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What Makes a Motorcycle a Chopper?

2004 Viper Diablo Pro Street Custom Chopper

Choppers have been around in some form or another since the 1950s. Their popularity comes in peaks and troughs, but even when they're at their least fashionable, there are always enough committed fans around to stop them from dying out completely. But what exactly are they? If you've ever seen "Easy Rider," you'll already have a pretty good idea. If you haven't, then it's simple: a chopper is a motorcycle that has had certain parts chopped off (and yes, that's exactly how it got its name). To find out more about the chopper motorcycle, keep reading.

The Pre-Chopper Era

Before the chopper, there was the bobber. If you want to understand the chopper, you're going to need to understand the bobber first. As Wikipedia explains, the bobber was essentially a motorcycle that had been 'bobbed,' or, in other words, made lighter and faster through the removal of the fenders and other parts. For motorcycle fans looking for a more minimalist ride, the bobber was a dream. It grew to eminence in the 1940s, when returning servicemen decided that less was better. If a part was deemed too heavy, too ugly, or too surplus to requirements to stay, it was simply stripped away. One of the earliest examples of the bobber is the 1940 Indian Sport Scout "Bob-Job," a sleek bike that stood in stark contrast to the large, extravagant Indian Scouts and Chiefs dominating the market. As their streamlined, modified bodies made them lighter and better suited to racing performances, Bobbers were primarily used for dirt-track racing and mud racing.

The Rise of the Chopper

In California in the late 1950s, motorcycle riders began playing around with their motorcycles to a greater extent than ever before. One of the most extreme styles to emerge was the chopper, a custom motorcycle characterized by heavily modified steering angles and elongated dimensions. Some people made their choppers from scratch. Others modified existing motorcycles. Any motorcycle would do, but Harley-Davidson's proved the most popular choice. Although each chopper was a little different from the next, most shared commons traits, including hardtail frames, raked and extended front ends, lowered rear suspension (or no suspension at all), a high sissy bar, and epically proportioned front wheels. Choppers had a lot in common with earlier bobbers, but there were a few features that set them apart, most notably the more radical modifications that resulted in the chopper's classic stretched-out, elongated frame.

The Evolution of the Chopper

Over time, the chopper evolved. By the 1960s, it had developed a certain 'style,' with fat tires, forward-mounted footpegs, smaller headlights and fuel tanks, and upgraded chrome parts. When "Easy Rider" was released in 1969, choppers lost their niche appeal and went mass market. Overnight, they went from subculture to popular culture, with the result that more and more chopper-building custom shops began popping up, not just in the US, but across the world. By the 1980s, choppers were being commercially manufactured. In 1984, Harley-Davidson released the Softail Custom, a bike that took so many style cues from the chopper, people lost interest in building their own. After all, why waste time customizing a Harley to look like a chopper when Harley was already doing the same job?

The Backlash Starts

By the 2000s, choppers were big business. TV shows like Motorcycle Mania bought a new celebrity angle to the industry, ushering in legions of new reality shows centered around choppers. As they became an increasingly mainstream commodity, companies like Jesse James' West Coast Choppers began capitalizing on their appeal by releasing chopper-themed attire, accessories, and even stickers. As choppers became ever more mass market, so the backlash began. Determined to take the bike back to its origins, old-school riders once again began to look at fabricating their motorcycles from their yards using whatever materials they had to hand. The newer Harley frames were out, and neglected classics like Yamaha XS-650 twins and UKM bikes were in. Since then, the big, stylized designs of modern choppers have taken a back seat to the simpler, more stripped-down aesthetics of the old-school bobber.

Chopper Styles

As writes, the chopper covers four basic styles. Each has its own unique appeal. Depending on your riding style and personal taste, you might prefer...

  • A Classic Bobber - Bobbers were the original chopper. They were the first bikes to be customized, and the first to demonstrate that a stripped-back style with the bare minimum of necessities had the cutting edge when it came to both style and performance. With their old-school aesthetic and their retro appeal, bobbers evoke the nostalgia and romance of the old days. They're also one of the coolest styles around. After reality TV and commercialism stripped choppers of their DIY roots in the 1990s and 2000s, people began revolting against the over-stylized, expensive commercial choppers and returned to constructing bobbers in their yards and garages. As a result, the simple, minimalist look of the bobber has never been more in vogue.
  • A Pro-Street - As writes, pro street choppers have a very different aesthetic to old-school bobbers and choppers. They're characterized by a super-low stretched frame, radical styling, high horsepower, and cutting-edge technology.
  • A Fat Bob - The Harley Davidson Fat Bob straddles the divide between the stripped-back, retro style of the bobber and the big, gaudy aesthetic of the choppers of the early 2000s. Characterized by matte paint, rectangular LED headlamp, fat tires, and stubby fenders, they're a big bike designed for people who prefer a softer ride.
  • A Bagger - A bagger is a cruiser-style chopper with added bling. Although they're primarily designed for long-distance travel, they still offer old-school motorcycle styling, complete with an open feel and plenty of agility. In addition to a saddlebag, they usually come with windscreens, passenger seats, partial fairing, forward control, and enhanced suspension.

Choppers vs Cafe Racers

Although the name 'chopper' has become shorthand for any type of modified bike, it's worth noting that not all customized motorcycles are actually choppers. At around the same time that choppers were being developed in the US, another style of customized motorcycle was taken off in Europe: the cafe racer. Unlike choppers that were primarily built on Harley Davidson frames, cafe racers relied on European brands like Triumph, Norton, BSA, and Matchless. Although they were as heavily modified as choppers, cafe racers were engineered with very different looks, abilities, and riding positions.

Benjamin Smith

Written by Benjamin Smith

Benjamin Smith is one of the managing editors of Moneyinc. Ben's been focusing on the auto and motorcycle sector since 2005. He's written over 1000 articles in the space and continues to learn about it each day. His favorite car is "any Bugatti" and he's a die hard Harley Davidson fan.

Read more posts by Benjamin Smith

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