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A Brief History of the Chopper Motorcycle



The motorcycles military history dates back as early as 1913. In fact General John J. Pershing used a Harley Davidson motorcycle to pursue the famous Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa, in 1916. By 1917 roughly two thirds of Harley Davidson’s production went to the military. World War 1 saw approximately 20,000 Harley’s pressed into military service with that number rising to 90,000 in World War 2. These motorcycles played many parts in wartime, from mostly being used for communications, transportation, and limited combat to tactical assault missions in World War 2. This along with the regular wartime motor pool produced thousands of men trained as mechanics.

At the end of World War 2 a large number of these returning GIs went into business using their newly learned mechanical skills. Most went into the automotive repair business, however, a large group focused on the motorcycle side of the business. A lot of these returning soldiers turned to hot rods and motorcycles seeking the thrill they had experienced in wartime. The huge surplus of military motorcycles provided a readily available, and cheap, marketplace for these thrills seekers. From the very beginning these new bikers started modifying the big, heavy, utility oriented and styled military motorcycle, removing parts and accessories not absolutely necessary for starting, riding, and stopping the motorcycle.

Saddlebags, windshields, big bulky headlights, and mirrors were removed. The mirrors and lights were replaced with newer and sleeker styles. The old flat floorboards were replaced with forward foot pegs. Front fenders were removed and the rear fenders were either removed or cut down, leaving just enough to accommodate a passenger over the rear tire. The large, original front tires and gas tanks were removed and replaced with much smaller ones. Exhaust systems were replaced with straight pipes. All of this was done mostly to make the bike lighter for street and dirt racing. The big leather and spring suspended saddle type seat was replaced with a smaller padded seat to allow the rider to ride lower on the bike. The “sissy” bar or custom backrest became standard equipment. The custom, and chopper type motorcycles, as well as, the biker lifestyle were born!

The end result of all of this modification of the military motorcycle was an entire industry catering to this phenomenon. Chop shops and custom bike builders sprang up all over the country. A person could bring in a stock Harley Davidson motorcycle to one of these shops and, depending on how much money they wanted to spend getting the desired look and style, ride out with a completely customized or totally chopped bike. All removable parts are removed, including the engine and transmission. The original frame is then cut, or chopped up, and welded back together resulting in a lower and longer frame. This method of customizing led to the bikes being called choppers. Chopper builders have in large part favored fat rear tires, a rigid looking frame, and an original or replica air cooled v-twin engine. Performance and custom, usually chromed parts, are then added. The chopper inevitably has a long, or raked, extended front fork. Springer and Girder front-ends were the forks of choice to accomplish this raked look. These front ends are still widely used. Although these bikes are somewhat less responsive to handling and have a heavier feel at slow speeds and on curves they actually handle better than their stock front-end counter parts at higher, or cruising speeds.

Choppers have maintained a loyal following and legends in the building of these motorcycles have evolved. One shining example is Jesse G. James’ West Coast Choppers. Mr. James has been successful in producing, and branding, his own style of unique and very expensive chopper style motorcycles. Many chopper and biker related businesses have also came into being. These include everything from the merchandising of motorcycle riding apparel and custom parts and accessories to bars and clubs catering to the chopper and other biker enthusiasts