December 2000 Column
"Lateral Thinking for the Indian Lover"
Home / Features / Chops
 Indian Choppers Corner
   Part Nine: “Original” choppers, & FrankenFrame feedback
   By Tim Pickering
I’ve got another blend of the philosophical and the technical for you this month, starting with “original and unrestored” choppers.  Then I’ll let you know how this column’s readership responded to my call for feedback on my frame-building methods as described month before last, and tell you what I’ve decided on the issue of front forks for the FrankenChief.  Lastly, I’ve got a couple of chopper treats in store for the Four-cylinder enthusiasts out there in Indian-land.

“Original and unrestored” (!!!)

I’ve been thinking again.

I’d earlier noticed how nostalgia for simpler times has seen the appearance lately of Softail Evo’s decked out to look like ‘40s bobbers.

Tim's FrankenChief chopper taking shape.
Well, I’ve just detected another interesting trend in chopperdom, this time toward appreciation of “original, unrestored” choppers.

I was alerted to this by my recent purchase of the book “Chopped Harleys: 30 years of rebellious motorcycles” by John Carroll and Gary Stuart (which you can purchase right here on VI through the link to, and thereby cause a few more coins to jingle into the “Keep VI On-The-Air” fund).  This pair of Englishmen are also responsible for one of the better coffee-table books about Indians (which can also be purchased etc. etc.). 

Despite the fact that it’s full of Harleys, their chopper book is not bad at all.  Mr Carroll displays considerable perception and sensitivity toward his subject, perhaps owing to the fact that he’d previously built a tasty-looking bobber of his own, and built it the hard way by starting with an Army-surplus Harley 45” engine and little else. 

Check out the VI Book page for Indian books, reviews and a link to Amazon for buying books (and other stuff) and supporting the VI.
He also offers a possible explanation for the origin of apehanger handlebars, the rationale for which had so far eluded me.  He says that bobber-builders always removed the crash-bars when stripping their “garbage glides”, and were usually also dissatisfied with the stock handlebars.  Because aftermarket bars were still only a figment of Mr Flander’s imagination, bobber-ites would turn the crashbars upside-down, bend them around a little, and voila!  Apehangers!  Sound plausible?

Anyway, the format of the book is to review each “stage” of chopper development, from the early bobbers through to ‘60s psychedelia to ‘70s flash, ‘80s conservatism, and the techno-billet era of the ‘90s. 

Problem was, almost all the representatives of earlier chopper styles were recently-built bikes that had been built in that style, using memories and photographs as a guide.  Only in a couple of cases were choppers shown that were actually built during that era, and hadn’t been touched since. 

The authors themselves acknowledge that the main archival resources about chopper history are really only the various chopper magazines which appeared from late sixties onwards.  In this regard, Easyriders recent Issue #300, which contains a photo of every main-feature bike since Issue # 1, comes in real handy to students of chopper fashion. 

I guess the reason for this scarcity of early chops is obvious.  Chopper builders don’t respect stock configurations for bikes, so why should they respect unfashionable chopper configurations?  As fads changed, bikes got torn down, disappeared into garages like a caterpillar into a chrysalis, and then re-emerged resplendent in new finery from the ground up. 

It means that if you’re looking for genuine period examples of particular chopper styles, then these are going to be kinda thin on the ground. 

Unless you stumble upon barn finds like the Sportster pictured here.  Isn’t it lovely?  Don’t you think it defines a whole era, a watershed in American culture?  Can’t you just hear Jimi deconstructing “The Star-Spangled Banner” while a stoned flower-child squelches away through the muddy fields of Max Yasgur’s farm to where this chop stands waiting? 

Click on pictures for full size

Wonderful barn find -  an original, unrestored, and completely authentic ‘60s Summer-of-Love chopper.  More rare and desirable than a ’28 Indian Ace?

Cracked, crazed but genuine period psychedelic paintwork poses a classic restoration dilemma – to restore, or leave well enough alone?

Judging by some of the hits I get when I inject the word “chopper” into the E-bay search engine, there is a growing appreciation for “original” chops.  Enough to be worth throwing in words like “classic”, and “history”, and “Americana” into the blurb to try and tempt the punters.  Check out the wording of this ad for a Pan chop, with price hovering at $5555.55 after 6 bids (reserve not yet met): 

“You are bidding on a 1950 Harley Davidson Panhead chopper.  Original Panhead engine, tranny and drive-train, Jammer rigid frame, extended Wideglide front end.  Bringing us back to the simpler times of Peter Fonda in Easyrider, this 1960s style Pan chopper is a classic, unrestored piece of Americana history from days gone bye [sic].”

And again, one of the responses to last month’s “Von Gill Mongrel” feature was from Grizzy, who vaguely recollected seeing Von Gill’s Chief chop in days of old at “Uncle Bunt’s Chop Shop”, though he does say that all his recollections of those days are vague.  Anyway, “Uncle Bunt’s” was the establishment of one John Reed, who was England’s equivalent to “Big Daddy” Roth.  Von Gill says if Grizzy’s information is true, then his bike is a piece of British chopper history!  Better restore all those murals it had on it then, eh Mr Gill? Heh heh!

If appreciation for “original” choppers becomes more highly developed, it will throw up the classic restorer’s dilemma – To restore, or not to restore?  Twenty years ago, if you found a tatty-looking Indian Ace entombed in some former dealer’s basement, everybodys’ natural urges would have been to strip everything back and tart it up with fresh paint and chrome (or nickel, or whatever they used back then), thus destroying forever a bike which still looked exactly the way they did back then. 

Now, people often think twice.  “Original and unrestored” is a status worth preserving and protecting in a bike, and such bikes have many admirers.

I’ve touched before on how there are many parallels between antique bike enthusiasts and chopper enthusiasts.  Both groups hanker after the look of bikes from a by-gone era, and are willing to sacrifice practicality to achieve this look.  Now it seems chopper lovers will increasingly get faced with the same restoration dilemmas as the antique crowd.

So next time you find something under a layer of chicken poop that turns out to be stretched, raked, molded, lace-sprayed, skull-festooned and Maltese-crossed, what will you do with it?

Will you rip out the engine and drivetrain, put the rest of it on E-bay, then go out and buy all the best billet that money can buy?

Or will you wash off the worst of the chicken poop, but otherwise leave it just as it is?

 “… a classic piece of Americana history from days gone bye …”

Von Gill Mongrel. A piece of British chopper history? More in VI issue 8.


FrankenFrame feedback

In Part 7 I laid bare my technique for stitching together the frame for my own chopper Chief, and invited you all to tell me whether or not I was going to kill myself if I rode a bike built like that.  From the deafening silence that's ensued, I can conclude either that I am indeed working along the right lines, or else you're all keeping quiet in the hope that the source of the Indian profanities espoused through this column might meet with a sticky end.

I prefer to think it’s the former rather than the latter, and I did get some encouraging noises from Grizzy (of Geronimo fame), Craig Cate (fastest 741 south of the Black Stump), and Moen.

Because I’ve never done this kind of thing before, there were three things I wanted some reassurance about.  Firstly, did I do the right thing by cutting and joining tubes in the middle like that, while keeping clear of the factory joints?  Secondly, was TIG the right welding choice?  Thirdly, what exactly is "stress-relieving", and should it be done to my frame or not?

Grizzy had this to say after reading chopper column #7.

Well, I must say I'm impressed with the professional way you have tackled the task of welding alien bits together - you have put to shame a lot of so-called professional people I have come into contact with.  In fact, from what I have seen of your methods and Kamta's welding, if that frame breaks I'll f*****g eat it!

It's okay Grizzy, that won't be necessary, and thanks for the vote of confidence.  Meanwhile Moen said:

As far as I can see there's no real weak spots in your frame build.  And as long as the steering head and rear axle ended up where they were supposed to, I guess all is fine.  As for the welding, you could consider the worst that might happen.  Even if something breaks, it usually only breaks in one spot, so as long as there is something else holding the bike together, failure probably won't be fatal (sounds reassuring, doesn't it?).

You've also got your joints in the middle of tubes … and you rarely have the highest stress in the middle of a tube.  I think your frame will be fine, and if it breaks I think it will do so in a controllable manner.  And that's pretty much all one can ask for.

On the type of welding (I’d used TIG), Grizzy said "Thick-walled mild steel will stand all manner of abuse.  Me, I'd arc it." 

I found a couple of chopper articles that discuss choice of welding, and these seem to point to TIG as a method that injects a minimum amount of heat into the frame.  For example, the constructor of a Pro-street Sportster project shown in Ozbike Issue 225 mentions that TIG is the recommended method these days for welding 4130 chromoly.  Which interests me not a whit, since I've decided to use all mild steel.  The Horse of May 2000 shows a fellow named Billy widening a rigid frame to take a ridiculously fat rear tyre.  Working with 1020 DOM tubing, he explains "I use a TIG machine because it allows me to keep the amount of heat I am adding to the frame low.  I get exceptional welds with it if I take my time and prep my materials properly, and because there is no splatter like there is with stick welders and wire-feed welders.  Plus, I can't weld with a wire-feed welder to save my ass - and a TIG welder is all I have."  He nearly blows his whole argument with that last sentence, but I see what he’s driving at.

On the effect the welding may have had on the frame's heat-treating (as described by Bruce Palmer III last month) Moen opined "No real need for heat-treating the frame.  Tubes rarely break in the middle, and you didn't mess with any of the joints.  And, as Grizzy sez, thick mild steel tubing is forgiving."

On Bruce Palmer III's dire warnings if you weld an oven-brazed frame, Grizzy says "he is covering his own arse by emphasizing caution -  man, you know how gung-ho them Yanks get, even with a welding gun in their hands", though Grizzy does concede that technically Mr Palmer is correct with frames that were taken up to red hot for all forgings and tubings. Grizzy also mentioned that the argon shield provided by MIG/TIG prevents annealing of the joint (unlike arc) so that subsequent breakage can occur due to the surrounding metal tearing (though not the weld itself) if there is no further heat treatment.  Even so, he says that is mainly a problem where the MIG/TIG has been used as a substitute for nickel-bronze on thin-walled butt-joints (which these joints are not).

At the end of the day, Grizz concludes,  I'm in a "suck-it-and-see" situation.  However it does look like I'm on the right track in building my frame the way I have.

And this from Craig – “I think you are on to it with the suck it and see bit.  I think you should drill the tubes either side of the weld into the slugs, and rose weld the tubes to the slugs, this will fix the slugs outside of the weld site and make them spread the load.  If you just put the slugs in and weld them at the joint there is a chance they will act as a lever point and if the frame flexes at the weld at all it will bell slightly near the end of the slug.  All this is a well-documented engineering procedure.

Grizzy's "Geronimo". 
More in VI issues 1 and 2.

I cut apart my Ariel frame and extended various tubes by inserting steel "slugs" in the tube ends.

I built a jig to keep the parts aligned when the frame was welded.

I got professional help with the critical welding seams.

Tim's Chopper Columns so far: 

Part 1 
Why Indians

Part 2 
Why Not Choppers

Part 3 
Form vs Function

Part 4 
Chief Likes & Dislikes

Part 5 
Chopper Chiefs from Mild to Wild

Part 6: 
Birth of a Frankenstein Chief

Part 7: 
Frame Building with Dr. Frankenstein

Part 8:
FrankenChief - it's been done before! (Shock! Horror!)


Which is pretty much what I’d done (drilling, that is), in accordance with Mike Geokan’s “Custom Harley Cookbook”.

On stress-relieving after welding, I had earlier pondered the recommendation in “Custom Harley Cookbook” that one should heat the welded area with a torch and let it cool to relieve the stresses.  Alternatively, Kevin Lowe tells me he always clouts the weld area several times with a hammer to get the molecules all lined up again in parade-ground fashion, but doesn’t bother with heating (though some welds he’d wrap in asbestos to make it cool slowly).

Doing this to a frame can cause quite a bit of stress, apparently... (traditional chopping technique)
Craig Cate has this advice – “Stress-relieving is done both ways, but the hammer is a bit harsh for thin metal tubing, dents will take away the wall strength and look bloody awful.  The recognised way is to heat them and cool slowly.  Each grade of metal has a correct method and temperature/time, but there is an established general practice.”

Well, my tube walls are pretty thick.  Maybe I’ll just clout it with the hammer a few times at each welded joint.  Being straight, my joints shouldn’t be under much stress anyway.  A bit different from the example shown in the “Custom Harley Cookbook”, where he’d cut the front downtubes and used a car jack to bend the top tube upwards, to make room for insertion of spacers to give the desired new stretch and rake.  There’d definitely be some stresses involved in that particular exercise!

Craig went on to say “One last thing occurs to me.  If you are going to do all this work, ie cut and tuck, bend up parts, weld them in, etc, why not just build a frame from scratch?  Not as hard as you would think.”

Which is a very good question. 

I did my frame this way for two reasons.  Firstly, I was not yet confident enough about my abilities to take on the construction of the angled joints in the main load-bearing portions of a frame.  Slugging of butted tubes, on the other hand, is a piece of peez.  I’ve kinda “cheated”, in the sense that all the important and really hard-to-make joints on my frame are factory joints.  I have only molested this frame in places that are within my capabilities to molest.

Secondly, I like the look of brazed-lug construction frames.  All-welded frames didn’t really catch on until the late fifties, and they have a very modern look to them.  To capture the look of a period bobber, I wanted all those funky-looking castings and attachments.  Check out the seat-spring mounts and exhaust mounts on the Ariel bits of my frame.  They look so much neater and “hand-crafted” than mere welded-on tabs, which is what I’d have ended up with if I’d welded up my own frame from scratch.


I’ve kinda “cheated” in making this frame in the way I did.

I think that having cast lugs for seat springs, exhaust mounts etc looks really neat compared to welded-on tabs.

A front end for FrankenFrame

Having gone for an old-looking frame, you’re probably wondering what forks I’m going to put on it.  Well, very early on in this saga (about 1995, in fact) I lashed out on a Harley FXE single-disc front end that someone had traded-in to Harley Speed and Custom in Pukerua Bay, New Zealand, in exchange for something more righteous.  This front end set me back by US$400, and came with fork legs, 19” front wheel, triple-tree and brake disc, but no brake caliper. 

I bought this particular front end because my concept at that time was something more modern-looking than what it’s evolved into now.  In fact, I was then still toying with getting an aftermarket welded chopper frame for this project. 

Now, though, I would ideally like to have  a ‘30s-looking front end to go with the ‘30s-looking frame that I ended up making.  A set of 741 girders with about 3-in. of extension would suit very well. 

But not with a 741 front wheel.  Oh dear me, no.  I’ll need a serious front stopper to pull this crate up before impact with one of Fiji’s suicide-bomber taxicabs.

The problem with almost all ‘30s front ends, however, is that they all come with such pitiful, tobacco-tin-sized front brakes.  But if you fit discs, or even an effective TLS drum like that from a ’68-‘70 Bonneville, it’s out-of-character and destroys the ‘30s look.

Another thing is that springer and girder front ends all look quite messy and complicated, next to the slim and compact lines of a telescopic front end.  All those springs and rods and pipes everywhere.  Since choppers are supposed to be slim and elegant and carry a minimum of garbage, I incline more to teles than springers or girders, at least for a front end with a conservative amount of rake and extension.

I think ultimately I will make use of some of my 741 bits that are still lying around, to make a girder fork that is cleaned-up a bit compared to stock, and put brackets on it to mount calipers for a twin-disc front wheel.  Or maybe convert one of the less obtrusive kinds of TLS-brake hub (say, from a Honda CB450) into juice operation using Morris Minor slave cylinders.  Meanwhile, I’ll go with the FXE teles. 

The more observant among you will remember that I now have a Kawasaki steering head welded on to my (mostly) Ariel frame.  Kwackers and Hogs have different steering stem lengths.  Hmmm…

Well, it didn’t take long for Kevin and Co. Ltd. to grind away the welds holding the steering stems into their respective triple-trees, and it was here that we made an interesting discovery.

We discovered that ‘70s Kawasaki Z1000 triple trees are built like brick shithouses, while ‘80s Harley ones are built like crap.  The Kawasaki stem is made of wider-diameter and thicker-walled tube than the H-D one, and is machined to a slight taper where it fits into the bottom yoke.  A good idea, as it means the pounding of pavement can’t push the yoke up the stem, but it’s an extra manufacturing step and so adds to the manufacturing cost.  The H-D stem, on the other hand, is straight-sided, so the yoke is retained at the stem’s end only by its weld.

Because the H-D stem was narrower than the Kwacker one, there was enough meat around the hole in the H-D bottom yoke for us to machine the necessary taper, and weld in the Kwacker steering stem.  And Bob, as they say, is your uncle!

So there you have it.  ‘70s Kawasaki triple trees are more strongly and more expensively built than ‘80s Harley triple trees. 

Tell that to your H-D mates next time you hear them blathering on about Jap crap!


 I’ve chosen a modern front end for now, because in Fiji a good front brake is essential.

Tim also wrote a story on buying Indian parts (well, and other parts) on eBay - the online auction site - in this month's VI. Tim got a caliper for his bike from eBay.

‘30s front ends can look a bit messy compared to teles, and have pitiful brakes. 

Ariel frame and Kawasaki steering head to fit Harley forks. 
More in part 7.

A brace of Fours for y’all

Discussion on the VI List about a recent Sotheby’s Auction reminded me sharply that with all my fascination for heavy-weight V-twins, I’ve been neglecting the Four lovers out there in the VI community.  I’ll break out of my myopic V-twin mania for a moment, and acknowledge the fact that Springfield did make other types of motorcycles.  And with upwards of 6 billion people now on the planet, chances are somebody out there is going to want to heavily customize one of them.

First up, I’ll preserve here for posterity the picture of the customized early-'30s Four offered for sale at Sotheby’s, the sight of which caused such palpitations among a few people on the VI List.  In fact, the topic of HORSE-WHIPPING got mentioned in connection with this motorcycle.

Now this left me a little confused.  Up until now, I’d thought that NITROUS was the most cost-effective way to modify a motorcycle for increased performance.  While I’m willing to concede that HORSE-WHIPPING has definite advantages regarding cost, I still have lingering doubts about its effectiveness.  It would, however, be quite in keeping with another modification so beloved of motorcycle customizers, namely the JOCKEY SHIFT.

Seriously though, I don’t think what’s been done to this bike is the end of the world.  Its relative merits (or otherwise) were discussed on the List at the time, but I don’t see anything here that puts this bike beyond redemption.  It can all be easily returned to stock.  Personally I quite like it the way it is.  The Indian Fours are crying out for a big deal to be made of their exhausts by creating a beautiful array of sweeping pipes, rather than the unglamorous "water-heater fittings" the factory put on them.

Mind you, you probably don't want to make as big a deal out of the exhaust pipes as the creator of this next bike did.  It was featured in Hot Bike magazine sometime during the 1970’s, as if you couldn’t guess.  I only have a tiny, grainy picture of it, and no information about how, or indeed why, it was built.  Though if one has to ask “why?” then one clearly has not been experimenting with the right sorts of substances.  It does appear, though, as if the exhaust system utilizes some kind of special tuning, perhaps to play the opening bars of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” while the engine’s ticking over?

Just in case any of you think the blame for atrocities such as these should be heaped solely on today’s relatively younger generation, with minds poisoned by mass media like the Easy Rider movie, let’s take a look at how some of the old-timers used to do it way back when.  This last photo, taken in 1936, shows a fellow named Putt Mossman aboard his customised Indian Four.  The bike has a sexy array of sensuously-twisting open pipes, and pre-dates the fad for outrageous sissy bars by a good thirty or forty years.  And though I normally frown upon the use of apehangers, I can see that a very tall set of apes would make perfect sense if combined with the riding position that’s been adopted here.

That’s all for this month.  If anyone else wants some elbow-room to write chopper-related stuff for this column, then drop me an e-mail and let me know.  The power to save yourselves from the sound of my voice for an entire month is resting in your hands.

Next month:  FrankenChief mechanical details

Slip on yer shades, it’s a customized Four!

Lucy in the Sky with Drainpipes!

This bike takes sissy bars to new heights …

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