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.