CAN YOU DIG IT?

HIS­TORY OF THE DIG­GER CHOP­PER

Street Chopper - - Contents - WORDS: MARK MASKER PHO­TOS: STREET CHOP­PER STAFF & AR­CHIVES

His­tory Of The Dig­ger Chop­per

At one end of the cus­tom-bike spec­trum you have the drag­bike. Stripped of all ex­cess weight, op­ti­mized for power, and clad only in a patch­work body tat­too of spon­sor­ship stick­ers and bits of paint, mo­tor­cy­cles tai­lored to the dragstrip are as ex­treme a cus­tom ride as you’ll see any­where in the mo­tor­cy­cle uni­verse. At the other end of said spec­trum you’ve got your ex­treme show­bike. Slathered in art­work and raised on Bondo and out­ra­geous body­work, they’re made for catch­ing eyes in­stead of burn­ing rub­ber. Both styles weren’t meant for street rid­ing, though they were built to com­pete. In the 1970s, the dig­ger bike ex­plored the huge gulf sep­a­rat­ing the ex­tremes.

Arlen Ness was the big­gest pro­po­nent of the dig­ger bike back in the day. Where he and oth­ers drew in­spi­ra­tion for what’s be­come the dig­ger style is a mixed bag though. Some at­tribute the dig­ger’s ori­gin to the Frisco style; oth­ers say a day at the drags flipped a switch that gave Ness the idea. His­tory is rarely as cut and dry as all that. I believe it was most likely a com­bi­na­tion of the two. Arlen was as deeply in­volved with the Frisco bikes as you can get, and there’s def­i­nitely a dra­gracer look to your typ­i­cal dig­ger ma­chine (long and low pro­file, mid- or rear-mount foot con­trols, ex­ten­sive mo­tor mods— you get the idea). Like their Frisco chop­per cousins, dig­gers were nar­row. That’s a key dif­fer­ence set­ting them apart from the wide tires you’d see on a drag racer.

“ARLEN NESS WAS THE BIG­GEST PRO­PO­NENT OF THE DIG­GER BIKE BACK IN THE DAY. WHERE HE AND OTH­ERS DREW IN­SPI­RA­TION FOR WHAT’S BE­COME THE DIG­GER STYLE IS A MIXED BAG THOUGH.”

What is damn true is that by 1976 mag­a­zines like Street Chop­per had more and more fully re­al­ized dig­ger bikes on their cov­ers. Very long and low, dig­ger chops were svelte, with cof­fin or prism gas tanks teamed with girder front ends, wild paint, and, in many in­stances, lots of en­grav­ing on the cases and rocker cov­ers. Com­bined with su­per­charg­ers, turbo kits, rac­ing car­bu­re­tors, and mo­tors for­eign and do­mes­tic, these were the col­lec­tive symp­toms of dig­ger fever. To get the long and low look for the dig­ger, they were usu­ally built with low goose­neck frames and would have a big rake to the fork. The frames also had chopped back­bones so that they could be length­ened for the long look. Lastly, there’s that cu­ri­ous name: dig­ger. Back then, the drag­sters that in­spired these bikes were also called dig­gers.

Although the dig­ger era faded out by the mid-1980s as rid­ers turned to­ward fatter bikes, the dig­ger in­flu­ence never truly went away. Look closely at a pro street chop­per and you’ll still see a lit­tle bit of its dig­ger an­ces­tors in it. SC

“ALTHOUGH THE DIG­GER ERA FADED OUT BY THE MID-1980S AS RID­ERS TURNED TO­WARD FATTER BIKES, THE DIG­GER IN­FLU­ENCE NEVER TRULY WENT AWAY.”

Arlen Ness 1979 cover shoot.

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