CMG’s Cynical Guide to Custom Bikes

Are you new to motorcycles, and can’t figure out the difference between a chopper and a cafe racer? Do you wonder what the whole point of a bratstyle bike is? Never fear, the jaded scribes at CMG can tell you exactly what’s what, as always.

Bobbers tend to have an obsession with 1940s technology, with things like hand shifts or springer front ends. Ducati engines are highly unusual, but this custom went for it anyway.

Bobber

Bobbers were perhaps the earliest form of custom bikes, known also as bob-jobs back in the day. The idea was simple: cut off pretty much anything that didn’t help the bike go fast. In the days when most machines came with big, heavy metal fenders, and could be patched together with the help of baling wire and a big hammer, this was a great idea.

Alas, the original design concept seems to have been lost over the years, as nowadays, builders are cutting off things that actually do help the bike go faster. The form is now more important than the function, and to some misguided builders, it doesn’t matter that your XS650’s rear shocks actually improve performance, they must go! Otherwise, your bike won’t look and handle like an antiquated crap heap. These days, bobbers are all about 1940s cosplay, and everything else is a secondary consideration.

Even worse, the OEMs are even putting out “factory custom” bobbers now, which for the most part are nothing more than a heavy cruiser with the fenders minimally trimmed and a slammed rear suspension. That ain’t no performance bike, mister.

You need a bobber if: You’re into rockabilly music and have a backside as wide as a cow’s, to stave off spinal compression on bad roads.

This is a bit of an extreme example, but you can see classic chopper styling cues: goofy handlebars, an over-extended front end, wacky wheels. The builder installed a front brake, but it’s hard to get a machine on the street without one these days. Some old-school chopper guys still go without, though.

Chopper

Choppers are similar to bobbers. Originally, they were more or less the same thing: old-school cruisers or standards that had a bunch of metal chopped off to make them faster. Sometimes, the point was also to chop off so much metal that a stolen motorcycle couldn’t be identified.

Then, someone decided to extend the forks, allegedly to stabilize handling. Someone else saw that, thought it looked cool, and decided to do the same thing, only with even longer forks that destroyed any hope of decent handling. Then someone else thought, why not add some ape hanger handlebars, that drained all the blood from your hands while riding? Hey, why not add a giant sissy bar, too, so you can strap on a giant duffel bag and have a bunch of excess weight ruining your centre of gravity?  And let’s take off that front brake, since that looks “clean.” And since that worked out so well, let’s also rip off the rear shocks, and turn this thing into a hardtail!

By the time the whole thing was done, a concept started with performance in mind had ended with bikes that were just parodies of motorcycles. But hey, at least it was a way to stick it to The Man, as police have long had a hate-on for these two-wheeled deathtraps.

In some cases, there isn’t much difference between a bobber and a chopper, but bobbers are usually shorter, and you can build a bobber without messing with the stock frame or front forks.

You need a chopper if: You have a “Born to Lose” tattoo, and your side gig is cooking meth in your basement.

This cafe racer was built by Jesse James, using a Honda VTX800 as the base. It’s a great example of classic cafe bike lines.

Cafe Racer

While the Yanks were busy building choppers and bobbers, the Brits had their own thing going on. It was a bold resistance against the establishment, and it all started in coffee shops.

Lampooned today as the natural environment of the middle-aged adventure biker, all-night coffee shops were hotbeds for speed-hungry yobs in post-WWII England. They’d get all buzzed on caffeine, put a rock-and-roll record on the jukebox, run out the door, and try to complete a planned route on two wheels before the record finished. Spurred by fears of shameful failure, these riders started customizing their bikes to go faster, often adding aftermarket parts or even mixing and matching pieces between different models to gain more speed. One of the hottest custom jobs was the Triton, formed by an unholy union between a Triumph motor and a Norton featherbed frame, in an attempt to get the best engine into the best chassis.

You can still buy a classic cafe racer built upon those design principles, combining the best parts of vintage Brit bikes. However, most builders these days are making their cafe racers out of Japanese motorcycles — which is ironic, because it was the smooth handling and power of those same Japanese motorcycles that killed off the cafe racers the first time around, back in the late ’60s.  Could it be because most cafe racer builders now are broke hipsters?

Alas, the importance of function over form is starting to disappear, and many motorcycles are being hacked into cafe customs that simply look better (and that’s arguable!), but don’t work any better. One of the most common sins is to strip off a perfectly good, working airbox and air filter, to instead strap on pod filters, which don’t work well in bad weather. And it’s arguable whether these motorcycles are really any more fun to ride with back-breaking clubman handlebars and an unforgiving bum-stop seat (made out of a skateboard, for extra points). But hey, at least the general idea is still to ride faster, so you’ve got to give the cafe scene credit for that.

You need a cafe racer if: You still fit into a pair of skinny jeans, and you’ve got nothing better to do than hang out at overpriced coffee shops with wannabe adventure riders.

This scramblerized Royal Enfield is a good example of an old-school off-roader.

Scrambler

Scramblers were the original off-road bikes: street bikes stripped down for use in desert racing. They weren’t much of a custom scene in the old days, because factories started making superior off-road bikes pretty early. For years, nobody thought much about them, until 2006, when Triumph added a set of high-mount exhaust pipes to the Bonneville, changed the engine to a 270° crank, bolted on a high, flat seat, threw on some fork gaiters, and called it a Scrambler. Despite its very minimal offroad capability, it was a good-looking bike, and pretty much everyone wanted one. So people started building their own. Hipsters love scramblers, even if the thought of the great outdoors often leaves the average millennial breaking into hives.

Like most other customs, the idea is to start with an affordable donor, almost always a vintage Japanese bike (bonus points for using a Honda). Then the builder adds a flat seat, dirt bike handlebars, high-mount pipes, fork gaiters, headlight guard and knobbie tires, often ignoring more pressing concerns such as carburetor tuning, suspension, spoked wheels or steering geometry.

The bikes may gain a little more usability, but quite often, this is a lot of work that leaves you with a street bike that still doesn’t have the off-road performance of even the most basic dual-sport motorcycle. The real laugh is when a builder uses a properly set-up duallie as the donor bike, and manages to wreck the machine’s handling. Still, a properly-built scrambler that has its handling and suspension sorted can be a truly excellent transformation of a bland street bike.

You need a scrambler if: You have an impressive beard and like to upload campfire photos to Instagram.

While some bratstyle bikes are more radical, most have a laid-back feel, like this SR400 that looks ready for a cruise to the beach. Photo: Brat Style

Bratstyle

Bratstyle bikes get their name from Brat Style, a Japanese custom shop that originated the look. While most other customs got their distinctive look as an attempt to gain some sort of performance gains, the bratstyle look is a bit more confusing. It has a flat seat, like a scrambler, a minimal front fender, like a bobber, oversized tires, like a WWII dispatch bike … what madness is this?

What it is, is a reaction to overpriced customs of the early 2000s (think Jesse James or the Teutuls). Brat Style figured out how to make a bike look different quickly, and how to do it on the cheap. Performance isn’t the goal, it’s looking cool. Whether or not bratstyle bikes succeed at that mission is your call.

You need a bratstyle if: You love to spend money in an attempt to look like you have none.

This street tracker, built by Phil Little Racing, shows all the standard trim: small fibreglass fuel tank, solo racing seat, high-mount exhaust, 19-inch front wheel, number plate replacement for the headlight, and a front brake that would be out of place on an actual flat track bike.

Street tracker

Street trackers are a niche, but definitely a thing. They’re most popular in the US, where flat-track racing is very much alive. The original street trackers were flat-track bikes made street-legal. Now, they’re street bikes with just enough parts to be legal for the road (usually a Harley-Davidson Sportster or something from the ’80s with a vertical twin engine). The builders include classic flat-track features such as wide handlebars, 2-1 exhaust, fiberglass bodywork and a tiny gas tank. It’s a surprisingly practical concept, as long as you don’t want to tour on the bike.

You need a street tracker if: If you have a mullet, and an XS650 taking up space in the garage.

14 thoughts on “CMG’s Cynical Guide to Custom Bikes”

  1. Reading this I remember Cycle Magazine from the mid eighties. They had an article
    regarding motorcycle inspired recipes. One picture was of a chicken they were roasting with the offshoots of a mid burnout smoking back tire. Funny stuff, great writers.

      1. A basic old-school motorcycle is cool by me but why would you want it to handle like Sh%t? Push down the poseur in you and buy normal tires.

  2. Nice humorous article but I can think of a few more bike styles such as the “Rat bike”, sport bikes with extended swingarms and fat tires and don’t forget the “Mod”scooter with 20 mirrors. I’m sure there are even more.

  3. “This cafe racer was built by Jesse James, using a Honda VTX800 as the base. It’s a great example of classic cafe bike lines.”

    Actually it’s a great visual representation of the phrase, “Jump the shark.”

  4. Don’t forget the ADVers that cover their big bore adventure bikes with farkles (gawd I hate that word), don their Aerostich outfits and ride down to Starbucks. Heaven help them if the bikes ever saw a gravel road.
    Or the full deckers with the LOUD pipes, fringes and stereos for the ride to Timmy’s ?

    1. I hate that word too.

      These are also the riders who complain about windblast/turbulence while wearing a “dual sport” helmet with a peak on the highway.

  5. “The builder installed a rear brake, but it’s hard to get a machine on the street without one these days.”

    Did you mean front brake ?

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