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Chopper Frame Basics!

Updated on April 4, 2013

Rigid Frames and Softail Frames Explained:

As you delve into the wonderful world of frame geomotry and construction, you will encounter two terms over and over: rigid and softail. You will also hear the phrase 'hardtail', which is the same description of a 'rigid frame'.

In this article I will explain what a rigid and softail frame is, and provide a little bit of history on these types of frames.

In addition I will provide you with some useful resources and guides that will help you on your way to buying or building a chopper or bobber frame, rolling chassis, or a complete motorcycle.

A newcomer to the hobby of bike building or motorcycling could quite easily become baffled by the amount of different components there are to to learn about when it comes to building an awesome motorcycle.

Of course, before you start considering the various components that go up to make a motorcycle, you need to consider what everything is built upon, and that is the frame. In this first half of this article I want to discuss a little with you about what a Rigid Chopper Frame is, and the advantages and disadvantages of owning one.

It is worth noting at this point that Rigid Chopper Frames enjoyed their heyday during the 60's and 70's. This was before motorcycle technology had evolved to the point that it is today, i.e. the use of wide tyres. As a result, many people actually refer to a 'Rigid Chopper Frame' as 'Old-School' or similar, however, that doesn't mean that it doesn't have its uses, as a I am going to cover in a little bit.

About The Pictures...

All Pictures Of Bikes and Frame Designs are Copyright Protected and Taken With Permission from Custom-Choppers-Guide.com.

Rigid Frame Advantages: - Pictured Here Is A Sportster Frame Design by Custom-Choppers-Guide.com

rigid sportster frame design
rigid sportster frame design

To put it simply, a rigid chopper frame is 'fixed'. This means that there is absolutely no suspension system for the rear wheel. In fact, with this type of frame the rear wheel is going to be bolted directly onto the frame and there is no 'cushioning' when you are out and about on the road.

As I mentioned previously, this is the 'classic' frame for a motorcycle, and it seems to be very popular amongst those 'vintage' enthusiasts. Let's take a little look at some of the advantages and disadvantages.

Firstly, perhaps one of the biggest advantages is that it is incredibly easy to maintain. As there is no suspension system in place, almost anybody with a little bit of knowledge can keep checks on their rigid motorcycle frame. In addition to this, it also makes it much easier to customize if you wish, which is of course something that a chopper owner is going to be doing a lot of the time.

With a rigid motorcycle frame, the ride also tends to be far 'lower' and for some people that can actually add a bit of a 'cool factor' into the mix. Finally, frames tend to be far cheaper, ideal for replacement if your motorcycle is damaged, or even because you are building your own chopper.

Rigid Frame Disadvantages: - Pictured Here Is an Overhead View Of The Rigid Sportster Frame Above.

overhead view of sportster frame
overhead view of sportster frame

The disadvantages are that due to its low profile and lack of suspension, it can scrap itself easily if you are shooting around a sharp corner or on a ramp. ,The lack of suspension also means that the ride is going to be incredibly stiff for you, however you can purchase springer style seats you can help combat this somewhat.

The 'stiffness' of the ride is something that you are going to get used to overtime though, so it should be too much of a problem. When it comes to financials, this type of frame is going to much more difficult to insure, and the resale value isn't too great.

What Is A Softail Chopper (motorcycle) Frame? - Pictured Here Is A Unique Softail Sportster Frame Design.

softail sportster frame
softail sportster frame

Softail and Hardtail Frame Design by Custom-Choppers-Guide.com

One of the most popular styles of frame on the market nowadays for choppers is the 'Softail Frame'. It is worth noting that the term 'Softail' is actually a trademark of Harley-Davidson, it was first used with the release of the FXST Softail way back in 1984. However, nowadays it is a term which can cover almost any frame from any chopper manufacturer out there. Let's take a little look at what it means.

Softail is a term which simply means the vehicle has a rear suspension system. See the picture above. This means that a shock absorber or spring is in place to absorb the bumps of the road. Generally, with a softail chopper frame, the suspension system is hidden from view, which means that it the cycle ends up looking like it has a rigid frame or hard-tail. Some of the older bikes however have an exterior suspension system connected to the back wheel, but these are few and far between.

Sportster Suspension Close-Up.

Sportster Suspension Close-Up.
Sportster Suspension Close-Up.

Softail Frame Pro's and Con's:

softail sportster bobber
softail sportster bobber

So what are the advantages of having a softail chopper frame? Well, perhaps the biggest one here is that you are going to have a far smoother ride on the road. You have a suspension system which is going to be absorbing every single bump, which means you can focus on the beauty of the open road.

The downside here is that many suspension systems have 'weight limits' in place, which means that a softail chopper frame isn't going to be suitable for anybody over a certain weight. If you feel that you may fall into this category then it is probably worth talking to the frame manufacturer first to discuss whether it will be fine.

Another of the main advantages is that with a softail chopper frame, as the suspension is hidden, it does look like you are riding a rigid frame motorcycle. The benefit here is that it is perfect for people who absolutely love their vintage vehicles but who also want a good bit of suspension on there which makes them far more enjoyable to ride for them.

Softail Versus Hardtail Costs: - Pictured Here: Home Built Hardtail Chopper.

hardtail chopper
hardtail chopper

As there are more parts to a softail chopper frame as opposed to a rigid one, as you can probably guess they are going to be slightly more difficult to maintain. After all, there is so much more more than can go wrong i.e. the suspension system, and it can be difficult to access.

It should be fine for those with a bit of experience in motorcycle repair, but an amateur would need to take it somewhere if there are any problems. This of course means that it is far more difficult to upgrade.

Generally speaking, the costs of a softail chopper frame are higher than a fixed (rigid) one, however, they have a far greater resale value so it does balance itself out. In addition to that, they are easier to ensure as with this type of frame there is going to end up being less damage to the motorcycle as it is absorbing most of the shocks - and less damage to your back!

Custom Hardtail Sportster.

Custom Hardtail Sportster.
Custom Hardtail Sportster.

Softail FXSTD.

Softail FXSTD.
Softail FXSTD.

What Frame Should You Get?

Whether you are buying or building a chopper or a bobber, both the softail and the hardtail design has it's advantages and disadvantages.

So how do you decide?

  1. If you are building a frame for the first time, you should build a rigid (hardtail) first. It's easier to build because you don't have to deal with the suspension system.
  2. If you are building a bike from the ground up and you are going to ride it a lot or take it on long trips, you will wish you had a softail because long rides or frequent rides will wear on you - on your back and your behind. But you can make it a less harsh ride with a springer seat.
  3. If you are going to buy a bike just for hopping around town once in a while (a 'bar hopper'), you may want to consider a rigid frame because it will really help you 'feel the road', it's a cool looking bike, you'll impress the biker crowd, and it's less expensive that softails.
  4. But if you are going to buy a bike and you will ride it frequently, and if you want something with better resale value, get a softail.

Conclusion: Other Ideas To Consider.

As you can see, what bike your frame you get totally depends on your lifestyle.

Other ideas for you to consider besides just buying or building a frame, or buying a complete bike is to buy a rolling chassis, or chop a motorcycle down to what you truly want.

You can even rent different types of bikes that you are considering. This is a really helpful technique, but not every state has a custom motorcycle renter nearby. So do this when you go on vacation to Florida, or other popular areas like this.

For information on a rolling chassis or chopping a bike please read the articles linked below.

Hopefully this article helped you decide on your next bike or bike build. Let me know your thoughts by commenting below, and please share this article with your friends.

See you on the road :-)

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