Custom Harley-Davidson®: The Chopper

Dedicated motorcycle riders know there are plenty of different classes, makes, models, and styles of bikes for us all to enjoy, but the image that comes to many people’s minds when they think about American motorcycles is the classic chopper. These garage-built machines are more custom than motorcycle, often times doing away with large sections of the frame and tricking out or extending the front fork and raising the handlebars — anything to slice up the bike’s profile and get an extra bit of head-turning style.

At Southern Devil Harley-Davidson®, we’re big fans of custom Harley bikes, especially choppers.

There’s just something about a garage-inspired look that makes all the difference in the world in terms of aesthetics. We’ve put together this quick guide to choppers, starting with their origins, and going on to how you can chop up your Harley cruiser a bit. Read on, and if you still have questions, or you just want to take a look at some of the great new and used Harley-Davidson® motorcycles we have in stock, stop by Southern Devil Harley-Davidson® in Cartersville, Georgia, near Acworth and Rome.

Chopper Anatomy

A chopper is a type of custom motorcycle that emerged in California during the late 1950s. The chopper is perhaps the most extreme of all custom styles, often using radically modified steering angles and lengthened forks for a stretched-out appearance. They can be built from an original motorcycle that’s modified (“chopped”) or built from scratch.

Most choppers feature long front ends with extended forks coupled with an increased rake angle, hardtail frames, tall ape hanger or short drag handlebars, lengthened or stretched frames, and larger-than-stock front wheels. The sissy bar often extends several feet high. Perhaps the best known choppers are the two customized Harley-Davidsons, the “Captain America” and “Billy Bike”, seen in the 1969 film Easy Rider. But the chopper’s history starts earlier than that.

Chopper History

Starting in the 1940s, before there was the chopper, there was the bobber, or a motorcycle that had been relieved of excess weight by taking off fenders and other parts with the intent of a lighter and therefor faster bike. Service members returning home from fighting in World War II began removing anything from their bikes they saw as too big, ugly, or heavy — really anything that wasn’t thought of as essential to a functioning motorcycle. Even turn indicators and front brakes were removed along with larger spring-suspended saddles, which eventually led to the low-riding position. They were often used for racing and became an important fixture in hot rod culture.

The earliest choppers tended to be based on Harley-Davidson motorcycles, at first making use of the Flathead, Knucklehead, and Panhead engines. Choppers have been created using almost every available engine, but builders have always shown a preference for older air cooled designs. It is rare to see a chopper with a radiator.

While originally concerned mostly with performance enhancements, choppers became more about style and appearance than functionality.

Modern Trends

While all choppers are customized bikes, not all customized bikes are choppers. At roughly the same era that choppers were invented and popularized in the USA, European bikers modified their bikes to achieve different looks, performance goals and riding position. The resulting bikes are known as café racers, and look very different from a chopper.

Some manufacturers took note and included chopper influenced style in their factory models, but none of them were willing to abandon the entire rear-suspension to achieve the classic chopper look. These bikes were given the name “factory customs” and aren’t considered choppers.

Many trends have taken hold and held sway over the decades so much that it’s often possible to look at a chopper and say that it’s a 1970s style or fits into a specific era or sub-type. Some contemporary builders specialize in building choppers that fit into these styles frequently referred to as old school choppers.

Harley-Davidson has been using chopper-inspired styling for years, and in 1984 they released the Softail® Cruiser, a design that hid the rear shocks under the engine to create a profile similar to a hard-tail. This frame was initially offered in the Softail® Custom, a cruiser that took many styling cues from choppers, including the narrow 21″ front wheel.

Choppers are part of the foundation of American custom motorcycle style, and Harley-Davidson is proud to be involved in that tradition. Whether it’s their own custom bikes or the pure inspiration and imagination that started it all, the result is always the same: tough motorcycles with unique looks that’ll have everyone paying attention. If you’d like to talk more about choppers, custom Harley bikes, or just take a look at some of our floor models for inspiration in your own garage endeavors, head into Southern Devil Harley-Davidson® in Cartersville, Georgia. We’re located near Acworth and Rome. Come in today!

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