History of Chopper Motorcycles

May 16, 2009
Bryan Harley
Bryan Harley
Cruiser Editor |Articles|Articles RSS|Blog|Blog Posts|Blog RSS

Our resident road warrior has earned his stripes covering the rally circuit, from riding the Black Hills of Sturgis to cruising Main Street in Daytona Beach. Whether it's chopped, bobbed, or bored, metric to 'Merican, he rides 'em all.

Harley-Davidson Museum Showcases Captain America Bike.
The legendary Captain America Chopper from the film Easy Rider, popularizing the custom chopper movement in the 1970’s.

The desire to make motorcycles lighter and faster helped fueled the chopper movement. It started not long after World War II. GI’s were returning from the war. Many had learned mechanical skills in the service, and had been exposed to the small, fast bikes coming out of Europe at the time. There was a surplus of big, heavy, utility-based motorcycles made for the war effort, meaning that there was a surplus of motorcycle frames, engines, and parts. The returning soldiers started stripping bikes down to the essentials. Front fenders were removed. Rear fenders were bobbed or stripped off, too. Fuel tanks shrunk, and exhaust systems were replaced for straight pipes. Smaller padded seats replaced wide leather, spring-supported seats. These ‘chopped’ up bikes were also referred to as ‘bobbers,’ and the thrill of riding these motorcycles fast supplanted the need for adrenaline many soldiers still had after returning from the war.

In the 1960s, chop shops and custom motorcycle builders began to spring up everywhere. The original chopper movement was taken even further when bike builders started to chop down and lower the frames, too. This gave rise to the term ‘chopper.’ About the same time, motorcycle rakes also started to stretch. Even though a heavy rake angle sacrificed low-speed handling and cornering ability, it also made the bike’s track faster and truer at speed. Springer and girder forks became extremely popular. Then, in 1969, the movie Easy Riders was released with its iconic red, white, and blue chopper, the ‘Captain America,’ and the motorcycle style was permanently embellished into American motorcycling lore.

The Teutul clan.
With motorcycle reality TV shows popping up in early 2000’s, the OCC family were made in to Custom Chopper icons with their show American Chopper.

High bars, heavy rakes, bikes with no front fender or brakes, narrow seats, fat rear tires and tall sissy bars became synonymous with the word ‘choppers’ during the ‘70s. Movies like ‘Easy Rider’ and the use of that style of motorcycles by biker gangs gave the chopper a negative reputation to the general public and helped promulgate the ‘bad boy’ image of motorcycling.

The term ‘choppers’ saw resurgence in the 1990s, albeit with a different interpretation. The motorcycles would still sport a heavy rake angle and modified frames, but rear tires started to be pushed out to ultra-wide dimensions, rear fenders began coming back to serve as canvases for high-dollar paint, and the uniqueness started to be replaced by small manufacturers of custom-production motorcycles. The old adage that ‘less is more’ continued to be a way of life for independent custom builders like Indian Larry and Chica, but the term ‘chopper’ began to have a different connotation because of the rising popularity of shows like the Discovery Channels’ Biker Build-Off and TLC’s American Chopper.

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