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American Choppers Syndrome

Recently we have been getting requests to perform service and repairs on custom bikes.

While the mainstreaming of motorcycling via this soap opera is nice, the misconceptions it generates and nurtures are not.  I will deal with a few of those misconceptions and the reasons for my less than enthusiastic embracing of the bikes purchased in this frenzy of “coolness”.

We are primarily in the service business.  Servicing a motorcycle involves a regimen of recommended operations at specified intervals to maintain the dependability of the bike.

Specifications are needed for this servicing.  On most of the units being “built” the manufacturer of the individual components is generally unknown, even to the original owner.  Simple things such as brake pads are impossible to source unless the caliper manufacturer is known.  Some of these manufacturers are Nissin, Togiko, GMA, Performance Machine, Grimeca, Brembo, Jaybrake, Harley-Davidson and others.  Every one of these takes a different pad, and few, if any, are interchangeable.  Even the brake fluid will be different with DOT 3,4,5, and 5.1 being possible choices and complete havoc being wrought by the use of the wrong one. 

Most of the other components are equally mysterious in their origins.  Without a “Build Sheet” stating the manufacturer, year and model of the components, any spare part procurement is a time-consuming and potentially expensive proposition.  The delays that can and do accompany this effort will also have to be allowed for.

The bikes seen on “American Choppers” and “Bike Build-off” type of shows are characteristically composed of a lot of bling-bling and rice.  For those not familiar with these terms (as I was until a few weeks ago) it describes all the cutesy stuff added on to the basic platform of the bike such as barbed wire, barbeque grill parts and anything else lying around to stick on for the sake of being “different”.  A lot of the “bike builders” around now try to emulate this addition of debris and while the stuff looks cool to some it is a pain in the ass to work around for others and adds to the cost of service or repair, not to mention the frustration level.  Have you noticed that there has never been a follow-up show (where are they now?) of any of the bikes being built and actually ridden?

The closer you are to sculpture, the farther from ridability it seems to get.  This lack of foresight in the area of serviceability is inexcusable, especially when the “builder” has control over the project from the outset. One of the goals in building a unit (whether it is a Top Fuel bike, a Funny Car, Roadrace bike or Custom) is the importance of ease of service, unless the piece is destined for hanging on the wall.

The items mentioned above are some of the reasons we will look at a custom before even thinking about working on it if it doesn’t have 1HD at the beginning of its V.I.N.  Even after seeing it judgment will be reserved before agreeing to do any service work.

Characteristic problem areas on these customs are wiring and driveline issues.  We recently had a custom in here with a 4-speed kickstart trans in a softail frame.  This at first glance wouldn’t seem to be a problem except that the drain for the trans is in a boss that on the original FX model hung out in space, but on the Softail sat right over an hit a shock.  The logic used by the “builder” dictated this boss be removed and the hole welded shut.  Slick, eh?  The same bike also had no lowbeam due to wires being cut where they ran into the handlebars and no turn signals (great for riding with your buddies) and no front brake switch at all.  This was on a bike that from all outward appearances looked good. 

Handling characteristics of the various customs are not something that even deserves discussion.  When the rake is over 38 degrees and/or the forks exceed 40 inches in top nut to axle length it will be a handful. The proliferation of the 240 and now 300mm wide rear tires also dramatically affect cornering characteristics.  I have ridden on 10 and 12 inch wide tires and they are wild.  On the recent (April ’04) American Choppers episode Paul Sr. was concerned about the handling on the newest bike.  They had asked Sam Wills to do the chassis.  This is the individual after whom my oldest daughter is named as she was born the year he set the 200mph record in Top Fuel bikes (1985) on a chassis of his own design. Handling, eh?  He has been building chassis in that speed range since, and is the rider on the shop t-shirts showing the bike doing a big burnout on one of our chassis.  Final decisions to ride or not ride a custom will be up to the individual working on the bike.

I am not against the creative interpretation of the art of motorcycles.  I have built and ridden a two-wheeler over 20 feet long.  This platform later was stretched to 24 feet and run on the ice and still later was fitted with a 30 foot tall wing and converted into an iceboat, so creative interpretation has happened here. When it comes to belt drives we have built a bike with 4 belts on it (the one Sam Wills rode).  We have successfully built complete cylinder heads from aluminum billet including nearly all the internal components. 

Having gone through the first generation of the “chopper” (when “old school” was new school and Indian Larry didn’t look 70 years old) I am familiar with them over the long run.  As mentioned before, being unique has its costs and efforts required, so please don’t be surprised at the expense or hesitancy you find when looking for service on your custom or the difficulty in selling it when you are ready to move on.  I have had considerable difficulty in selling a lot of our customs over the years no matter the style.  Such is the lot of the motorcycle “artiste”.

I welcome your comments and thoughts on this. Thank you.

© Bill Whisenant 2007
updated 10/23/07


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