Long before custom bike builders Jesse James, Billy Lane and the late Indian Larry became household names, there were hundreds of talented artists and fabricators turning out extraordinary custom motorcycles.
But you don't see those radical machines on the road much any more.
The chopper style took hold particularly in the late 1960s and exploded in popularity in the 1970s, fueled by the quintessential freedom-loving motorcycling movie “Easy Rider.”
While Triumphs and even Hondas were chopped, a favorite starting point in the late 1960s was a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Typically the HLH Sportster engine was about the only part of a Sportster custom that was from Harley. The rest was hand-made or obtained from aftermarket specialty parts suppliers.
Many of the customs featured a hand-built rigid frame with crafted sheet metal body parts.
In addition to superb external work, builders sometimes would polish the engine cases, connecting rods and flywheels, enlarge intake and exhaust valves and drop in high-performance cams. These bikes weren’t just for show. They were all go.
But the choppers had their down sides. Many had no front brake. And a passenger perched on the rear “seat” would have to be extremely careful not to get burned by the dramatic, upswept pipes.
Practical concerns weren’t always a high priority for chopper builders. Forks got longer and longer, and “ape-hanger” handlebars got higher and higher.
Eventually, these radical machines prompted many state legislatures to step in and regulate fork lengths, handlebar heights and other motorcycle modifications, effectively legislating the choppers of the late 1960s and 1970s off the roads.
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