Why Customizing Your Bike ?

Originally, people modified their motorcycles to improve them in some way. In the early years of the sport, for example, many motorcyclists added a windshield, some saddlebags, or perhaps a sidecar to their bikes.

After World War II, customization in the United States focused on improving performance. Young American men and women had been exposed to lightweight, high-performance European motorcycles during the war. When they came home, the old U.S. bikes just didn’t cut it. Most motorcycle riders had to figure out alternative methods to get higher performance out of their bikes.

Choppers - Custom Motorcycle

How’d they do it ? They simply lightened their bikes. They unbolted every non-essential part they could unbolt or torch. This became the pattern for customization in this country, and to this day, the bobbers, as the original chopped customs were called, still set the pattern for U.S.-style custom bikes.

As the performance levels of stock motorcycles climbed, it became less necessary to customize a bike to attain more speed. But people now customize for other reasons, too.

Some people customize for style. Modifications like lowering a bike’s suspension, altering its steering geometry, and adding ape-hanger (tall) handlebars - the modifications that have come to define the term custom for many people-actually detract from a bike’s performance, but scores of people do these things to their bikes anyway. (Many of the radically customized motorcycles you see in bike shows are actually unrideable.

But there’s an alternate movement in the realm of motorcycle customization. Many people still modify their bikes to increase their usefulness. People add aftermarket suspension components to improve a bike’s handling. They mount windshields, more comfortable seats, and hard luggage to make a motorcycle a better long-distance tourer. They add aftermarket air filters and rejet their carburetors, not only to make their bikes faster, but to make them more efficient. In a way, customization has come full circle.

Comparing Customs

Ask a typical American to describe a custom bike, and he or she will most likely describe the radical chopper-type bike. Such bikes account for the largest segment of customization in the United States, but elsewhere in the world, other types of customs have been more prevalent. In the past few years, some of the other styles of customs have been gaining in popularity in the United States, especially the café racers and streetfighters that have long been popular in Europe.


Choppers define American motorcycle style. The original bobbers were American hot rods, stripped-down Harleys, and Indians built for speed. As other, faster motorcycles became available, custom Harleys evolved from the bobbers of the 1940s into the choppers of the 1960s. By then, chopper style had become carved in stone: extended forks; high handlebars; a low, fat tire on the back; a tall, skinny tire up front; and a tall backrest or sissy bar.

In the 1970s and 1980s, choppers evolved into low riders, becoming longer and lower. Now lowrider–type customs are more common than traditional choppers, although the original chopper-type customs have been making a comeback in the past few years.

" I don’t recommend building a chopper-type custom. Such bikes tend to be so foul-handling, they are unsafe on the road. Riding a motorcycle is challenging enough on a bike you can steer. If you want to own such a machine, I recommend buying one from an established customizer who knows what he or she is doing when building the bike. "

The original bobbers were either Harleys or Indians. When the British began exporting large numbers of bikes to the United States in the 1950s, these, too, became popular bikes to chop. Initially, customizers also chopped Japanese bikes, but by the early 1980s, Harleys once again ruled the custom-bike market in the United States. But due to the difficulty of obtaining new Harleys, along with their soaring prices, Japanese bikes have begun to regain popularity in the custom scene. You can now buy aftermarket customizing parts for a variety of Japanese cruisers.

Café Racers

While Americans were busy chopping their Harleys, the Europeans took a different approach to customization. For many post-war Europeans, motorcycles were the only form of transportation to which they had access. In Europe, motorcycles were (and still are) used more frequently as practical transportation than they are in the United States.

Thus, customization tended to be more heavily focused on practical improvements. That, combined with the more liberal attitude toward driving fast in many European countries, meant that Europeans were more interested in building faster, better-handling customs than they were in adding higher apehanger handlebars and taller sissy bars.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, a discernible European style of custom began to emerge. These bikes were inspired by European racing motorcycles. Owners moved their footpegs toward the rear and lowered their handlebars, often using handlebars that clipped directly on the fork legs (clip-on handlebars). This placed the rider in a crouched, forward-leaning position. Some owners adapted small fairings to their bikes to mimic the fairings used by racers.

These bikes became known as café racers, supposedly because their owners hung out in cafés and raced each other from café to café. Such bikes have always had a cult following in the United States, a following that continues to grow over time. There are probably more café racers in the United States right now than at any time in history. In some cities, like Minneapolis and San Francisco, the popularity of café racers rivals that of custom Harleys.

" Café racers are motorcycles modified to resemble racing motorcycles from the 1950s and ’60s. They are called “café racers” because their owners supposedly raced from café to café in London, where the bikes first appeared in the 1960s. Converting a stock motorcycle into a café racer is known as doing a café chop on a bike. "

Although when taken to the extreme, café racers can be as uncomfortable to ride as choppers, when modified correctly, café racers handle much better than choppers. Another benefit of building a café racer instead of building a chopper is that it’s much cheaper. To build a respectable chopper, you’ll either need to start with a Harley-Davidson or with one of the big Japanese cruisers—an expensive proposition, either way.

You can do a very nice café chop on just about any older Japanese motorcycle—bikes you can pick up for less money than you’d spend on tax and a license for a big new cruiser.


While Yankees progressed from choppers to low riders, in Europe, café bikes evolved into streetfighters: stripped-down, hopped-up road warriors of the type the original post-war customizers in this country might have devised if they had had access to modern technology.

Streetfighters are all function. They have no bodywork, no fancy paint, and no chrome. They owe their very existence to practicality. As sportbikes became more and more complex, they also became more expensive to buy and more expensive to repair after minor crashes. Insurance companies began writing off perfectly functional sportbikes rather than replacing expensive plastic pieces.

" Streetfighters, or hooligan bikes as they are sometimes called in the United States, are bare-bones sportbikes, stripped of all extraneous body work. "

European motorcyclists, with war-bred practicality, started rescuing those damaged bikes, but instead of replacing expensive body parts, they just trashed all the plastic. Like American customizers in the 1940s, they chopped off all the extraneous parts, replacing only what was needed, like the headlight. In fact, they often bolted on a couple of headlights. When the whole thing was ready, they applied a coat of flatblack paint (to protect the surfaces of the exposed metal, not for any cosmetic reasons), then went out and rode the wheels off these streetfighters.

These bikes proved to be so popular that the manufacturers got in the act. A variety of companies began marketing sporting bikes without any bodywork, but no one got the streetfighter look down as well as Kawasaki. The latest Z1000 embodies the streetfighter look.

So You Want to Customize Your Bike ?

If you are interested in customizing your bike, you need to ask yourself a few questions:

1. What do I want from my bike? Do I want to improve some functional aspect, like comfort or handling? Do I want to improve my bike’s performance? Do I just want to change my bike’s appearance? What you want from your bike will guide you when deciding what changes to make.

2. What compromises am I willing to make to get what I want? A motorcycle represents a series of compromises made by the designers and engineers who created it. They made those compromises for a reason. Altering one aspect of your bike can cause unintended consequences in some other aspect. Honestly assess what you are willing to sacrifice before making any changes.

3. How much am I willing to spend? There are many small, inexpensive alterations you can make to your bike that will improve its comfort, handling, appearance, and performance. But making major alterations usually costs a lot, and there’s no guarantee you’ll achieve your desired results. Before embarking on a major modification of your motorcycle, make certain that you know what you want, that your intended modification will achieve that goal, and that the results will be worth what they’ll cost you.

Only after you’ve answered these questions should you make any major modifications to your bike.