Every country does biker culture in their own particular way. Two of the most influential styles come from the United States and the UK. In the US, cut-up cruisers or 'choppers' rule the day. Customized Harley and Indians with low bare frames, extended forks, and long handlebars are hallmarks of the US custom-bike scene. British Rockers went a different route, stripping down single- and twin-cylinder bikes with lightweight frames and clip-on or turned-down handlebars in search of that magic ton (100 mph) racing from coffeeshop to coffeeshop in their aptly named Cafe Racers.
Japan approached biker culture in a uniquely Japanese way. They started by taking influences from US choppers and British cafe racers and throwing them in a blender and assembling the results through the funhouse mirror of Japanese exaggerated design. Tall tail sissy bars on choppers become excessively high-seat backs on a Japanese Bosozoku ('out-of-control vehicle tribe,' roughly) motorcycle. Tall 'ape hanger' handlebars are turned inward on the bike. On top of these "show, not go" chopper mods are a handful of sport bike and cafe racer cues that include colorful fairings often decorated with rising sun or other wild designs. Bosozoku gangs once covered Japan, causing chaos with their New Year's Eve mass rides, but today, the style exists more as a fringe group. The bike styles remain, and some of them are pretty out there. Here are 24 of them that only a fan would dig.
Maybe the hardest thing to swallow for Western eyes on the bosozoku bike is the inwardly turned handlebars. From a young age, that setup has had a bad association for the US kid since those are the handlebars on the banana-seat bikes with streamers coming out of the handles that are sure to get mocked by the kid on the BMX bike. There's just something so inherently dated and goofy about the look that doesn't improve with time like other old styling cues.
While not strictly bosozoku, the Akira bike and the movie itself lean heavily on bosozoku style and culture. The opening sequence, one of the best in animation, involves a clash between two bosozoku gangs on the streets of Tokyo. The design for the gang leader's, Kaneda's, motorcycle has become an object of desire for lovers of anime and motorcycles. While the leader of the Capsules' bike is cool, the weird little dingy bike they made as a companion leaves something to be desired.
One of the more persistent elements of the bosozoku motorcycle is the influence of World War II fighter pilots and their planes. This patriotic custom eschews some of the more garish stickers and wild designs for more subdued two-tone and relatively restrained detail touches, including the faux aircraft registration letters on the side that slyly spell out "I-MBAD."
Japanese customizers don't generally restrict themselves to one piece of extravagance on their work, but when they do, they really go all out. Fairings were added to bikes to either to protect the ride from the wind or make the bike more aerodynamic.
This one seems to have been created to give the bike a weird long horse-head look.
Presumably, the cone is removable because it doesn't appear to include a headlight for the bike, meaning that if you're going out on it, you're doing it in broad daylight for everyone to see. Bold.
One of the restrictions cafe racers and choppers have is that since they are, by their very nature, cut-down bikes. There's a general lack of surface area for the most common custom feature: the paint job. In choppers, the artistic impulse is released either through painted gas tanks or custom fabricated metal work.
The bosozoku bikes embrace fairings and the paint options it gives, like this safety orange bike with caution-tape striping.
They say that there are people who've gone down and people who'll go down on a bike. Well, this one's just getting a head start on the accident scene to come.
Before there were the X Games and extreme motorcycle stunts, there was Evel Knievel and his death-defying record-setting jumps. Often, Knievel would do them on Harley Davidsons festooned with the stars and stripes.
For the bosozoku, the flag of choice is the 'rising sun' design associated with the World War II Japanese battle flag.
Bosozoku riders often fashion themselves after the kamikaze pilots of the time to create the air of a 'devil may care' attitude.
One of the strategies for dealing with the rash of bosozoku gangs was to encourage the members to switch to slower scooters to at least tamp down the gangs speeding through the city streets. Of course, a slow thing doesn't remain a slow thing with gearheads for long, and little scooter frames get big engines eventually. This one is adopting a 'rat bike' look, among its other oddities, with parts made from scrap material. The off-kilter look makes it hard to imagine it riding in a straight line.
One of the style elements in Japanese manga and animations is extended lines. These sweeping arcs give static objects the illusion of motion, like a cat going from coil to long jump. The stretched appearance in comics and cartoons gives birth to a long, low, and sweeping look in the customs inspired by them. The long stretch has a large touring-style fairing up front with the back so stretched out that the rear tire looks like it's about to fall off. They top it off with a paint job only Prince could love.
One of the common factors is the circular nature of manufacture design and custom designs. Perhaps, it's no clearer than in the way Harley Davidsons have evolved to look like the custom mods that made the Harley a popular icon of its time. When cafe racers started adopting small fairing pieces and bodywork from racing bikes, manufacturers started offering bikes with the fairings for street bikes. It makes sense then that a Japanese bike might also take subtle bosozoku cues in its stock bike designs, sometimes making the distinction between custom and factory hard to determine.
One of the big differences between US choppers and British cafe racers is the use of color. For the anglo bikes, color is usually kept to a minimum and often limited to stark combinations of flat black and chrome. Occasional splashes of color are generally reserved for the tank.
For the bosozoku rider, any part of the bike, including the exhaust pipes, is a chance for a little splash of color.
With the super-bright yellow and red, at least it's easy to spot.
Jamming big engines that have no place on a motorcycle is a concept that knows no borders. There are Germans that put Porsche 356 engines in the frames of BMW motorcycles, there's a coach-built bike built around a Maserati engine, and famously, there's the design exercise that took the massive 8-liter V10 from a Viper and built a motorcycle around it. This one takes the motor out of a Lamborghini Espada, a front-engine '70s GT that itself got its engine from the legendary Muira. It probably sounds great but must be a hassle to change direction.
As stated before, bosozoku is a blend of cafe racer and chopper aesthetics to create a uniquely Japanese spin on it all. When there's a collision of form over function and function over form, you get something that doesn't do either job well, like this combination of fairings and ape-hanger handlebars. Ape hangers themselves are a hard sell; they make the bike harder to ride, and it's hard to not look ridiculous with your hand over your head cruising the highway. With the goofy fairing added, they look like a pair of weird cats trying to get a look at a bird in a tree.
One of the style cues of the seventies on US choppers was the high-back double seats. It turned the 'sissy bar,' a tall hoop attachment on the back of a chopper meant for the passenger to hold onto or to strap luggage or bedrolls to, into a formal backrest. The Japanese are never one to let a chance at excess pass in their custom work. The high backrest on a chopper is generally a hard sell with its low frames and backward lean working in its favor, but in upright street bikes, it looks jarring and out of place.
One of the more striking elements of bosozoku is the wild tailpipes. They often feature the telltale "more is more" philosophy with several pipes sticking out. The other option is the long pipes with sharp angular edges.
Rather than bending the long pipe, they're cut off and welded at harsh angles.
Sometimes, they'll even craft them into recognizable shapes like stars. Often, the pipes are removable to make the bike at least somewhat manageable in day-to-day riding.
For US choppers, there's a particular style where the frame and handlebars are raised up in front of the rider to give the front end a tall look. There's almost a practical element to the bosozoku blending the high look and the sport fairing. They ride in the upright position as opposed to the tucked position of the 100 mph chasing cafe racers, so raising the fairing up protects where they actually ride. This functionality to an otherwise garish look doesn't make it an easier look to get used to.
Each custom has its accompanying attire. The cafe racers have adopted the leather look of their chopper-riding US cousins with a little more streamlining and simplification; the Rocker's rivals, the Mods, wore parkas. The bosozoku rider opts for the tokko-fuku or 'special attack uniform,' a look largely inspired by kamikaze pilots from World War II. This can be touched up with rockabilly-style pompadours and headbands. Sometimes, glasses and surgical masks are also worn.
One of the other elements of the bosozoku style is for slogans to be put on the bike in various locations or wherever there's surface area available.
Sometimes, the slogans are in Japanese and pertain to battles or fighting, and sometimes, they're Chinese symbols that are philosophical or spiritual in nature.
The slogans can appear on the bike or on their apparel like headbands and jackets. These guys have opted for the aforementioned surgical masks as well.
The racing look is often associated with a low-to-the-ground profile. For a race car, this creates a lower profile to cut through the wind and lower pressure pocket to help keep the cars glued to the ground, especially in tunnel under-bodied cars like the GTP racers of the '80s. Of course, this principle doesn't work with the aerodynamics of the motorcycle, but that didn't stop the maker of this pit bike that looks like it might be hard to make a low-speed hard turn.
With every custom aesthetic, there are always the hit and miss in the individual applications of the styling cues. Sometimes, the builder likes one thing but not the other or executes one element better than they do a separate one. This leads to an uneven application that creates a wide disparity in how the bikes come together under the banner of a particular style. Then, there's a bike that encompasses all of the elements like a high fairing, a tall passenger back, multi-pipes, decals, and colors, where you can see that even when it's well done, it's still odd-looking.
For the bosozoku builder, speed isn't exactly the goal, at least not in the same way as it is for the cafe racer.
More akin to their US-cousin biker gangs, the bosozoku ride in packs with a clear leader.
The leader rides up front and determines where they go, and he's not to be passed. This doesn't mean that they don't like speed; it's just that despite the racer-bike styling cues, the bikes are more about thrills and appearance than they are about competitive speed.
Coachbuilders and bodyworks will sometimes employ a buck, a wooden or metal frame they can use to bang out the metal bodywork or form the fiberglass over to replicate specific body parts and shapes. This builder has opted to give the buck a different life and let it have its time on the vehicle. In place of the fairing and the bodywork is this wire frame that just suggests the idea of fairings and bodyworks. Of course, it does none of the things a fairing does well. It won't redirect wind and is heavier than fiberglass bodywork. It's a unique look, though.
One of the elements common in choppers is the 'rigid' frame that does away with rear suspension connecting the rear tire to the frame directly. While the look is clean and unobstructed, it's absolute murder on the rider who has nothing to absorb the bumps and holes in the road. As a result, it's not a common thing to adopt outside of the chopper and bobber customs, but since bosozoku is a confluence of influences, someone was bound to adopt the rigid frame.
In the '80s, sharp angles were a popular part of sports design. An extension of the plain wedges of the '70s, these sharp edges became more complex as the decade wore on.
When the F-117 Stealth Fighter was introduced to the public, its sharp radar-deflecting angles influenced even more sharp-angle designs, some of which live on in cars like Lamborghini.
Mystery has adopted the '70s/'80s angular look for its long front fairing that's briefly interrupted by the protection-wrapped exhaust.
Arguably, there's no 'done' when it comes to bosozoku style. Elements can be added contentiously as long as there's a place to put them, like placing a diplomat-style Rising Sun flag on the front wheel or the bullhorn attachment off the rear. Attached to his tokko-fuku is a crosstie that has a giant bow in the back. With the flag and the purple pastel flames, it's no doubt a dynamic collection of motion when ridden. Even then, it's a whole lot of bike to take in all at once.
Sources: bikeexif.com piledriverz.com, bikeworld.com silodrome.com