Understanding Motorcycle Terms and Slang

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June 4, 2010 | By: Scott Holton

Like any other sport or activity, motorcycle riders have a language of their own, including terms that leave the “civilian” population scratching its head in confusion. One such phrase I often hear bandied about at J&P Cycles is the term “old school.” Another oft-used word is “bobber.” Where do these phrases come from? What do they mean? What’s the actual definition of a “chopper?” And what’s with all these motorcycle motor monikers? Today’s blog post deals with the origins of the slang used in the world of big bikes.

Let’s start with the term “chopper.” These days this word has come to mean any custom motorcycle. However, in its origins, this referred to a bike that has all the extra goodies chopped off to provide a bike with the minimum essentials required for operation. Fenders were cut down or off, smaller gas tanks were installed. Changing handlebars, forks or cutting the bike’s neck to alter the fork rake are all examples of “chopping” a bike.

In the ’40s and ’50s, “bobbing” a fender became popular. That’s where the rear of a fender is cut off, or the front section is removed and the fender is rotated forward to retain the ducktail look of the stock fender. In 1980, Mother Harley took its styling cue from what the riders were out there creating when it introduced the FXWG. The rear fender on this bike is called a Bobbed or a Bobber and its styling is still in use today on Softails and FXDWG models.

“Fat Bob” is another word we should discuss. This term came from a bike that still had the big 3 1/2-gallon gas tank, with a bobbed rear fender. Fat tanks, bobbed fender, hence Fat Bob. This style of bike generally had the stock width, stock length front end. These are all features add up to what is today’s “bobber.”

In the mid ’50s, Harley began production of the K model series bikes followed by the XL models in 1957. These smaller, lighter bikes had fork assemblies that where not as wide as the heavyweight bikes in production. During these years, the terms “wide glide” and “narrow glide” were coined. Fitted with 19-inch wheels, it was a popular notion to get rid of the fat tanks, scrap the wide front end and install the narrow glide front-end assembly on Big Twin (chop all that unneeded stuff off!) Willie G, the styling Guru at H-D followed this lead in the early ’70s. That’s where the frame and engine of an FL series bike was factory equipped with the fork assembly from an XL series bike. This marriage resulted in F (LH) + X (L) = FX. To this day, all FX series bike have 19- (or 21-) inch wheels. The factory has followed in the bike fashion field more often than they like to admit.

“Softail” is another word we can define. Prior to 1958, all Harley Big Twin models had rigid frames (hardtails). In 1958, the rear suspension styling from the K & XL was brought over to the FL series bikes. The shocks and swing-arm added a good bit of poundage to the heavyweight line. A very common thing to achieve a cleaner look for bike builders since the ’60s, is to use a pre ’57 or custom-built rigid frame (chop it down, get rid of the extra weight). When it arrived, the Softail copied the clean line of a rigid frame, with the wonderful advantage of rear suspension. Hence coining of the word “Softail.” I started out riding hardtails, because I didn’t know any better. As I get older, I’m less inclined to sacrifice comfort for looks. But it’s hard to beat the clean appearance of a true chopper.

Did you know that Harley didn’t design the original Softail Chassis? I can’t remember the name of the company that designed this groundbreaking chassis, but I do remember seeing them advertised in the chopper magazines in the early ’80′s. The company was from St. Louis, and Harley bought all the designs and rights to this product. The Harley folks knew a good thing when they saw one.

Another term used in this article is “Big Twin.” This slang term means any of the larger displacement engines that do not have the transmission in a common case like a Sportster. A term for the XL engines could be “Little Twin,” but that never caught on.

Let’s move on to engines. “Flathead” is the slang term for an engine that has the valves alongside the cylinder. Another term for this is, not surprisingly, “side-valve.” Automotive engines of this type are referred to as flatheads. The flathead motor began production in 1929 and the final version left the factory in 1973. That’s a production run of a whopping 44 years! The “knucklehead” engine gets its name from the appearance of the rocker assemblies. They look like your knuckles when you make a fist. These were produced from 1936 to 1947. An upside-down dishpan is what the valve covers of a Panhead resemble. This style motor was made 1948 to 1965. An “ironhead” is the nickname of a Sportster engine built between 1957 and 1985. The “shovelhead” name is supposed to have originated from its appearance to a folding military shovel. The shovelheads’ production run started in 1966 and lasted to 1984. The next engine has two common names — Evolution (Evo for short) or “blockhead.” The cylinders are more square than a shovel’s, thus the name blockhead. “Evolution” is what Harley termed its engine program after the buy-back from AMF. This production run was 1984 to1999. The final engine built from ’99 on got bigger cooling fins, which gives it the moniker “fathead”. It’s most commonly referred to as a “Twin-Cam” (TC or TC88).

We’ve covered a number of common terms but still haven’t said anything about “old school.” I imagine a fair definition of this would be to complete a design in the same manner of earlier styles. Today we have a huge range of aftermarket motorcycle parts that allow us to give our bikes a variety of styles. The folks who developed things like “bobbers” or the original “choppers” did not have that luxury. They had to cut, shape and build their own parts from scratch in order to get things to look the way they wanted. To me, that’s “old school,” plain and simple.

We hope you enjoyed this article about common motorcycle slang and terminology. As always, if you have questions or need assistance, don’t hesitate to contact a J&P technician via Live Chat. Or call J&P’s technical support staff at (800) 397-4844.

Comments: 25 Comments | Categorized Under: Product Information

Comments (25)

About the softail definition. The original inventor and his company, RoadWorx from st. louis invented the softail. i have pics for you, it just so happens bill is my cousin

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One more term to add:
“zip-splat” – Any of the sport bikes seen riding wheelies in heavy traffic (or any other form of trick riding in an uncontrolled environment) Often accompanied by a horsepower rating more than double the IQ of the rider.

[...] Motorcycle slang – Here are a few slang terms in motorcycle culture. [...]

[...] Motorcycle slang – Here is a few slang terms in motorcycle culture. [...]

Hello new customer. Great artical I learned a few things. Keep up the great work. Glenn

I had to chuckle about this article… for you see, I’m an old school hot rodder at heart. I don’t normally run to the store to buy parts to “customize” my bike, although I will admit: there are times I do that. As for what we call the “wannabe’s”… well, I like the term: RUB. you know: rich urban biker. I will say this: I don’t particularly care if they are a “rub” or not, as long as they are riding…..

Rolling Thunder will ride forever to bring them all home

rolling Thunder lives forever

I thought the article was very informative. my friends and I don’t call them stripers or hollywoods, we call the new crowd of bikers that do it just to say they do, R.U.B.s. this stands for Rich Urban Bikers. this is the crowd who get more miles in one year on the leather jackets they wear than they do on the bikes they own, and if the bike has more than 2,000 miles it’s a miracle.

I second that comment from Wayne. Great info for those who aren’t bikers, but are self proclaimed “motorcycle enthusiasts”. I’ve seen ‘em come and go…and come again with the approval of the “Hollywood Harley” scene, making it cool again to be a biker. Just remember…..”15 grand and 15 miles doesn’t make you a biker”. I’ll stay in the old school, thanks…. if it works, don’t mess with it!

Nice article, a few notes to add, the term ironhead wasn`t around until the 80`s evo type XL came out and a way was needed to differentiate between the 2 types of OHV XL`s. Chopper always referred to frame mods, rake, stretch etc not to the parts being chopped off, that was more of a bobber. The softtail type frame was a single pull type shock under the trans and the company`s name was road work or roadworx. It was designed along the lines of an upside down Vincent rear suspension. Stripers is a great new term. Aother new term refers to the low budget low displacement spray painted pinstriped cheapies, like a chopped honda rebel 250 done w/ a rebar motif. you`ve seen `em. These are called brat bikes.

You can actually build an old School from new school part’s even today. A softail frame mimic’s the hardtail and simply go basic from there.

I agree with Wayne. This was very well done! I ride Wings and had to explain the knucklehead, pan head thing to a guy one day. Only we refer to the Hollywood Bikers as “Stripers” in this area. You can tell them by their new Harley Leathers, they usually all wear matching jackets etc. LOL (with Orange stripes on them hence “Stripers) Keep up the Great job!

Couldn’t have said it Better Myself Anthony….Very informative…You just helped out trillions of “Hollywood Bikers”

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