The Birth of the Bobber Motorcycle
Nothing Left But the Squeal – Bobber Motorcycles
The bobber is as essentially complete as a carbon molecule. Nothing else is required for the pure adrenaline pumping thrill of riding.
A bobber is Scarlett Johansson without makeup or a Victoria’s Secret pushup bra.
The bobber, in it’s pure form, is a machine stripped down to the absolute essentials of what a motorcycle needs to be to function at its mechanical best.
In a historical sense, the bobber style was born when American soldiers returning home from World War II were left without the existential thrill that comes with living outside the envelope. They’d lived on the edge of death for months and even years, and a return to civilian life proved, well, less than thrilling for many of them. When ex-soldiers discovered that they could buy surplus Army bikes for peanuts, they set to work stripping them down to their minimalist core components in the quest for speed and simplicity.
The stock army bike was produced from 1942 to 1945 and it’s generally thought that some 88,000 bikes were made for the armed forces in Milwaukee during the war. When the war was won, there were several thousand brand-new bikes, mostly 45 cubic-inch WLA’s, and enough brand spanking new parts in inventory to build something like 30,000 more.
These surplus machines, though they were weighed down with luggage racks, huge fenders, skid plates and crash bars, were still being sold as late as the mid-1950’s for $450 dollars American Cash Money. In 1950 the average cost of a new car was $1,500.00 and a gallon of gas cost eighteen cents. If you wanted something hotter to drive, a 1953 Chevy Corvette would set you back $3,600. Given that the average annual wage in the early 1950’s was $3,200, you can see the dilemma – and the appeal – presented by a motorcycle (given the proper tuning) capable of 100+ mph.
To make the bikes lighter, riders started by shortening or removing the fenders entirely. The front fender? Gone. Weighed too much and did nothing critical. The back fender? Hacked off to leave just enough to protect the rider from being splattered with mud and water thrown up from the rear tire at speed.
During the 1940s and 50s, servicemen became enamored of the lighter European motorcycles they’d seen and ridden overseas. The bikes reflected each owner’s tastes and adhered to a strictly “do it yourself in the garage” ethos. No pretty paint job was required, but exhaust systems and motors were heavily customized to squeeze out every ounce of performance from what were once stock machines. About the only element of a classic Bobber which wasn’t tuned was the design of the stock frame. Everything else was in play.
Today’s customized motorcycle tends to be extremely expensive, but back in the day, bobber builders tended to use second hand, recycled parts and parts they made by hand and fancy paint was for art galleries.
Bobbers were meant to ride, and be ridden on long hauls, so in general they featured comfortable, sprung solo seats and fat, roadworthy tires front and rear. Utilitarianism was the g
oal, and if parts had nothing to do with pure function, they found their way into a pile behind the shop in short order. The idea was to keep the machines running hot and on the road as cheaply as possible. Extra chrome, bulky lights and heavy seats got left in the parts bin as well, and some builders even pulled the stock Harley breaking systems off in favor of custom-designed rigs cadged from English and European bikes to save addition weight.
The handlebars were often replaced with lower-profile and home-fabricated versions which moved the rider lower and forward to cut down on wind drag at speed, and it is that modification in stance which, more than most other changes, which gave the classic bobber it’s rakish appearance.