Real Choppers Don’t Come Out of a Can

Roll Your Own

chopper building
Motorcycle as art, or at least a symbol, proves that choppers don’t have to be pristine or running well (or at all) to be cool.©Motorcyclist

Fat Jack was a childhood motorcycle god who lived a couple of blocks from my house. I can’t remember how fat he was, exactly. He seemed large, but we were young, maybe 12 years old, when we hung around his single-car garage. Everyone in town called him Fat Jack, so we did too.

Jack was the first friend I ever had who didn’t live at home with his parents. I say friend, but Jack never spoke to me and probably didn’t know I existed. He rented a house and had the entire place all to himself, an amazing feat I have not been able to duplicate in my lifetime. Jack was cool. Jack drank beer in front of us. He was probably in his mid-20s back then.

What made Fat Jack a god was his motorcycle, a pre-Easy Rider, Panhead Harley-Davidson chopper he built himself. The neighborhood kids would ride bicycles over to Jack's garage to watch him tinker with it. And he was always tinkering with it. Why he put up with us I'll never know. Maybe he liked having a peanut gallery, or maybe he was just a good-natured biker from a simpler time.

We must have seen Fat Jack kickstart that Panhead thousands of times. This wasn’t unusual—everything started hard in the late 1960s. TV sets took forever to warm up, flashlight batteries were nearly always dead, and car carburetors routinely caught fire, charring the paint in the center of their hoods.

When the Panhead finally started it shook the entire neighborhood, popping and spitting, “I’m alive!” We’d chase after Jack like ducklings following a clanking, obnoxiously loud mallard, but the Panhead could easily outrun our Schwinns. Although if we stayed with it we could catch up when the thing inevitably began misfiring a few miles down the road.

In hindsight, Jack’s Panhead was crap. The steeply raked steering head was a frightful concretion of welds atop strap iron supported by more welds. For a hardtail there was an amazing amount of rear suspension travel when Jack brought his huge foot crashing down onto the kickstart lever. Rent from rust and bathed in oil, the Panhead had a sputtering, fore-and-aft idle that seemed to fire only on the prime numbers until quitting altogether as ignition became a mathematical rarity.

"What made Fat Jack a god was his motorcycle, a pre-Easy Rider, Panhead Harley chopper he built himself."

By the time we graduated from bicycles to minibikes and Honda 50s, Jack had moved away, but the damage was done. We learned how to act like bikers from Jack. We knew how to be motorcycle men. We learned that choppers—real, pure choppers—don’t come out of a can. They spring forth, out of the mind, twisted things of beauty only their builders can see. A pure chopper has zero resale value because the only customer in the world who wants it already owns it. A chopper is not a motorcycle; it’s a song for broken eyes when you can’t form the words.

Pure choppers reward fearlessness over mechanical skill. Look, I’ve seen the amazing motorcycles from Roland Sands, Generation Ness, and the rest. Those master craftsmen build spectacular, perfectly rendered rebellion products, store-bought soul for the soul-devoid. I see the artistry and the amazing metal skills, but it’s not my revolution. And it’s not Fat Jack’s revolution.

After the check clears it’s nobody’s revolution. A store-bought chopper is a business deal. There’s nothing wrong with business deals, but a chopper without a true believer is just a silly-looking, poor-handling comic motorcycle. There’s as much, if not more, pure artistry in a 500cc commuter Honda. The two differ only in extremes of style and price tag.

All those years ago Fat Jack's Panhead showed us kids that choppers don't have to be perfect, or even run, to be cool. As I grow older I'm surer than ever that it's the rider who makes the motorcycle righteous, not the other way around.