The Chopper Saga
I got out of the Army in December '68, after having had my SE Asian vacation and then ridden
into DC in armored vehicles during the riots when Martin Luther King Jr was
killed. Through those turbulent years my dream had been to buy a
Harley and "hit the road" to wherever that might take me. I took my pennies and bought a
brand new '69 Harley Sportster in February '69.
It was a 900 cc kick start model (an "electric foot" was something only sissies wanted back then!), and
on the cold mornings I had to get my 250 lb roommate to start it for me
- even he had to jump on the kick starter and then it would just slowly
crank. By March the weather was improving and I could start it
easily enough by myself. I was getting ready to pack my stuff and taste the
freedom I had dreamed of all those years in the Army.
It was not to be. I lived in an apartment building, and
someone later said they saw somebody loading MY Sportster in the back
of a pickup truck - at 8pm in the evening. They thought it
was somebody I knew and never paid any attention. I never saw
I had spent my last savings
on the Harley, and hadn't even been able to afford insurance.
So it was really gone, and I was broke. I had
picked up a '56 Triumph with a blown engine for $80 while I was still
in the Army, but had never done anything with it. I had no
alternative but to pull out the old basket case and start working on it.
One thing was clear - I was not getting on the road any time
soon, at least not with a motorcycle. Which did not rule out
hitch-hiking across the country several times in the next few years.
But those are other stories.
At first I was just satisfied to get it running.
But this was the time of the movie Easy Rider, and I had been reading the Chopper
magazines and starting to dream. One centerfold that made a
big impression on me at the time was this one:
The more I tinkered with that old Triumph, and the more I
read, the more the dreams grew. At first I was just going to add a few
chrome parts. Eventually I was hauling baskets full of parts
to the chrome plating shop. An initial plan to put a short
extension in the front forks evolved to completely reworking the frame,
converting it to a hard tail, and adding a 20" extended Springer front
All of this took several years. In this pic the
dream has grown quite large, and is starting to give birth:
There is little of the original frame left. The sissy
bar (as with many other parts) I made myself - the top curves were
formed by bending around an acetylene welding tank. Then I
took the pieces over to the welding shop next door and had them weld it while I
held the two halves aligned like I wanted - then off to the chrome
shop. Instead of cutting and rewelding the neck casting for
the front fork (as many did), I cut a notch in front of the seat, took
out the main front vertical frame member, and hinged the whole top bar
assembly up. A longer front frame member was welded in.
This left the neck casting intact. It also put the
top of the forks and gas tank up high, while leaving the engine at
about the normal height off the ground. With the "trail" of
the front forks greatly reduced by the Springer design, it was actually
a very easy handling motorcycle. The only thing it could not
do was turn around in a small radius! The bike measured
several inches over 9
long - from the front of the front wheel to the tip
of the sissy bar.
Every step waited for the next pay check - either to buy more
parts or take another haul to the chrome shop.
Here's where it was really starting to get exciting:
For the first time I
was fitting the newly chromed parts to the newly painted
frame. There was a lot of Bondo on that frame!
The paint job I did myself. It was 3 colors of
Metal Flake (1 part red, 2 parts copper, and 3 parts Desert
Sand), applied in multiple layers of clear epoxy resin over a beige undercoat.
I was never able to take a photo that captured what the color
really looked like. From a distance the best I can describe
it as is Pink Champagne.
The paint job seemed to have no bottom, and on top of it I put multiple
coats of clear epoxy containing Diamond Flake, which glittered in the
sun with miniature pinpoint rainbows.
Finally, in the Spring of '72, it became a motorcyle!
I spent as much time as I could that Summer riding my new toy.
Like all dreams, the reality never quite lived up to the
expectations. Those old Triumphs really vibrate! Retightening all
the bolts was a regular and necessary part of maintenance. And while I
had been working on the frame, I had not neglected the engine.
The original 650 cc Bonneville was modified to 800 cc with a
Sonny Routt Webcor Big Bore kit
With those extra (high compression) cc's, when the magneto wasn't working exactly
right, it could be a bear to start:
But it did look mighty fine (at least to me!), and that made up for a
lot! And the engine ran very well - when I cranked on the
throttle I had to be careful in the lower gears - the front wheel did
not want to stay on the ground!
I was known as "Hoss" in those days, and a friend by the name
of Scott (aka "Gabby" for his taciturn nature) was also putting the finishing
touches on his motorcycle. All his parts were gold
(and not phony gold either). I did the gloss black paint job
for him, and both of our bikes were displayed at the DC Rod and Custom Show
Gabby and Hoss sitting proud
those years I lived with a couple who were like a
brother and sister to me. John and Pam (Squeeze and Pang) were some of
few people who were priviledged to ride that bike!
'72 was a great summer, but the dream of being "on the road"
had never died, and I finally came to realize that this was not the bike to do
that with. It was great for "profiling" around town, but it
wasn't reliable or comfortable enough to do serious miles on.
I also knew a few things at that point that I wanted to do differently,
so I tore it down that Winter and reworked it. This time it
was being put together for sale. Here is Chopper II as it was put
up for sale:
I probably never rode it more than 5 or 10 miles in that form - I
wanted it to be as Cherry as possible for the new owner. The
new paint job (done by Squeeze and an acquaintence) was Lemon Pearl with custom air-brushed murals
on the sides of the tank.
It didn't take too long to find a buyer, and I got my asking price of
$2,000. Which doesn't sound like much now, but brand new BMW
motorcycles were being sold for $1,800 at the time.
While I was doing the rework I had already found a very
slightly used '71 BMW the previous fall for $1,500 and worked on
outfitting it for serious travel.
I never saw the chopper again after it was sold. I heard a third hand rumor
that the new owner had wrecked it, but I never followed up to find out if
that was true. By that time I was thoroughly in love with my new road
worthy steed, and the chopper was old history to me. Gabby's
bike was later destroyed in a fire.
I finally realized my dream of getting On The Road in the Summer of '73.
I went West and then up into Canada at International Falls.
They didn't seem to be very keen on having "my type" enter
their country, and the Canadian customs agent took me apart piece by piece -
he was even unscrewing ball point pens and looking inside!
In the end they let me in though, and I had a grand time riding up
through the Canadian Rockies.
Beemers were very popular for touring - here's 4 of us in a parking lot near Lake Louise.
Mine is the second from the right:
Eventually I made my way over to Vancouver and then down the West Coast to end
upin California for that Winter.
But those are other stories.
I will add this, however - I still have that old Beemer, and it still
runs. I finally got it back on the road again (2006 - update: still running in 2022!)
after many years of sad neglect:
It's not the shiny and crisp new machine it once was. It's seen some
knocks and hard miles and doesn't run quite as smoothly as it once did.
Just like it's rider.
Note: starting with that Winter in California my life took twists and turns I
could not have even imagined at the time. The next 15 years would see a
that would change me at nearly every level of my being.