History of the Chopper: Bikes Wanted!

The long history of choppers is a uniquely American story, akin to Rock ‘n Roll in its cultural impact and global influence. The National Motorcycle Museum is assembling the first-ever exhibit comprehensively documenting the evolution of the American Custom Motorcycle; the Cut-Downs, Bob-Jobs, show bikes and choppers, from the late 1920s to the mid-’70s. Opening in May 2015, the exhibit will include only period-built bikes, plus related artwork, memorabilia, film posters and photos, plus contemporary artwork commissioned for the show.

The National Motorcycle Museum is looking for original or restored 1920s-1970s custom motorcycles and related memorabilia; do you know where machines built ‘in the day’ can be found?

Americans started ‘chopping’ bikes long before ‘Easy Rider.’ It all began in the late 1920s with the ‘Cut-Down’, based on the Harley JD or JDH, with shortened and lowered frames. Cut-Downs were hot, high-performance bikes and very rare today. Next came the ‘Bob-Job’, stripped-down Harleys and Indians and even British imports from the 1930s, built to look like the new Class C dirt-track racers. From the late 1940s, a few riders began decorating their Bob-Jobs, using chrome and wild paint, adding ape hangers, upswept exhausts, and small sissy bars, which by the 1950s became the established ‘show bike’ standards at combined car/motorcycle Hot Rod shows. Drag racing motorcycles also influenced street customs using drag bars and raked forks. By the late ’50s what we’d recognize as Choppers emerged, and in the early to mid-’60s raked steering heads, extended springer forks, wild pipes, sissy bars, sculpted tanks, and molded frames were ridden by the hippest motorcyclists in America.

As a great coincidence, the first comprehensive history of American customs has just been released – ‘The Chopper: the Real Story.’ Museum staff are working with author/curator Paul d’Orleans to create the new exhibit based on his research for the book. Paul is a well-known writer (‘The Ride’, ‘Café Racers’, plus TheVintagent.com) and curator (most recently at the Sturgis ‘Motorcycle as Art’ exhibits with Michael Lichter), and contributes monthly to magazines in six languages.

Do you own an original or restored 1920s-1970s custom motorcycle or related memorabilia? We’d like your help to tell this important story, or if you are a fine artist who would like to loan motorcycle artwork, please send an email to
Mark Mederski: mmederski@nationalmcmuseum.org,
or Paul d’Orleans: thevintagent@gmail.com

The National Motorcycle Museum is right in the middle of America, about three hours west of Chicago just north of I-80 and well worth a trip. Besides this great new Choppers exhibit they have about 400 motorcycles from Ariel to Zundapp and thousands of pieces of motorcycle memorabilia, a great toy and bicycle collection, even a restored 1920’s Shell Motor Oil gasoline station. Check out the website at www.nationalmcmuseum.org, or even call them at 319 462 3925.

Source: National Motorcycle Museum
Posted by Sam Kanish