In the wake of World War I, Harley Davidson and Indian had become commercially viable motorcycle manufacturers in the United States. However, returning service members were after increased handling and performance, not heavier bikes with ornate fenders and trim as had become the norm.
These riders shaved off excess weight and removed ugly components for a restrained and performance-oriented ride. It was out of this modification that bobbers and choppers were born.
Riders often shortened the rear fender, a technique that came to be known as bobbing. Early bobbers often retained their stock frames and suspension geometry, which is an element often seen in the bobber style today.
Those after even better performance and handling modified or ‘chopped’ their bikes’ frames. This involved lowering suspension and extending the wheelbase for a sturdier ride. In the quest for ever increasing speeds, often down the quarter mile strip, riders exaggerated neck rake to improve the straight-line stability of their motorcycles.
While these early modifications to frames and front ends were aimed at performance, they soon appeared on street bikes in the 1960s. These factory interpretations of the style also rolled off the production line with other changes to traditional bobber design such as front mounted foot pegs, smaller tanks and headlights, and narrow front tires on larger 19” and 21” rims with exaggerated rakes. With these further changes, the chopper was born.
In a similar vein to café racers, for bobbers the following common changes are an exercise in subtraction for the sake of performance (and looks).
- On bobbers, if an older donor bike with hard tail, this will be retained, with sprung saddle style (often leather) seats used to cushion the ride. For newer bikes, the rear frame is often altered to become a hardtail.
- Rear fenders are shortened so they finish near the top of the rear tire and are generally mounted as close fitting to the rear tire as possible. Front fenders are removed, front headlights are normally small, freestanding classic or bullet style. Number plates (if required) can be side mounted from the frame or axle, as is the taillight.
- Tanks are small and slim, often a tear drop shape. Tanks sometimes end up short of the headstem, exposing some of the backbone. Handlebars can vary from straight drag bars to mini ape hangars. Controls are usually mid mount.
- Exhaust is normally low slung and short, generally not going any further back that the center of the rear wheel with minimalistic mufflers. Straight through pipes cut short and finishing at the rear edge of the motor are also common.
- Wheels are normally the same size overall (or close to) front and rear, though the rim size may be smaller on the rear with a thicker tire.
Whilst there is some similarity between bobber and chopper modifications, with most choppers, the most distinctive element is the extended and raked front end. This can range from slightly extended (between 2” and 8” longer than stock) to wildly extended and exaggerated. This, combined with larger than standard front rim sizes, enhanced this exaggerated look.
On choppers, frames are also often stretched and exaggerated, with rear axle plates moved further rearwards to lengthen the frame, as well as sometimes being slightly lifted to lower the bike overall. Often the chassis backbone is lengthened to move the head stem further away from the rider and the downtube(s) can also be lengthened to move the head stem up.
Choppers typically are narrow motorcycles. Narrow frames, wheels, gas tanks and fenders are elements you might find on a chopper.
While the typical chopper might be considered “narrow”, there were variations considered “long” and “short”. Highly exaggerated and extended front ends were categorized as “long bikes”, while stock or only slightly extended front ends might be considered “short choppers”. It is easy to see a grey area where “bobbers” and “short choppers” might share similar styling elements.
Whilst a bobber may run a more muted color scheme, chopper color schemes often go completely the other way. Bright colors, wild graphics, metal flake paintwork, nothing can be too crazy if the aesthetics of the chopper support it. In more recent times there has been a trend towards super wide rear tires (often at the expense of handling) in the more extreme end of the chopper market.
Choppers have typically been built around Harley Davidson engines. Controls are normally forward mounted and large ape hangar style bars are common. Large sissy bars are also prevalent on more traditional style choppers.
Most early Harley Davidson and Indian models lend themselves to the bobber look. As Harleys weren't as readily available in places such as the UK, BSA bikes formed the basis of bobbers there.
A lot of 70 and 80’s Japanese engines and frames, such as the XS650 or CB750 were also popular as donor bikes, with hardtail sections added on.
In decades past the OEM brands have not had much in the way of bobber offerings. However, in more recent times there have been some decent modern bobbers released by the larger brands, including the Triumph Bonneville Bobber and the Indian Scout Bobber. Harley Davidson also has the Street Bob (although any resemblance to a traditional bobber is in name only).
Choppers however are not the domain of the mainstream manufacturers. While the traditional chopper was a minimalist bike effective at rapidly eating highway miles, modern interpretations popularized by reality television are highly finished for aesthetic purposes, not for riding. In fact, these changes often compromise performance.
The more traditional ‘Easy Rider’ or ‘Frisco’ style choppers predominately live on with smaller specialist builders and through the ever-present work of the backyard builder.