To know the history of chopper bicycles, we need to go to the past. How Americans jealous of Europeans made Europeans jealous and gave history its iconic bike.
It all started with returning WWII soldiers and a long flight.
Returning from WWII, soldiers wanted cool, sleek motorbikes like they had seen in Europe and Harley Davidson just wasn’t producing them. So they started chopping parts off their motorbikes to make them sleeker and easier to ride.
While the term originated because of the process of chopping the motorbikes, Harley Davidson cottoned on to the profit margins and started producing their own choppers.
The legend goes that Alan Oakley, Raleigh’s chief designer, visited America in 1967, searching for inspiration. Finding it in the American chopper cycles, he sketched a design for a new line of bicycles on the back of an airmail letter on his return flight.
Tom Karen disputes the story, claiming he was hired in 1968 to create designs for Raleigh. He says that he based the wheels on American drag racing vehicles, where the back wheel is larger because the power lies in the back of the vehicles.
Either way, the 60s birthed the iconic and much beloved design. High seats, high rise handlebars, different sized wheels and of course, the gear shift placed between the legs. This was all intended to make the bike appeal to its young target audience, boys fantasising about riding a motorbike and won over with the cool, different design.
Current models have moved the gear shaft to the side for a now obvious reason, they caused a lot of discomfort for their male riders.
They were heavy at 18.5kg and cost £32 in 1969, the equivalent of nearly £800 today. However, Raleigh’s sold 1.5 million of them, saved itself from bankruptcy and started a trend that became a cult classic, with collectors today paying up to £7,000 for an original edition.
The bikes became extremely popular and in 1972, Raleigh’s released a second, new and improved version. The seat was moved forward, a rear rack added, and the shift knob replaced by a t-bar handle. The bikes became a status symbol of the 70’s, and today have a cult following.
There is a worldwide Raleigh Chopper Owners Club, the RCOC which has over 3,000 members who gather in Northampton each year for a chopper convention. There is no other bike that can match the size of Chopper enthusiasts collections or rival it’s nostalgia appeal or selling price for an original model.
Part of the appeal came from the sheer varieties and flavours the choppers came in, with several speed marks and different colours for children to choose from.
It reminded children of the American Schwinn bikes, so popular in Spielberg movies, it looked a little like a cross between a motorbike and a chevy gearstick. It was cool, it was a status symbol. It was a must have for every little boy in the 70s.
While the saddle came with a warning “this saddle is not designed to carry passengers” as long as your friend kept his toes off the wheels, the advice was ignored in favour of fun and excitement.
The choppers were easy to perfect wheelies with, because the front wheel was light and so easily lifted. It was all too easy to end up on the floor though because choppers had a weight distribution problem and tipped over way too quickly.
Raleigh’s dominated the bike youth market, controlling 70% at one point, but with the advent of BMX, Raleigh quickly fell behind the times and the much loved chopper was soon discontinued.
Although there was a small, limited edition run in 2004, choppers were mainly out of style and unavailable from the late 80’s. In 2004, Raleigh’s attempted to bring back the style and whilst parents were excited, their kids weren’t interested.
The 2004 chopper was updated for the modern era with a alumium alloy frame reducing the bike’s weight drastically. The choppers never really took off again. But in 2014, Halfords cashed in on the hype and released a nostalgia version – for adults.
Whilst the new chopper movement doesn’t match Raleigh’s sheer sales number back in the 70s, the grown up children of the era are buying the choppers and riding them.
An absolute classic never goes out of style and even today, the chopper looks cool and edgy, representing childhood for many and the boyhood dreams of a nation.
Timeline of a classic
1967: One alleged origin story for the chopper has Alan Oakley sketch the first design on the back of an envelope while returning from a research trip to America.
1968: Tom Karen claims to have been tasked with designing a new range of bikes for Raleigh’s.
1968: Either way, the first Chopper prototypes are born in late ‘68.
1969: The first Raleigh chopper hits the market in three versions of single speed, three or five-speed with Sturmey Archer hub gears.
1970: The new and improved version goes on sale, the MkI Chopper continuing Raleigh’s domination of the British Bike market.
1972: The MkII Chopper, the chopper’s third incarnation featuring five-speed derailleur option and modified gear handle.
1972-3: Raleigh’s creates a new version, the Chopper Sprint, this time with drop handlebars.
1976: Chopper sales are soaring and to celebrate the millionth chopper being produced, it is a special edition gold-plated Chopper.
1976-77: Raleigh’s is struggling against its competition and puts out the Raleigh Chopper Special Edition hoping to save the brand.
1980: It’s too late for Raleighs and production ends on the MkII Chopper and the age of the chopper is over.
2004: Hoping to cash in on nostalgia, Raleigh reintroduces the chopper, this time updated with aluminium tubing and handlebar mounted shifters, but the trend doesn’t kick off again.
2012: Alan Oakley, father of the chopper dies.
2014: The limited edition, Chopper ‘Hot One’ is created by Halfords and successfully captures the imaginations of the grown up 70s chopper kids.