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.
Harley Sportster
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 it again.

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.

Basket Case 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:
Center Fold
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 end.

All of this took several years. In this pic the dream has grown quite large, and is starting to give birth:
Frame mods
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 feet 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:

Test fit of the parts
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.
Metal Flake Paint Job
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!
On the Road

I spent as much time as I could that Summer riding my new toy.

In the wind
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:
Kick 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-plated (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 that year.
2 Choppers

Gabby and Hoss
Gabby and Hoss sitting proud Gabby and Hoss

During 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 the very few people who were priviledged to ride that bike!
Squeeze and Pang

'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:
Chopper II
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.
Chopper II
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.
New Beemer
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!
Border Crossing
In the end they let me in though, and I had a grand time riding up through the Canadian Rockies.
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:
4 Beemers

Eventually I made my way over to Vancouver and then down the West Coast to end upin California for that Winter.
Camping in California
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:
Still Running
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.

Richard Cobb

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 Metamorphis that would change me at nearly every level of my being.

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(updated March 26, 2022)