The general population may think the word “chopper” (if they think of the word at all) is synonymous with “motorcycle,” the way “hog” is. The more informed know that a chopper is a particular kind of motorcycle, usually identified by its elongated front end and unusual paint job — but even those people may think a chopper is simply a style choice, like buying boot-cut jeans instead of flared.
To motorcycle lovers, choppers are much more than style. They’re a lifestyle, an aesthetic and a work ethic. True choppers are motorcycles built by the owner from the ground up, put together with accumulated parts from lots of different bikes. They’re usually a stripped-down version of a motorcycle, leaving off all the unnecessary bells and whistles.
“Look at a stock Harley, for instance. There’s so much unnecessary stuff on there,” says Tory DuVarney, the son of motorcycle shop owner and motorcycle festival founder Dave Hansen. “All you need is the motor, the oil tank, the gas tank and a set of handle bars. You don’t need all the turn signals and mirrors and all the safety stuff.”
The creation of choppers has become an art form in itself and is so work intensive, said DuVarney, that making them has become a lifestyle. For some, that means drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon and “being a bit loud and obnoxious, because that’s kind of what the bikes are,” he said, pointing out that many choppers are louder than other bikes because the pipes are longer and don’t have the parts that muffle sound on stock bikes. “It’s all about kind of creating a tension, a little bit of ruckus,” he said.
But not all chopper-lovers could pass for grown-up juvenile delinquents. Some, said DuVarney, are just craftsmen — people who are great with metal and are master builders. “They don’t even look like bikers,” he said.
People who like choppers have some things in common with other motorcycle fans, such as the Hell’s Angels. For example, both are invested in the “carefree, get on your bike and go” kind of ethic. But there’s also a good-natured rivalry between the camps. Stock bike riders might consider those on choppers to be the “pretty boys,” more worried about fashion than function. On the other hand, DuVarney says, “For the most part, the guys into choppers are the guys who are a little bit cooler — the coolsville kind of kids, versus the guys that go to their local Harley shop and buy officially licensed Harley memorabilia and look like every other guy on the road.”
Chopper fans “want to stand out. They want to have a bike that stands out,” he said.
By nature, then, a chopper is unique, personal and work-intensive. It reflects the personality of the rider. And it connects him to a broader community of chopper fans.
This is the community that will gather at Seaside Park this weekend for the 2nd Annual David Mann Chopper Fest. Within the community, there is a certain amount of diversity. There are rockabilly 20-somethings who wear rolled up jeans, black T-shirts and retro haircuts; there are old-school chopper lovers who might look like someone’s dad, as well as their children; and there are mainstream newcomers who’ve just discovered choppers from popular television shows.
“It’s all about taking something that everybody drives on a day-to-day basis and customizing it to suit you,” said DuVarney. “It’s a kind of an outlet for your personality, for your artistic side … kind of like tattoos are.”
Even more importantly, chopper culture carries with it an implicit connection to a particular kind of American dream. It’s the ultimate do-it-yourself ethic, combined with the escape-from-the-world, explore-the-frontier instinct we first associated with cowboys and then with the automobile. This culture is most clearly captured by the late artist and Chopper Fest namesake, David Mann, whose famous piece Ghost Rider (first printed as a center-spread in Easyriders Magazine in 1983) depicts a long-haired, leather-and-denim-clad man riding a chopper through the desert, with the ghost of a cowboy galloping on a horse right beside him.
Mann’s work, which has hung in galleries and motorcycle shops as well as appeared in motorcycle magazines for several decades, is so iconic that Chopper Fest organizers asked him to do the artwork for their first event last year. But when they heard Mann wasn’t well, DuVarney and his dad told him, “‘don’t worry about it … just get better, come out and enjoy the event.”
Mann died a month later, in September of 2004, and the organizers felt it was only fitting to both name the festival after him and hold his memorial there, including a group ride to his favorite Ventura County hangouts. This year will feature an art show of his work, along with a tribute on Sunday with guest speakers. And proceeds from the event will go to the David Mann Memorial Fund and the Building Blocks Program, a favorite charity of Mann that raises money for low-income families to put their children in preschool.
And posthumously, Mann is responsible for the Chopper Fest appearance of an American icon even more widely recognized as a symbol of chopper culture than his artwork is: Captain America.
Anyone who’s seen the 1969 Peter Fonda film, Easyrider, will remember the bike he rode: a stylized chopper with its gas tank painted like the American flag. For many, that bike is synonymous with the freedom, optimism and individuality of contemporary American culture — which is probably why Al Speh of Atascadero bought one of the original movie models.
When Speh met good friends of Mann in his hometown, and heard about Chopper Fest, he decided to bring the bike down. Visitors at the event can take pictures with — or even sitting on — the bike for a small fee. “He wants to do whatever he can to help raise some money for the Building Blocks program,” said DuVarney.
Other highlights of the event include vendors; a swap meet; bike shows; live music by Dr. Surf, Hub Cap and Jackass, among others; a tattoo contest; and a raffle, during which one lucky winner can go home with a quilt made of David Mann T-shirts (and a signed T as its centerpiece.)
The event is sure to appeal to the same audience that has recently discovered the Discovery Channel’s American Choppers (a reality show following custom bike builders in New York) or the Speed Channel’s Build or Bust (a chopper-building contest/reality show) and American Thunder (which takes viewers to bike shows and special events via a centerfold-ready hostess) — all shows which have revitalized the custom bike industry.
“Those people are the ones who are kind of new to the game,” said DuVarney. “That’s kind of where the new-school side of things has come around, where now they’re actually making new choppers out of new parts, and new bikes to mimic the old style.”
But the event will especially appeal to the other bikers: the ones who have grown up around bikes, or going to motorcycle swap meets and accumulating parts to piece bikes together. People like DuVarney, who got his first bike — a 1939 Knucklehead, so-called because of the motor, whose valves fit into the head in such a way that it looks like knuckles — when he was a kid. It isn’t exactly a chopper, said DuVarney, since it hasn’t been modified much. But it’s still a bike with personality. It’s nearly 70 years old and was a gift from DuVarney’s dad, who owns The Shop, which specializes in Indian cycles, in Ventura. Now, when DuVarney rides it, he turns heads.
“People are like, ‘How do you get that thing to look so old?’ And I’m like, ‘It is,’” said the younger biker. “People don’t believe you when you says it’s from 1939.”
At the Chopper Fest, there will be bikes made from Harley parts and Triumph parts. Choppers made of Honda and Kawasaki will be in the “metric class,” named for the metric tools used to work on those bikes.
And it’s perfect that this is all happening in Ventura, which is a sort of motorcycle headquarters. Not only is Ventura home to Hells Angels’ president George Christie, but Ventura County boasts two of the motorcycle industry’s major manufacturers — JIMS machine, which makes transmissions, and Barnett, which makes clutches — both of whom will make appearances, along with other companies, at the Chopper Fest.
DuVarney says the reasons for a motorcycle rider’s draw to Ventura County is simple: There are a lot of beautiful, traffic-free places to ride, and cool destinations to ride to, including the Deer Lodge. There are motorcycle-weather days year-round (in Oregon, for example, many motorcycle riders simply give up their insurance and park their bikes during most of the year).
“If you were a motorcycle rider before you got here, you wanted to move here,” he said. “And if you live here, you want to buy a bike.”