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Choppers and Custom Motorcycles

Updated on January 29, 2016

Hot Choppers and Custom Bikes

Nowadays, everybody knows what a chopper is. A few years back they were only in the realm of hardcore bikers but today, with TV shows like American Chopper and Motorcycle Mania, they have come into the mainstream. Ask anybody and they'll tell you choppers are made by custom bike builders and anybody with some cash can buy one and have it for their very own.

It's true too. Most custom choppers are built by motorcycle shops that have sprung into being since TV gave them so much publicity. They churn out cookie cutter bikes much like the big manufacturers but they charge a whole lot more for them. You just pick the color, plunk down your cash and drive it away.

Before this monumental increase in popularity though, most choppers were made by bikers by and for themselves and were customized from stock motorcycles. These types of bikes are still being built. They're now sometimes referred to as "old school" but they are real bikes that are one-of-a-kind customized but functional machines that handle right and perform well the way a bike should.

A lot of the bikes you see being built on TV are great show bikes. They will win all kinds of awards and prizes at a bike show but most of them aren't practical. They're not something that you would ride every day or on a long ride.

But we'll take a look at all of them here, so if you like custom motorcycles, read on.

Indian Larry Bikes

One of the builders that I always liked was Indian Larry, who was famous for building functional, good handling custom choppers. Most people would say his bikes defined the term "old school" because he embraced the traditional ways of building a custom motorcycle. While a lot of builders focused on the latest technology and building "theme" bikes that were mostly for show, Larry built bikes that were very well balanced, handled well and were ride-able. His building style didn't hide the workings of the bike either. Instead, he celebrated the working parts of a bike by showing them off, not trying to hide them. He stated that he enjoyed the "mechanicalness" of a motorcycle and wanted it to show. I always agreed with that philosophy.

Unfortunately, Larry was taken from us a few years ago but his legacy lives on. Here's a short excerpt from one of the Biker Build Off shows that he participated in for the Discovery Channel that will give you a small glimpse of what he was all about.

In the Beginning There Were Bobbers

Much like the early days of hot rodding when guys would remove excess parts like fenders and running boards from their cars to make them lighter and faster, motorcyclist started customizing their machines in the same way and for the same reasons.

They were originally called "bobbers" because of the huge fenders that were on bikes of that era being cut or "bobbed" to reduce weight. They were sometimes removed entirely as were any other extraneous items like saddle bags, floorboard style footrests, extra lights such as turn signals or anything else deemed non essential to the operation of the motorcycle. Many items like headlights, taillights, gas tanks, and even front wheels were removed and replaced with smaller, lighter versions.

This was all done in the interest of making the bike faster for racing but it became very popular to customize street bikes in the same manner, especially right after World War II. Returning servicemen used their skills learned improvising in the field during the war to transform their service motorcycles, now military surplus, into suitable street machines.

Gleaming chrome and a beautiful sound. - Here's a really nice old school V-twin chopper.

Early Choppers

While it's not really known exactly when the term changed from bobber to chopper, back then there wasn't much distinction between the two terms as a chopper was made by chopping things off of it, same as a bobber.

At some point, people discovered that by extending the rake of the front end, the bike would be more stable at high speed so when front ends started getting raked out, they of course continued the trend and raked them out even further, exaggerating the look. These types of bikes with more extensive modification done to the geometry of the bike became more well known as choppers, probably because they were chopping up the frame and welding it back together.

This became more of a distinction between the two types of bikes as bobbers are modified mainly by removing parts but retain the original factory frame while choppers usually have a completely modified or custom built frame.

Honda 750 Chopper - Here's a nice sounding Honda chopper.

Modern Choppers and Custom Cruisers

Today's choppers have a few characteristics that the early choppers didn't have. One of the most noticeable is the huge rear tires on modern choppers. These wide wheels and tires didn't exist in the early days only coming about in recent years. Also the billet parts and custom wheels common on modern choppers didn't exist a few years back. They retain the look of the classic chopper style with the raked out front end though.

Some people will refer to all custom motorcycles as choppers but there is a breed of custom bike today that doesn't really fit neatly into the chopper category. They are custom built motorcycles from the ground up but are lower and sleeker than a typical chopper and would more accurately be called a cruiser style.

New Style Custom Cruiser - This is one of the production custom bikes you can buy.

Build Your Own

There are many different styles of motorcycles out there today. Most people that want to ride simply go to the motorcycle dealer of their choice, lay out the cash to purchase a bike and hit the pavement. That’s the easy way and is satisfying enough for the large majority of riders. For some though, they need a little more to satisfy their hunger for a bike they can truly call their own.

If you’ve ever thought about building your own bike, there are several ways you can go. One way is to purchase a used bike, maybe one that needs work or has been wrecked, and use it as a starting point to customize into what you want.

Another way is to start from scratch and build a complete custom bike from the ground up. This would mean starting with a bare frame and buying every part and component you need to make a working motorcycle. It can be done. Here are a few books that can help you in your build.

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      bigredmarketing 7 years ago

      I like how you've covered the origins of choppers, vs. the modern incarnations and factory produced bikes. Fun lens! Looking forward to reading your others.