The History of Bobbers - The Lightweight Motorcycle
World War 2 brought about many changes to the makeup of America's culture. Many women found themselves taking on various new roles as heads of the household since most men were now enlisted and serving in campaigns throughout Europe and the Pacific.
The Change of Industries After the War
Industries changed and shifted in accordance with the demands that the war put on the economy. Steel mills became a common sight in cities as companies such as GM, Ford, and Chrysler built new mills and factories to keep up with the steel demand. The demographics of major metropolitan areas changed as these mills emerged, with many minorities taking up jobs in the mills and settling into the surrounding areas.
Change remained a constant after the war as well. Battle hardened American servicemen, influenced by the European customs they had grown accustomed to over the previous years, brought home new and interesting ideas that influenced everything from the way Americans dressed to what their vehicles looked like.
The Process of Formation and Development of Bobber
Take the bobber for example. Prior to World War 2, motorcycles had become increasingly popular. When American servicemen returned home, their popularity exploded even more so. Soldiers used their acquired mechanical expertise to design and customize bikes that were truly unique for their time.
Light, streamlined bikes that had dominated the roads of the European theatre now seemed to be speeding their way across the American landscape. Anything that was seen as "extra" was taken off the bike in order to drop its weight and make it that much faster. Fenders, lights, mirrors, anything that didn't make the bike faster was ultimately ditched in an effort to increase the top speed and handling of the American Harley-Davidson and Indian motorcycles, which were much heavier than their European counterparts. These custom bikes with their lighter bobber parts were the originators of what we now know as bobbers.
For most bobbers, the front fender has been removed while the rear fender was made smaller or "bobbed." Anything considered superfluous should be removed in order to make the vehicle as light as possible.
Many people today associate the term bobber with customized vintage or modern motorcycles, often stripped of the same superfluous bits as their predecessors, plus possibly one or both mirrors, turn signals, even gauges.
The Difference Between Bobber and Chopper
What differentiates the loosely defined bobber from it's well known cruiser cousin, the chopper, is that they often are more practical and built for speed and handling, retaining frame and fork geometry for proper handling and top speed, whereas the chopper is often going for style.
This style can take shape as highly modified frames, extended front ends, small gas tanks; the combinations are innumerable. While the outsider may not see much of a difference between these styles, it tends to be the 'function before form' that helps identify those motorcycles that some refer to as bobbers.
The History of the Chopper
We discussed the birth and history of the bobber. Bobbers, while an important factor in the evolution of motorcycles themselves, did differ from their chopper offspring.
As the word implies, choppers were often chopped and welded to elongate the frame, and, obviously, out of these new customized chopper frames came the need for custom chopper parts. Though the spirit of the modifications remained the same, choppers took the trend to a whole new level.
Of course, the bobber wasn't necessarily developed with aesthetics in mind, though this often was a byproduct of their modifications. At the time, it was about speed and performance.
Why Do Racer Use Choppers After the War?
Since the late 1930's, people were using dried up lakebeds as makeshift racetracks in various isolated regions across the country, most notably in southern California. These dirt and mud tracks obviously demanded performance that you just didn't get from bikes designed for the pavement; different handling and suspension specifications were required.
The formation of the Southern California Timing Association helped to sanction such events and served to validate the hot rod culture in a way. Bikers wanted in, and needed to find a way to keep up (literally!) with the ever-evolving hot rod scene.
Many of the earliest customized bikes were chopped up from Harley's, and at the time you could get quite a steal on Harley Davidson bikes at military or police auctions. The Sportster was quite a popular model for modding, being affordable and easily customizable. Before long, people were making their own custom Sportster parts, adding chrome any which way they could, chopping up frames, and customizing every imaginable detail of their rides.
The Evolution of Chopper Aesthetics
By the late 1950's, hot rods and choppers were competing in the same events, and the phenomena had grown from geographically isolated subculture to full on national craze.
As it grew in popularity, aesthetics became more and more prominent a reason to customize your ride (this focus on appearance would later inspire the hardtail frame look of Peter Fonda's bike in Easy Rider, which would take the custom chopper parts scene to an entirely new level of popularity).
Why Does the Chopper Customization Trend Appear?
It is practically impossible to overstate the importance of World War II's effect on the chopper's evolution. There were over 7 million US soldiers stationed abroad at the end of the war, many of whom were trained in mechanics, welding, and/or engineering. The knowledge of these soldiers would drive the evolution of engines. Our entire economy had come to a halt and focused on winning the war. This left a surplus of all sorts of alloys, factories, and engines, with no immediately obvious or practical use. These surplus engines would make great engines for your custom chopper.
No one would think to thank President Dwight D. Eisenhower for his contributions to the world of custom chopper parts, but after signing the legislation to lend the allies $50 billion in aid to fight the axis, many European countries found themselves in a huge amount of financial debt to the United States. Britain had borrowed over $30 billion themselves. Now, us chopper enthusiasts like to think of that as an investment in our hobby, as popular manufacturer Triumph would send most of their bikes to the United States to help satisfy that debt. Triumph had already set the tone for inline twins, debuting the Triumph Speed Twin in 1937. These twin cylinder engines were lightweight, compact, and perhaps most importantly easy to maintain and modify. Custom Triumph chopper parts were being hacked and welded in garages across America.
Fast-forward to the present day, and the chopper scene is thriving more than ever. After a revitalization in the chopper culture in the 1990's, really anyone could customize their bike anyway they wanted to. Advancements in engineering and manufacturing techniques, as well as the founding of many more aftermarket parts suppliers brought custom chopper parts to anyone. Now we have a large number of websites, magazines, and television shows dedicated the chopper, and the culture seems to grow every day.