Site by Jacob Roth
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The Choppers

Captain America and the Billy Bike probably hold the title of the most recognizable custom bikes in the world.

Remember the first time you saw a chopper on the street? Did you stare open mouthed at the beautiful machine as it rolled down the street? Did something happen so that you knew from that moment that you wouldn't feel complete until you had one of your own? If so, welcome to a rapidly growing movement.

When someone says "chopper" they probably first think of Captain America. The Captain epitomizes what makes a chopper different from stock motorcycles and even the other custom bikes. The look started in the 1950's when people wanted to ride American made motorcycles but found them lacking in the performance department. Instead of scrapping their Harley's in favor of the more powerful bikes coming out of the UK, they made their American motorcycles go faster. Start with the basics, remove everything you don't need. Turn signals, gone. Horn, not needed. Front fender, extravagance. Seat springs, unnecessary. Front brake, just another chunk of metal designed to slow you down. If your bike could run without it, you could strip it off. Once you've completely stripped the bike down to the essentials, a clean canvas sits in the garage. Without all of the crap obscuring the view of the heart of the machine, a person can start to get some strange ideas of where to go next. For instance, if you lengthen the front end the bike will bounce a little better, replacing some of what you lost when you removed the seat springs. Of course doing that looks pretty freakin' cool. Modify the frame and a person can put even longer tubes up front. But the bike does lose something when you tear all of the stuff off. For instance, now that you can take off faster, your passenger keeps falling off the back of the bike. Eventually a law gets passed requiring you to have something for your friend to hold. Someone probably grabbed some scrap metal to make a rear hand hold and didn't want to take the time to cut it. They mount on this excessively large chunk of iron and behold, they just made their bike look a lot cooler. Someone else sees it and does it deliberately, actually putting effort into the task resulting in a well built artistic addition to their bike. Eventually, through a series of chaotic events, choppers as we know them arrived on the scene. Through the 60's and 70's choppers evolved into show machines. While some no doubtedly got trailered to events, the great majority hit the streets either as weekend cruisers, bar hoppers, or daily riders. The designs, inspired by a minimalist approach to the search for speed, grew into rolling works of art designed to draw attention and redefine the words "custom motorcycle."

So now back the Captain… Why do people think of Captain America as the quintessential chopper? Do long front forks and tall sissy bars transform a motorcycle into a chopper? The Captain attacks the chopper question from both sides. From the traditional angle, Captain America meets the minimalist challenge. What doesn't this bike have?

  • front fender
  • front brake
  • seat springs
  • suspension
  • turn signals
  • wind shield

The builder knew choppers and he kept the faith when he built this one. It also had the more artistic elements of the 60's custom bike scene. Chrome adorned nearly every piece of the bike, even the frame. Anyone who builds bikes for the road could tell you that chroming a frame seems like an exercise in futility. No part of the bike will get more abuse than the frame. Putting on a coat of paint every year will cost a person significantly less than trying to keep a pristine chrome finish on this part of the bike, especially with no front fender to keep the wheel from kicking rocks back at it. But the chrome does its job and begs us to stare at the bike. So how about that exhaust? Again, lots of visible chrome to make us slack jawed while we ogle the now classic look of the upswept fishtails. If we follow these back we see a chromed rear fender. Quite a few people will chrome their rear fender, but most of them won't put a seat on top of it. Here in the rear of the bike we run into something somewhat uncharacteristic of choppers. Four bullet lights, two on either side, let people who come up from behind at night know its presence. Why create the rules of chopping if not to have someone break them? As with any rule, if you intend to break it, break it good and hard. The handlebars break the rules as well. Almost every bike out there, even classy show bikes with all the extras thrown on, typically sport only a single set of risers. No good reason exists to use more. Captain America sports two sets, the first going to a section of straight bar which in turn has a set of dog-bone risers attached that lead up to the ape hangars. This results in more eye catching chrome at strange angles calling us to stare at the blasphemy and wonder why we like it so much. Those ape hangar bars make it look as though Peter Fonda can just relax back and enjoy the ride. In reality they drain the blood out of his digits causing him to lose all sensation in his hands. Elsewhere we have a tall chrome sissy bar, chrome hubs, chrome oil tank, chrome foot pegs, chrome… well, just about everything. The chrome has an unintentional (I would guess) role in this film. It reflects the environment, the road, those around. in that sense, Captain America becomes a reflection of its environment.

Only a few places deviate from the chrome theme. Most of them seem rather obvious like black tires, red taillights, glass headlight, black seat (with chrome buttons by the way). Then we have the gas tank. The builder installed a smaller than stock gas tank in keeping with the minimalist chopper tradition. He then sprayed it with a couple layers of candy apple red paint. Next came the white bars and stars ending with the field of blue. Wyatt wears a matching helmet and jacket, making man and machine one entity. In this modern world of ours, we think nothing of seeing people and vehicles with the flag plastered all over them. When a police officer hits the street they typically have a flag sticker on the squad car and a patch on the sleeve of their uniform. While we can interpret Captain America's tank and Wyatt's apparel as patriotic, it represents a very wild patriotism that seemed to say, "I love the real America, real freedom, and I mean to find it."

The Billy Bike shows a much more conservative approach to chopping. It keeps many of the stock elements such as fenders and brakes. The builder simply "cleaned it up" keeping with the essence of the chopper scene. It may have a front fender, but they chopped it back before mounting it on a front end with just a couple inches of stretch on it. Tall risers put the minimalist drag bars closer to the rider. A small gas tank again replaces the larger stock model. The seat hugs the frame and rear fender giving the bike a much sleeker look. The brake light and license mount have moved to a side mount to help keep the lines clean in appearance. The paint started with a base coat of candy apple red which then had yellow flames applied over it. Nothing says "custom" like a good flame job.

Not only did the builder put together two choppers that epitomize two different approaches, he did it twice. Fonda had purchased a 1950, two 1951's, and a 1952 Harley-Davidson's at a police auction. Cliff Vaughs and Brother Ben Hardy(1), the builders, turned these into two Billy Bikes and a pair of Captain Americas (one with 2 extra inches of stretch on the front forks, or one with two less for you pessimists out there). During the making of the movie, stunt man Tex Hall and Dan Haggerty(2) assisted in keeping them running with the help of another biker who would mutter, "Nic-nic-nic. FIRE!" while trying to start the bikes. During the last campfire scene of the film, you don't see the bikes in the background. They had blown up one of the Captain America bikes. Someone stole the other three not realizing that they had stolen the bikes for a film. Dan Haggerty completely rebuilt the damaged Captain and sold it on auction to a Texas(3) museum in 1996.

A lot of people have made replicas of these two bikes. The California Motorcycle Company made some replicas endorsed by Peter Fonda. I saw both of these bikes at a local show and swap meet and have seen the Captain America model on numerous occasions since then. In my opinion these bikes really missed the mark. First, in order to make a road legal version for mass distribution, they had to put all kinds of crap on these bikes that make them more street bikes then choppers. They really screwed up on the Captain. They use a metallic gray paint instead of chrome on the frame. Turn signals, front brake, and fender clutter the forward section. The upswept fishtails don't have the larger muffler section on them and don't sweep up nearly enough. I won't even go into the engine. Granted that no one will mistake this for anything other than a Captain America replica. Not everyone requires perfection.

They did do a pretty good job on the Billy Bike. It still has plenty of flaws, but they don't jump out at you the way the ones on the Captain do.

After CMC made these officially authorized versions, Panzer USA and Paughco decided to make their own unauthorized versions of the Captain and Billy bikes. While they still have some of the problems necessitated by law for mass distribution, they definitely hit it closer with the details.

All things considered, they did a decent job. Of course they lack one thing that really sets them apart from the originals. You may call it nitpicking, but do these things really need to have electric start? Couldn't they have put a combination kick and electric start on? Hell, how about one of those lame covers that makes it look like your bike has a kick start? Of course the bars also lack the double risers on the original. On the plus side, they chromed the frame and fender.

Note how this version of the Billy Bike has a rear mounted tail light and license as opposed to the right hand side mount on the original.

Paughco also made their own Captain America replica using a vintage panhead, rather than the Panzer Neo-Pan, to showcase some of the parts they sell. While most of these other clones seem more deserving of the label "inspired by the originals", the Paughco replica really does look like the original we all know and love.

One fan sent me these photos of his Captain America replica. From what I can see, he did an excellent job. He says he has the glasses but still needs to find the belt.

But not everyone wants a replica. A true craftsmen can get every detail right. An artist draws inspiration from where they can and then goes off to do their own thing. My own chopper definitely draws inspiration from these bikes, but I made it my own.

I rescued this old girl from a life in boxes. I started out with the idea of just putting the pieces back together and having a vintage 1965 Harley-Davidson Sportster. I didn't get to far as I found out that most of the pieces in the boxes didn't fit together. As an artist, designer, and teacher I constantly tell people, "Plan your work and work your plan." No such thing went into this bike. The project went together one piece at a time, making each decision as it came up. Hail Eris! My original plan to build a somewhat stock Sportster turned into the chopper project of my dreams. It turned out exactly the way I would have wanted it to had I set out to make a chopper. That includes the ability to change my mind every year, to make changes as necessary. I change. Life changes. So should a chopper. The photo above shows her about a week after we first got her on the road.

So how did a chaotic building process turn into the chopper I had always wanted? Knowing the basics of chopping and my love of Easy Rider definitely helped. It started with the motor. I had always just figured that when I first got a Harley, I would get a Sportster. A lot of people call them the "little Harleys". Don't let this scare you away from them. A mid-range Honda fits squarely in the 500-750cc category. The old Ironhead Sportsters started at 900cc. Mine got converted to a 1000cc model. Along with that we beefed up the fly wheels to make certain that we wouldn't have to crack those cases open anytime soon. Some new lifters and stainless steel seats finished off the heads. On the right side we ran stock cams. I had originally selected a SU carb for the machine. A week later I made another decision that changed what kind of carb we could run. I chose to switch the ignition over to a magneto. My basic chopper knowledge made the choice for me. A magneto runs directly off of a cam, making sure that as long as the engine works, you'll have spark in the plugs. It eliminates the need for a battery, reducing the overall weight of the bike. So I get less weight and more reliability by running a magneto. To accommodate the magneto, I either had to stick an extension on for the carb or run a stock model. I have long legs that need some room, so I chose once again to go with the minimalist approach that defines chopping. As for plugs, I went with good old beat them with a hammer and they'll still work style plugs. They don't do anything fancy but they last.

Up front I replaced the generator with an alternator. This did three things for the bike, two good and one not so good (but fixable when I feel like getting around to it). Firstly, an alternator weighs less than the old generators. This sticks to the roots of chopping. Next, generators tend to experience coil expansion in the wire wraps after a while. In an alternator, the coils stay stationary while the internals spin so no expansion, no need to replace them(4). Lastly, the alternator doesn't generate a reliable source of power when run without a battery. My lights dim at high speeds. This not only causes visibility problems but also decreases the life of bulbs(5). I can fix this problem by buying a little capacitor unit that fits in like a battery. It looks like a D-cell flashlight battery with two terminals on top and weighs next to nothing when compared to a regular motorcycle battery. It doesn't hold juice when you turn off the bike, but it provides a similar function as one when the bike runs.

To finish off the the heart and soul, we stuffed the gear box full of some slightly racey gears leading to an oversized driveline sprocket. I started out running a dry clutch with Kevlar discs. I later removed the cover and now run a "damp" clutch, not quite swimming in the oil but enough to keep the whole thing lubed. This set-up has worked really well for me. In the beginning I used to burn through clutch parts once or twice a year. Since switching over to an open clutch and thanks to a tricked out job on the clutch push-rods(6) by Billy at Easyriders of Minneapolis, the transmission and its components finally seem to work right.

As stated before, I didn't start out to make a chopper. I just wanted a working bike. The tone changed when I realized that the front end and frame that I got with the rest of the parts didn't match up. The front end came from an old big twin. I had the choice of either modifying the old front end or finding a different one. After thinking it over, I decided to find a longer front end. After hitting several swap meets I happened upon an old and beaten 16" over springer missing the top mount. That changed the whole project into a true chopper build. We modified a Paughco inline triple tree clamp with dog bone ears to cap off the springer. To this we attached some short dog bone risers and a set of wide swap meet bars.

The front end required that we modify the frame adding some stretch and rake to accommodate the long front end. At this stage in the game I started to get really anxious to ride and wanted the bike as quickly as possible. I had to choose between modifying the existing swing-arm frame or buying a new rigid frame ready to go. That night I pulled out my stash of chopper mags and started making marks on a pad. I discovered that nearly all of my favorite choppers had no rear suspension. So I ordered up a Paughco rigid frame with 10° of rake and 1.5" of stretch, a chain guard, and a 2.5 gallon single cap mustang gas tank for the round look. To accommodate my long legs we mounted some forward controls to the front. A year later a friend and I stood around the garage looking at the bike and came up with an idea. I flipped the forward controls to get even more leg room and my friend tooled me some longer rods to reach their destinations. This makes for a very comfortable sitting position. And since I've mentioned sitting, check out that vintage 70's chopper seat with tall sissy bar. I will admit that I don't plan on running this seat forever. It has all the looks and none of the comfort. It has almost no padding and the hump digs into my back, but it sure does look cool.

When assembled with the addition of a flat fender, some used drag pipes, a cat eye tail light, chrome oil box, some nice Iso-pegs for the passenger, and grips, the bike really looked great. Of course these things change. I've gone through 4 kicker covers due to a combination of chain problems and how I started the bike. For a couple of years I started her by straddling the bike and jumping on the kicker. this put a lot of pressure on the kicker cover. Now I put my left knee on the seat. This provides a stop so I don't lay my entire mass into the kicker. For those of you unfamiliar with the old kick starts, never wear sneakers when starting them. Not only do you start to feel the pedal digging into your arches, but if it decides to kick you back, a good thick soled boot might just keep you from having to deal with a broken foot. So I have used both plain and chrome covers, liking the looks of both but preferring the durability of the newer style chrome covers.

Time to go back to the roots of chopping to wrap this all up.Chopping may have evolved into an art form, but it started as a means of making your motorcycle better. In my opinion, nothing looks cooler up front than a narrow springer. But long springers, especially old ones like mine, ride like hell. My front end would pogo and bounce like a punk (no rhythm, no control, lots of violent movement). I like that at a concert, but not on my bike. So I replaced the front end with a girder. What a difference that has made. It provides better suspension and control and still looks sleeker than running the old tubes. It rattles my headlight less so it lasts longer. The girder allows me to run a front brake. The narrow springer probably would have snapped under the strain of really hard braking had I decided to install a front brake on it. While a true chopper doesn't have a brake up front, the times have changed. I ride during rush hour in a city. Stopping in time means a lot to me and those who would rather not see me end up in a tangle with a truck. I completely wore off the tread on one boot and nearly ripped the sole off of another by trying to assist my brake with a Flintstone's maneuver. I have only hit one vehicle. I tapped the rear bumper of a small pickup truck. In fact the driver didn't even realize I had hit him. So now I have a disc brake up front and I don't have to buy shoes as often. The basic rule of chopping says that if you don't need it, get rid of it. I need my brake. You have to learn these things as you go, or else you never really learn them.

Which brings me to a comment I have seen a few places recently. "Choppers are NOT for beginners." Bullocks! I had put in less than a year on a 1975 Honda CB500T when I got sick of pumping money into a bike I really didn't like. Then I dumped my money instead into something I had always wanted. I painted it black so I wouldn't worry about accidentally laying down the bike(7) or spend too much time cleaning it. I ran a very dangerous bike with a wickedly wild front end and only a rear brake for a couple of years in a city full of traffic and freakin' idiots. I have broke down on many occasions. Only when I blew the rear tire did I have to have my wife come and pick us up in the truck. Otherwise I always have managed to fix her enough to get her home. Very few people can even start my bike, let alone ride a chopper designed for a 6' 4" individual. If you want a chopper, build it. I can understand the appeal of replicas of Captain America and the Billy Bike. They built some cool looking customs for the film. Those bikes belonged to Billy and Wyatt and their trip through America. I love my chopper. She breaks down, leaks oil, has burned me, she has even caused me to bleed, but I love her more than any bike I could imagine having. Build your chopper and take your trip.

(1) Now confirmed!

(2) Most folks probably remember Dan Haggerty for his role as Grizzly Adams. You can also see him smoking a bowl with The Stranger (Luke Askew) in Easy Rider's commune scene.

(3) Ironically, the crew never filmed in Texas, choosing to skip from New Mexico straight to Louisiana.

(4) However, the rotor does wear out as mine did recently and alternators cost more to repair than a generator.

(5) When I had the springer front end, I went through about two (2) headlights a year. Since switching to the girder I have averaged one (1) head light a year.

(6) He placed a little ball-bearing in the system to allow for some extra spin. Now my push-rods don't grind down like they used to. Thanks Billy.

(7) Which I have yet to do. Keep it vertical kids.

  Vote Jake!