Chopper is a motorcycle with powerful engine, which is a result of removing of nonfunctional parts from serial (mostly) parts, which don’t affect motorbike’s movement. Rear suspension, mirrors, cantel bags, buzzer, turn signals, front fender, most of rear fender, huge fuel tanks, all unnecessary lights, speedometer, motometer, large sear, etc. are removed.
As a result, there is only frame, all needless fastens are cut down; engine’s power potential is maximum increased; “naked” fork; 2 lights: one large “baits” in front and small at the back; battery is often replaced with ignition apparatus; straight exhaust pipes; small “sporty” fuel tank; bite-size seat like on bicycle; belt driving and crazy guy with cigar butt between lips.
Everything else like fork length, crazy colors, ape hangers, rear wheel width, front brake, jockey shift and suicide clutch, sissy bars, fish tails, goose necks and other engineering luxuries came later and looked different in different times. They still change even nowadays, but they are not necessary attributes of style.
Changes were influenced by fashion, state laws, general way of life, amount of consumed drugs, owner’s level of insanity and money amount in his pocket.
The point of this article is attempt to describe chopper phenomenon, its history, its style from birth of motorcycles till nowadays, history of all its changes, occurrence of subtypes, etc.
In the USA motor-building became a real glut. At the dawn of motorcycle industry development, there were registered 254 motorcycle building companies in New York State alone. Names “Cyclon”, “Indian”, “Henderson”, “Ace”, “Thor”, “Yale”, “Cleveland” were known all over the world. But due to the Great depression and cheap cars produced by Henry Ford there were only 3 companies left – “Harley-Davidson”, “Indian” and little-known “Crocer”.
“Crocer” company produced great and fast motorbikes, which left all its rivals at that moment far behind. Moreover, there was an article in guarantee liability, which binds the company to return the full cost of the motorcycle to the owner that will be beaten by “Indian” or “Harley-Davidson”. But no bike was returned according to this article during the company’s existence.
“Crocer” company was the first American company, which produced in quantity bikes equipped only with I-head engine and sealed system of oil circulation. But during the World War II the company didn’t manage to obtain military contracts and soon after the war it vanished from business.
This laid the foundation to the so-called “Indian Wars” – struggle between “Indian” and “Harley-Davidson” for leadership on American motorcycle market, which ended in 1953 by full victory of HD. Due to incompetent and often changing management, and several unfortunate and non-finished off models “Indian” company failed.
Beginning: Bob-job, Bobber
If you approach any biker bar and say that chopper appeared tanks to “Harley-Davidson” and AMA (American Motorcyclе Association – the organization hated by all outlaws), then you might get serious injuries, but, nevertheless, the fact is true.
In 1993, on one stage of Indian Wars, using the fact that “Indian” stopped producing its “101 Scout model”, Harley-Davidson turned to AMA with a request to organize new type of motorcycle races meant for non-professional racers on motorcycles with engine volume up to 45 ci (750 cc). The AMA was recovering from the Great depression, and motorcycling was in a sad state. So, the offer of Harley-Davidson was accepted together with great money loan. So, that is how “Class C” races appeared.
These races became extremely popular at once. “Harley-Davidson” successfully sold lots their models (WL 45cu, WLDR, WR, WLC, WLA). The “Indian” stroke back by renewing production of “Scout” model, which was more maneuverable that “Harley-Davidson”, but less powerful.
After the WW II “Class C” was on top of its popularity. In particular, due to “Class C” appeared that, which was called “Bob-job” or “Bobber” – copper’s ancestor.
Main participant of the races was common folk, which, at best, represented some motorcycle workshop. But mostly these were bikers, who used one motorbike for races and in day-to-day life. That’s why the style of motorcycles was formed of itself: it was “Harley-Davidson” (WL 45cu, WLDR, WR, WLC, WLA), or “Indian Scout”, on which everything that is considered as undue was bobbed: rare fender was cut off to fender strut, large seat is replaced with one of bicycle, small passenger seat was placed on rare fender. During races, rider sat on it to gain more aerodynamic seat.
Ender went to trash, exhaust pipes without muffler. Though, wheels were standard, rake was not altered, handlebar was standard, sometimes it was replaced with flanders, which is more comfortable for races. Well, the eventual result was a classic Flat track racer with light and rear brake signal, which could be easily replaced with number-plates.
The greatest number of motorcycles per head in the USA by the end of 1940s was in California, where weather states allow riding it almost whole year. That’s why most road racings and other motorcycle events conducted there.
Often biker had to cover a great distance between two different events. So, many bikers adapted their transport to road conditions. That’s how ape hangers appeared.
The initial idea was to raise the handlebar in the way that air drag vector was parallel to the line between biker’s shoulder and hand on the handlebar. And, therefore, the load could be spread equally between muscles of back, arms and neck.
The next step towards creation of classic chopper was sissy bar. California State legislatures ordain a law, which binds obvious installation of passenger handles. Of course, nobody wanted to spoil a bike with extra parts. But, an odd thought came to one’s mind, which was called a sissy bar.
This item simultaneously fulfills several functions: 1. Sissy bar sustains rare fender, 2. It is a back for passenger, 3. Any different baggage could be tied to it (tent, sleeping-bag etc.), if the cargo fixed on passenger seat, it can be the back for rider. And, what is important, sissy bar satisfied State Legislators: there is something for the passenger, who is frightened out of senses, to grasp with blue arms. That’s where the name came from.
After this, to somebody’s mind came an idea to replace front 16 inch wheel with 21 inch one. Spring fork coped with shock absorbing. In rear wheel the pressure is dropped for a bit. Together with spring seat it fulfilled the function of rear dampening, so, wide wheel in front didn’t really matter, but the new one greatly increased motorcycle’s control.
Up-sweep Fishtail pipes appeared at the same time. These are exhaust pipes directed upward with funnels in form of fishtails.
Up-sweep Fishtail pipes have two functions: first, they allow doing a sharp turn on a right without catching a road with exhaust pipes of your motorbike. Second, you didn’t have to pay fine for air pollution. At that time in California State started struggle for purity of environment. And the minions of the law started using it as another cavil for bikers, who never accepted mufflers.
Inspection of muffler was pretty simple: cop stuffed any item into pipe (baton, hunting knife etc.). This item didn’t abut against anything, of course, and, as a result, the owner of this motorbike decorated the wall of his garage/clubhouse/loo with penalty charge notice. The fishtail has narrowed exhaust pipe passage, complicating cop’s life and reducing amount of charge notices.
For many hardcore bikers the idea of chopper is inseparable with term “suicide clutch/jockey shift”. American companies are famous with their stubborn misoneism. When many companies crossed over to foot gear shift and manual clutch, Americans continued producing bikes with jockey shifts and suicide clutch.
“Harley-Davidson” placed a gear shift handle was placed on the left side. Their implacable rivals placed the handle on the right. This was indeed an interesting episode from Indian Wars. “Indian” did everything within their power to make their creation exceptional, that’s why they place a gear shifting handle on the right. But, nevertheless, for small sum people could order a left-side gear shifting, which for some reason was always ordered by customers.
Hand shifter link connected gear shifting handle to gearbox. To simplify the construction, and make it more sensitive and reliable, the handle was connected directly to gearbox under seat. This is “jockey shift”.
Originally foot clutch had no pullback spring and was double like yoke. While depressing the clutch, pedal fixed with toe cap that rider could set both feet on a ground after braking. The clutch was released with heel. But it was not the most suitable construction for races. So, it was replaced with suicide clutch: rear part of the pedal was removed, and pullback spring was added.
Gear shifting became easier and faster. Though, there is no room for neutral speed, and releasing a clutch pedal on crossroad is a true suicide. That’s why the construction was named a “suicide clutch”. All those changes were implemented mostly by Californian bikers. The name of the result is “Californian bobber”.
The style became popular quickly. Big motorcycles as “Harley-Davidson Big Twin” and “Indian Chief” were adapted to this style. In fact, purists still consider “Californian bobber” as separate style. For many, though it is one of chopper varieties.
"Californian bobber" became an essential part of outlaw bikers. Due to all oneperce broke up with AMA, they couldn’t participate in races. So, bike modifications were dictated by street environment and desire of owners to separate from other bikers (not outlaws), make their bikes swankier, and crazier than of other outlaws.
Then “Californian bobber” finally turned into “chopper”. There many versions of “chopper” term origin, but the most interesting one is that name “chopper” came after somebody decided to chop motorcycle’s frame to stretch out downtubes and alter rake for long fork installation.
Well, there is no specific answer to question “why”. Some say that long fork increases stability on high road. Others think that this makes rider’s seat more comfortable.
Nevertheless, for many, long fork became a symbol of chopper. At first chopper was exceptionally an outlaw bike. But after Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper rode 2 crazy choppers as Captain America and Billy in “Easy Rider” movie, chopper-building wave covered the USA.
By the way, the most grotesque moment of biker history was that both the most famous outlaw choppers from “Easy Rider” movie originally were nothing else but police motorcycles.
But, nevertheless, after this movie people as if hit the ceiling: the youth prolonged forks without rewelding frame, creating “masterworks” that are very inconvenient to ride. Besides, the hippie movement was popular at that time in California, into which bikers bumped from time to time.
Hippie culture gave bikers LSD, crazy colors and no less crazy ideas, whci can’t come to your mind without great dose of druggies.
Another movement that influenced chopper was “Hotroders” – builders of supercool high-end vehicles called the Hotrod.
One of the first hotrodders, who got into chopper-building, was legendary Ed “Big Daddy” Roth. There was no such thing that he couldn’t turn into hotrod.
After Big Daddy outlived cars, he took to motorcycles. He built many great choppers and trikes.
Hotroders brought into chopper-building perfection of engine tuning, which was sharpened for years of combustion engine uprating: turbines, superchargers, nitro, wide rear wheels, flamethrowers and, of course, flame paint job.
Under influence of all this, chopper-building flourished from the end of 1960s and to the beginning of 1980s. First were laid to waste large fuel tanks called fat bobs. They were replaced with ones from “Mustang” scooter or “Hummer” by Harley-Davidson, which were taken from German bike DKW. The last fuel tank was successfully moved to model “Sportster”, from which it got the name “Sporty”.
Such fuel tanks were lighter in weight than original ones, but they also had less volume. To increase its volume, its tunnel was rewelded; instead of covering a back bone tube, tank was installed above it. Besides, due to downtubes lengthened, back bone tube angle slope was changed, it was impossible to fully fill the tank. To avoid this, tank covering was rewelded to the top, and petock was moved down. After these modifications the fuel tank was called “Frisco tank” after the city, where this idea was born – San Francisco.
Later, the popularity gained the makeshift fuel tanks resembling coffins made of sheet steel – “Coffin tanks”, and also “Diamond tanks”, which looked like cut diamond. Tanks and rear fenders were often weld up to chassis; all air space was filled with blending material or sealed up with epoxide glass fiber. After painting and polishing it all creates an effect of single construction.
Some craftsmen make crazy frames of square tubes. For a short time goose necks became popular – the chassis neck is stretched out like one of the goose and is lower than fuel tank. This modification is extremely dangerous and eventually it was forbidden.
Famous chopper forks at first were growing in length. Springer – original Harley-Davidson fork was just lengthened or replaced with longer fork of the same construction. Besides, the popularity gained parallelogram forks, which are comfortable with their simplicity and firmness of construction. Besides, they are light in weight and can be made of any length.
After Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide Wide Glide appeared – a hydraulic post-legged fork. It was a lightweight Hydra Glide free from its tin cover and with small chopper light. Wide Glide was lengthened due to fork tubes replacement. Some bikers, who were not really enthusiastic about long forks, understood that after increasing to specific length hydraulics lost its functionality, and absorption of shocks was performed more by back spin of fork tubes. S a result, hydraulics was abandoned as spare tyre, and all that’s left was called rigid fork.
None of self-respecting bikers installed rear suspension due to spare tyre. All frames were old original rigid (before Duo Glide – the first model of “Harley-Davidson” with hydraulic front and rear suspension) or hardtail – frames with rigid triangle instead of rear suspension.
Handlebars also experience many alterations. First, apehangers grow in height as quickly as forks in length, but then they were replaced with Z-bars: this bar is easy to make of any height and width. Later “pull back bars” appeared – pulled back handle bar fitting more to frames with high necks. After that “drag bars” appeared, which came from drag racing.
Sissy bars also dramatically changed, gaining decorative functions. First they were just lengthened and sometimes almost “reached the sky” gaining different accessories on top. Later sissy bars change form, taking most freakish shapes.
Minimalism comes to insanity. Front and rear lights more look like turn signals, which are not installed at all, also no mirrors. Somebody smart thought up to install mirrors stolen from dentist, in times of extremely sore relations with the police: kinda no tax, and cop won’t be furious. Later very popular mirrors in the form of iron crosses appeared.
Another detail worth of attention is a jockey shift handle. Well, here biker’s imagination knows no limit. “Angels” often made a jockey-shift of Eastwing hammer. One hardcore biker from New York made it from German SS parade dirk. And the dirk could be unsheathed and used as intended. The most famous chopper-builder in NY Indian Larry made his shifter of Remington double-barreled shotgun. Handle is usually decorated with metallic sculls or pistons of small 2-strikes.
Front fender has never been of use on chopper, rear fender was left bobbed.
Outlaw choppers had no front brake. Though, after choppers were built by everyone and their sister, front brake returned. Due to the same reasons comfortable King&Queen seats appeared. Though, true hardrores used minimal seat made of metal sheet, which was cut of road sign and covered with leather.
Painting of choppers was most freakish: all colors of rainbow mixed with one another. Such painting schemes could be implemented from drug daydream. In 1970s metal flake paint job became very popular.
Flames of any color covered fuel tanks. For painting scheme used any theme: from sculls and naked lasses to fantasy books and movies. Many bikes due to variety of color schemes just coalesced with their tattooed owners. Original oil tank was replaced with lighter in weight aluminium one.
Aside external alterations, chopper owners tried to do everything possible to uprate engine. The easiest way is to increase volume and compression. That’s how “stroker” and “big bore” appeared. Stroker is a bike, the volume of which is increased due to stroke heightening.
Big bore is motorbike with increased engine volume due to bore of strokes and pistons replacement.