They have long been proud symbols of filth and freedom, chromed-out American nightmares, phallic anarchy barely contained between one’s legs. With a simple conversion—take a motorcycle, lower it, yank out the front fork and affix a pair of comically large handlebars—you have a chopper, a freaky and dangerous caricature of the motorcycle begetting it. Choppers are unruly by design: those ape-hanger handlebars have the effect of crucifying the rider on his bike, turning his body into a giant sail in the oncoming wind and putting the brakes practically out of reach–if there are any brakes to begin with.
For this reason, choppers were long an anomaly reserved for those fatalistic or stupid enough to push their luck that much further. Often built by the riders themselves, choppers were stripped down, brutally loud and, above all, American; I’d rather have a sister in the whorehouse, the old saying goes, than a brother on a Honda.
If this is true there will be many disappointed brothers on the road. Honda recently introduced the Fury, the world’s first production chopper. At first blush, it looks certifiably outlaw: the front fork is properly bent out, its seat is lowered, its rear tire is as wide as a coffin. The Fury’s exhaust pipes bolt out from its undercarriage like twin Howitzers, and its huge 1,300-cu.-cm engine makes a mockery of the speed limit in second gear.
For all of the Fury’s presumed anarchy, though, the decision to mass produce a chopper is a characteristically canny decision on the part of the Japanese motor company. Thanks largely to television shows like American Chopper and Motorcycle Mania, choppers have been co-opted into the mainstream—much like outlaw culture itself. The once rebellious act of turning one’s motorcycle into a rolling bomb has become big business: West Coast Choppers, owned by tattooed millionaire Jesse James and the subject of Discovery Channel’s Motorcycle Mania, sells bikes from $85,000 up to $300,000. Don’t have that kind of money? Fake it with a seven-dollar West Coast Choppers T-shirt, available at Walmart.
The Fury is Honda’s attempt to bring this weekend outlaw market to the masses. “We saw the interest was there and decided to make a chopper that works,” says Honda Canada’s Kimberly Moore. Practically speaking, it certainly does. For $16,000, or nearly $8,000 less than the rough Harley-Davidson equivalent, the Fury steers circles around its unwashed brethren, thanks to drastically lowered handlebars. The engine is fuel-injected (no messy carburetors here) and liquid-cooled, so it starts reliably and won’t overheat. The speedometer glows a helpful shade of red in the dark, while a rev limiter prevents riders from going too crazy, lest they blow a piston. Not only does it have proper brakes: next year, the Fury will come standard with ABS.
It may look badass, but the Fury is about as sensible as a chopper can be, which is part of the problem. Everything about the bike, right down to its name, bleeds faux outlaw conceit. The stylized Fury logo looks like it’s trying really hard to look mean; it wouldn’t look out of place on the bicep of some roided-out weightlifter, just above the barbed wire tattoo. “Compromise Nothing” is the Fury’s tagline, yet anyone with a yen for choppers will find plenty of compromises. Those nasty-looking exhaust pipes? They actually mute what should be Honda’s fury: the unholy noise of a very big V-twin engine. A shaft drive powers the rear wheel, depriving the rider of the chatter and clang of a more traditional chain. Nothing rattles or bangs or smokes unpredictably. The biggest infraction, however, is the Fury’s “chrome.” More than anything else, chrome is what makes a chopper. It is gawked at, fussed over, polished to a high sheen before a rider even thinks of going out to murder the highway. And a wrap of the knuckles on the Fury’s piston heads confirms it: cheap, shiny plastic. There it is again on the air filter cover and all over the engine block. Yikes.
Real outlaws don’t exist anymore, they’re just aped on reality TV. He starred in Easy Rider long ago; now Jack Nicholson is the go-to rated-G ornery-but-irrepressible old man. Evel Knievel is dead and the Hells Angels are in jail. Similarly, choppers were once built in dark, oily places. Now they are mass produced on an assembly line in Kumamoto, Japan. The Honda-fication of the chopper is upon us, and we are all safer for it. Safer, if a little less exciting.