The Many Faces of Motocycles - Choppers
Monday, August 1, 2011

The Many Faces of Motocycles - Choppers

You can spot (and hear) them a mile away. The chopper has been a part of the American motorcycle culture for decades now. And with their unique body style, crazy paint jobs and blinding chrome frames, these bad boys are hard to miss, especially with the new popularity that they've gained through shows like Orange County Choppers. But how did these muscle-infused motorcycles make it to the mean streets? And what's the whole thought process behind them?

The Past

So we all know what a chopper looks like, but do we really know why it looks that way? Some guy didn't just wake up one day with an image of a chopper in his head and say, "I think I'll build that." Choppers were born just after WWII when war vets started to flood back into the states from Europe. But when they came home, they were disappointed in the motorcycles that were being produced by the main manufacturers like Harley-Davidson and Indian. The bikes were bulky and heavy compared to the light, fast and agile bikes they were riding around Europe. But since they couldn't just ship themselves bikes over seas (UPS hadn't quite stepping into the scene yet), they started to create their own version of the bikes they had come to love during war time.

This is a 1948 Panhead rigid Chopper. Photo taken by Jeff McCann.   The bike featured in the 1969 movie Easy Rider is a great example of the early choppers.
This is a 1948 Panhead rigid Chopper. Photo taken by Jeff McCann.   The bike featured in the 1969 movie Easy Rider is a great example of the early choppers.

Thus the "bobber" was born. A bobber is a kind of bike that has had parts removed in order to knock off some of its weight. Anything that wasn't essential to the running of the bike was chopped off in order to make it more minimalistic. Typically, large and heavy floorboards were swapped out with tiny foot pegs while large front tires, headlights and fuel tanks were abandoned for much smaller ones. And bits and pieces that weren't absolutely crucial like turn signals and fenders were hacked off and left off completely.

For some riders, however, just lightening the bike wasn't enough. Once designers started to chop into their frame to elongate the front forks or lower the frame the chopper truly was born. But the idea to eliminate all of the unnecessary parts giving the chopper style its skeletal and bare look that it continues to have today still remained the most crucial aspect.

And while Harley-Davidson and Indian were and remain to be extremely popular manufacturers and their motorcycles are often used in the making of choppers, many choppers are made from other random manufacturers as well. For chopper designers, it's not what kind of bike the motorcycle starts out as, it's what it ends up being.

The Present

This whole style started out in garages where fanatical and determined riders created their own individual bikes. But somewhere along the line, motorcycle shops picked up the scent of the style and began to design and build choppers to sell. While many riders still take the time and effort to build their own choppers in their garage, most choppers are now produced by professionals who design and build the bikes based off of a customer's tastes. Example: the show Orange County Choppers. Although, truth be told, most of the bikes that roll out of the shop featured on the show aren't true choppers but are just "custom bikes." More and more, custom bikes with a chopper feel are erroneously referred to as choppers as these bikes feature very cool add-on's but aren't minimalistic.

But nothing will ever replace the true, garage-made chopper. And no matter where it's made or who makes it, choppers still hold strongly to the minimalist ideal. Don't be fooled by the chrome and shiny paint job, for a bike to be a chopper, it needs to be stripped of anything unnecessary. Of course, those custom bikes are nothing to scoff at either.

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