|March 2000 Column||www.virtualindian.org|
|“Lateral thinking for the Indian lover”||Home / Features / Chopper Corner|
of you curious enough or thickskinned enough to tune in to this column
a second time, perhaps pretending that your Evo is only for riding on rainy
days (preferring an Indian at all other times), will recall from my first
gripping episode that the reason I got into Indians was because I don’t
The question now hovering upon your collective lips will doubtless be … well, if I like Indians so much, why would I want to chop one?
I can turn this around straight away, and ask “Why not?”
But it would be flippant of me to just leave it at that, without further explanation. And it wouldn’t give you the full story either, because I do have a reason, and it’s not just to be perverse. The reason is that, although it’s true that I do like Indians, it’s also true that I don’t completely like Indians.
The particular Indian I am referring to is, of course, the Indian Chief, Springfield’s rendition of my cherished Heavyweight V-twin concept. While I think that the Chief engine is great, its frame and running gear just gets my hacksaw arm itching.
I know there are people out there who get extremely disturbed by the use of the words “Indian” and “chopper” within the same sentence. In fact, some of you may already have a needle poised above a waxen image of me. So I will cut right to the chase, and deal immediately with this fundamental and potentially upsetting issue of “Why not?”
I know that last month I had promised to explain “Why?”, not “Why not?”. But we will save the “Why” for next month, and after that I will elaborate further on which bits of Indian Chiefs I like and which bits I think ought to be sawn off.
Why not chop an Indian?
The most lucid and authoritative explanation I have yet found for why you should not chop any kind of motorcycle, period, is given by JB Nicholson in his excellent book “Modern Motorcycle Mechanics” (7th edition), written in the early 1970’s. It is well worth quoting in full his weighty pronouncements on the subject of choppers.
In the book’s very first chapter “Motorcycling Trends” he writes “Although this is a matter of motorcycle design, or rather a matter of mutilation of design, on which I have comments to offer in the next chapter, I feel compelled to make reference to the “Chopper” in this opening chapter, because of the serious proportions to which this has developed and, in my view, its adverse effect on motorcycling. Although an element of exhibitionism can be found amongst riders of relatively standard motorcycles, the “Chopper” craze appears to have little to commend it, and is largely exhibitionism. The expression of an individual’s artistic talent in modifications and paintwork does not justify unreserved condemnation, except for the fact that a great number of “Chopper” modifications are poorly executed, and the majority of such models are seriously deficient in steering, braking and general handling qualities. For strictly show purposes, as a form of art, this type of effort may be a worthwhile hobby. As a trend for road use, it needs to be discouraged.”
Wow! Heady stuff! I reckon that will rock them back on their heels down at your local “outlaw” clubhouse!
In Chapter Two on “Motorcycle Design” he really gets on a roll, in a special section entitled “The Chopper Craze”.
"Although this is hardly a fitting topic for a section in this chapter entitled “Motorcycle Design”, the serious proportions of design alteration and mutilation arising from this foolish fashion fad can not be ignored.
Rampant since the mid-sixties, the “Chopper” must rank as the most foolish example of mass conformity and disregard of logic ever to infect the motorcycle world. Some study and comments of this phenomena are indicated.
The well known chopper modifications, seen almost everywhere, feature either extended forks or non-standard forks of much increased length, resulting in a heightened steering head, altered rake and trail specifications. Other common modifications include discarding of the front brake, smaller than standard front tire, a variety of unusual handlebar shapes, small gas tank, a leaning backwards riding position and, in some cases, a so-called “hard tail” resulting from scrapping the spring-hydraulic suspension units.
The net results of these chopper modifications are impaired steering, especially at low speeds, reduced braking, altered weight distribution and a much rougher ride where the rear wheel has been made rigid. Many of these extensive modifications are poorly executed, rendering the machine unsafe. With rare exceptions, all the changes bring disadvantages in service, are without merit and a waste of money. A longer wheelbase in itself, particularly for long distance highway operations, could offer some advantage but obviously the most suitable method of achieving should be by a factory re-designed and lengthened frame rather than extended forks and a heightened steering head.
An unfortunate consequence of the chopper fad is that many young and impressionable riders lacking in motorcycle experience are induced to have costly nearly new motorcycles made into choppers at very great expense, unaware of the fact that their motorcycle will be rendered very much less satisfactory for everyday use on or off the road. Whatever merit the chopper may have must only be in the field of artistic expression. These machines are strictly for show and not for go".
The general tone of this sermon reminds me of those 1950’s docu-drama movies like “Reefer Madness”, that used to warn America’s youth about the dangers of marijuana. “Watch out, kids! One toke, and your penis will shrivel and fall off!”
But seriously, though, JB knows his motorcycles. He was riding them, selling them and repairing them as a dealer in Saskatoon, Sakatchewan in an illustrious career that spanned the 1930’s to the 1970’s. His book is chock full of motorcycling common sense, and is highly recommended to everyone who does their own work on then-modern but now “classic” machinery from USA, Britain and Japan.
I do, however, find his pronouncements on choppers to be weighted more toward generalisation rather than common sense. Let us subject his thoughts to some critical analysis. I will discuss his key points one by one.
Although an element of exhibitionism can be found amongst riders of relatively standard motorcycles, the “Chopper” craze … is largely exhibitionism. Well, so what. Like I said last month, the only motorcyclists totally devoid of exhibitionism are the ones that ride 50-cc Honda scooters. Exhibitionism is nothing to be ashamed of. Ask anyone who rides a Hayabusa, or Fireblade, or whatever. If you can get them to stop popping wheelies for long enough.
The well known chopper modifications
… (extended forks, skinny tire, small tank etc) . Whether or
not these are retrograde steps depends on what it is you are chopping.
If your starting point is one of the above mentioned Hayabusa’s, then long
forks, no front brake, rigid rear and small tank are definitely going to
reduce its performance envelope. But if your starting point is a
stock example of one of the bloated Yank V-twins of the 1930s, ‘40s or
‘50s, then these changes will actually lead to increased performance.
Longer forks and large skinny tire give more ground clearance for hard
cornering. The small tank is for reduced weight. No-front-brake
is also for weight reduction, and no great loss either, because in those
days front brakes were newly-fangled and didn’t work very well. The
rigid rear end is simply because in those days all bikes were rigid as
A friend of mine, an aging rocker called
Raymond, tells me that in the mid ‘50s he once tried to beat the reigning
neighbourhood Triumphs with sheer cubes by acquiring a Harley ULH.
In a straight line his theory worked well, but when he cranked it over
in the twisties he would arse off, having jacked the rear wheel off the
road in his efforts to stay with the Limeys. Frustrated, he finally
found the Triumphs’ nemesis in a 700-cc Royal Enfield Super Meteor (sold
in the States as an “Indian Trailblazer” – oh, bitter irony!). Meanwhile
the ULH languished in his yard, a clearcut case of a bike that was crying
out for extended forks and a 21-inch front wheel.
Many of these extensive modifications are poorly executed, rendering the machine unsafe. It appears to me that this is JB’s biggest beef with choppers. And I take his point. There is a right way and a wrong way to do anything. But why limit this remark to choppers? What about the café racer crowd? What about the antique restorers? Anybody who lays a spanner onto their own motorcycle, rather than wuss out by going to a dealership to have their bottom wiped for them, is taking their life into their own hands. Why doesn’t JB rail against the restorers on grounds of safety, because they venture onto public roads with their amateur-rebuilt Reading-Standards or flat-tank BSA’s, complete with flimsy little frames, wobbly forks, tobacco-tin brakes, and those death-trap clincher tires? Comments about poor execution apply to all motorcyclists, not just chopper pilots.
With rare exceptions, all the changes bring disadvantages in service … Such “rare” exceptions include all British motorcycles built before the 1940’s, and all American motorcycles built before the 1980’s. Not so rare, really.
… obviously the most suitable method of achieving [a longer wheelbase] should be by a factory re-designed and lengthened frame rather than extended forks and a heightened steering head. Here, JB shows a touching faith in motorcycle factories. Let me give two examples to show that his faith may be a little misplaced.
Firstly, Triumph twins between 1958 and
1968. It took the factory ten years of farting about with rake, trail,
wheelbase, front downtube configurations and dampening mechanisms before
they were finally able to get it right. Anyone riding Triumphs from
this decade (ironically considered by many enthusiasts to be the firm’s
golden years) are essentially riding examples of the factory’s steering
and handling experiments. In some cases, like the first double-downtube
frame that they released in 1960, these experiments were fatal.
Secondly, look at Indian when they fitted
telescopic forks to the Chiefs. Allow me to quote from Jerry Hatfield’s
“Illustrated Indian Motorcycle Buyers Guide”, where his ride impression
of the ’51 Chief includes this comment: “… I don’t care for the tall front
end of the telescopic Chiefs … The problem is, Indian didn’t make any frame
changes when they brought in the telescopics. Thus, the longer telescopics
simply jack up the front end …”. By JB’s definition, does this make
the ’51 Chiefs the first-ever production “choppers”? Should ‘51-’53
Chief owners be urged to dump their telescopics into the trash, in favour
of the earlier fork types that the frames were actually designed for?
They would greatly resent any such suggestion. To them the tele forks
are a badge to be flaunted with pride, as it denotes that their particular
steed is one of the last of the Indian line.
… many young and impressionable riders … are induced … etc. Induced to what? To build bikes that will lead on a direct descent into rock’n’roll, drugs, and fast women? Beware those fast women! Another touch of “Reefer Madness” here, I fear. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Besides, in no way can I personally be described as “young”. Yet I like choppers. Am I just impressionable, then?
the majority of [choppers] are seriously
deficient in steering, braking and general handling qualities.
By modern standards all ‘classic” bikes, be they chopped or faithfully
restored, are deficient in at least one of these departments, and most
are deficient in all three. 101 Scouts are said to steer and handle
in a way that is head-and-shoulders above other bikes of their day, but
they would still be a sick joke next to Japan’s latest offerings.
An unfair comparison, as they are separated by sixty years of development
in frames and suspension, but if deficiencies in steering, braking and
handling were valid reasons to not ride a particular motorcycle then this
would be a deathknell for the entire antique bike movement, as well as
for Harley Softails. If ridden within their limits, though, these
bikes will be fine
[Choppers are a] disregard of logic
… There is definitely a logic to chopper building. Consider
my earlier remarks about expanding the performance envelope of a Harley
ULH, and it will all start to make sense. By the same token, there
certainly are a great many choppers about that are clearly illogical.
Some of the British and Swedish chopper styles, for example, and more on
this later. But don’t tar all choppers with this same brush!
JB in a nutshell
Once we have sifted JB’s advice thoroughly, it can be boiled down to two main lessons about choppers:
(1) To avoid disappointment, make sure
you understand the effect that your modifications will have on the machine’s
performance envelope; and
But apart from that, I can find nothing else really substantive in his arguments to put me off wanting to build a chopper.
It’s no big deal, really. All you’re doing is transforming your bike into one with performance envelope similar to a ‘40s era stocker, but slightly enhanced in the weight and handling departments. That fact that your starting point may have been a ‘90s superbike is neither here nor there, and is entirely your own business. If you are satisfied with ‘40s era performance, then why lose sleep over it?
But won’t the engine then be too powerful for the frame, you ask? Well, the whole history of motorcycling has been one of engines too powerful for their frames. Ask any Kawa Mach III owner. Besides, all motorcycles are fast enough to kill yourself on. Even Honda scooters
Crimes against classics?
There is a final reason for “Why not?” that JB did not deal with, and that is the fact that Indians are revered classics that should not be butchered. JB did not cover this point because he was writing in the early 1970’s, when Indians and many other “classics” were only revered by a very small minority of far-sighted enthusiasts. To everybody else, they were just old motorcycles, at the bottom of their depreciation curves.
Now, of course, everybody is busy “preserving” Indians to within an inch of their lives. It only seems to occur to a few out there that there are other things you can do with them. I get sick of seeing and reading about the same motorcycles all the time, all done up to the same specification. The main excitement in this scene seems to come from having some period accessory fitted that nobody else has got.
In my view, trying to figure out just what actually is “stock” is like chasing a will-o-the-wisp. With continual production-line specification changes, and alterations between catalogue models and production models, and dealer modifications prior to sale, was there ever really any such thing as “stock”? And forty years later, a bike can only still be stock if it has never had a spanner or a paintbrush laid upon it since it left the dealer’s doors. Of course the paint will now be faded and cracked, and the chrome will be tarnished, and it will no longer look the way it did when brand-spanking new. But if you repaint it then it is no longer stock, because it no longer has factory paint. It is now only a facsimile, a representation, of what a stock bike may have looked like.
And if replacement parts have been fitted,
then we really open a can of worms. Suppose the cylinders had to
be replaced? Suppose the replacement parts were produced in 1948
but are being fitted to a 1947 machine? Suppose the cylinders are
modern repro parts? Can the machine still be held forth as a “stock”
bike? If so, and if we carry this argument to extremes, then all
we need to build ourselves a stock bike is a factory-original frame and
a left-side crankcase half with numbers that denote a particular year of
production. The rest can all be repro, yet the owner could still
say that it is a stock Indian correct for its year, and have it judged
at shows alongside other stock Indians. And trying to decide which
is the “best” stock Indian strikes me as very arbitrary, like the genetic
fascists who try to decide which is the “best” poodle at a dog show (one
that doesn’t crap on my lawn is “best”, in my view).
I am not against “preserved” Indians at all. I think it is important that a substantial amount of Indian motorcycles do remain close to original specification, as a living record of automotive history. And I personally would be loath to take such a bike and insensitively butcher it into a state from which it could not easily be returned to “stock” (whatever that is). But don’t think that one is being holier-than-thou by claiming to be a restorer of antiques. The only pure antique is one that didn’t need restoring in the first place.
Given that restoration of bikes to “stock” is a bit like building castles on sand, I therefore see nothing wrong with mild customisations or modifications of Indians to “improve the breed”.
And I see nothing wrong in starting with a rusty pile of parts that otherwise would never get used, or where half of it is missing anyway, and using it to synthesize something really radical.
At least the world’s rideable Indian population will have been increased by a further 1.000
Pic 1 – I like this chopper, though strictly speaking it is actually a “bobber”. Deep down in his bones, I think JB Nicholson would like it too.
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Pic 2 – My friend Raymond astride the Tribsa chopper he created here in Fiji in 1971. Isn’t it lovely!
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Pictures 3, 4 & 5 – Triumphs from 1957 to 1967 – The people who bought these bikes new were unpaid test pilots for the Triumph factory
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Pictures 6 & 7 – 1941 Chief and 1951 Chief – owners of machines in the upper picture should remove those horrible extended forks and fit ones like in the lower picture.
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