When we were at Sturgis this past year the topic of bobbers/choppers came up more than once in circles that typically have better things to talk about other than “what’s a chopper?” I was shocked at how many seasoned people in the industry had no idea what constitutes a bobber, hearing some outlandish spur of the moment definitions.The term “bobber” is actually a reflective term coined long after the style existed. Anyway, the answer is not that difficult to understand so I’m going to once again beat a dead horse to death and help put it into perspective.
I’m going to start out by saying that all choppers were bobbers at one time, if but for a brief second. I say that now to get everyone worked up and ready to pounce on me, hoping they read the rest of this and possibly agree with me. There are essentially only two classes of bikes for the purpose of this discussion: stock and customized. Picture a diagram with “motorcycle” on top and two subordinate categories underneath, “stock” and “custom.” We’re going to leave custom bikes alone right now and focus on stock.
Back in the 30’s guys would take their stock bikes to the track, remove the headlight, maybe the front fender and shorten the rear fender. These modified bikes were called “Bob-Jobs.” A functional modification to improve speed on the track. There was nothing pure about the definition, definitely nothing absolute as to what a bob-job was. If someone performed additional modifications it was still a bob-job, even if by today’s standards we would call it a chopper. But we are not there yet, history hasn’t introduced the term “chopper” yet.
Bob-jobs remained the colloquial term for a chopped down stock bike for a few decades. There may have been local terms used but nothing that caught national acceptance. The first long bike I know of dates back to 1954, as I recall. However, the long bikes were not called “choppers,” they were just an extension of bob-jobs leading up to the evolution of choppers. In fact, the term “bobbers” hadn’t even taken hold yet. Only in retrospect do we look back and label these bikes “bobbers” and “choppers” when in fact those terms were not used back then. (For a complete, accurate, unabridged, first hand look at the history of choppers, you have to visit the new Sugar Bear Museum in Sturgis next year. There you will see history evolve.)
No one knows exactly when “choppers” became main stream, but I’m going to peg it around the mid to late 60’s. By the time the movie Easy Rider came out, everyone in America knew what a chopper was even if they lived behind a rock. The problem was that this instant definition was not vetted out very clearly and choppers became synonymous with long front ends. When Ben Hardy made the bikes for the movie Easy Rider Peter Fonda’s bike stood out as the quintessential chopper, eclipsing the other chopper ridden by Dennis Hopper, which was erroneously considered a bobber years later.
Ben Hardy chopped these bikes the way most of us define “chopper.” He took a stock bike, removed, cut and modified the frame to accept a customized front end, peanut gas tanks as well as other minimalist modifications. If it doesn’t make it go, you don’t need it. Ironically today a chopper without a long front end falls into the default category of bobber, which is why Dennis Hopper’s bike is usually called a bobber by many people. It’s not, it’s a chopper.
Ok, so if a bob-job is the simple removal of hang-ons, with maybe a trimming of the fenders, then choppers take it a step further with modifications that require more than a hacksaw and adjustable wrench. Hence my statement that all choppers were bobbers at one time. So at a show, to me there should never be a category for “chopper class” and “bobber class.” There are no bobbers per se. Stock bikes that have been modified more than removing the front fender are choppers. If it’s a true bob-job, might as well leave it in the stock class in today’s shows.
Envision a timeline chart starting in 1930. At the side is a picture of bob-job, no front fender, cut rear fender flat track style. Slide down to maybe 1969, and a picture of Captain America. In between the two pictures, between 1930 and 1969, there are many examples of evolving trends, different front ends, wheels, tanks etc. Nothing pure about a bob-job, nothing pure about what a chopper is. It’s an evolution. You would also see choppers starting to take shape maybe around the early 50’s.
Sometime in the 90’s (some may say 80’s, but that’s questionable) bob-jobs were called bobbers for short because we tend to have a lazy tongue. Bobbers are not really bob-jobs, even though we now call the bikes stripped down in the 30’s bobbers, which mixing two styles. Bobbers have taken on a more liberal definition than bob-jobs which is why so many people have a hard time defining bobbers. The reason is bobbers have no legacy per se. A strict definition of bobber based on the original bob-job would mean bobbers are just stock bikes with modified fenders and minor changes. But no one holds to that definition. Most consider bobbers to be something along the lines of Dennis Hoppers bike in Easy Rider, which is really a chopper. Today, if someone says bobber, they are probably looking at a chopper with a short wheel base.
I heard a truly absurd definition of a bobber in Sturgis, which was typical of someone not familiar with the evolution of bikes in general, not to mention the flippant terms that are tossed around. I won’t get into the definition he used, but it was a stark reminder how disjointed the industry is on common terms. Clearly he had no idea what a so-called bobber is.
So what is a bobber then?
There is no such thing. Bobbers are choppers in progress. Choppers are a sub class of bob-jobs. I suppose you can call an old bob-job a bobber, but why redefine an already accepted term? Throwing fat tires on a stock make does not make it a bobber. It makes it a stock bike with fat tires. Ok, I can sense the adrenaline flowing and some readers dying to set me straight, but you need to calm down and let me switch over to custom bikes.
Custom bikes add to the confusion. Let’s look at my bikes to start off.
My 1971 Knucklehead built entirely by Fab Kevin is a chopper by any definition. He took a stock frame, modified it and created one of the coolest looking bikes I have ever seen. But if I were to enter it in a show, it would be considered a bobber. It’s not. It’s not a custom bike and it’s not a bobber, it’s a chopper. So why is it called a bobber? Because it has a short springer front end and wide tires on it. In some people’s mind that’s a “bobber.” That perverted thinking just adds credence to my statement that there is no such thing as a bobber, only custom bikes or choppers.
Look at my Shovel. Chopper all the way, or is it? Long, gorgeous Sugar Bear front end, rigid, hand shift, foot clutch, etc. So what is it? Well, Kevin cut the tubes, bent the tubes and to me, it’s a chopper even though it didn’t evolve from a stock frame. But it’s a close call either way. Anyone who sees it calls it a chopper, but if I had a short front end on it, they would call it a bobber. Nothing is pure in this culture and if your definition calls it a custom, ok, I really don’t care.
My 124 Digger. That’s a chopper also. Modified frame, long front end, etc.
Take my old 1946 Indian, which I have since sold. That’s a bob-job hands down, somewhere between 1930 and 1955 if we look at the evolution chart. The industry calls it a bobber, not even knowing what a bobber is. There was more done to it than removing the front fender and cutting down the rear, but at the time it was would have been called a bob-job, not a bobber and not a chopper.
Let’s say you buy a frame from Paughco and build around it. No matter what, it’s going to be a custom bike. Generally speaking, if you have a long front end on it, it will be a chopper style; if you have a short front end on it they will call it a bobber style. It really doesn’t matter, it’s a custom bike, call it anything you want. It doesn’t have a legacy; it’s a one of a kind build.
Look at the OCC bikes. None of them were choppers, they were all radical custom bikes, hideous to many of us, but custom nonetheless. Custom bikes, since they have no legacy, can be called anything you want to call them, but they will never be choppers or bob-jobs. Call them bobbers, since that term has no meaning and it needs a home. So if you find yourself struggling to label your bike, and it really bothers you, maybe you should see Dr. Phil?