“I can’t remember. Did I tell you about the guys who hung around Chopper Bob’s motorcycle shop?” This is the way I remember Chopper Bob, his girlfriend Gypsy (who was a real sideshow fortune teller), Stump, Oily Red, Hilly and the guy who wore bell bottom pants and never got a nickname.
Back in the late ’60s… well… let’s just say that how we approached riding motorcycles, what we rode, where we went, how we got there, what we did when we got there were all substantially different from the way things are done today. Small examples: Only a few of us wore helmets, fewer still owned leathers and the rest of us made do with surplus army jackets and watch caps.
The dealers sold spark plugs, oil and expensive parts that no one could afford so we bought used stuff from Chopper Bob and hung out at his shop. He also let us work on our bikes if we knew what we were doing and if we didn’t we could pay him to fix things. The frequenters of the place had something in common and eventually 10 of us became the neighborhood club. When some hanger-on artsy kid from high school made up a logo we had a meeting with a keg of beer and a huge bottle of India ink where we all emblazoned our T-shirts with the new shop patch.
What you rode made little or no difference. Oily Red, who was always mixing oil with gas, had a Yamaha two-stroke twin whose only modification was a sissy bar made of a bent piece of rebar that was hose clamped to the back of the frame.
Hilly, who had painted his BSA 441 Victor’s gas tank black with a spray can, never met a hill he didn’t try to climb.
Stump had a BMW R69S that he chopped down to the bone and added an extended Sportster front end and a peanut tank. It sounds horrible but it was really fast because it didn’t weigh anything.
I got messed up with this group because I was Stump’s friend. They didn’t know what to make of me because I rode a Norton café racer and no one knew what a café racer was or why I rode it. To confuse things further, I smoked a pipe, affected an accent and pretended that I was English.
The “weed distributor” was a character who had enough money to pay Chopper Bob to build him an outrageous Harley Panhead. He showed up at the shop driving a Cadillac, wearing fashionable flappy bell bottom pants, a black T-shirt and Levi vest that we were sure he deliberately decorated with oil in order to make himself look biker appropriate. I once saw him stop the car a block away from the shop, get the vest out of the trunk and spot it ceremoniously with road dirt.
When his bike was finished it was a thing of beauty, chrome everywhere, tank painted black with red flames, a 10-over front end, stroker Panhead with a huge SU carburetor sans air cleaner sporting a four-inch velocity stack.
He paid Chopper Bob in cash and we all saddled up for the celebratory ride, taking off for the local watering hole. Chopper Bob kicked it over and handed him the reins. A block from the shop he pulled over to the curb. “What’s the problem?” I pulled up and asked.
“It won’t run; it’s like it’s out of gas.”
“Well, it’s idling now.” I pointed out as he put it back in gear and started off for the second time.
In the next block he pulled over again. Again the bike was idling and after a minute he took off for the third time only to pull over this time when the Panhead died. Everyone made a U-turn and were all around him wondering what the problem was. I kicked down my side stand, reached in my tool roll, snagged some tape, walked up to him, pulled his bell-bottomed pants out of the velocity stack and ran a line around his right leg, taping his pant leg down tight. “I don’t guess it will run with your pant leg sucked into the carburetor,” Stump said and no one could stop laughing. Mr. Bell Bottoms didn’t make the bar and we never saw him again.
Chopper Bob rode the most outlandish blown, rigid Panhead in California. The girder front end must have been extended 20 feet, with enough room between the back of the front wheel and the frame to install a wing-shaped oil tank that looked like it was off the top of a sprint car. There were two gas tanks tooled to look like World War II fighter plane drop tanks. Maybe they were. Chopper Bob took pride that his miracle Panhead didn’t leak oil. If a drop of oil hit the ground he reached under the primary cover, released a spring-loaded catch, slid out a specially welded-up aluminum box just the size of a Kotex pad, threw out an oily pad, gave a girl change for the machine and sent her into the bathroom for a fresh one. Clever idea.
The sissy bar reached four feet above the seat and was needed for Chopper Bob’s lady friend, Gypsy. Chopper Bob stood 6 foot 4 and she must have been at least 6 foot 2. Her hair was black as the eye of night and grew well below her waist. She only wore painted-on tight jeans and a Mexican poncho. Under the poncho was nothing but skin. With the two of them in the middle of the highway, the front end reaching their destination 20 minutes before the rest of the bike, her hair streaming out the back whipping over the sissy bar and the poncho only slightly fighting the wind to protect her perfect breasts from the prying eyes of other motorists, it was a motif no one will ever forget.
Like I said, things are different. Today, just riding on two wheels is not good enough. Gold Wingers ride with Gold Wingers, crotch rockets ride in their incestuous groups, Harleys ride with H.O.G., dual-purpose bikes pretend they’re riding around the world, BMWs have coffee together, Ducati riders don’t even talk to each other, and no one mixes anymore. So be it. But I think I liked it better the way it was, when anyone could ride with the guys from Chopper Bob’s shop.