I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was in my teens. My first bike was a Kawasaki KE100 that I bought before I even had a license and I’ve had more bikes than I can remember since then. Road bikes, race bikes, big trail bikes, muscle bikes, tourers – all sorts. I’m lucky in that I’m tall and strong, which means that I’ve yet to find I bike I can’t physically handle. As soon as I could afford it, I worked my way up to bigger engines because I loved the power, the speed and the adrenaline.
When I started hanging out with other bikers, going to rides and rallies, I got interested in custom bikes. Café racers, survival bikes and choppers. If biking is a way of expressing your individuality then riding a custom bike is surely the logical progression. The stripped-down, lightweight look always did it for me; take everything that isn’t needed and chuck it in the bin. Then start replacing, modifying and upgrading what’s left until you have a bike that embodies exactly your attitude to riding.
Although they’re perfectly good machines for cranking out the miles, I’ve never been interested in cruisers or ‘factory customs’. Standard Harley Davidsons are great, but they’re not really for me (and I’ve ridden a bunch of them to make sure). What’s always done it for me is the look and feel of a really well thought out chopper – preferably with a seventies Jap engine or a classic Brit lump. Back in the late nineties, I had a chopped CB750 and it made me really appreciate the brutal aesthetic of a hardtailed bike. Early motorcycles never had rear suspension and it’s not like people didn’t ride across whole countries back in the day. A combination of a good frame design, a sprung seat and a rider who was hard as nails was enough. These days, we’ve got good tyres that they never had back then.
Done right, a chopper looks like nothing else: a clean line from headstock to rear axle, interrupted only by as small a tank as you can get away with and a seat that’s nothing more than it needs to be. Just as text on a page needs negative space, you should be able to see plenty of light between the engine and frame on a chopped bike. Forks can be kicked out to give more space up front. Skinny front wheels; mudguards optional. Apehangers. A sissy bar to strap your bedroll to. You don’t need much more.
British engines, the old parallel twins from Triumph, Norton and BSA are lovely – they sound just right and they feel like a motorcycle should. Unfortunately, unless you’re prepared to put in a lot of work to keep them on the road, you’ve got to accept that they’re going to be expensive and complex to keep going. Although it’s a sweeping generalization, they’re often finickity, break more often and are almost systemically prone to oil leaks. In some cases, parts can be expensive and hard to chase down. Also, unless you’re buying a pre-existing project, chopping a perfectly good classic Brit bike feels a little sacrilegious to me, although some would disagree.
So what’s left? Well, right now, I’m looking at engines like the Yamaha XS650 and the Kawasaki W650. Parallel twins, but with horizontally split crankcases and machining tolerances that give you a fighting chance of keeping the oil in the engine and off your garage floor. Plenty of power and an engine that looks and sounds like an engine should. Yamaha made close on a quarter of a million of its XS variants so there are an awful lot of them still about and spares are plentiful. Better still, there’s a thriving community of home mechanics, builders, modders and fabricators who have taken Yamaha’s already splendid engine and improved on it.
That’s why I’m scouring Craigslist and Facebook for a homebrew custom hardtail chopper powered by a seventies Jap engine which is likely to get me from West Coast USA to New Orleans. There’s a surprisingly decent number of them out there, but there are a lot of rattly barhoppers just waiting to either break down on some deserted highway or at best, leave me with difficulty walking after a few hundred miles. What I’m looking for is a well built bike that looks awesome and is going to be capable of riding across country – and that’s still pretty niche.
Wish me luck.