Aesthetic Exploration: 60s Show Bikes

Welcome to the world of custom motorcycles. Within this world there are countless aesthetics to choose from, dating from the early 1900s to present day. Seemingly every decade and every industrialized country has a history with custom motorcycles that is unique to its time and place. For this blog post I wanted to showcase the era of the early 1960s in America. Around this time comes the birth of the chopper, one of the most culturally important custom bike aesthetics to date.

Harley Davidson engines were well popular in this era as they are today, but in the early 60s, pre-unit Triumph engines were extremely relevant. This likely has to do with the cultural influence of Marlon Brando’s portrayal of Johnny in the 1953 movie The Wild One. Brando’s rebel biker rides a blue Triumph Thunderbird.

Unlike the bikes of the 50s, 1960s show bikes were highly customized. Largely by the owner themselves. Hallmarks of this aesthetic, besides the engine, include chromed frames, chrome finned cases, hard tailed frames, wild and colorful paint jobs, and elaborate homemade suspensions. Bright and sparkly was the name of the game. But performance was important to builders as well, lots of these bikes were bored out and loaded up with parts to make them go faster than common sense dictates.

Important names in bike building emerged from this decade, like Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, ‘Fass’ Mikey Vils, and Arlen Ness. Builders in the 60s couldn’t order parts from websites or catalogues, so they had to make everything themselves and do everything as cheap as possible. This means they spent unknown hours of labor into every detail to make it look flawless. This attitude is what continues to make custom bikes so impressive and intriguing.

epinut. (2007, August 21). Some 1963 show scans…  [Online forum post]. Jockey Journal.

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4 Comments. Leave new

  • I really liked this aesthetic choice, it’s a little different and as someone who’s also into motorcycles, I appreciate the niche of motorcycle aesthetic you chose. I think that motorcycle aesthetics, specifically choppers, tend to be written off as ostentatious or annoying so reading about the history of the design is cool. My suggestion would be to maybe use higher resolutions/bigger photos for the example photos.

    • Thanks Weige, even though they can be over the top, I think the beauty lies in the subtleties and the human stories. Its too bad there aren’t some 4k versions of these pictures, but its pretty cool to think somebody took them eighty years ago with a film camera.

  • Aidan Shelburne
    February 1, 2023 3:25 pm

    This is a really unique and cohesive aesthetic, thanks for sharing! Your background also gives a lot of context for why so many custom bikes call back to this aesthetic even today, and why the aesthetic is so heavily rooted in that time period. Do you think there was also a change in manufacturing to make exotic and custom-built designs possible or was it just the inspiration of a developing custom-bike culture?

    • Aidan, good question, I don’t think there was a substantial change in manufacturing technology. Machine shop culture and the internal combustion engine had been around for decades previously. In my opinion the custom scene blew up because of post war counterculture and the proliferation of cheap surplus mills, lathes, and other machines.


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