The latest Chopper craze has waxed and waned, but that doesn’t mean that the Chopper is dead and gone. In fact, the 2012 Harley-Davidson lineup includes several bikes that I would consider “Factory Choppers”: The Nightster, Iron 883 and Forty-Eight from the Sportster family, the Street Bob from the Dyna family and the Blackline from the Softail family.
But where did this whole Chopper thing come from? And what is a “Chopper” exactly?
Choppers are definitely the direct descendants of Bobbers. After returning to the US after serving in World War II, many American veterans took to the road on motorcycles. Naturally, these vets wanted bikes that were fast and light, and they began to modify their rides, removing extraneous parts and cutting away what they perceived to be excess bodywork. A common modification, bobbing the rear fender, gave the Bobbers their name.
In the 1960s, the modification took on another dimension as the next generation of bikers emerged. Frames were cut and stretched or “chopped” to change their steering angles. Fork tubes were extended to improve ground clearance, and handlebars were raised to improve leverage. These bikes became known as “Choppers.” The classic Chopper was featured in low-budget biker movies, and immortalized in Peter Fonda’s 1969 film Easy Rider.
A number of small firms and motorcycle customizers sprung up to capitalize on the Chopper phenomenon, and soon it was possible to buy a Chopper frame, fork and tank out of a catalog, and to put together your own custom Chopper at home.
The challenge was that those cool-looking Choppers were very difficult and uncomfortable to ride. A long fork on a rigid frame doesn’t handle well at low speeds, and many Choppers had limited cornering clearance, contrary to the original intention of the first Chopper builders.
During the motorcycle boom of the 1990s and early 2000s, another new generation of Chopper builders arrived on the scene. Jesse James and his West Coast Choppers operation was the most visible. His custom Choppers could retail for close to six figures, with remarkable levels of craftsmanship and artistic merit. Jesse was certainly aware of Chopper history, as he narrated an excellent 2007 Discovery Channel documentary called “The History of the Chopper.” Dozens, perhaps hundreds of small manufacturers cropped up all over the country, each building their own version of the Chopper, with varying levels of success.
The economic crash of 2008 laid waste to the motorcycle industry, hitting the small manufacturers with particular destruction. When the dust began to settle, several of the most celebrated Chopper builders, including Big Dog and even Jesse James’ West Coast Choppers, were out of business. The Chopper industry hangs in there, but barely, with a few holdouts still building bikes to order.
Things are not all doom and gloom in Chopper Land. As the Motor Company keeps the ideal of the Chopper alive, new riders are still attracted to the Chopper aesthetic. A well-designed Chopper will always look cool, and the initial impulse of “Less is Best” that inspired the trend is always going to have its adherents. There’s even a Chopper Institute, dedicated to fostering young designers and builders.
If history is any indication, we should expect another Chopper Revival in the next five or ten years as the next generation of riders discovers the pure badass appeal of the Chopper.