The Cheaper Chopper
In the last few years, the popularity of custom made, high dollar
has skyrocketed. Custom V-twin powered choppers where no expense
spared and money is no object have hit the main stream, thanks in part
television shows featuring the works of West Coast Choppers and Orange
Choppers. The custom parts market
Is overflowing with bolt on billet and chrome like never before.
craze, while impressive to say the least, has cast a shadow on the
idea of the chopper itself.
After World War II, surplus motorcycles were plentiful and soldiers
from the war bought these bikes up for a few dollars. Many of
early “bikers” customized their rides not by adding accessories and
but by removing unnecessary things.
Front fenders were removed altogether and rear fenders were cut, or
which made them shorter. Many bikers of the day took pride in the
of equipment that they could remove from the motorcycle and yet still
it function. This type of customizing evolved over the next 20
into the chopper craze of the 1960’s where extended front ends, coffin
and other non factory items were added to motorcycles.
The Harley Davidson was the by far the most popular for these
but other brands also enjoyed their share of “chopping”, “bobbing” and
The British motorcycles of the time like Triumph, BSA, Norton and AJS
had their share of aftermarket parts available but a great deal of the
motorcycles of the era were built in small shops, garages or even the
rooms of many homes. Shade tree bike builders were at the mercy
their own skills, the skills of fellow bikers and also at the mercy of
wallets. Doing things “on the cheap” was the name of the game for
bike builders. Creativity abounded and motorcycle parts were made
modified automobile parts, other motorcycle parts or many times built
scratch. A chopper reflected the personality, creativity and even
attitude of the builder, who was usually also the owner and rider of
While many of these early choppers were impressive to look at, they did
certain shortcomings that many times made them less than safe to
Sometimes a builder could remove too many parts and render the bike a
trap. Cutting and modifying frames was a job best left to an
mechanic who understood the geometry of a motorcycle and was skilled in
welding techniques. Nonetheless, many a frame was modified using
as simple as a hacksaw and a gas welder. Many a biker also
the limit of his skills the hard way and has the headstone to prove
Despite the dangers, custom motorcycle building has survived and now
a new generation of bike builders.
Today’s custom choppers are built on a larger scale than the ones in
past. With high horsepower motors, hidden suspension, disk brakes
frames designed by computer drafting programs, these bikes are
faster and safer than the custom choppers of old that inspired their
CNC machines can cut out a part in less time than it takes to drink a
of beer. Modern welding equipment cannot only weld faster, but safer as
All this technology does come at a price and many of today’s custom
can also sport a six-figure price tag. I decided my project would
that one could build a good-looking custom bike and not break the
This was in no way a nose up or slap in the face to the modern day
builders but merely a reminder that all that glitters is not chrome and
custom bike was not out of the reach of a self-taught shade tree bike
like myself. My budget for this project would be one thousand
For my bike, I chose to use the Yamaha XS650 motorcycle. This
cylinder bike was released on the U.S. in 1970 to compete with the
twins from England that had dominated the medium displacement
market since the early 1960’s. It is very similar in design to
British bikes, but enjoys a mechanical reliability that not always
in the U.K. bikes of the era. Not only that, but Yamaha imported
many of these bikes to the U.S., that they can be had for next to
when compared to American V-twins and the now collectable British iron,
has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity as many of the baby boomers try
reclaim a piece of their youth.
I began looking for a project on the only swap meet you can attend in
underwear, e-Bay. Every couple of days I would search for items
“chopper” in the title. Weeding through the high dollar rigs and
commercial food choppers, I eventually found an auction that looked
It was for a custom made chopper frame rolling chassis and a complete
motorcycle for parts. The physical location of the auction was
60 miles from my home, so I didn’t have to concern myself with shipping
which many times can exceed the value of the bike. I watched the
carefully for several days, not wanting to bid until the last minute so
to be outbid by others.
When the auction came down to the final minutes, I threw in my
I ended up winning it for a mere $505.
That weekend, I made the trip north in my van and picked up my new
It was a project that had been started but had changed owners a couple
before it was ever finished. The project not only included a
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
evenings and on weekends. Sometimes it would only be a couple
a night and sometimes I’d get going and not stop until 5 or 6 hours
I set no deadlines and worked on the bike when I felt like it.
I was also ordering small parts from my local motorcycle parts dealer
also acquiring a lot of parts from sellers on e-Bay. I also spent
great deal of time surfing the web and hanging out on chopper
and XS650 related web sites. I gleaned a lot of information off
sites that was put to use on my project.
Since this was my first chopper project, there was a lot of trial and
when it came to making things fit. I had to fabricate many of the
that hold the bike together simply because they do not exist on the
Some parts had to be redesigned or discarded, which took up a good deal
my time. Some of the sources for material for my fabricated parts
rather unconventional. I used metal pieces from old overhead
to fabricate a fender bracket for the rear, spacers were made from old
and motor bushings and flat steel salvaged from electronic cabinets
all put to use.
The Bates style solo seat has a pivot mount on the front that was
made from a heavy-duty lock hasp I had sitting in a drawer.
and fabricating were the name of the game.
Since I didn’t have an exhaust system for the bike, I decided to make
own. I wanted to build some mufflers that resembled old aircraft
gun barrels. I welded up some EMT conduit, muffler adapters from
auto parts store and a couple of steering stem nuts I had sitting
A little black barbeque paint and my $5 “machine guns” were ready to
The rear fender is a generic raw fender I got for $35, the tank, which
in one of the boxes of parts, is an old aftermarket chopper tank that
old British petcocks and cap. The front fender is a Harley Narrow Glide
fender that I purchased brand new from an e-Bay vendor for $22. I
to slightly elongate the mounting holes on the fender but after doing
it fit perfectly onto the stock Yamaha front end. The tank and
were then all painted with RustOleum Premium Metallic from a rattle
wet sanded, clear coated (rattle can again) and finally polished with
polishing compound and glaze I had sitting on the shelf.
Over a six-month period of working on it part time; I eventually came
with a good-looking bike. It runs great and the ride is a lot
than I had anticipated it being.
After adding up all the receipts, I came in under the one thousand
budget. While it is no show winner, it’s no trailer queen
For less than the price that some guys pay for a wheel on one of the
custom choppers, I was able to build a respectable machine that still
Valley, Oregon USA
Gun” pipes fabricated by owner
Rattle Can RustOleum Premium Metalic
HD Narrow Glide
GAS TANK(S)&CAP(S) Unknown
tank, old British style cap
Bates style solo seat w/springs
Custom wired by owner
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All Rights Reserved Reprint with permission