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Common Tread

Moto-linguistics, or how to speak chopper proper

Nov 19, 2014

I decided to give Sean a little break from being the divisive rant-y guy this week and take on the role myself.

I’ve suffered improper bike vocabulary for long enough. I aim to irritate most of you and open myself to harsh criticism by trying to define some motorcycle terms whose usage and misusage pain me. I fully expect that some intrepid readers will toss some bikes in my face that are perfect exceptions to whatever I write. I welcome it. By splitting the hairs, we’ll collectively hash out definitions that need to exist.


Let’s start with the chopper. I’m no motorcycle prodigy, but I think one could fairly define a chopper as a bike with a frame that has been cut to give greater rake angle. Often, choppers have other things cut, as well — horn mounts and sidecar loops get lopped off. Toolbox mount? Yeah, cut that. Once the frame has been cut, there are some other characteristics that choppers share. Most chops are hardtails, but swingarm varieties exist. Front wheels are skinny, and the front ends are long. Floorboards are not present; choppers have footpegs. Excess crap is nowhere to be found, and you’ll rarely find a fatbob tank on a chopper. Remember the Captain America bike? Archetypal chopper.

This bike sports a loooong front end, but the frame was never cut to change the rake. Is it a chopper if you don't do any choppin'? Bike by Kevin Ludwig. Photo by Lemmy.

A subset of the chopper is the short chop. If you’ve got a factory-ish bike that you stripped way down — cut fenders, no turn signals, minimal hand controls and the like — you probably have a “short chop.” Short chops are like choppers with factory or close-to-factory wheelbases and front ends. These could be either swingers or rigids. They feature many of the same hallmarks as a chopper — minimal everything, skinny front wheel, little tank — but their frames are uncut. Going back to Easy Rider, remember the Billy Bike? Short chop.

Especially for city or packed-traffic work, a short chop moves around a lot more nimbly than its longer brethren. Of the bikes I run into, short chops get more mileage than choppers. I think it’s because they’re damned practical.


Customs do not, despite what Harley-Davidson will tell you, come from a factory. A custom is any bike that has been modified to suit its owner, loosely speaking. Many of the show bikes built today described as a “chopper” actually are customs. Let’s start with an example. If a builder has used a catalog frame ready-built with a huge rake angle, he has not chopped. The resultant bike will be a custom, regardless of how long the bike may be. Most of the fat-tire bikes from the early 2000s are customs, not choppers.

Chopper? Custom? What say you? Photo by Lemmy.

There is some grey area here. What if you modify an aftermarket frame? Custom? Chopper? Both? Your call. I’m not splitting hairs that finely. My main irritant is when Harley encourages the masses to buy a “factory custom.” If your bike is essentially the same as it was when it rolled off an assembly line, it is not customized, so it's not a "custom."

“Custom” is an accurate (if broad) term for most modified bikes, from a home-built special made from catalog parts to stretched and slammed Boothas. Modified bikes may also be something else, but it's fair to call them "customs."


The term that really grinds my gears — I mean strips the teeth right off ‘em — is bobber. If you want to talk about a narrowly defined genre, this is it. If you want to talk about a horrifically bastardized term, well, this is also it.

The bobber originated when servicemen came home from World War II and bought and modified motorcycles for racing or hillclimbing. These bikes were Harleys or Indians, because that's what was commonly available at the time. Guys just kept cutting stuff off of them, trying to lighten up those pigs so they could go racing. They were often hastily done, and sometimes kind of ugly.

Anything you're calling a bobber today has to be true to that history: a stock-framed bike, kickstart-only, with shortened or removed fenders. The front wheel is the same size as the rear. Tanks are fatbobs. The saddle and bars may have been made smaller or narrower. The bike has a foot clutch, and either tank shift or jockey shift. There are no hydraulic forks or skinny wheels. If you add any of that stuff to an old cut-up Knuckle or Pan, you move into “custom” or “short chop.”

Perhaps the most important part of this section follows: Red wheels and whitewalls do not a bobber make.


Bobbers weren’t the first bikes created by owners trying to cut off the heavy crap, by the way. If you meet a bike that looks like a bobber but it far predates the war, you’ve just seen a "cutdown." Early riders hated slow as much as modern ones. They skinnied up the plow-lookin’ handlebar, chop-chopped the tanks, and made the seats lower and more suitable for racing. The most popular candidates for these modifications were Harley J/JD models, with the odd Indian sprinkled in; OHV models need not apply. Much as a Shovel cannot be a bobber, a Pan can never be a cutdown.

Home-brewed exhaust, a chopped speedometer, and a rear fender rack that got tossed aside. This is a picture-perfect cutdown. Photo courtesy of family of Francine Huffaker Lewis.

There’s room for debate, discussion, and documentation. In fact, I hope some of you nail me to the wall on something I goofed up. Scooter guys, what do you think a cutdown is? Probably a lot different, right? And don’t even get Spurgeon talking about what constitutes a café racer...

“If you don't know history, then you don't know anything. You are a leaf that doesn't know it is part of a tree. ”
— Michael Crichton