard’ foot rests. Also, the standard larger front tire, headlight and fuel tank were replaced with much smaller ones. Many choppers were painted preferably all in either flat black or in shiny metallic “metal flake” colors. Also common were many chromed parts (either one-off fabricated replacements or manually chromed stock parts). According to the taste and purse of the owner, “chop shops” would build high handle bars, or later “Big Daddy” Roth Wild Child’s 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 a 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 such a chopper was to show off and provoke others by riding a machine that was stripped and almost nude compared to the softer-styled stock Harley-Davidsons, let alone the oversized automobiles of that time.

Traditional choppers

In the United States servicemen returning from World War II were looking for a thrill. Many veterans had been trained to work on automobiles and motorcycles and were looking to add a little excitement to their post-war lives with their newly acquired mechanical skills. Motorcycles and Hot Rods were the perfect hobby for them. Motorcyclists bought up surplus military bikes and removed all the unnecessary parts like windshields and saddlebags to minimise weight. Rear fenders were “bobbed” or shortened just enough to handle a passenger and keep the rain and mud coming off the rear wheel from hitting them in the back and front fenders were removed completely. In addition, bikers sometimes removed the mirrors, or replaced them with tiny ones, such as the type used by dentists in their work.

This type of home customization led to the rise of the “bobber”. Then in the 60s, motorcyclists found that a longer front end allowed the bike to run smoother at faster speeds. The degree of neck rake and length of front end was modified on these bikes with this in mind. The Girder and Springer front ends were the most popular forks for extending in this fashion, although this does make the bike harder to handle at slower speeds. Nevertheless, some choppers have extremely long forks; as one biker said, “You couldn’t turn very good but you sure looked good doing it.”

To build or chop a traditional chopper an unmodified factory bike is used (usually a rigid Harley Davidson) and everything unnecessary to either move or stop is stripped or chopped off. Then the engine and transmission are removed and the frame is cut up and welded back together to make it lower and lighter. Performance parts are added or modified to increase speed. The true function of a Chopper is to make it as fast and maneuverable as possible.

Today’s chopper era

Choppers have enjoyed a large following. Companies like Jesse G. James’ West Coast Choppers have been successful in producing extremely expensive traditional chopper-style bikes and a wide range of chopper-themed brands of merchandise such as clothing, automobile accessories and stickers.

A distinction should be noted between true chopper (or chopper-style) motorcycles, and custom motorcycles, or ‘custom cruisers’. Despite the name, a large percentage of the motorcycles produced by popular companies such as Orange County Choppers, Indian Larry, Falcon Motorcycles, Warlock Motorcycles, and Von Dutch Kustom Cycles are better described as ‘custom’ bikes rather than choppers.

A distinction should also be made between choppers and bobbers. While both tried to improve performance by removing any part that did not make the motorcycle perform better, they differed in an important way: bobbers kept the original factory frame, while choppers have a modified form of the factory frame.

When individuals were stripping their stock motorcycles and bobbing their fenders, the term “bobber” was born. When individuals started cutting (or chopping) and welding their frames thereby repositioning/restyling them, the term “chopper” was born. Chopping was the next phase in the evolution that followed dirt track bobbing.

While people assume that the chopper style motorcycles were built purely for aesthetics, there is a real performance advantage to the raked front end on these choppers. These motorcycles have a much more stable feel at high speeds and in a straight line than motorcycles with original factory front suspensions. However, like any other modification, there is a downside: the raked front end feels heavier and less responsive at slow speeds or in curves and turns. This is due to the longer trail measurement associated with increased rake.

Changing the rake and trail of a motorcycle design requires modification of the design itself. This is a job that requires in-depth input from a motorcycle designer who is experienced with such design changes.

Which brings up one more option a chopper builder has: raked trees. Raked trees are designed so the lower tree sticks out further than the upper tree, thus increasing the rake of the forks in relation to the steering head rake. What this does, for those still following along all the imaginary lines, is position the axle closer to the frame rake measurement line, or shortening the trail. Thus, when adding raked trees to a raked frame (which sports a longer trail), the trail is shortened to a more manageable level. However, be warned that adding raked trees to a frame with short rake and trail can be hazardous, as shortening an already short trail measurement can lead to an unstable situation as speed increases. Misuse of raked trees can be quite dangerous, so a bit of research is in order before turning the first wrench on any chopper project. Just remember that because it looks good in a magazine doesn’t automatically mean it will work on your bike.

Despite the personalized nature of choppers, and the wide availability of alternative designs, chopper builders have overwhelmingly chosen fat rear tires, a rigid-looking frame (even for a softail), and an original or replica air-cooled, pushrod v-twin engine. 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. Modern bobber builders tend to distinguish themselves from chopper builders with bikes styled before the chopper era. Modern bobber builder Jan Bachleda (originally from Slovakia) of JBIKEZ [1] in Colorado builds custom choppers and bobbers using Triumph engines and frames from the 70s and earlier. The look, though chopped, is distinctly modern and low. Today’s custom choppers are usually seen as center pieces at bike night events around the United States.

The United States of America, where most custom choppers reside, is one of the few countries in the world that allow custom-built choppers to be licensed for highway use. Many of these types of choppers are regarded as dangerous to operate and don’t follow basic design geometry and lack many safety features in their construction.

Finally, an often overlooked style of chopper is the chopper bicycle. Inspired by the smooth, low lines of chopper motorcycles, todays custom chopper bicycle designer builds bicycles that pay tribute to the motorcycles they resemble.

Australia

Whereas the original bobbers and choppers were mostly home built on a budget, the modern development of the chopper tends to be shop built and very expensive. It differs from what has gone before in the technology employed in frame construction and the use of billet aluminium parts… headlights, foot and hand controls etc. Almost all ‘Longbikes’ have ‘Big Inch’ after market or current Harley Davidson motors. Paint work styles tend to favour ghostly air brushing techiniques and the Longbikes are almost exclusively solo.

However the home built Bobber, Old School and Classic choppers are enjoying a comeback around the world and in Australia.

In Australia, many choppers built in the seventies are being brought out of ‘retirement’ and appearing again on our streets. Older bikes from this period; Honda CB750/4’s, Yamaha XS 650’s and Triumphs 750’s and 650’s are being purchased and chopped like they were ‘back then’. Because of their reliability, modern Japanese and British ‘cruisers’ are also getting chopped, though this is more difficult because of Australia’s restrictive regulations on modern machines. This current crop of home builders is a fairly even mix of guys in their 40’s and 50’s who built a chopper in the 70’s and 80’s and young blokes who’ve been inspired to emulate a unique period of Australian motorcycle history.

In most Australian states, Australian Design Rules limit frame modifications (engineer’s certrificate required, and fork extension (6″). The most restrictive rule is one that allows a maximum distance of 550mm from the front axle horizontally back to the steering head. Noise restrictions and handlebar dimensions are also regulated. In some states ADR’s do not apply to pre 1977 motorcycles, so some of the older more radical choppers are able to once again grace our roads.

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