The Chopper motorcycles are custom motorcycles with high handlebars, extended forks, wide rear tires, and low seats as their typical features.
But why are they called Choppers though?
The Chopper name originated in the late 50s when the custom motorcycles had their unnecessary parts ‘chopped’ off to make the motorcycle fast.
That’s how these bikes originated. Choppers were popularised by American riders in the 1960s. These motorcycles were native to the US and slowly saw widespread popularity across the world.
In this post, let’s deep dive into:
- The Origins of Choppers
- Chopper Features
- Pros and Cons
- Choppers and Cruisers
Why are these motorcycles called Choppers
Choppers are a type of custom motorcycle popularized in the US in the late 1950s. And is an attraction even today.
These custom motorcycles had all their unnecessary components ‘chopped’ off to make the motorcycle fast. Hence the name, Choppers.
Choppers evolved from the Bobbers of the 1940s. The stripped-down Harleys and Indian bikes soon got customized into Choppers in the 1960s.
In those periods, Choppers also came to symbolize the outlaw motorcycle contingent. By the late 1960s, these motorcycles had evolved into radical-looking two-wheelers rather than machines built for speed.
Soon enough, Choppers were no longer the speed or performance bikes. They got reduced down to look cool and edgy.
Over the decades, the trend has continued, if not amplified with extended forks, high handlebars, and no suspension.
So all bike riders went for Choppers?
Not at all.
Bike riders looking for performance started choosing Japanese or European makes. And Choppers remained its attraction to look cool and evolved into cruisers.
The attraction for Choppers and Cruisers still exists today. Although they are not the best in terms of performance, bike riders still go for them.
No wonder Harley gave up the pretense of producing performance motorcycles.
Features of a Chopper
We now have a good idea of what a Chopper is.
Let’s dive into what makes a motorcycle a chopper.
The typical features of a Chopper include:
- High handlebar
- Extended forks
- Wide tire on the back – Skinny tire on the front
- Low seat
- Tall backrest
Let’s dive into each of these Chopper features in detail.
The high handlebar is the first thing that comes to my mind when we talk Choppers.
When it comes to motorcycling nostalgia for some of us, we as veterans fondly remember Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper), the two hippies who travel cross-country in search of spiritual truth riding on their high handlebar Harley-Davidson in the 1969 Hollywood flick Easy Rider.
Some riders may find the stance of their rides perfect to their satisfaction and some may not.
For that latter, in theory, there’s a good chance that the rider has to strain his posture to get a comfortable feel for the controls.
High-rise handlebars are popular even today. Many go for aftermarket modifications to get those ape hangers.
For a more detailed view, here is our in-depth post on high handlebars.
Complimentary to the high handlebars the front forks of Choppers were extended.
The early Choppers had their forks extended so long that it looked unsafe to ride. With elongated forks, the bike handling was poor. Yet, the Chopper owners didn’t seem to mind.
Over the decades, the extended front forks have cooled down and the extension is pretty much to provide the high handlebar on the bike.
Still, the extended forks are an integral feature of a Chopper even today. The custom motorcycle most definitely has the forks extended.
Wide tire on the back – Skinny tire on the front
The wheels and tires on Choppers are another one of their typical features. Here’s how they would look:
- a low and wide and fat tire on the back
- a tall and skinny tire on the front
Of all the Chopper’s distinguishing features this is one of the better ones in terms of riding.
Tall and skinnier front wheels provide easier steering and maneuverability.
Rear wheels with low and wide tires have better traction, stability, heat dissipation, and load-carrying capacity.
As a result, many other motorcycle types adopted this feature over the decades. It is very common now to see a motorcycle with tall and skinny tires on the front wheel and low and wide tires on the rear.
This is optional. And is not the most common feature on Choppers.
But many chopper riders do customize the seat height. The high-rise handlebar is not enough.
Depending on the rider’s height and preference, the seat on the Chopper is lowered anywhere between .05 inches to 3.0 inches.
One key thing to note:
If the Chopper has a low height and extended forks with a very high handlebar, riding can get difficult.
Much worse, it can impact blood circulation adversely. Especially if the handlebars are excessively high, blood can drain out the riders’ arms and hands go numb quickly as a result.
So any seat adjustment must factor in the handlebar along with the rider’s height.
The last distinguishing feature of a Chopper is its tall backrest. Also called a sissy bar or a passenger backrest.
The tall backrest allows the passenger to recline against it and have it as a support.
In addition, the backrest can also be used as an anchor for any luggage.
The story of how tall backrests made into Choppers is quite funny.
The Government mandated backrests on motorcycles. And the outlaw motorcycle riders didn’t like Government impositions. True to their stereotype, they didn’t care much about safety.
So what do they do?
As a form of protest, they made the backrest excessively tall!
Before we know it, a tall backrest is now part of the Chopper look.
Pros and Cons of Choppers
Let’s start with the advantages of choppers.
First, you can add luggage on a chopper far easier than the performance bikes. There is enough room and a solid backrest on a chopper to take on good luggage on it.
Second, long riding is smooth and comfortable on a chopper. Of course, there is an exception. If the handlebar is excessively long, the hand can feel numb on such long rides. But usually, choppers are good long-distance riders.
Third and most important, choppers are cool and symbolize rebelliousness and outlaw-ness. That’s the whole appeal. No chopper rider is riding it for its performance or utilities. The only reason is it’s cool. And that’s enough.
Let’s now discuss the disadvantages of choppers.
First, choppers are usually heavy and are difficult to maneuver. Heavyweight and difficult maneuverability make it not the preferred bike for many riders.
Second, if you are a beginner rider then choppers are not the easiest motorcycles to ride. You are better off starting with a lower cc performance bike.
Third, most choppers still use old technology in their components. Carburetors are still the norm over fuel injectors. Air cooling over liquid cooling (liquid cooling is better). Sometimes the aftermarket exhaust modifications, if done, are loud and have more emissions. No fuel gauges. Even ABS is not present in many of the choppers.
To sum up, here are the pros and cons of a chopper motorcycle:
- Adding luggage is easy
- With few exceptions, long-distance riding is comfortable
- Great aesthetics and riding a chopper is cool
- Heavy and not easy to maneuver
- Difficult to ride for beginners
- Still relies on old technology for many parts
Are Choppers hard to ride?
Choppers are not your typical motorcycles and are difficult to ride, especially in the beginning.
The high handlebar, extended forks, skinny front tire, and wide rear tire – are not what a typical bike rider is used to.
So if you are starting out on a chopper it is going to feel difficult at the start. The maneuver feels tough, the riding position can feel odd, and the high handlebar can make your hands numb after some time.
But those who enjoy riding choppers – love the way it rides.
The choppers were/are never about practicality. So the riders who love it ride it for the thrill, the coolness factor, and the rebelliousness it symbolizes.
Choppers vs Cruisers – What’s the difference?
With Choppers getting popular and motorcycle riders going the custom way, motorcycle makers decided to manufacture bikes with Chopper-like features.
That’s how Cruisers were born.
Cruisers have the same Chopper-like features and are factory installed, directly coming from the manufacturer.
In that way they are different.
Although the motorcycle features are similar, Choppers are custom-made motorcycles whereas Cruisers are factory-installed motorcycles.
Apart from that, the high rise handlebar; extended forks; low seat; tall backrest; wide rear tire – they are all there in both the Choppers as well as the Cruisers.
Many people use them interchangeably as well. The motorcycle features are the same. Only the origins differ.
The Super Glide model by Harley Davidson was one of the first cruisers made as chopper-styled bikes. The Wide Glide of the early 1980s was a popular cruiser that gave rise to several other cruiser models.
Soon enough other manufacturers followed suit and released their own cruiser versions. Although even today, Harley Davidson takes the cake when it comes to cruisers.
Both the chopper and the cruiser have similar bike features. The only distinction is a chopper is a custom-made motorcycle and a cruiser is a factory-installed motorcycle.
Choppers are good for long distances. The low seat height makes the ride comfortable. The rider can add luggage easily. The only exception is if the handlebar is too high since that can make the hands feel numb on a long ride.
Chopper motorcycles are comfortable to sit on and ride. The low seat position with a wide tire at the back and a tall and skinny tire at the front provides a comfortable sitting position.
The rider should wear the same riding gear on a chopper like he would do on other motorcycles. The riding gear includes a helmet, jacket, boots, and gloves among other things.