Steven “Choppa” Bates Standout 1956 Panhead Chopper

Motorcycles weren’t always Steven Bates thing. But as an artist, he’s always been the creative type. Thankfully, about 15 years ago, he picked up an old chopper mag, saw the work and craftsmanship put into the medium, and it stirred something inside him. Because even though the magazine might have spurred an epiphany, the biker lifestyle wasn’t entirely foreign to Bates as his family was into choppers and hung with a band of biker buddies. He happened to have a friend with a shop, so Bates picked up parts and with help from his buddy, pieced together his first motorcycle. Since then, he’s been channeling his artistic talents in iron.

Those talents were on full display in the 1956 Panhead chopper he brought to the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show in Austin. It’s evident in the bends and flow of the trumpet pipes that sing the song of a vintage V-twin lovingly restored. It’s in the vertical balance between a symmetrical sissy bar on the back and raised ribbed handlebars on the front. It’s the artistry of small details that slowly reveal themselves after closer inspection.

1956 Panhead Chopper

Steven “Choppa” Bates of Fort Worth, Texas, shows how he got his nickname with this sweet 1956 Panhead chopper he brought to the 2016 Handbuilt Motorcycle Show.

Steven Bates 2016 Handbuilt Show

Often that inspection comes when people stop to stare at the macabre picture on the tank. It’s not every day you run across a human head served up on a platter. Turns out, the story behind the picture is straight from the Bible, a depiction of John the Baptist and Salome.

“We look up weird, macabre pictures all the time on the internet goofing around,” said Bates. When he ran across the picture, he shot it over to his painter, Jake’s Customs out of Illinois.

“We’ve got to put that on the tank,” was Jake’s reply and the original concepts and colors planned for the bike went in a new direction.

“So many people love that tank and that picture just because it’s so creepy and it’s completely out of the Bible. It’s a story you wouldn’t think is in there but is,” said Bates.

John the Baptist and Salome artwork on chopper tank

Bates found the artwork decorating his tank on the internet, the picture coming from the biblical story of John the Baptist and Salome.

The two-headed tattooed lady on the breather is another interesting conversation piece. The picture in question is framed in a faceplate stamped with the words “Felon Creepshow” that originally was a belt buckle. Bates built the ornate breather for another bike that he only rode one time. It had so many issues, he ended up tearing it down and rebuilding something else with the motor. Bates said the breather was sitting on the shelf when he was building the Panhead so he slapped it on. The shape matched the “Serial Killer” collars on the pushrods and fit the theme of the “Felon Creepshow” belt buckle perfectly.

56 Panhead breather Felon Creepshow belt buckle

The two-headed tattooed lady faceplate on the custom-made breather started as a belt buckle.

And while those styling cues are more tongue-in-cheek than anything, construction of the chopper itself is serious business. The polished Pan is mated to an S&S Super E carb hung in a repop ’56 Panhead wishbone frame. A Rev Tech 4-speed, kick-only tranny sets the 16-inch, Firestone-shod rear in motion. The slick handlebars started as round stock before heading to the CNC lathe where they were cut down to give them the ribbed look. Bates then drilled and tapped one end to put the bars on. The ribbing is replicated in the base of the sissy bar and in the neck support below the backbone. The Throttle Addiction tank sitting on the high-necked frame received a handful of modifications. The leather seat is the work of the Haifley Brothers while features like the controls and taillight were custom-made by Bates.

Handlebars on Steven Bates 1956 Pan

Details like these ribbed bars made Steven Bates 1956 Pan stand out in the crowd. 

The foot controls he made have a cute story behind them. Bates couldn’t figure out a way to mount them without looking too bulky or being in the way. So his 8-year-old daughter, who happened to be hanging out in the garage one day, showed him the most direct way to route and mount them.

“It ended up working so that’s what I’ve got on there now,” said Bates, adding that she’s welcome to come out in the garage anytime now.

Trumpet pipes on 1956 Panhead chopper

Trumpet pipes sing the song of Bates’ 1956 Panhead chopper.

The Panhead chopper is pretty impressive for somebody who basically builds out of a two-car garage. Even more impressive when you consider Bates learned most things the good ol’ fashioned way, through trial and error, from TIG welding to fabrication. He said his background in art definitely helped, as he had already developed an eye for proportion and detail.

It’s the attention to detail that makes Bates’ ’56 Panhead stand out. This extends to minutiae you won’t notice with a casual glance, like the words “Let There be Light” etched around the light switch. The lean, clean chopper received more than its fair share of attention at the 2016 Handbuilt Motorcycle Show. And when a fellow builder as talented as Kim Boyle comes over to give you props on your bike, you know you’ve done something right.

56 Panhead Steven Bates

Bates ’56 Pan features an S&S Super E Carb and a Rev Tech 4-Speed kick-only transmission.

American Iron Garage: Garage Built

DSC09300Lemonade Vodka Build

Steve changes his ’74 XLCH chopper into a Knuckle lookalike

text by Steven Wyman-Blackburn photos by Steve Lita

Why or how lemonade became the accepted platform to describe how people make the best of otherwise unpleasant dilemmas is beyond me. While I understand that the metaphor is contingent upon the originating sour situation, I’ve always felt that lemonade was tantamount to a failed mixed drink. For starters, I prefer iced tea. Luckily for me, when talking about Steven Peters’ 1974 XLCH, my particular stance on the popular saying actually works quite well. Steve basically skipped the lemons altogether and began with the “improved” beverage.

DSC09441While the bike wasn’t a lemon to begin with, it wasn’t perfect, either (hence the lemonade). It was riddled with dents and scratches, which signified a motorcycle that was well-worn and far from show-floor ready. And that’s not even taking into account the failed attempt of whomever drilled holes in the rear fender to accommodate the two-up seat it originally came with. (I say failed since the holes weren’t lined up properly.) It didn’t help that the Sporty had a slight chopper look with the small rear wheel and large front wheel. However, when all is said and done, the bike could start and perform well, and, duh, it’s an Ironhead. The fact that it came with the original frame, powerplant (save for the ’86 carb which Steve installed years later), rear swingarm, fork, and wheels made it the perfect canvas.

It all started when Steve bought a Harley 350 Sprint in 1985. Over the six years he rode it, he became friends with a salesmen from the local House of Harley-Davidson dealer. Well, when the kickstart XLCH you see here appeared at the shop, being a smart guy who could connect the dots, the salesman thought Steve might like it. So he pulled Steve aside and said, “Steve, we’ve got a bike with your name written all over it.” No joke. Steve was etched on the price tag and the letters from P to R could be found in every nook and cranny. The fact that it was a vintage bike was another plus for Steve. In April of 1992, the chopped bike was his.





Okay, so you know that Steve didn’t (and still doesn’t) want a XLCH chopper. So what did he fancy? If the Knucklehead style nuts on the stock rocker boxes weren’t a dead giveaway, Steve tried to emulate the look of a Knucklehead or, to be more precise, something from the 1930s-40s era, and it makes sense, too, since Steve’s dream bike is a 1936 EL. That said, the fact that a Knuckle has always remained in dreamland and never actually pushed its way into reality (i.e. Steve’s world) is essential when defining the bike for it ultimately shapes the Sportster’s overall theme. It’s part Ironhead, part Knuck wannabe. For starters, the fenders are aftermarket parts for Sportys and, probably the most conspicuous one of all, Steve kept the peanut tank. “I originally thought of changing it to a Fat Bob tank, but then I decided not to,” says Steve. “It’s still a Sportster.” When you pair that with a few of the illusions on the bike, you’ll see what I mean.


Now I’m not using the word “illusions” sparingly. Upon first glance, you might think that a particular area on the bike seems legit. But when you get a little closer, you’ll realize that, in actuality, the look or style is a façade. Don’t feel bad if you were fooled. I thought Steve replaced the original suspension and bolted on a hardtail frame. However, the Sporty suspension is just blacked-out. It doesn’t help that the leather saddlebags are also covering that particular area. I also falsely assumed that the front forks was a springer since the lower legs are blacked-out. It’s what Steve calls “black camouflage.” Those springs up top are what fooled me. In fact, the springs are the only, in Steve’s words, “real” vintage DSC09439parts and needed to be cut shorter to fit onto the bike properly. And bring your attention to the “springer seat.” It’s in quotes for a reason. The side flange is covering the fact that it’s actually solidly mounted. “It looks
like it’s floating on a pogo stick,” says Steve.

Interestingly enough, this dichotomy between Ironhead and Knucklehead wasn’t the original look Steve initially tried to tackle. When the bike first made it into his garage, the only mission on Steve’s mind was to unchop it, if you can even call it that. That move is apparent through the first mod Steve made to his Sporty. “It originally came with an aftermarket chrome headlight,” says Steve. “It was installed lower than it is now and was pretty small.” The unchopping began when he replaced it with a much larger, teardrop headlight from the 1935-48 era and embellished it by reinstalling the original bracket upside down to push it up higher on the forks.





The XLCH also came to him with differently sized wheels, a 21″ front and 16″ rear, which contributed to the original builder’s quest for increasing rake. Steve leveled out the playing field by adding the correct size 1974 wheels: the rear wheel is now 2″ bigger and the front wheel is now 2″ smaller. Steve adds, “It levels out the bike perfectly.” Chopped culture also reared its (subjectively ugly) head in two other areas. While the rear fender was fine (besides the mismatching holes mentioned earlier), Steve had to reinstall the front and rear turn signals since the original owner had chopped them off, but the tombstone taillight was already on the bike, so Steve painted it black.  And in the front, Steve made the bike complete by replacing the small chrome front fender. “I’ve heard some people say that my new fender looks like a Model K,” says Steve.

Steve’s artistic trajectory began to head toward vintage styling when he saw a Sportster that had been converted into a Knucklehead lookalike. “I was at the 90th anniversary celebration for Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee,” Steve recalls. “I thought, ’Yeah! I can do that. I already have the headlight and taillight anyway.’” With this new direction in mind, Steve quickly went to his local Harley dealership and chose the pair of used handlebars you see here from a selection of three. “It’s 3′ wide, which is similar to the period. It was from that point when I took off the buckhorns that the project really started to change.”

DSC09382And that change soon led to the gas deflecting, shark fin muffler, a 1935-40 reproduction aftermarket part. The mufflers received the black satin treatment only after Steve tried to rub off some spots on the flat black paint, an action which smudged the coloring, making it resemble a black satin finish. Speaking of color, the bike originally came in burgundy. Steve almost altered it when he realized it was commonly used in 1949. Win-win! For something more substantial, the “springer” saddle illusion mentioned earlier was not intentional, either.

A few other mods that convey the movement toward a Knuckle include his slow but steady change from chrome to blacked-out parts, the 1947-50 chrome and red Speedball tank emblem, and the 1935-57 art deco horn (which is actually paired with and located in front of another usable horn since the retro one isn’t loud enough). Then there’s the stripes on the rear fender, which Steve calls Art Deco speed lines even though people now refer to them as Sergeant Stripes. His reasoning? That’s what they have been called since the late ’40s. The speedometer was also moved and the tach removed. “It’s kind of like the dashbars from the early ’30s,” says Steve. “It doesn’t look like a dash, but it has the same feel.”

1974 XLCH 1




As we all know, customizing comes with its fair share of trials and tribulations. The pipes you see here were actually a nuisance. The rear pipe would have originally gone through where the kickstart lever is currently located, so Steve had to cut and twist them before installing it back on. However, that only pushed the front pipe 3″ forward, forcing Steve to cut 3″ from the bottom. Some of the brackets he created also came at a price, especially the left- and right-side streamlined half moon footboard brackets (which were bent inward with a slight upward tip bent into the front and took an entire day each to create). Another troublesome story involves what I like to summarize as the goodbye-shifter-peg-during-ride scenario, but that’s a whole different ball game.

Oh, and see the picture of a trailer to the left? I called it the Medieval tour pack during the interview, but Steve clarified by saying that it’s modeled after the Mullins auto trailer built only in 1936-37. For those of you who are curious, the trailer attaches to the bike’s swingarm with a carabineer-type clip rather than a trailer hitch. Like the XLH’s gas tank, the trailer also features the speed lines. “I built the trailer myself,” says Steve. “It has a steel frame from a bicycle trailer. Save for the hinges, latch, and handle, everything else is made from hardboard, pine, and oak wood, and hardboard like Masonite. Even the fenders are made from wood.”

DSC09460With so many mods already lined up — some planned, some not so much — it’s safe to say that Steve still has his work cut out for him. When asked whether or not buying his 1936 EL dream bike would affect the look of his Sportster, Steve had to think about it for a moment. “I never thought of that,” begins Steve slowly. “I don’t know. This one is just so fun and unique the way it is.” Fair enough. After consulting my wife, Jenn, on a closer for the story, she said, “Life gave him lemonade, so he made an Arnold Palmer … with a splash of vodka.”

Looking For Classic Motorcycle Cut-Downs, Bobbers & Choppers

A late 1920s Harley JDH Cut-Down custom motorcycle

A late 1920s Harley JDH Cut-Down custom motorcycle

The long history of choppers and custom motorcycle is a uniquely American story, akin to Rock ‘n Roll in its cultural impact and global influence. The National Motorcycle Museum is assembling the first-ever exhibit comprehensively documenting the evolution of the American Custom Motorcycle; the Cut-Downs, Bob-Jobs, show bikes and choppers, from the late 1920s to the mid-’70s.

Opening in May 2015, the exhibit will include only period-built bikes, plus related artwork, memorabilia, film posters and photos, plus contemporary artwork commissioned for the show.

The National Motorcycle Museum is looking for original or restored 1920s-1970s custom motorcycles and related memorabilia; do you know where machines built ‘in the day’ can be found?

Americans started ‘chopping’ bikes long before ‘Easy Rider.’ It all began in the late 1920s with the ‘Cut-Down’, based on the Harley JD, with shortened and lowered frames.  Cut-Downs were hot, high-performance bikes and very rare today. Next came the ‘Bob-Job’, stripped-down Harleys and Indians and even British imports from the 1930s, built to look like the new Class C dirt-track racers.

From the late 1940s, a few riders began decorating their Bob-Jobs, using chrome and wild paint, adding ape hangers, upswept exhausts, and small sissy bars, which by the 1950s became the established ‘show bike’ standards at combined car/motorcycle Hot Rod shows.  Drag racing motorcycles also influenced street customs using drag bars and raked forks.

By the late ’50s what we’d recognize as Choppers emerged, and in the early to mid-’60s raked steering heads, extended springer forks, wild pipes, sissy bars, sculpted tanks, and moulded frames were ridden by the hippest motorcyclists in America.

As a great coincidence, the first comprehensive history of American customs has just been released – ‘The Chopper: the Real Story.’ Museum staff are working with author/curator Paul d’Orleans to create the new exhibit based on his research for the book. Paul is a well-known writer (‘The Ride’, ‘Café Racers’, Motorcycle Rides & Culture, plus and curator (most recently at the Sturgis ‘Motorcycle as Art’ exhibits with Michael Lichter), and contributes monthly to magazines in six languages.

Do you own an original or restored 1920s-1970s custom motorcycle or related memorabilia?  We’d like your help to tell this important story, or if you are a fine artist who would like to loan motorcycle artwork, please send an email to Mark Mederski:, or Paul d’Orleans: Tell them the crew at American Iron Magazine sent you.

Steve “Street Rod” builds a chopper to rival the pros

Before I go on and on about this being Nutmegger Steve Van Blarcom’s first bike build, which it is, you should know that he’s a successful and well-respected builder of hot rods and classic automobiles. To say that he’s mechanically inclined just wouldn’t do his skills justice.

Having built countless custom hot rods and performed many nut and bolt restorations, there were still a few things that Steve wanted to do. The first was to set some land speed records. In 2006, he hit 198.43 mph in his Thacker and Shine 1929 Roadster at the Maxton Mile. He’s currently the record holder, and since the Mile closed down in 2010, he always will be. In 2009, he trucked out to Bonneville where he claimed a world land speed record in the roadster, taking it to 216.979 mph.

There was still something that Steve had not done. While he had worked on motorcycles and customized several of his prior bikes, he had never actually built one from the ground up. At the time, bike builder shows were becoming very popular on television. “I used to look at the bikes that they built and thought, I can build one like that,” Steve says. “I wanted it to be a theme bike like I was watching the bike builders on TV do.”

Steve’s life revolves around his family and hot rods. Both are displayed prominently on this bike. “When I thought about what I should use for a theme, because I’m such a street rodder I came up with the idea to make what we now call the Hot Rod Chopper.”

The stunning paint job has a House of Kolor Candy Blue and Silver laid down by Shane Salisbury of Wetcoats. Those colors are broken up with a painted chrome strip and ’57 Chevy aluminum fins on the back fender. “It went on from there and started to involve my whole family,” Steve says. The names of all the members of his family are featured on the bike, including Judy, his wife of over 40 years; his grandsons Derek and Drew, and his daughter Laura. The ignition cover on the left side of the bike is engraved Sandy, in memory of his other daughter. To make the family complete, there’s also a Steve painted on the bike.

Take a look at the other airbrush work that Shane did, like the moon eyes on the left side of the oil tank and “Mr. Horsepower” Woody Woodpecker on the right. To come full circle on Steve’s chopper, the paint features six of Steve’s actual cars right on the gas tank. The diner the cars are parked in front of is the famous Olympia Diner on the Berlin Turnpike in Newington, Connecticut. That was the popular strip back in the day where hot rodders used to cruise and show off their rides. The wide tires on his Bad Coupe painted on the fender almost make even the 300-class rear tire look pitiful.

Delivering power to that hunk of rubber is a 131″ V-twin built by H&L Performance in Wallingford, Connecticut, which uses S&S Cycle cases and produces 150 hp. The custom pipes, and the rest of the metalwork, were built by Jamie Miller of Miller Racing. That giant Weber IDF carb from Terry Components not only feeds tons of air and fuel to the beastly engine, but it also adds to the bike’s hot rod theme. A BAKER Drivetrain RSD six-speed backs up the 131, and the two are mated via a BDS 3″ primary.

For added cleanliness, Steve wired everything through the big blue frame. The frame itself sports 40 degrees of rake and is stretched 8″ up and 5″ out. It’s also tough to overlook those one-off wheels made by Chuck Wendt of Rowe Machine and modeled after the old Radir wheels that graced hot rods in the ’50s. That big beautiful front end is a 14″-over Mean Street Stiletto model, which Steve internally wired the brake lines through. Doing the actual braking at both ends are Performance Machine calipers. Steering is accomplished with a classy Custom Cycle Control Systems handlebar with built-in controls, and, of course, internal wiring.

With that clean look and killer power, it might be difficult to believe that the hot rod chopper is streetlegal. It is, as part of Steve’s original goal was to ensure the bike would be 50-state legal as any stock Harley-Davidson would be. Even the one-off exhaust has the proper amount of baffling to keep this chopper out of the impound.

While Steve has the technical skills and tools required to build a pro-level bike, no one can take away that this is indeed his first bike build. While many would-be builders out there tried to copy the pros they saw on television, Steve succeeded and gave “as seen on TV” a whole new meaning. AIM

READER’S RIDE By Tyler Greenblatt

Story as published in the July 2012 issue of American Iron Magazine.