|April 2000 Column||www.virtualindian.org|
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time we dealt with the issue of “Why not chop an Indian”, and discovered
that the reasons for why not are far less compelling than is often thought.
Now, lets turn to the “Why?”
Lets hear from another so-called expert, to find out why bikes were chopped in the first place. This is from a regular “Harley Heritage” column written by Greenwich Village bootmaker Jim Babchak, in “American Iron” magazine. His June ’97 column was about Hollister 1947, and contained the following passages.
“By definition, an outlaw biker in the ‘40’s was a motorcyclist who was not associated with the AMA and who was “outlawed” from participating in AMA-sanctioned events. The outlaws usually rode “bobbers” or “bob jobs”, which were basically Harleys or Indians with the fenders bobbed off, or removed altogether, for increased speed and better looks. All additional accessories were also chopped off as well. Clearly, these machines were the direct linear grandparents of the modern-day chopper.”
“Regardless of the social ramifications of Hollister and its aftermath on the image of motorcyclists, what I really love about the period are the bobbed motorcycles themselves. Those glorious stripped-down 1940’s hotrods with their brazen attitudes and unmistakable character are the purest machines on the planet, bar none.
In the new world order of customizing your Evo out of a catalogue or over-restoring your antique bike to the same monotonous levels of all the other over-restored antiques, these ‘40’s hotrods may be the only real bikes left. To those outlaws of 50 years ago whose bikes shine a light on what cool really is, I say thank you fellas. Keep the candle burning.”
So there, you antique restorers! Your bikes are impure! Put that in your pipe and smoke it! Mind you, someone has got to restore them antiques. I’m just glad its not me.
Anyway, if Mr Babchak is to be believed, the history of choppers is firmly rooted (via bobbers) in an ethos of performance enhancement of the bikes of the day. But if an otherwise-rational person like JB Nicholson has to lash out so unreasonably against all choppers on grounds of performance impairment, then what has gone wrong in the world of choppers to create this impression?
What’s a “chopper”?
It’s time for some definitions. I’m a scientist by training, and we scientists like to define what we’re talking about. Otherwise we’re in danger of not knowing what we are talking about. And there’s already too much of that in the world. So, what’s a “bobber”? What’s a “chopper”?
This is not easy to answer. Most bike aficionados have a vague idea of the difference between them, but I can find no clear-cut definitions of either term that precisely demarcates one from the other. As far as I can tell from the context these words are usually used in, the essential difference between a bobber and a chopper could be that “bobbers” have stock steering geometry (rake, trail, etc), while “choppers” have altered steering geometry (raised, lowered, raked, extended, stretched, etc) that required frame surgery (i.e. they were “chopped”). Other than that, they are essentially species of the same genus. Or at least are different stages along the same evolutionary path.
American bike authority Jerry Hatfield seems to share this view of the distinction being based on steering geometry, but is reluctant to concede that bobbers and choppers may be very closely related, even inter-twined. A photo caption for a bobber Chief in his “Indian Chief Motorcycles 1922-1953” says “Always popular during the production era were customs. These “bobbers” maintained stock frame and fork geometry and were outgrowths of efforts to lighten and speed up the motorcycles. They’re a different strain from the later “choppers”, which were designed for a certain look regardless of functionality.”
Personally I don’t think it’s so absolutely
clear-cut as this, because some bobbers did have longer forks fitted (for
example, the higher-ground-clearance forks from one of the Big Two’s military
models). Longer forks definitely changes steering geometry, even
though the frame has remained untampered-with. Does this make it
a bobber, or a chopper? The answer seems to depend on how far the
balance has been tipped between functionality and looks. There will
be overlap between the two terms, because after all, as Mr Babchak points
out, bobbers were bobbed for two reasons – to go faster, and
to look better.
Again looking specifically at Indians, Jerry Hatfield’s “Illustrated Indian Motorcycle Buyers Guide” has a Chapter on “Specials” (by which he means bobbers, along with things like Indian Sixes and Sam Pierce’s creations) in which he writes “The term special should not be confused with chopper. The specials represented the views of Indian loyalists as to the kinds of motorcycles they thought the factory should have built. Style was important, but not at the expense of functionality.”
By this reckoning then, a chopper can be seen as a bobber which has sacrificed function for looks. Because this is a matter of opinion and a matter of degree, however, any distinction between the two must necessarily remain a hazy one.
Being authentic period customs, most antique-bike enthusiasts probably don’t have too much of a philosophical problem with bobbers, although the Indian Buyers Guide does mention that the resale value of a period bobber will generally be lower than a stocker. However it depends a lot on who did the bobbing, for example a Sam Pierce or Max Bubeck bobber would probably go for megabucks because of their historical associations with the Indian marque.
Genesis of “The Look”
Historically, how did “bobbers” graduate into choppers? What has gone wrong with “choppers” in the last three decades, to so arouse the ire of antique enthusiasts and people like JB Nicholson? Why does Mr Hatfield seem a little embarrassed about Indian choppers, taking pains to point out in his books that choppers are a “different strain” from bobbers?
Some more light is thrown upon the origins of the proto-chopper by Snow in Iron Horse (March 1996) who, responding to a claim that choppers evolved from drag bikes, wrote “as has been stated many times in the Horse, the archetypal chopper configuration is nothing more than a slightly refined stock layout … Nothing about a drag bike or racer is reflected in the bobjob or chopper profile. What is reflected in that classic custom profile is the stock Harley Big Twin configuration, which is basically that of a touring bike, modified with performance considerations in mind. The first overstock forks for better ground clearance didn’t come from the dragstrip, but rather, XA Army bikes right after WWII. This later led to the extended fork as an aesthetic consideration in itself”.
So, after a period of time, the “look “
became paramount. Bobbers had the balance tilted more toward functionality
than looks, but even so, they created a “look”. Builders began building
for The Look, with function secondary.
Choppers may now look a little bizarre next to ‘90s sportbikes, but their “Look” is in fact not as outlandish or freakish as many people make out. The chopper “Look” is nothing more or less than an exaggeration of The Look that prevailed among stock American bikes of the ‘30s – ‘50s. This is a Look that has stood the test of time. Again Jerry Hatfield offers just the right words to explain how Indian motorcycles themselves have helped to create and perpetuate this Look, in his book “Indian Chief Motorcycles 1922-1953”:
In the 1960’s, the brash Japanese took over the world of motorcycling. They did this not only with a well-reasoned disregard of old engineering axioms, but also with their own styling concept that said function drives form, so that, for example, just about any shape was suitable for a fuel tank. But, beginning in the 1980s and reaching affirmation in the 1990s, we the people have turned the styling clock back to the triangular themes of the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. The “in” look of today draws directly from the Wigwam and from the old Harley factory in Milwaukee. “If eyes are made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being,” said Emerson.
This chap Emerson must have been a fan of radical choppers, to have passed a remark like that.
Choppers as performance machines
By now I hope to have demonstrated fairly clearly that all the elements of The Look evolved from period performance modifications to heavyweight American V-twins. Rigid - because all bikes were rigid then. Raked frames - because folks in places like Kansas valued bikes with good straight-line performance and handling. Extended forks - for better ground clearance, or to make a raked bike sit level again. Small tank, contoured seat and bobbed fenders - all to save weight. Large-diameter front wheel - to improve ground clearance. And so on.
It is worth commenting that British sporting singles of the ‘30s also had most of these features. Although the British V-twins I wrote about in Part One could also have been bobbed/chopped, nobody much bothered because these bikes were not viewed as performance machines. They were plodders hitched to large sidecars by sensible family men. Young tearaways instead bought 500-cc singles like Ariel’s Red Hunter model, which were sold over-the-counter with rigid frame, small peanut tank, skinny 20” front wheel, minimal fenders, and equipped only with the barest of necessities. If you wanted lights and a generator then you had to ask for them to be fitted as an extra. No one had to extend or rake these bikes though, because they already had sufficient ground clearance, and Britain’s road environment did not emphasize straight-line performance. These British sport bikes of the ‘30s already had, as stock, most of the features that American-bike customers were forced to add themselves as the now-famous “bobber” modifications. It follows then, that purist owners of restored and 100%-original Ariel Red Hunters or cammy Velocettes have absolutely no right to look down their noses at owners of chopped American V-twins. They both own the same breed of animal.
Apehanger handlebars are the only element of the American chopper look that I couldn’t think of a performance-based reason for. In fact, the only rationale I could find anywhere for apehangers was courtesy of Warren Fuller (http://choppersrule.com/edsez/edsez.htm) who, writing about the new Low&Fat “billet barges” of the ‘90s, declared “It’s a known medical fact that if ya don’t raise your arms UP when you ride, you start to sweat. If ya start to sweat, you start to get real stinky. If ya get real stinky, all the Low&Fat “Ground Pounding” [bikes} in the world still ain’t gonna get you laid so FIGURE IT OUT. Apes are here for a reason – they keep your pits dry and then you get the babes.”
If you continue with this kind of logic, then suddenly it becomes clear that people like JB Nicholson, and indeed most of the motorcycling mainstream, have been far too narrow in their understanding of the term “performance enhancement”. They seem to restrict it to mean only that of the bike. What I think Warren F is trying to say, in his own inimitable fashion, is that bike and rider are a total package, so the correct approach to improved performance is a holistic approach. In other words, don’t leave your own performance out of the equation!
Restorers of antique motorcycles may also wish to heed this advice when considering their choice of handlebars or other period accessories, though I daresay their opportunities for improved personal performance are somewhat less on the concours circuit than at the average chopper get-together. Would any antique restorers out there care to comment whether, like apehangers, there are any particular parts or accessories which definitely increase one’s chances of getting laid at antique bike shows?
Okay, removing once more my tongue from my cheek, lets now consider how choppers fit in with other types of modified bikes in modern times. The way I see it, the modern-day motorcycling equivalent of the original bobber builders would now be the people who build so-called “streetfighters”. These are a mix-n-match of modern day Japanese or European components (eg Suzuki forks transplanted onto a Yamaha) to come up with the bikes that people think the Japan Big Four ought to be building. Their raison d’etre is identical to those of the 1940’s modifiers. But starting as they do with swing-arm frames and transverse-four engines, they have come up with a completely different “look”.
In this I am contradicted by a fellow named English Don, who writes for the new Horse magazine. He took a scholarly approach to the subject in an article which addressed the question “Are streetfighters the successor to the chopper?” (http://www.ironcross.net/café.htm). A question which he answered with a resounding “No”. He argued that streetfighters are, in fact, a modern-day incarnation of the café racer, and have nothing whatsoever to do with choppers.
Well, opinions are like arseholes - everybody has one. But the way I see it is like this. Choppers/bobbers, café racers and streetfighters are all nothing more or less than the result of taking the most commonplace big bikes of the day, and modifying them for enhanced performance.
In 1940s and ‘50s America, the most common bikes of the day were American heavyweight V-twins, and the result of enhancing their performance was the bobber/chopper.
In 1950s and ‘60s Britain, the most common bikes of the day were English swing-arm vertical twins, and the result of enhancing their performance was the café racer.
In 1990s Anywhere-You-Care-To-Mention, the most common bikes of the day are Japanese transverse fours (the Universal Japanese Motorcycle or UJM) and the result of enhancing their performance (though there seems little scope for it) is the streetfighter.
Simple, huh? Who can argue with that?
Why are there so many horrible choppers around?
Originally there were two main reasons for going the bobber/chopper route. The starting point was always a large American V-twin, and the two reasons were to enhance its performance, and its looks. This “look” came to epitomise the cool among bikers of the day, as Mr Babchak has mentioned. Then came the events of Hollister 1947, which spawned a bunch of B-grade “biker” movies beginning with “The Wild One”. In the minds of millions, motorcyclists or not, the bobber look epitomised more than cool. It epitomised attitude. From then on, any Young Turks who wanted to capture a slice of that attitude would have to re-create that look. The “look” was no longer a means to an end. It became an end in itself.
I leafed back through my stack of 1970’s
chopper magazines to look for evidence of this abandonment of functionality
in chopperdom. I didn’t have to look very far. Exhibit
A - a feature article about Santee bolt-on hardtails for swing-arm Triumphs
in Big Bike magazine (March 1971). Just the sort of “illogical
mutilation” that JB Nicholson would spin in his grave over. The article
begins as follows: “The classic chopper look has always been based upon
the extended front end and the rigid rear end. This set-up gives
the bike a stretched “triangle” look without messing up the geometry.
It also helps the looks of the machine. Achieving this image has
always involved extensive cutting and welding of the frame. This
often led to sloppy, even downright unsafe, modifications. Well,
take heart, Limey riders, because Santee has …” etc. etc.
Further evidence, if it were needed, came
in the form of a host of horrible little Triumph, BSA, and even Honda chops
that have infested the pages of biker mags in the last two decades.
The Look evolved around American heavy-weight V-twins, and it is like forcing
square pegs into round holes to inflict this look upon swing-arm bikes
with transverse cylinder configurations. It is possible
to chop a Triumph quite nicely, but there is really only one
way to do it. For the exercise to have any point at all, the
result should end up looking like a stripped and lengthened but otherwise
stock sprung-hub T-bird. Anything else will just be an evolutionary
aberration with no rhyme or reason. Swing-arm Triumphs
fit far more naturally into the café racer mould.
This was particularly so in places other than the USA, away from the natural environment of the original bobbers/choppers. In Britain and Europe choppers also became popular, as “young and impressionable” gentlemen stumbled out of the cinemas where Easy Rider had been showing, with glazed expressions and a far-away look in their eye.
Those Euro-builders with the balance tipped more toward functionality built café racers, and, in more recent times, streetfighters. Despite their claim to “functionality”, these builders could also be slaves to fashion. Witness things like front-brake “bacon-slicers”, their rejection of the excellent BSA pre-unit frames in favour of the over-rated Featherbed, or the obligatory swept-back pipes that on unit Tritons block access to the points housing. Where’s the functionality in that?
Those Euro-builders who wanted The Look, on the other hand, built choppers. And built some bloody horrible ones, I can tell you. My perusals of Back Street Heroes do not often reveal anything that I would want to be seen dead on.
A decoupling of form from function in Euro-choppers was already obvious as early as 1973, when Choppers magazine scribe Chris Bunch went on a fact-finding mission to examine Britain’s chopper scene. He came away disappointed. He wrote how, over many pints of ambient-temperature beer, he and his English counterpart Mr Thacker had theorized thusly –
“The reason that most Englishmen build such lousy chops is because there’s no real reason for their existing. It was sensible, in America, to strip all the garbage off a Harley dresser, and from there, make it better looking. But there isn’t much to strip off a Triumph. You don’t need a longer front end to keep your pipes from scraping when you corner. Nor a slim contoured seat to replace a spring-loaded horse saddle. Even the riding conditions are different. There aren’t a lot of freeways, and little long-distance straight-line jamming, so there’re no benefits to be gained by raking your scooter. No benefits, other than cosmetic ones. When you’re building a bike strictly for good looks, and there isn't much of a backlog of knowledge about what happens when you extend your front end such and so inches, you have a tendency to come up with a pretty odd motorcycle.”
If any Brits out there want to write in and heap scorn upon this put-down of their proud nation’s chopper-building, then the most recent address I have for Choppers magazine (as of June, 1973) is 16200 Ventura Boulevard, Encino, California 91316. Don’t expect a hasty reply, though.
But lest I be accused of Pommophobia, I can say the same about the bulk of the feature bikes in the last twenty years of US mags like Easyriders and Supercycle, or Australia’s own Ozbike. Its not just the Poms, there are also plenty of numbskull Yanks out there blissfully unaware of the functional basis for a chopper. The best bikes, and most feisty diatribes against “yuppie Evo scum”, can be found in back issues of Iron Horse. But even then, I find at least 50% of what they feature and what they write to be utter bullshit (though naturally I would fight to the death to defend their right to write it).
During my first visit to NYC in 1995 I visited Hugh Mackie at 6th Street Specials, and while we were yarning on his front steps this Econoline van pulled up. We helped the driver to unload an outlandish BSA chop which he wanted Hugh to sell for him, to raise cash for a house extension. It had an A65 engine tilted back about 30 degrees in a lowered-swingarm frame, goose-necked and raked to take a roughly 2-foot-over springer fork. Amazingly, he had retained the Beezer’s potent twin-leader front brake. I reckon if ever truly used in anger, that brake would’ve rolled the springer up like spaghetti around a fork. Thinking I might be interested in it, the owner asked “Whaddya reckon?” Tactlessly I replied “Well, your first mistake was using an A65 engine”. Behind him, Hughie was making faces for me to shut up. When the guy had left, Hugh chided me “He’s very proud of that chopper, you know”. I guess I deserved to be chid. After all, it was his bike, not mine. Whatever floats your boat.
It’s not all bad news out there in Chopperdom. There are chopper builders around who seem to be still in touch with the reasons why choppers were invented. Enter, stage left, my idol from NYC, Indian Larry, who I have twice now had the pleasure to meet and kiss the feet of. Part of an East Coast coterie of chopper builders (used to be with folk like Steg and Fritz at Psychocycles), he refers to himself (a little pretentiously, perhaps) as a Motorcycle Artist. Larry’s bikes represent a style of building best described as Minimal-fuckin’-ism, a philosophy summed up by his T-shirt slogan “Strip ‘em & stroke ‘em”.
Go to the following websites to learn more about Indian Larry: http://www.loudpipes.com/html/g_monkey.htm, http://www.loudpipes.com/html/indian_larry.htm, http://www.motomag.com/shops/psycho/index.html. Meanwhile I will let him explain in his own words the basic elements of Minimal-fuckin’-ism, from the interview he gave to Iron Horse Issue 146 when one of his bikes made the cover.
Make it as simple as possible, as strong as possible. A chopper is like a cross between a fuel bike and a roadrace bike with the street in mind. A motor that’s fast, streetable. A bike that handles and is comfortable. That’s why I set it up the way I did, with the geometry that I use, the Ceriani front end. Yes, it is a rigid frame bike, but my rigid frame choppers aren’t like these other hideous contraptions that some people build. They pound. They hammer. It’s the geometry and the way you set it up – there’s not a big rake, I’m not using a Wide Glide front end. Its very important to use a great front end. I like Ceriani front ends, especially the early ones because I can get ‘em relatively cheap. It can be a wider front end, but just make sure it works. Otherwise, you’re going to have a hideous handling thing, its gonna bang and clang. An early Wide Glide front end is a real piece of shit – it bangs, it clangs, the dampening doesn’t work on it. It’s like a rigid front end. That Ceriani was the big difference. It’s a whole new ballgame. People don’t believe what a vast difference it is. Keep the wheelbase 59” – 61” long, the rake about 30 to 32 degrees, have a seat that cradles your ass, and think out your seating position; the position of the footpegs and handlebars is important.
If it was that uncomfortable to ride, I’d have no bones about building a different kind of bike, ‘cause I’m not caught up strictly any more in the styling. The styling I do like, but the performance is very important. If I can hop on the bike and ride up to Canada or something like that, its great. Of course, with choppers it’s always primarily a visual thing. It’s like what would you rather look at – a big fat girl or a little dancer?
Or a Munch Mammoth, I shouldn’t wonder?
Fat-ism aside, what Larry has described is essentially, by strict definition, a modern-day bobber rather than a chopper.
The wheel has come a full circle
In conclusion …
I don’t know about you, but I have found this column-writing exercise very useful. For one thing, it now appears that I should have called this column “Indian Bobbers Corner”. Because after due analysis … in fact, long before I ever did come to analyse it … I find that, regarding my own sinister plot to desecrate one of Springfield’s finest, I lean more toward bobbers than choppers as the “look” that I am after.
I know that in Part One I said that my opinions about motorcycles are based mainly upon their looks and their sound. Yet I am not an admirer of really radical choppers, where The Look is everything and function comes nowhere. To me, they just look silly.
I guess you could say, then, that when it comes to the balance between functionality and looks, I like a “functional look”. This is not just fence-sitting. This means “bobber”. To me, those ‘40s period customs really do look the business. And any modern chopper that retains conservative steering geometry, and is stripped to the bone, just does something to me.
I don’t condemn anyone who does want to build a really radical chopper, be it Indian Chief or Indian Brave. Aesthetics are a matter of taste. Nobody ever won an argument where the deciding factor was a matter of taste. It’s your bike, so don’t let nay-sayers like JB Nicholson put you off. Just make sure that it’s legal and safe, and ride it within its limits. But as for me, radical chops are not to my taste.
On reading my first draft of this column, Moen commented that the “scientific approach” I have taken here will be a boon to “thinking chopper builders” everywhere, by providing ammunition if under attack from purist restorers of the classic they have dared to modify. Well, if you’re a “thinking chopper builder” and my writing is able to bolster your thinking in any way, however small, then that’s good.
At the same time, there are plenty of “unthinking chopper builders” out there who couldn’t give an airborne-act-of-copulation what purists think of them anyway. Check out sites like http://188.8.131.52/choppers/index.htm and http://www.choppersrule.com for chopper attitudes that range from the dufous to the iconoclastic. The latter site opens with the words “This is the land of the chopper. Form doesn’t follow function here, bucko. It just is.” Such people clearly have little need of carefully-constructed “scientific” arguments to justify their projects, and the more iconoclastic among them are unlikely to be accosted by antique restorers anyway.
As far as my own thinking is concerned, the point I have reached after almost five years of mulling it over is a point of not being satisfied with a stock Indian Chief. At the same time, the “look” that I want is not a radical one. It will be a ground-up re-organisation of an Indian Chief, along bobber lines. My reason for so doing is, like Sam Pierce and Max Bubeck and others before me, to create the motorcycle that I think the Indian factory should have made but didn’t.
As you will find out, my approach to such bobbing will be to use only the engine, fuel tanks and headlamp shell. The Chief transmission, frame, and all other running gear will be surplus to my requirements. But more on that later. For now, lets just say that my plans consist of “radical bobbing” rather than chopping.
Minimal-fuckin’-ism rules, okay!
Is this a “bobber”, or a “chopper”?
(back to text)