As of late, the motorcycling market has seen a crop of new motorcycles billed as bobbers straight from the factory. Triumph, Yamaha, and Harley-Davidson all offer factory built ‘bobbers’ that you can ride right off the showroom floor. But the real question is, should you?
The history of the bobber is as simple as the bike itself. The basic evolution of the bobber consisted of taking a road going bike and stripping off parts that didn’t somehow make the bike faster, like ‘bobbing’ the fenders. Nowadays the style has become much different, with the interpretation of style varying wildly from person to person.
Today’s bobbers hardly consider performance anymore, favoring style over ride-quality. This isn’t a knock on the bike, but more of a redefinition of purpose. Think bar bike vs track bike. Most bobbers are garage built customs, turning your beloved or beaten motorcycle into your own personal canvas. The majority will come out lower, leaner, and meaner. Typically sporting an iconic springer seat with a rigid rear end(no suspension).
But now you no longer have to get grease under your fingernails to own your own little canvas. It’s said that Harley-Davidson can easily be credited with creating this new trend of bikes and bikers, allowing their customers to ‘custom’ order a motorcycle for years. This all came to a head with the beloved Sportster Forty-Eight.
The Forty-Eight was truly the first factory bobber to hit showrooms, at least in a mass production sense. It was based on the Sportster 1200 chassis, featuring different styling queues like the tank, suspension, and wheels. It also featured a nice fat tire up front. It was very simple, clean and overall looked the part. From Harley’s own website you could customize your own Forty-Eight with factory options like mini ape hanger handlebars, or even a Vance and Hines exhaust system. It was easy, fun and it looked ‘custom’. Anyone that didn’t have the time or energy to build their own Harley or just plain didn’t want too was now able to do it at the click of a button. Almost too easy.
Yamaha stunned the world when they announced their Yamaha Bolt back in 2013. It was a game changer, and really the only competition to the Harley-Davidson. The Bolt is an inexpensive, relatively beginner friendly bike that boasted a well sorted 942cc engine. Styling is totally on point, blending in a modern twist with the bobber feel that makes it appear much more custom than it is. Following today’s trends, you could easily configure your Bolt directly from Yamaha making it feel unique to you. Even better yet was the performance. The Yamaha is much more go than just show, unlike the Harley. Although the Bolt is lugging around 942cc it only produces roughly 50hp. A fairly underwhelming number, yes, but for a beginner bike it’s spot on. The suspension delivers in typical Yamaha fashion, lending to a balanced predictable feel regardless of its lack of travel.
Overall the bolt has been a phenomenal option for any beginner wanting that custom look from something straight out of the box.
And now for 2017, we have been gifted the Triumph Bonneville Bobber. Triumph’s Bonneville series has always been known for being customizable, making a phenomenal retro cafe racer. It never lent itself well to the bobber world like the Triumph of old. Now that has all changed with the addition of the Bonneville Bobber. The 2017 Bobber is a sleek design right from the factory, looking more original than all its competitors. Add in the fact that the triumph seems to handle the best gives it a functionality that you rarely see on a bike with less than 3 inches of suspension travel. While the bolt is fantastic for beginners, the Bonneville bobber is well suited for every type of rider. The 1200cc parallel twin is the same mill that you will find in the standard Bonneville T120 only tuned for a little more punch down low. This gives you a little more power to play with, keeping it from feeling too sluggish for those seasoned riders among us. Featuring adjustable ergonomics, the Bonneville Bobber even allows riders standing north of 6ft tall to fit comfortably. A move the Harley forty-Eight definitely doesn’t pull off.
Triumph is offering the same factory customization that you will find with the other manufacturers, but their selection of parts seems to be just a little more on point. With a library of over 150 customizable parts, the quantity is great as well. Triumph had the advantage of taking its sweet time to play in this pool more sothan the other brands, and maybe that’s the difference, but overall the 2017 Bonneville Bobber is more promising than either the Harley or Yamaha. Especially in a stock for stock comparison. But how does it stack up against a true shop built bobber? Let’s take a look.
Now as I mentioned before, the term bobber covers a lot more ground than it once did. No matter what flavor you like there are some caveats to building one in your basement. The first and biggest one is it’s not easy, it’s actually pretty damn hard. For the average Joe changing the design that a bunch of engineers and technicians designed to something that remains functional isn’t a characteristic we all have in our wheelhouse. It becomes a meticulous game of cat and mouse as you try to manage functionality and cosmetics. The second caveat is that it can become very time consuming, especially so when you attempt to modify the frame, which many people do to create a hard tail bobber. The third is reliability. Typically a good garage built bobber is something from the 60’s or 70’s making it fairly old at this point. Hell, I once had a 76 Kawasaki and it took 2 weeks just to get a new rear sprocket. A friend’s even older Suzuki Titan took a couple months to locate a similar sprocket. On top of time for parts, you are looking at an older motorcycle, that regardless of how much work you put into it, you are looking at least a couple of breakdowns. Finicky is a word that easily relates to a classic motorcycle.
Now you may be saying, why not just use a newer motorcycle to build it? Because it’s just not the same. There is an essence to a vintage motorcycle that few if any manufacturers have been able to re-create. This makes it all the more special when you can mold those classic lines into a beautiful piece of bar hopping art. Take this bike for example:
That’s a gorgeous bike with perfect lines, something I would classify as a proper bobber. Unfortunately most garage built projects come out looking a lot rougher than this one beautiful example. Regrettably most will come out looking a lot more like this:
Now I’m not trying to talk bad about anyone’s build, I commend anyone for attempting to create something with their own hands. I’m just attempting to showcase my point that anyone can build a bobber, it takes a rare type to build one that is as exceptional as we all strive for. If working on motorcycles is your passion, something you truly enjoy, and you want to hone your skills then taking up a project bike is a great idea for you. But if you’re an individual that just wants a quasi-custom bike that looks good for your weekend rides, don’t buy into this ‘built not bought’ mentality and enjoy a new bike for all of its redeeming qualities.
The verdict? Unless you eat sleep and breath custom motorcycles and have time, space and patience to build it you are much better off buying vs building. And that isn’t a knock on custom bikes, that’s a feather in the cap of the manufacturers doing the hard work so you don’t have too.