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Classic British Rat Bikes

When I was growing up and learning to ride, around 1970, people were chopping all kinds of things, not just Harleys. Lots of guys were chopping their Honda 350s, 450s & 750s. I even saw a Kawasaki Mach3 chopper once, with extended forks & no additional rake. It stood up in front, as if it didn’t handle badly enough already! And of course lots of people were chopping British bikes. Most were Triumphs and BSAs, simply because they were the most common. But lots of other things got chopped & unfortunately, a good many collectible motorcycles were cut to pieces to make them into rigid framed choppers.

At one point I was one of those people. As a sophomore in high school, I bought a ’64 Triumph TR6 that had been customized into what we might call today a “Bobber”, with a small peanut tank, high bars, a banana seat, megaphones & the standard load of chrome (ie: forks & shock covers, side cover & oil tank, front & rear fenders) & I should have spent what little money I had trying to get it running right. But instead I took it all apart & started sawing, with the goal of creating a radical, show-quality rigid-framed chopper. Of course, I had no money & at that age, very little skill, so it never came together. On my budget, it really turned out to be a non-running Rat Bike.

That was pretty typical of the times, no one had any money. And there weren’t companies lined up selling off-the-shelf parts like today, or an internet, or eBay…I digress. So, people who wanted to customize their bikes did so in a very low-budget fashion, often coming up with creative approaches to overcome their lack of funds. Ultimately, it caught on as an actual style all its own. And today, even people who can afford to buy or build any kind of bike they want, like rat bikes. They’re a statement, they’re a look, they’re an attitude. Enjoy…

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This is a typical Rat Bike, if there is such a thing. Rigid frame, primered tank, minimal seat and a nice coat of rust ‘patina’ over the whole thing. It was for sale at the Classic Cycle Events show in Torrance CA in Sept 2010, one of many Choppers and Bobbers at the show.

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Here we have another unfinished project bike that shows all the promise of being one heckuva Rat Bike when done. Clearly it needs a lot of work before its running again…but that’s half the fun, right? This rigid-framed, unit-construction Triumph 650 had a novel feature that you don’t see everyday: An oil tank made of two VW valve covers. The brainchild of Unkl Al, customizer extraordinaire & builder of unique Choppers & Bobbers.

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The man himself, Unkl Al, of Unkl Al’s Custom Emporium. Unkl Al builds Choppers & Bobbers & Rat Bikes, does custom frame work, custom exhaust & more. His moto is “If it isn’t cool, we didn’t do it!” Unkl Al’s Custom Emporium is located in Bullhead City, AZ (928) 704-8655. Many of the Rat Bikes pictured here are his creations.


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Check this baby out! This 1967 BSA A65 chopper is old school all the way. Aftermarket springer, dual square headlights, homemade rigid frame, tiny front brake, Sportster tank, dorky pipes, all right out of a 1970 chopper catalog. The top of the tank, now peeling badly, had the words “Hot Tuna” on it. This BSA Chopper was probably something to look at in its day. Now, it’s rusty & dusty, missing parts, probably frozen up after sitting in a warehouse for a couple of decades. It was recently sold at the Brooks Cycles auction for just $1,200. What a bargain!

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While at Rabers Christmas Party in San Jose CA this year, this Rat Bike was parked out front. It’s a ’61 TR6 engine in a pre-1953 Triumph rigid frame. Loaded with interesting detail touches, my personal favorite on top of the tank. They brazed on a sequence of eyes off a fishing pole, then ran the throttle cable through it. Where do these guys come up with this stuff? That’s my favorite favorite thing about not just Rat Bikes, but also Choppers & Bobbers, and Cafe Racers. Check out that banged-up left megaphone. I almost believe he did that on purpose.

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This unit construction Bonneville looks just like the old school choppers I grew up with in the early 1970’s. All the mods are period-correct: Bolt-on rigid frame rear section, extended fork tubes, 21-inch front wheel with no front brake, round alloy oil tank, shortie pipes, banana seat with sissy bar, classic “peanut” tank set high on the backbone. It’s all there. But, the neck (steering head) was never raked so the extended front end pushes the front end up in the air. And the rigid rear section also seems to sit very high. The 18″ rear & 21″ front wheels also contribute to the tall ride height. Could be a bear in corners & keeps you on tippy-toes at a light. But, it’s cool as hell & probably turns heads everywhere it goes. Nice!

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