Since American GIs returned from war in Europe armed with new mechanical skills and a passion for European bikes, Triumph has been at the forefront of the bobber movement.
Almost eight decades on and the new Bonneville Bobber has been born to critical acclaim.
So FTR delved into its heritage and then asked Triumph historian Lindsay Brooke, whose latest book Triumph Motorcycles in America will be published in early 2017, to explain the evolution of the ultimate stripped-down custom bike.
In the US, Harley Davidson’s ubiquitous J model V-twin grew outdated as lower, shorter motorcycles found favour over its long, high style. Owners then modified the popular roadster with smaller diameter wheels, a cut-down frame and shortened rear section. The bikes looked and performed better, and the ‘California cut-down’ style was born.
“When the J model started to grow long in the tooth by the late 20s, people started cutting the rear fenders and mufflers to deconstruct what was a pretty hefty machine. That was the start of the move towards what would become the bobber.”
The cut-down look evolved as Harley, Indian and Excelsior models were updated to a lower seat height with teardrop gas tanks. When the American Motorcyclist Association introduced Class-C racing for production bikes, the dirt track ‘racer look’ influenced road-bike users.
They began lightening their stock bikes by removing the front fender and shortening or ‘bobbing’ (as in bob-tail) the rear fender. With all excess weight removed, the bob-job succeeded the cut-down as America’s home-brewed custom for the next 25 years.
“The bob-job trend seemed to emerge simultaneously on the East Coast, in the Midwest and, of course, in California and it wasn’t just about making the bike lighter. Like hot-rod cars, which emerged around the same time, it was all about personalization – making the machines look unique and cool. Back then, the rider-mechanics had only wrenches, hacksaws and acetylene torches to create their art – custom catalogues were far off in the future.
By the end of the decade the British had landed. Johnson Motors in California and a few small mom-and-pop ‘import bike’ shops on the East Coast and in Canada were ensuring a steady supply of Triumphs that were tailor-made to be bobbed.”
The end of WWII saw the return to the States of millions of American servicemen, many of whom had gained mechanical skills working on aircraft and military vehicles of all types. The thrill of motorcycling beckoned, and returning riders wanting a fast, and fast-looking, machine continued to bob their bikes. Along with Harleys and Indians, the popularity of Triumphs – already low, lean and light – for custom projects grew.
“Many Speed Twins and Tigers imported before the war had already undergone the bobber treatment, proof that Triumph was there right from the very start.
In the late forties, those two models, now with telescopic forks and smaller headlamps, became the bikes to bob.
“And when the new TR5 Trophy arrived in 1949, its beautifully compact fuel tank and svelte mudguards became popular upgrades for the bobber builders along with the popular Mustang ‘peanut’ tanks.”
Stanley Kramer’s controversial 1953 film The Wild One, which featured a young Marlon Brando (Johnny) and Lee Marvin (Chino), showed the extent of the bobber influence at that time.
While Brando rode a mostly stock Triumph Thunderbird 650, his arch rival Chino’s Harley Panhead exemplified the classic old-school bobber. Many of the bikes ridden by Johnny and Chino’s renegade pals were bob-jobs – it’s worth seeing the movie just to catch the period bobbers.
‘Original’ bobbers hail from this decade and earlier. From low-budget origins, bob-jobs became increasingly detailed, with chrome plating, upholstery, or other finishes. In Britain, inspired by The Wild One, amateur racers sped from cafe to cafe on bikes with dropped handlebars and rearset footrests – the first cafe racers.
“By the mid-1950s, the US accessory market had its own catalogues and motorcycle custom ‘goodies’ were widely available. But by the time swinging-arm rear suspensions were firmly established, the bobber trend was evolving into a new custom-bike phase that continued into the next decade – and Triumph twins continued to be preferred by builders looking for the coolest styles.”
The bob-job evolved throughout the 50s and 60s – some customs were ridden on the hot rod show circuit, and some used for drag racing, while others featured a distinctive club bike style, or were a continuation of the original Class-C racing style.
The term chopper emerged in print for the first time in the mid-60s; a new style that emerged from the simpler and compact bob-jobs. While bobbers typically used a standard frame, choppers were synonymous with longer front forks, wildly altered steering head angles and a chopped frame.
The T120 Bonneville, having been introduced in 1959, was a leading ‘go-to’ choice for personalisation during the coming decades and even spawned Triumph factory customs (the 1979 Bonneville Special and 1983 TSX).
“Looking back through 90 years of US motorcycle customisation, it’s easy to see the bobber’s profound influence as a style setter. During the 60s, the chopper subset grew, but by now the bobber was regarded as the grand-daddy of US custom motorcycling and would continue to be popular among a quite individualised set of customisers and riders who wanted something totally unique and different.”
1970s to 1990s – the fallow years
The success of the 1969 film Easy Rider made choppers instantly popular worldwide, and demand rocketed. With choppers favouring style over functionality, the bob-job (which put speed and performance ahead of style) took a back seat. Added to that, by the mid 1970s, most stock Japanese and European performance bikes would outperform all but the fastest bobbers and choppers.
“Despite the tidal wave of metalflake ‘coffin’ fuel tanks, mile-high sissy bars and forks that extended into the next county, the bob-job never died. Bikes continued to be home-built, reflecting the aesthetic tastes of their owners.”
As the 21st century dawned, the classic bobber aesthetic – stripped down and purposeful – began to resurface, being featured in popular TV shows such as Biker Build Off and American Chopper. At the end of this era, the term ‘bob-job’ shortened in popular usage to bobber, which is when the style saw a resurgence in popularity.
Turning their backs on the popular chopper style, many builders returned with a more traditional styling. The bobber rose in popularity once again, with Triumph’s rebirth of the Bonneville in 2001 bringing an ideal platform for customisation.
Stock machines were stripped down with flat or primer paints and muted colours. The DIY backyard builders found fame in magazines such as Iron Horse and websites including bikeexif.com.
A small number of bike manufacturers released bobber-inspired stock models, but the release of Triumph’s 2017 Bobber, with its full range of accessories and customisation options, moves the bobber out of builders’ workshops and into the mainstream for the very first time.
“For a guy or girl in their 30s with a bit of attitude and edge but short on time, this is a bike that gives them the full bobber experience, and if they want to make it their own, the accessory kits allow them to totally personalise it
It’s a factory custom, but Triumph tried out the genre in the bobber build-off and this is a natural continuation and a very bold move.
It’s a true bobber, utterly authentic, and will take its place in a decade by decade guide in years to come as a watershed in the genre.”