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c. 1960s-1980s

The age of the chopper

Post 'Easy Rider,' what had once been a largely West Coast subculture suddenly went global and mainstream.

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.

1972: A ‘Rocker’ arrives at the Wembley Rock & Roll festival, London on his Honda chopper motorcycle
Ken Towner/Getty Images

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.

1977: American musician Gregg Allman at home on his custom chopper
Jeff Hochberg/Getty Images

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.” 

1974: A stock photograph of a man and woman on a chopper
Photo Media/ClassicStock/Getty Image

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. 

1973: A stock photograph of a man on a chopper
Photo Media/ClassicStock/Getty Image
1983: Mike Flanagan with his home made 12-foot-long motorbike
Daily Mirror /Mirrorpix/Getty Images
1966: A man on an early chopper
Getty Images
1969: Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda riding their chopper motorcycles in “Easy Rider”
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
1970s: The Chopper bicycle, made by Raleigh. Note the central gear-change lever
SSPL/Getty Images
1973: Sly Stone of “Sly and the Family Stone” rides his chopper in San Francisco
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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