Chopper Motorcycle History

This chopper has the characteristic rear fat tire and customized body.

Appearing in movies like “Easy Rider” (1969) and “Pulp Fiction” (1994), choppers are significantly customized motorcycles. Choppers are distinguished from motorcycles, as the former has a stripped frame body, giving the vehicle a minimalist appearance. One of the most famous producers of choppers is Harley-Davidson, one of the two motorcycle companies that date back to the first decade of the 20th century.

Early History

According to “The Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit curated at the Guggenheim Museum in 1998, the earliest example of a bobber, the direct predecessor of the chopper, is the “Indian Sport Scout Bob-Job,” which dates back to 1940. According to the Custom Choppers Guide, bobbers were stripped of excess parts (like windshields, parts of the frame) to emulate the lightweight European bikes that World War II veterans had been introduced to.

After World War II

In the 1950s, the bobber became popular and is an early example of a customizable motorcycle. The bobber had a clipped rear fender and a removed front fender. Since the rear fender was “bobbed,” or cut away, the name “bobber” became common. Unlike many of the choppers available later, bobbers were crafted by their owners, reflecting a passionate interest in the vehicle’s aesthetic.

Choppers in the 1960s

Beginning in the early 1960s, the term “chopper” was used to describe a change from the modifications that bobbers featured. Though bobbers kept the original factory frame, choppers had customized frames, with handlebars extended. The longer handlebars are modified with ape hangers, which sometimes extend as much as 20 inches.

“Easy Rider”

In 1969, “Easy Rider,” a film starring Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson and Dennis Hopper, was released. “Easy Rider” is as an important achievement in film history for its realism, the artistic control that director Hopper wielded, and counterculture subject matter. This movie also inspired a renewed mainstream interest in chopper motorcycles. Replicas of the “Easy Rider” choppers are exhibited at the German Museum in Berlin and the Alabama Barber Motorsports Museum in Leeds, Alabama.

Late 20th Century History

Since the 1970s, the shared characteristics of most chopper bikes are an air-cooled v-twin engine, a softail frame and fat rear tires. Increasingly, choppers are sold with modifications performed by retailers, rather than by owners. Some of the major producers of choppers are Harley-Davidson, Jesse G. James’ West Coast Choppers and Big Bear Choppers. Choppers are often distinguished from “custom bikes” sold by Von Dutch Kustom Cycles and Orange County Choppers, because the latter do not modify the factory frame.