The Thin Chrome Line

Hell For Leather, HFL -



Customization is central to biker culture. It’s like a moral mandate. Riding a completely stock bike is like walking around with the tags still on your clothes (or, wait, is that a cool thing? Was that in the 90s? Do kids still do that?). Customizing is a way of tithing to our primitive gods. Even if you just change the handlebars or exhaust, you have to do something. Despite all the professional engineering that went into your bike, you just can’t keep your hands off of it, even if, like me, you’re hardly a pro. It’s how you rub your scent on it. It’s like pissing on your fence to keep your neighbors away (I assume you do this, too).

And this has nothing to do with increasing the potential resale value of the bike. You’ll never get back out of it what you put into it, especially if you count your labor, so don’t try to fool yourself with that calculation. No, this is passion, not reason. Customizing provides the owner with a deeper, more involved interaction with the machine, beyond just riding and maintenance. That custom machine is partly your personal creation, a realization of what was in your mind, and everyone else’s opinion be damned. What could be more satisfying? It’s a way to “shout the great ‘I am.’”

So naturally I spend quite a bit of time talking with my students about custom bikes. This is always fun, talking about why people make certain choices versus others, understanding where different styles come from, what the styles say, and bikes that don’t seem to fit any style. I especially enjoy seeing their fresh perspectives on some unusual machinery. By talking with the students, I learned something I never realized before: I learned that for a lot of regular (non-moto-sapiens) people, “custom bikes” really means one thing: chrome.

I have to admit, I was a little hurt. It’s like if you told someone you were a professional chef, and their only association with that was Gordon Ramsay. (I have this problem sometimes when people learn I’m an architect, and they say, “Like Mike Brady?” I usually respond, “No. More like in the Matrix. Now run along.”) I said something to my students like, “No! There’s so much more to custom bikes! You have so much strange, undersea life yet to see!” and I think I immediately played a Blitz Motorcycle video.

But really, it makes sense from their perspective. Chrome is obvious. There are tons of Khustom Khrome catalogs; hell, for some bikes you can essentially buy every single part but the tires in chrome. Chrome really is a huge part of the custom market, of course. These students may not have had the whole picture, but they were not wrong. After I thought a bit, I was actually surprised by my initial reaction. Why be defensive? Do I have chrome issues?

If I do, I’m not the only one. There is a big chrome/anti-chrome split in biker culture. It is a very divisive material. Lots of bikers gleefully delete everything shiny from their bikes. I think I saw a guy who had spray painted his mirrors flat black. Not the backs or the stems, the mirrors. There is a growing sentiment, I think especially among younger riders, that chrome is gaudy, old-fashioned, heavy, and tacky. Chrome also, to some, is associate with bolt-on custom culture and “show” as opposed to “go.” This is a stereotype, and it’s unfair – all custom bikes are at least partly “show.”

On the other side, chrome is classic. I think it evokes rock-n-roll, real rock-n-roll: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley. It’s Modern, before the days when irony ruled. I think it’s a shame that most cars today have no chrome. My 1986 Chevy Impala had chrome bumpers that were each 12 feet long and weighed 487 pounds. They were magnificent. Everybody wants to be “old school,” and chrome is definitely a way of matriculating into the old school. Sure, chrome can be overdone, but so can “murdering out” your ride.

Personally, I clearly fall on the anti-chrome side. I didn’t realize I even had an opinion about it until this discussion, but I do get a little wave of nausea when I see a bike that could be a hood ornament for Dr. Teeth’s band tour bus. But I’m not orthodox. Yes, my gas tank is matte black, but I have chrome spoke wheels, even though alloy wheels are lighter and stronger. Maybe I just like having a little touch of strange. I certainly don’t want to become self-righteously anti-chrome. That way is a path to hipsterdom, friend, and is best avoided.

Of course, Harley is the brand most closely associated with King Chrome, but they made a clever move with the unchrome Dark Customs line. (Let’s set aside for a moment this paradoxical usage of the term “Custom.”) While this line did create the regrettable Cross Bones, it also includes the 883 Iron, the Forty-Eight, and the Street Bob – clean, cool, great-looking bikes. And if I think they look good, then this style has obviously had some success in reaching out to the antichromites. Notice how the Star Bolt is following suit. Of course, HD’s best bike (and one with very little chrome) was the XR1200, but, alas, that’s another story.

Biker culture is really very diverse, with many subcultures. How and how much you customize your bike makes a statement about your identity and those subcultures. If you’re using chrome on your bike, you’re working with a loaded material. It has to be done right. It’s like a tailor using silk: it can be exquisite and beautiful, but in the wrong hands it’s A Night at the Roxbury.

Remember what I said earlier about “everyone else’s opinion be damned”? I’ve seen a lot of custom bikes and thought, “Man, is that ugly. Good for him!” Who am I to say what your barabric Yawp should sound like? Maybe you like a bike that looks like the Terminator T-1000 in mid-morph. We’re all biker brethren and sistren, right? Yeah, sure. Well, brethren or not, pro or anti, what I always say I like about motorcycle culture is its capacity for nonconformity. You can be tacky, classic, neo, retro, speedy, or pokey. We are already different because we ride, some differenter than others. I know which side of the chrome divide I’m on, but like the B-52s said, “Chrome if you want to.”

Who is Carter Edman? An architect and writer in Cleveland. He teaches “Motorcycles and American Culture” at Case Western Reserve University. He is also an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church and can perform marriages in the State of Ohio and at sea. Carter rides a modified 2008 Triumph Bonneville.

You can follow the Moto Sapiens twitter feed.
Carter also tweets Things that I know to be True.
And writes as Richard Parker.

  • BryonCLewis

    So looking at my two bikes I would be considered Dr.Squid/Mr.Pirate? It appears as though I split the line.

  • Cameron Evans

    I must qualify my statement by admitting that I’ve never ridden a bike with a springer front end, but I think the Cross Bones is the coolest of the Dark Customs. Of course, like most people on here, I’d rather have the XR1200.

    • Davidabl2

      Unfortunately neither model survived for long in the marketplace..but same’s true of the XLCR

      • Cameron Evans

        The XLCR was likely too well suspended for the HD faithful.

    • shabazzdazz

      I borrowed a Cross Bones once, was all set to take it for the weekend. Left my own bike where I borrowed it from, and set out. Super cool, I thought.

      Literally five minutes on the freeway, hit a few expansion joints, took the nearest off-ramp, and turned around to get my bike back.

      I was shocked. It was THAT BAD.

  • Davidabl2

    “Despite all the professional engineering that went into your bike”
    With some bikes it’s BECAUSE of the professional engineering..that was done by the marketing dept.

  • disqus_KZrVX4sfiN

    This is what custom means in Amsterdam! Check out our Facebook page:

  • Piglet2010

    I thought Harley-Davidson’s best bike was the 2005-2006 Street Rod? Modern engine with both power and torque, standard riding position, decent handling with 42° of lean angle clearance, along with brakes and suspension that actually work. No wonder nobody bought one. :(

    • Richard Gozinya

      A Harley model’s odds of success are inversely proportional to how well it handles. The only reason the FXR Super Glides lasted for as long as they did was because Willie G and his cohorts thoroughly raped it until it was unrecognizable by its engineers.

      • Davidabl2

        What we seem to be seeing here is that if you want a cool late-model Harley you have to build it yourself. Or if the MoCo DOES make one you’d better grab it fast.
        And of course the cool vintage ones were all made in small numbers :-(

        • Richard Gozinya

          I have heard of some Harley riders doing that. Putting Ohlins on their Dynas, lighter wheels, stuff along those lines. Always seems to be a Dyna, Sportster, or occasionally a V-Rod, never the Touring or Softtails. Which I guess is sort of obvious, the only thing you can really do to improve a Softtail’s performance is drop it off at a metal recycler.

          • Davidabl2

            ..Or drop a considerable PART of it off at the recycler.

      • Davidabl2

        What we seem to be seeing here is that if you want a cool late-model Harley you have to build it yourself. Or if the MoCo DOES make one you’d better grab it fast.
        And of course the cool vintage ones were all made in small numbers :-(

    • luxlamf

      a 620lb “Sports Bike” when HD was still trying to push Buells out the door? No, many reasons (Besides looks) that the Street Rod failed (and should have). Many dealerships are still gun shy about keeping VRSC models in house because they where all Stuck with street rods for so long littering their showrooms.

      • Piglet2010

        Note that I wrote that the Street Rod was the best Harley-Davidson – the qualifier is significant, no?

        But of course, most potential H-D buyers care only about sound and looks, and not function.

      • Richard Gozinya

        The Street Rod was never intended to be, or marketed as, a sportbike. Harley referred to it as a roadster. As for the looks, it looks like a V-Rod that was made to be ridden instead of have its picture taken.

  • Michael Howard

    I’ve never seen the appeal of chrome. Always seemed to me like a, “Hey! Check me out!” cry for attention. Not my thing.

    • Robotribe

      I understand your logic. Personally, I’m not a chrome aficionado myself, but if you’re avoiding calling attention to yourself, riding a motorcycle in any shape or form doesn’t help.

  • Mykola

    To sidestep any Harley bias in the opinions here, how do you feel about the chrome on a Bonneville T100 (the ones that also had the chromed front fender), or sport bikes with the frames and/or swing-arms chromed?

    I think that chrome and black make great accents/highlights/contrasts on a lot of bikes. A couple of good looking bikes I would point out for correctly using chrome in greater and lesser degrees would be Yamaha’s XJR1300, Roadstar Warrior, the VFR800, Valkyrie, CB1100, Moto Guzzi California Vintage, Harley FXDC, other bikes; of course there are exceptions (The Griso 8v SE in the delicious green/brown/black scheme or any pre-696 Monsters which are basically chrome free), and your personal mileage will vary.

    As bikes get customized toward the chromed-out or murdered-out ends of the spectrum, they become uninteresting. Every Dark Custom still came with all-chrome pipes.

  • Afonso Mata

    Fortunately, since here in southwestern Europe we don’t have a big of a HD culture, chrome isn’t such a real issue.
    Since most bikers ride sports (both faired and naked) and “adventure” bikes, customization tends to be more on the mechanical stuff, tank pantings and fairing stickers.

    Anyhow, here’s my only customization ;)

  • Jordan

    Every person is entitled to do whatever they want with how they approach biking. For me, I see myself as the weakest link of a stock sport bike’s package, so I like going to track schools because I can make a sport bike work that much better. I would like to keep riding bikes for the rest of my life, so my abilities can’t be stagnant, otherwise I would of never gotten past my mom picking my GS500F off of me when I crashed it in her driveway. Whenever I can see a return of my money spent through just that little bit more clarity, it brings me a lot of satisfaction and in the case of re-calibrating my body position, a lot of positive frustration. Also, I get some bad-ass looking pictures of me trying to look cool, even though NO ONE finds it that impressive on online dating websites =(. The bikes that I have are mostly stock, right down to the factory rear fender and I’m okay with that because my machines’ statement is a little bit more reserved. Seeing the little Michelin man on the edge of my tires worn down through past track days is all the message I would ever want to broadcast.

    As for chrome and my interpretation of it, it’s kind of taken on the appeal of ZZ Top: you either love it, or roll your eyes every time ‘La Grange’ comes on the radio. Then again, how’s that any worse than watching a broadcast-ed road race and despising yourself for not being as good of a rider as the guys you see on television? It’s all semantics. And lastly, to the cruiser guy down the street from me who short shifts through the neighborhood to keep the noise down early in the morning, I salute your courtesy.

    • Jordan

      Reading this over, I just realized that because I’ll probably never be nearly as fast as Josh Hayes and feeling insecure about it puts my rationality at about the same level as a teenage girl who will never feel as pretty as Selena Gomez…

      No wonder my masculinity compass has always been a little off. Thanks a lot, sport bikes.

  • Tuscan Foodie

    I come from a country – Italy – where even minor customizations can lead to a confiscation of your bike and massive fines. I remember police patrols checking the angle of my licence plate to make sure it was legal (It was) So, in spite of having owned bikes for over 25 years, I never made any change to them. Never.

    Oh, by the way, I now own an Xr1200x, my first Harley. You say it is he best Harley, yet I see e rating in your table is only 4 out of 10, less than all the other Harleys. What’s the issue with that?

    • C.Stevens

      Wow, that’s crazy. I’ve never heard that. What about dual sport bikes? The back tires tend to tear off the stock license plate mounts.

      • Tuscan Foodie

        It doesn’t matter. You can only replace the stock parts with other parts preapproved for that specific bike. Assuming you want to change the licence plate with an aftermarket one, you must make sure the after market company went through the trouble of having its part approved for your bike. Needless to say that that costs lots of money…

        Not only that. But if you use a non approved part, and have an accident, the insurance can refuse to pay, because tour bike was not street legal at the moment of your accident.

        I am not even joking.

        • disqus_SB5uBoEFy2

          Wow, it’s just like that in the US… except I’m talking about aircraft!

  • Devin Byrnes

    I was raised in a family of motorheads. Almost every Uncle and older cousin had a cool classic cruiser. My Dad has owned a black 1958 Chevy Impala for longer than I’ve been alive. Black and chrome might as well be our family crest. Ridiculous overchroming is still silly, but I can’t get enough of a bike in a nice glossy black with chrome accents and chrome spoke wheels.

  • nick

    “…when people learn I’m an architect, and they say, “Like Mike Brady?” I
    usually respond, “No. More like in the Matrix. Now run along.” – best comeback, ever!

    Sportbikers slather their machines in chrome to…’Italian Chrome”. I tire of the carbon fiber overuse. I’ll put this in your silk category.