It’s an irony that choppers — the bike with incredibly long front forks — take their name from the practice of “chopping” a motorcycle to remove all but the most essential parts. Those massive forks serve no functional purpose, but try telling that to Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.
It was the appearance of two choppers: Harley Davidson’s “Billy Bike” and “Captain America” in the 1969 movie Easy Rider that both accelerated the chopper into the public imagination and forever associated it with freedom and the open-road.
Choppers first began to appear after World War II, as returning servicemen customized ex-army machines. Bikes were chopped to reduce weight and drag, especially in California to compete in salt-lake racing.
But in the 1950s, aesthetic motives had triumphed over speed. Not every chopper is the same, but typically a chopper will have features that include those extended forks, “ape hanger” handlebars, no rear suspension, and an extended rear protection tube known as the “sissy bar.”
These elements were further augmented in the 60s by big wheels with small tires, front mounted footrests, and ever-smaller headlights and fuel tanks. Plus lots and lots of chrome. This was also the decade when the bikes began to exhibit elaborate, colorful and often metallic paint jobs.
Post Easy Rider, what had once been a largely West Coast subculture, suddenly went global and mainstream. Chopper styling became commonplace across the main manufacturers like Harley-Davidson and Honda. In 1970s Britain, you could even buy a Chopper bicycle and become the coolest kid in school.
But more than fifty years after Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper rode their bikes across the South West of the USA, chopping and choppers still ride high today and an entire genre of TV shows has been created around custom chopper builders, themselves now near-celebrities.