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CHOPPER CHARLIE: Why We Chop Chapter 1

Why would Anyone Chop or Bob a perfectly good Stock Bike?

By Bandit with photos from Sam Burns

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Johnny White and I have been discussing the significance of choppers, not just for the motorcycle industry but for men and women. What’s it means to build a chopper? How does it fit in the Zen of things? Why would anyone take a perfectly good, running stock motorcycle and bob or chop it?

What’s the cultural significance? Well, fuck it. We’re going to endeavor to tell you in stories about riders, through non-fiction, fiction or thought.

In this case we are trying with a fiction story.

Chopper Charlie

At 17 Charlie sat in his senior history class and drew a motorcycle sporting a narrow gas tank with flames on notebook paper rather than paying attention to his angry teacher. He was lucky to get a D or even graduate. He wasn’t athletic but started to lift weights in a quiet corner of the gym.

His folks were tough, and his dad drank too much. He wasn’t happy at home and knew a deadline loomed. His folks weren’t happy with him and pointed constantly at other kids. “Why can’t you be like the Jones’ kid?”

On the weekends he worked in the oil fields in a machine shop doing odd jobs and cleaning razor sharp filings out of cutting-oil splattered lathes. One Saturday night on his way home he spotted a bunch of toughs in a High School fraternity called Aces fucking with a biker in a Jack n’ the Box. The young rough-looking motorcycle character appeared to be trying to grab a bite to eat. He wasn’t backing down, but he was surrounded and out-numbered.

Ben Zales '63 Panhead.
Ben Zales '63 Panhead.

It was late and a fog hung over the small community when this group of six gathered around the biker and started to push him around. Charlie knew some of the guys from school but didn’t know the biker. He didn’t like the odds and pulled his bicycle into the alley, grabbed a stained galvanized lid off a trash can and charged into the melee.

He didn’t know what the hell he was doing, but he did it anyway. He smacked a couple of guys and made enough noise to startle the situation. Everyone made for the hills, including Charlie. The only thing he remembered was the chopper, all baby-blue metalflake, with a peanut tank, tall chromed sissybar and highbars. It was something out of mystic battlefield, like the golden sword, engraved and laced with leather shining like a silver star in the midst of horrendous battle.

An Atomic Chopper.
An Atomic Chopper.

As soon as the kids scattered, the biker jumped over his white tuck and roll banana seat, kicked the Panhead to life and peeled out in a blaze of chromed upswept fish-tip pipes. It sounded like hell possessed roaring off into the night. Charlie scrambled to his bicycle and rode like he was on fire through back, dark alleys until he returned home, slipped into the back door and laid in his bed sweating.

The sound of that motorcycle struck strings in his mind like Jimi Hendrix’s guitar setting the world on fire. Charlie began to study local classified ads until he found a Panhead basket case in a garage across town. He called, and the gruff voice gave him directions to the West side of Long Beach.

At the time, bikers didn’t trust anyone. They didn’t trust other bikers, thugs, clubbers or cops. Charlie showed up in a Pendleton shirt, Levis and engineer boots. Three guys met him in the garage, and they all sized each other up, down and sideways.

Charlie didn’t know shit and didn’t like the looks of the thugs with stolen parts. He noted their whereabouts, bought a few parts and bowed out. He needed a mentor. For the first time in his life, his mind was on fire. He couldn’t get enough of the vision of the glistening chopper surrounded by violence, fog and stained asphalt. He didn’t give a shit about the thugs, the clubs or the thieves, but every bone in his body wanted a Chopper. He was part afraid, but vastly inspired.

He studied magazines, attended a couple of shows and ran into a short stub of a guy, Andy, who was in the Naval reserves and building his first Chopper. He introduced Charlie to a fat bastard who seemed to know everything about Harley engines and going fast. Charlie hung out, listened, read, bought manuals and found a 20-foot container in the oil fields with a single hanging bulb and two electrical outlets. He rented the old rusting hulk and set up a shop.

Charlie collected tools as if they were magic potions. He ditched school but pumped up his grades enough to duck the heat from the authorities and his folks. He worked as many hours as he could in the machine shop to fund his build, and he suddenly gathered the drive to learn more about the capabilities and workings of the equipment. His boss noticed his enhanced focus and started to give him jobs operating milling machines then lathes.

He spent every waking minute in his dimly lit container where he stashed parts and equipment like a drill press and tools. He attended a Los Angeles Police Department auction and was able to buy a used ’68 Shovelhead for $600 and he started to tear is down. Life suddenly had meaning and direction.

He wanted a Panhead, but he scored a big twin Harley and found a wishbone Panhead frame. Within six months the Shovelhead driveline found its way into the frame. He extended the wide glide 6-inches, made bars and headlight bracket, found a seat, a Sporty tank and made a sissybar.

Suddenly, Charlie wanted to do everything. He followed Andy’s build. Andy had a fulltime job, plus the Navy reserve income and could afford a custom paint job. Charlie couldn’t but he didn’t care. He started to ride. When he wasn’t riding, he was working on his bike to make is more efficient and cool behind what Charlie learned from Andy, books, manuals and the fat bastard.

His bike had a black frame and he wanted to learn how to rake it. The frontend contained a chromed 21-inch wheel and a hand polished drum brake. He made his risers, bought a set of Flanders chromed highbars, a solo seat and rattle-can painted the Sportster tank and rear fender, black base with Orange scallops. He even attempted pinstriping, but found an old hot rod pinstripe artist, George the Wild Brush, to handle the job.

He rode to school and shook up the neighborhood. He didn’t like to be out of eyeshot of his bike, so school rides took a back seat, but girls started to notice. He rode to work, and the older machinists admired his build. More respect came his way. On a daily basis he rode faster and farther.

He bought a used weight bench and set up a make-shift gym beside his rusting steel container and made time to work out three times a week.

He noticed groups of bikers at bars, which he couldn’t go into yet, but it wasn't about joining anything. He just wanted to ride, as if nothing existed except his chopper, his solo thoughts, splitting lanes, flying in the fast lane and roaming through the hills.

He could ride 100 miles and stop at a gas station to refuel and grab a cup of coffee. Sitting on a bench in the middle of the night watching his chariot to creative freedom, he pondered what he might do next, the next ride or the next modification.

He could sit for an hour, while gangbangers rolled into the station in lowered cars, blaring music or drunks in trucks, spilled out onto the concrete raising hell, but when it came to the biker sitting alone with his chopper, they straightened up, nodded or said, “Nice bike.” Nobody fucked with the long-haired biker who was about to graduate from High School and make his way into the chromed life of the chopper rider, hell bent for mechanical knowledge, metalflake paint and a girl…

The famous Bandit's Bedroll ready for the road. Click for more info.
The famous Bandit's Bedroll ready for the road. Click for more info.

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Back to Motorcycle Mystique, Two Wheeled Tales

Reader Comments

Fun read . Reminds me of a much simpler time . Life was straightforward and focused . The beginning of a lifelong passion !

Bandit , hope things in Deadwood are running smooth .
Cheers Brother ??

Capt Ed Hardison
Corolla, NC
Wednesday, August 10, 2022
Editor Response Everything in the Black Hills is Amazing. The rally is non-stop. Thanks for the comment about the story.
Great story Bandit, much like my buddy Ross Collins in OKC. He was riding a chopped Panhead in high school he had just graduated when I rolled into town in the summer of '69.

Bill May
Nashville , Tn
Tuesday, August 9, 2022
Editor Response Thanks brother.

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