So you want a bobber
By Josh “2_Wheel_Nation” Calvi
Originally posted on the Jockey Journal,reprinted with permission.
so, it’s official, you want a bobber. let me guess… you were sitting at the tattoo parlor waiting for your turn to get something deeply meaningful drilled into your flesh when this guy rides up on the sickest bike you’ve ever seen. you go out to ogle it and you say to the owner “bro that’s the sickest bike i’ve ever seen!”. he looks at you, hesitating to smile as he removes his goggles and says “thanks bro, that’s my bobber.” you thought it was a yamaha, mainly because that’s what the engine says on it but you didn’t want to sound like a fool. all you know is that bike made you hornier than the latest sailor jerry flash catalog. ever since then you’ve been thinking about that killer scoot; the red rims, the white walls, the flat black paint job, the PBR tap handle shifter. the thing just oozed class. finally you decide to punch the words “bobber” and “motorcycle” into a search engine. then lo and behold, you find yourself here, the jockey journal. you’ve found it, the holy grail. shangri la. xanadu. you start reading threads, the bike pics are driving you wild but all these words like “pan”, “trump” and “magneto” are makin your head spin like a fist full of crosstops. you don’t care. you’re determined. you want a bobber, but where to start? you’ve never ridden a bike before. you don’t know which way to turn a wrench. all you know is that sportsters are girls bikes and bobbers are the shit. you’re about to start a new thread asking everyone how to make a bobber when you find this post: “TECH: so you want a bobber”. no freaking way! your ship has just come in my friend. crack open a fresh high life and crank up the cash, let’s get to building you a bike mr 666chopperbobberratrod666 or whoever you are.
before you start down the road of busted knuckles there’s a few things to consider. are you mechanically inclined? building a bike is very technical. not like building a robot technical, but it’s definitely not for the timid. are you willing to learn on your own? all the info you need is available in written form. either here or in the pages of your bike’s workshop manual. these will be your bibles. have you ever even ridden a motorcycle? if you haven’t, it might be wise to put your bobber dreams on the shelf long enough to learn how to ride a stock bike. if you don’t even have your motorcycle license, you don’t really have a choice.
just what is all this “bobber” business anyways? the first “bobbers” are what we would today consider to be “mild customs”. all the “unnecessarry” parts were “bobbed” off for a minimal, bare bones look. many of the elements we consider to be quintessentially “bobber” these days; hard tails, solo seats, hand shifters, were actually original equipment on motorcycles of that era (the 40’s). that being said, let’s just agree to stop saying “bobber” right now. it’s a word that losing it’s original meaning more and more every day, to the point that it’s practically lost. that, and it sounds stupid.
where to start… well, what’s your mechanical ability and budget? if you don’t even know how to adjust a cable or change your oil, then rebuilding carburetors is going to be a big deal. there’s nothing wrong with that, everyone starts somewhere. all this means is that you’re best off starting with a bike that actually runs. unless of course you’ve got a knowledgable friend willing to help you through this. starting with a basket case from square one will most assuredly result in failure. which is bad for you, but good for those of us who appreciate the steady stream of parts from failed projects. another thing to keep in mind is that old bikes need constant love and attention. they need to be dutifully adjusted, lubricated and maintained. if you don’t enjoy the work it will become a chore and your bike will fall into disrepair. if you aren’t ready for a big commitment, stick with more modern bikes.
how big is your budget? a bigger budget always helps, but many bikes have been built for short money. this of course relies on what kind of access you have to tools, parts and friends in high places like welding and machine shops. one thing you should expect if you have no tools is that you will spend lots of money on them. even more if you’re going to start buying welders and lathes. buy tools as you need them. mooch when you can. specialty tools are also worth a mention. if you’re cracking open your engine be prepared to spend money on specialty tools. they suck because they’re expensive as hell and you use them like once. they’re awesome because, well, you need them.
ok, let’s get to bikes. the above considerations of budget and skill apply accross the board to your choice of bike. as do other special considerations i’ll touch upon here. i’m only going to cover the most popular bikes. keep in mind there are MANY makes out there, these are just the ones you’re most likely to find.
parts: moderate/easy to find
Traditionally, “bobbers” would be american bikes. harley’s and indians to be exact. today the vast majority of builders choose HD mainly because indians are incredibly rare, very desireable and nearly impossible to find parts for. for now we’ll just stick with HD’s. when talking about HD’s you’re going to hear the following terms: flathead, knucklehead, panhead, ironhead, shovelhead, and evolution. these are the names given to the various generations of harley engines. you simply can’t beat the beauty of early american iron. modern engines like the evo are used often but lack the aesthetic of their older relatives. what they lack in beauty however, they make up in the performance and reliability. if you want a harley be prepared to spend big bucks*. flatties, pans and shovels will set you back upwards $5-9k just for a motor. a knuck; $10k+ for a mill. *the exception here is the ironhead engine which was made for the vastly under appreciated sportster. a whole running sporty can be had for about $2-4k. i’m not even going to get into the “girl’s bike” thing. there are tons of aftermarket parts for hd which enjoys the largest aftermarket in the custom bike world.
parts: moderate/easy to find
British twins (triumphs in particular) came into vougue in the 50’s and 60’s. they have every bit as much style and finesse as american bikes, and are particularly well suited for that thin, wirey, stripped down look. triumphs are the most popular choice with BSA’s in second, the “unit” construction 650cc models in particular. parts are surprisingly easy to find thanks to minimal changes over a few decades of manufacture. brit engines are dirt simple and very basic. great engines to learn on if you’re ready to jump in that deep. a brit project will set you back anywhere from $1500-3k depending on condition. common terms you’ll hear thrown around in the brit world are “pre-unit”, “unit”, “OIF” and “whitworth”. prior to the early 60’s brit engines were seperate from their transmissions. around 1962 the engine and tranny became one single “unit”. in the 70’s triumph started making the backbone/seat-post portion of their frame a big fat tube that doubles as the oil tank, thus coining the term “oil-in-frame” or “OIF”. one important consideration for wrenching on british bikes is that until some time in the 70’s the brits used their own special nut/bolt sizes called “whitworth”. you will need some whitworth wrenches if you’re going to work on a brit bike, and unfortunately they’re not cheap and you can’t get them at harbor freight. www.britishfasteners.com has a good selection, and even the relatively low cost “everest” brand has served many a brit wrench very well.
parts: moderate/hard to find
asian bikes do not a “traditional” bobber make. though the early honda cb750’s were readily chopped in the 70’s and their overhead cam engines were revered for their power. asian bikes are plentiful, cheap fast and pretty reliable. people are known to give them away just to get them out of their garages. it’s not hard to accumulate a pile of parts bikes for short money to complete your build. the two most popular choices for customizing are the honda cb750 and the yamaha xs650. the cb line extends down through many choppable bikes particularly the 650, 500 and 350 cc models. the xs650’s are popular because not only do they seem to have a strong aftermarket, but also because they bear an uncanny resemblance to the british twins that faded out in the same era. aftermarket frames and hardtails exist for both models are are easy to find. OEM parts for both bikes are fairly easy to find as well. other models of asian bikes (there are MANY) aren’t as easy to customize, but with enough resources you can chop anything really. one consideration to make is that these overhead cam engines aren’t as easy to work on or tune, especially the quad-carb cb750s. if you’re a beginner to engine work, this might be a heavy start for you. parts are also an issue here which is surprising given the quantity of these bikes that were made. they were, and still are the best selling bikes in history. the plus side is that there are many in junk yards and garages everywhere.
Part 2 coming some day…