Easy Rider and Chopperguy

Thoughts on Easy Rider, biker cinema, and riding and working on a vintage chopper.

Friday, April 28, 2006


A Farewell to Choppers

I am an unrepentant old school chopper fiend. As anyone who talks bikes with me will know, given the opportunity I would chop anything and everything. From a classic Indian to a brand new Ducati, I see bikes as chopper material. Every now and again I think of getting a tourer for the long haul, but these urges pass. The desire to chop is a constant.

When I started building my first chopper, I found myself scrounging for parts, scouring swap meets, and ending up in old barns and garages in pursuit of what I needed. The American custom motorcycle scene was nearing the end of what was the pro-street era that culminated with Harley manufacturing the V-rod. While the young bikers were flocking to the sport bikes and doing front-end wheelies on the highways, the rice side was starting to produce cruisers that looked suspiciously like the American ones.

Starting in 1984 Harley-Davidson introduced the Evo engine. The engine was a departure from their previous designs in that it was a tight unit that tended not to leak and was quite reliable. Each year more people were buying into their old fantasies of being a biker. As the 1990's kicked off, their were waiting lists. Depending on the model desired, you would have to wait six months to two years to get your new motorcycle. People were actually selling their brand new bikes for almost twice the list price to those with the cash who just couldn't wait. By the mid 90's, the streets were flooded with Harley riders trying to capture some of that poser outlaw freedom and Harley was feeding their desires with official riding gear, an officially endorsed 'gang' called HOG (Harley Owners Group), and official bolt on customization gear so you could look just as unique and individual as everybody else down at the shop.

I admit that at one point I caved to the hype. I also wanted a Harley and even gave a dealer my $500 deposit to wait a year for a brand new Sportster. My senses kicked in, I got my deposit back, and started looking for an older bike. When I handed over $1000 cash for a bunch of boxes full of parts and a clear title, I had no idea what I was in for. I had been reading Easy Riders, Hot Bike, and even Ironhorse. During that process I had become enamored with the idea of building a bike. I didn't start out to build a chopper, that just happened. Many choices had to be made along the way. Every time I chose on the side of chopper.

A few months after my chopper hit the streets, Hot Bike magazine released a special edition of the best of Street Chopper. It was a collection of the pictures and articles from their old 60's-70's magazine. I still have that tucked away in my filing cabinet. I have read through it so many times that I had to tape the spine with packing tape. It wasn't too long before they announced the return of Street Chopper. Choppers were starting to pop up everywhere. It was inevitable, really. The first chopper wave was fueled first by a need for speed and later as an artistic expression. With every rally filled to capacity with Harley's decked out with Harley gear and ridden by people who were walking advertisements for Harley-Davidson, the old crew was bound to rebel. Choppers were synonymous with rebellion. They were big, bold attention grabbers. I was certainly tapping into that first wave of what would become a national obsession.

And what do we have now? People watching shows like American Chopper and Monster Garage. Every major bike shop has a line of 'production model choppers'. California Motorcycle Company, Paughco, and Panzer cashed in by making replicas of the bikes in Easy Rider. While I am the only person at work that actually owns a chopper, it seems like half the folks at work have a shirt that says "Choppers for Life!" I don't.

While I hate this new breed of so-called choppers with their fat front forks, fat tanks, and softail style frames, the chopper resurgence has been very good for me. I can now get new just about every single part on either one of my bikes. I no longer need to drive to a barn in bum-fuck-nowhere with a wad of bills trying to buy the last known clutch basket in existence. It's nice to be able to look up a model number and find the part you need rather than finding something close enough you can modify it to your needs. While that is a fun endeavor, it drives you nuts when you just want to ride.

And what about "Choppers for Life"? Hardly. The chopper is on it's way out. Too much too fast. The next craze is going to be the side car. Already two guys at work have purchase Ural's with side cars. Two more guys are looking into buying Vespas with side cars. It makes sense. Those middle aged folks who made Harley-Davidson rich in the 80's and 90's are retiring, slowing down, wanting an easier lifestyle. A long rigid vibrator no longer sounds appealing. There is safety and comfort in a third wheel. Sidecars have that nostalgic appeal as well. And you don't see a whole lot of them around... yet. And if anyone is interested, one of the guys who joined the sidecar club is selling his rigid BMC Bobber real cheap, only $15,000. Hardly used. Too rough on his back.

So farewell chopper scene. Thanks for everything. I'll still be here when you come back 'round again.

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