The art critic Robert Hughes called the custom motorcycle a distinctive form of American folk art, but “I would go further,” Paul d’Orléans writes in the introduction to The Chopper: The Real Story. He calls the Chopper “the ultimate American folk art movement, a culturally explosive mashup of particularly American traits; the cowboy/outlaw, free of family, property, or history, free to explore endless highways, free to express one’s individuality through dress and choice of transport.”
Distinguished by its extended forks, lack of rear suspension, and tall sissybar, the Chopper was preceded by styles like the bob-job and cut-down, and grew out of efforts to make Harley-Davidsons and other bikes lighter, faster, and more agile. But in d’Orléans’ telling, it was more than a question of mechanics. It was the culmination of decades of motorcycle culture, spurred on by American societal shifts brought on by World War 2, changing race relations, and the explosive counterculture of the 1950s and ’60s.
The Chopper, published by Gestalten, tells the story of that evolution, from the 1904 bike believed to be the first “truly custom motorcycle” and the bike gangs that terrified America in the 1950s, to Easy Rider and the 21st century takes on the iconic style.
Here’s a selection of bikes and riders, photographed over a stretch of 110 years, that helped lodge the Chopper firmly in the American public consciousness.
The tale of the Chopper starts with the earliest custom motorcycles. This is Harold “Oily” Karslake’s 1904 Dreadnought, possibly the first “truly” custom bike ever. MARK UPHAM
Before long, bikes customized for various uses were commonplace. This 1934 magazine shows American rider Windsy Lindstrom in a California hill climb, riding a bike with an extended frame and chains on the rear wheel, and a specially braced front fork. FROM THE CHOPPER, COPYRIGHT GESTALTEN 2014
As motorcycle clubs were formed around the US in the 1940s, the image of the biker became increasingly associated with that of the outlaw. This photograph was taken by Danny Lyons, a member of the Chicago Outlaws whose 1968 book The Bikeriders was an early insider’s perspective on bike gang culture. DANNY LYON/MAGNUM PHOTOS/AGENTUR FOCUS
A few crucial styling cues that would make up the Chopper appeared in the 1950s, including the extended forks shown off here on Cliff “Soney” Vaughs’ 1971 Chopper. FROM THE CHOPPER, COPYRIGHT GESTALTEN 2014
By the 1960s, the motorcycle had become a symbol of personal freedom and rebellion. This is “Wino” Jerry, a NYC biker whose jacket is decorated with patches from other clubs, ripped from the jackets of their members “in a challenge to their masculinity.” FROM THE CHOPPER, COPYRIGHT GESTALTEN 2014
Choppers were never known for their handling. Mike Vils, who spent a while working on trikes after meeting up with Ed Roth (who built this “Mail Box”) helped change that with innovative designs. FROM THE CHOPPER, COPYRIGHT GESTALTEN 2014
As Choppers gained in popularity, different styles emerged. This is a classic example of one built around a Harley-Davidson Panhead engine. FROM THE CHOPPER, COPYRIGHT GESTALTEN 2014
Harley’s Shovelhead engines were also a popular choice, and their loud rumbling reinforced the public’s image of the motorcycle as a potentially dangerous nuisance. FROM THE CHOPPER, COPYRIGHT GESTALTEN 2014
The golden age of the Chopper was best symbolized by 1969’s Easy Rider, the poster for which featured Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda, and Jack Nicholson riding across the country on their modified rides. CORBIS
As with so many American cultural products, the Chopper went international. The style spread to England and Germany, where riders usually customized cheaper, local bikes instead of Harleys. FROM THE CHOPPER, COPYRIGHT GESTALTEN 2014
Choppers have retained their popularity over time among Japanese riders. FROM THE CHOPPER, COPYRIGHT GESTALTEN 2014
They’ve continued to thrive in the US as well: This is Matt Elper and Kimberly Hayes popping a wheelie in Milwaukee in 2013. Elper is the president of the Detroit-based Venturos, MC club, whose motto is “Ride the fuck out of your motorcycles till they break; fix it, and do it again.” FROM THE CHOPPER, COPYRIGHT GESTALTEN 2014
One more for the road.