Brad and I were working in the shop the other day when we got on the subject of how loosely the words “bobber” & “chopper” are thrown around today. I’ve met people that took the front fender off their Sportster and called it a bobber like it was a stripped down Knucklehead. And, I’ve met people who have lowered their Softail, put new bars on it and called it a Chopper. This isn’t the first article written on this and it won’t be the last, but it’d be my pleasure to shed some light on the subjects. I didn’t live through either of the eras, but I have a close enough handle to develop a structure to it.
Bobbers preceded choppers, gaining popularity and steam in post-WWII ‘Merica when a handful of vets were returning home with an appetite for more than white picket fences and snot-nosed children. Factory bikes, specifically Harleys, were stripped down of non-essentials to be made lighter, faster and more maneuverable. This was a time in American history when it was more economical to remove saddle bags and stop eating so much butter to go faster on your bike rather than bolt on forced induction and nitrous.
One commonality that helped create the name was the action of “bobbing” or shortening the rear fender. Not only did it clean and minimize the look of the bike by cutting out the hinged portion of older fenders it allowed for easier changing of tires. Saddle bags, excessive exhaust appendages, front fenders and unnecessary attachments were also quick to go. This created a minimalistic machine that maintained factory geometry through the process of bobbing, which defined the product.
Today people desire to strip down their factory bikes and call them bobbers, but the initial machines that they begin with are too distant from the originals to produce the same end product through a traditional bobbing process. Bobbing an FXR is about as impressive as bobbing the tail on your Shepard dog pet. Nonetheless, bikes can still be built to be styled like bobbers by stripping off non-essentials and applying custom parts while maintaining the factory rake and frame geometry. I propose that we call these bikes “Boopers” instead… let’s see if that catches on.
Now to choppers:
Choppers are a breed of their own and took off with more power through a separate cultural movement in the 60’s. These bikes became more radical by fabricating frames that had little to no geometry in common with factory bikes. Front ends were extended, necks were raked and rear axles were repositioned as well. Self-expression was a more dominant motivator when it came to choppers and when the 70’s peaked they barely reflected their forefathers.
Similar to a bobber though, the term chopper was coined from the activity itself of building or chopping the bike. The process defined the motorcycle and its culture. Usually, the builder would start with factory parts and chop the original up, welding and fabricating new structure and tins to complete a truly one-of-a-kind whip.
David Mann and the El Forasteros MC have contributed quite a bit to the collective encyclopedia talking about the glory days when chopping was king for customization… there aren’t a lot of builders from this era that enter the vocabulary of “enthusiasts” today. Names like Ben Hardy (he built Fonda’s bike in Easy Rider) are forgotten in time, being overshadowed by reality TV stars.
The end of the century brought on a new era of choppers on the tail end of builders like Indian Larry, sparked in part by Jesse James and his unique, West Coast style. Larger and longer full custom bikes that hold more of a pro-street connotation didn’t utilize any parts whatsoever that rolled off of HD’s production lines. These surely weren’t the first full-custom bikes to hit the streets, but they brought on a change in the tides. People weren’t chopping factory machines, but rather aspiring to one-offs, which in time were commercialized like all that is popular. Today even Honda has a bike that rides this train of style, but it appeared pretty late.
There’s a blend in these styles that’s gaining momentum today and it’s in the bikes that I reflect on the blog the most. These machines are a culmination of motorcycle history, often taking tactics from each era to build a unique machine. They’re more subdued than the radical bikes of the 70’s, but more custom in design and geometry than the bobbers of yesteryear. Some look more like bobbers, but the lines are being crossed because if you cut up the neck, forks and frame to make subtle changes it’s done with the same processing techniques used years back. They’re choppers, however more mild in appearance.
If you can change your blinker fluid on your bike and love that sonofabitch then do it and own it… it won’t be a chopper, but who cares? If you want to build a chopper and don’t know how, you’ll need more than an article to help. Start by joining the NRA and watching Werewolves on Wheels though… or buying a Sons of Anarchy shirt.