The Cheaper Chopper

By Cyclepsycho

In the last few years, the popularity of custom made, high dollar motorcycles has skyrocketed.  Custom V-twin powered choppers where no expense is spared and money is no object have hit the main stream, thanks in part to television shows featuring the works of West Coast Choppers and Orange County Choppers.  The custom parts market
Is overflowing with bolt on billet and chrome like never before.  This craze, while impressive to say the least, has cast a shadow on the original idea of the chopper itself.

After World War II, surplus motorcycles were plentiful and soldiers returning from the war bought these bikes up for a few dollars.  Many of these early “bikers” customized their rides not by adding accessories and equipment, but by removing unnecessary things.
Front fenders were removed altogether and rear fenders were cut, or “bobbed”, which made them shorter.  Many bikers of the day took pride in the amount of equipment that they could remove from the motorcycle and yet still make it function.  This type of customizing evolved over the next 20 years into the chopper craze of the 1960’s where extended front ends, coffin tanks and other non factory items were added to motorcycles.

The Harley Davidson was the by far the most popular for these modifications, but other brands also enjoyed their share of “chopping”, “bobbing” and customization.  The British motorcycles of the time like Triumph, BSA, Norton and AJS all had their share of aftermarket parts available but a great deal of the customized motorcycles of the era were built in small shops, garages or even the living rooms of many homes.  Shade tree bike builders were at the mercy of their own skills, the skills of fellow bikers and also at the mercy of their wallets.  Doing things “on the cheap” was the name of the game for many bike builders.  Creativity abounded and motorcycle parts were made from modified automobile parts, other motorcycle parts or many times built from scratch.  A chopper reflected the personality, creativity and even the attitude of the builder, who was usually also the owner and rider of the machine.

While many of these early choppers were impressive to look at, they did have certain shortcomings that many times made them less than safe to ride.  Sometimes a builder could remove too many parts and render the bike a death trap.  Cutting and modifying frames was a job best left to an experienced mechanic who understood the geometry of a motorcycle and was skilled in proper welding techniques.  Nonetheless, many a frame was modified using tools as simple as a hacksaw and a gas welder.  Many a biker also learned the limit of his skills the hard way and has the headstone to prove it.  Despite the dangers, custom motorcycle building has survived and now enjoys a new generation of bike builders.

Today’s custom choppers are built on a larger scale than the ones in the past.  With high horsepower motors, hidden suspension, disk brakes and frames designed by computer drafting programs, these bikes are stronger, faster and safer than the custom choppers of old that inspired their design.  CNC machines can cut out a part in less time than it takes to drink a six-pack of beer. Modern welding equipment cannot only weld faster, but safer as well.  All this technology does come at a price and many of today’s custom bikes can also sport a six-figure price tag.  I decided my project would prove that one could build a good-looking custom bike and not break the bank.  This was in no way a nose up or slap in the face to the modern day custom builders but merely a reminder that all that glitters is not chrome and a custom bike was not out of the reach of a self-taught shade tree bike mechanic like myself.  My budget for this project would be one thousand dollars.

For my bike, I chose to use the Yamaha XS650 motorcycle.  This twin cylinder bike was released on the U.S. in 1970 to compete with the vertical twins from England that had dominated the medium displacement motorcycle market since the early 1960’s.  It is very similar in design to the British bikes, but enjoys a mechanical reliability that not always found in the U.K. bikes of the era.  Not only that, but Yamaha imported so many of these bikes to the U.S., that they can be had for next to nothing when compared to American V-twins and the now collectable British iron, which has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity as many of the baby boomers try and reclaim a piece of their youth.

I began looking for a project on the only swap meet you can attend in your underwear, e-Bay.  Every couple of days I would search for items with “chopper” in the title.  Weeding through the high dollar rigs and Hobart commercial food choppers, I eventually found an auction that looked promising.  It was for a custom made chopper frame rolling chassis and a complete XS650 motorcycle for parts.  The physical location of the auction was only 60 miles from my home, so I didn’t have to concern myself with shipping cost, which many times can exceed the value of the bike.  I watched the auction carefully for several days, not wanting to bid until the last minute so not to be outbid by others.
When the auction came down to the final minutes, I threw in my bid.  I ended up winning it for a mere $505.

That weekend, I made the trip north in my van and picked up my new project.  It was a project that had been started but had changed owners a couple times before it was ever finished.  The project not only included a rolling chassis frame and parts bike, but several boxes of miscelanious parts.  

Over the next six months, I would spend time working on the project in the evenings and on weekends.  Sometimes it would only be a couple hours a night and sometimes I’d get going and not stop until 5 or 6 hours later.  I set no deadlines and worked on the bike when I felt like it.  Meanwhile, I was also ordering small parts from my local motorcycle parts dealer and also acquiring a lot of parts from sellers on e-Bay.  I also spent a great deal of time surfing the web and hanging out on chopper building  and XS650 related web sites.  I gleaned a lot of information off these sites that was put to use on my project.

Since this was my first chopper project, there was a lot of trial and error when it came to making things fit.  I had to fabricate many of the parts that hold the bike together simply because they do not exist on the market.  Some parts had to be redesigned or discarded, which took up a good deal of my time.  Some of the sources for material for my fabricated parts were rather unconventional.  I used metal pieces from old overhead projectors to fabricate a fender bracket for the rear, spacers were made from old sockets and motor bushings and flat steel salvaged from electronic cabinets were all put to use.
The Bates style solo seat has a pivot mount on the front that was actually made from a heavy-duty lock hasp I had sitting in a drawer.  Improvising and fabricating were the name of the game.

Since I didn’t have an exhaust system for the bike, I decided to make my own.  I wanted to build some mufflers that resembled old aircraft machine gun barrels.  I welded up some EMT conduit, muffler adapters from the auto parts store and a couple of steering stem nuts I had sitting around.  A little black barbeque paint and my $5 “machine guns” were ready to go.  

The rear fender is a generic raw fender I got for $35, the tank, which came in one of the boxes of parts, is an old aftermarket chopper tank that used old British petcocks and cap. The front fender is a Harley Narrow Glide style fender that I purchased brand new from an e-Bay vendor for $22.  I had to slightly elongate the mounting holes on the fender but after doing that, it fit perfectly onto the stock Yamaha front end.  The tank and fenders were then all painted with RustOleum Premium Metallic from a rattle can, wet sanded, clear coated (rattle can again) and finally polished with some polishing compound and glaze I had sitting on the shelf.

Over a six-month period of working on it part time; I eventually came up with a good-looking bike.  It runs great and the ride is a lot smoother than I had anticipated it being.
After adding up all the receipts, I came in under the one thousand dollar budget.  While it is no show winner, it’s no trailer queen either.  For less than the price that some guys pay for a wheel on one of the new-era custom choppers, I was able to build a respectable machine that still turns heads.

Tech Sheet:

OWNER/BUILDER                   Cyclepsycho
LOCATION                               Willamette Valley, Oregon USA
MAKE/MODEL                         Yamaha XS650
YEAR                                        1981        
ASSEMBLY                              Owner
BUILD TIME                             6 months
COST                                         $1000
ENGINE                                     Stock    
CARBURETOR                         Stock
AIR CLEANERS                       K&N
IGNITION                                 Stock
EXHAUST                                Custom “Machine Gun” pipes fabricated by owner
FINISH                                      Rattle Can RustOleum Premium Metalic
FRAME                                     Custom built
FRONT FENDER                     HD Narrow Glide
REAR FENDER                       Custom
GAS TANK(S)&CAP(S)         Unknown aftermarket tank, old British style cap
RISERS                                    HD
TAILLIGHT                             Tombstone type    
SEAT                                       Bates style solo seat w/springs
ELECTRICAL                         Custom wired by owner

© Copyright 2003, Cyclepsycho
All Rights Reserved  Reprint with permission

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