These 5 choppers from the ’70s are cool enough to bridge generations
Hair and clothing styles rarely age well, but vehicle trends seem to fade only to return a few decades later. The latest evidence of this phenomenon? ’70s choppers.
Millennials have zero nostalgic connection to the ’60s and ’70s chopper craze and have no reason to reflect longingly on these highly stylized bikes. The absurd frame modifications and over-extended front forks are just the start with these custom jobs—consider the even wilder seats, handlebars, and paint work. Choppers don’t exactly showcase timeless elegance. Even so, ’70s choppers seem to resonate with generations born years after the fad passed.
As two young folks, Kyle Smith and I picked out five choppers from Mecum’s Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction that we think are ridiculous—and way cool.
Choppers scream Americana and Route 66, and the Harley brand goes with choppers like Hallmark goes with Christmas. A Triumph chopper might surprise you, especially one wearing a Captain America paint job; but once the bobber craze of the ’50s turned into the chopper craze of the ’60s and ’70s, anything counted as art, British bikes included. A few builders wouldn’t touch a British engine—and some still don’t—but the Triumph twins became almost as famous as Harley Panheads and Knuckleheads.
This 1967 Triumph chopper is a textbook example from How to Build a Chopper, first edition. King-and-queen seat? Check. Wider rear tire on a smaller rim? Check. Raked front end with springer forks? Check. Narrow ape bars? Check. Captain America paint job? Check.
We’d take it.
This Panhead is worthy of an Easy Rider reenactment. A Triumph chopper is cool, but a Panhead crammed into a chopped frame looks even better. This example has a first-year ’48 Panhead, an engine that gets its name from the pan-shaped rocker covers atop the cylinder heads.
Prior to 1969’s Easy Rider, a flick that accelerated the chopper craze, Panhead engines were the “budget” V-twin option found on shop shelves or in the back corners of garages. Tim Graber, the owner of Classic Motorcycle Consignments, recalls that “Panheads at the time were old, used-up, and cheap to work with compared to the newly produced Shovelhead.” Once Easy Rider splashed the famous Billy Bike and “Captain America bike across the movie screen, however, Graber says that conservative riders came out of the closet. The Panhead choppers were seen as “absolutely beautiful, strong, and representing freedom.”
This bike is the only one in this collection to feature a flat-sided “coffin” gas tank, and it also looks like a project in waiting. This chopper’s missing some pieces and doesn’t appear to have any brakes. Its extreme style might not resonate as much as the peanut tanks and king-and-queen seats of other choppers, but it exists in a niche of styles from years gone by.
On a happier note, the ’53 Panhead engine represents a nice upgrade from the 1948 engine. To improve reliability, Harley upgraded the Panhead’s oil pump, and the rockers, lifters, and valves were redesigned for better oil flow. Parts are fairly readily available for these bikes, making a spring ride possible if you stay focused all winter.
We know, we know—this is the third Panhead in a row, but the trio is a reminder that the Panhead was (and is) the iconic base for a chopper build. This particular one is both wilder and more tame than most: The paint is as out-there as you can get, but the front assembly is strangely understated. Our best guess? While the crazy 4–8-inch stretched front forks photograph well and look crazy on the street, they can make a bike a real handful to ride. This Panhead uses a stock frame and front end, meaning that its builder likely wanted a cool custom that wasn’t too demanding to ride.
Triumphs and Harleys get most of the love these days, but just about any ’70s bike could be the base for a custom. Builders used what they had, and that’s the reason why this CB450 twin is so far-out. The frame is nearly unrecognizable for the changes. Interestingly, the builder elected to replace the rear shocks with twisted and chromed solid metal. Choppers aren’t about comfort—but that just seems a bit excessive from where we sit.
Do any of these customs spark a bit of societal rebellion in you? If they do, maybe you should embrace that impulse and head to Mecum’s Las Vegas auction. Trends go in cycles, and choppers are on the return.