Hot Bike Examines Digger Chopper Style

Digger History

Arlen Ness

Digger choppers were all about panels and planes, as opposed to curves.

Street Chopper & Hot Bike Archives

At one end of the custom-bike spectrum you have the dragbike. Stripped of all excess weight, optimized for power, and clad only in a patchwork body tattoo of sponsorship stickers and bits of paint, motorcycles tailored to the dragstrip are as extreme a custom ride as you’ll see anywhere in the motorcycle universe. At the other end of said spectrum you’ve got your extreme showbike. Slathered in artwork and raised on Bondo and outrageous bodywork, they’re made for catching eyes instead of burning rubber. Both styles weren’t meant for street riding, though they were built to compete. In the 1970s, the digger bike explored the huge gulf separating the extremes.

Arlen Ness 1979 Cover Shoot

Arlen Ness 1979 Cover Shoot

Street Chopper & Hot Bike Archives

Arlen Ness 1979 Cover Shoot

Arlen Ness 1979 Street Chopper cover shoot. The rounded tank was a bit of a break away from strict digger style, but this is Arlen Ness, after all. He's allowed to do that.

Street Chopper & Hot Bike Archives

Arlen Ness was the biggest proponent of the digger bike back in the day. Where he and others drew inspiration for what’s become the digger style is a mixed bag though. Some attribute the digger’s origin to the Frisco style; others say a day at the drags flipped a switch that gave Ness the idea. History is rarely as cut and dry as all that. I believe it was most likely a combination of the two. Arlen was as deeply involved with the Frisco bikes as you can get, and there’s definitely a drag-racer look to your typical digger machine (long and low profile, mid- or rear-mount foot controls, extensive motor mods—you get the idea). Like their Frisco chopper cousins, diggers were narrow. That’s a key difference setting them apart from the wide tires you’d see on a drag racer.

Arlen Ness

Modern digger ready to hit the road.

Street Chopper & Hot Bike Archives

What is damn true is that by 1976 magazines like Street Chopper had more and more fully realized digger bikes on their covers. Very long and low, digger chops were svelte, with coffin or prism gas tanks teamed with girder front ends, wild paint, and, in many instances, lots of engraving on the cases and rocker covers. Combined with superchargers, turbo kits, racing carburetors, and motors foreign and domestic, these were the collective symptoms of digger fever. To get the long and low look for the digger, they were usually built with low gooseneck frames and would have a big rake to the fork. The frames also had chopped backbones so that they could be lengthened for the long look. Lastly, there’s that curious name: digger. Back then, the dragsters that inspired these bikes were also called diggers.

Although the digger era faded out by the mid-1980s as riders turned toward fatter bikes, the digger influence never truly went away. Look closely at a pro street chopper and you’ll still see a little bit of its digger ancestors in it. HB