Chopper – The Birth of an Icon

It’s now forty years since Raleigh unleashed the Chopper on the previously staid world of British push bikes. Before the Chopper kid’s bikes were wholesome spindly contraptions for spiffing trips into the countryside with a saddle bag stuffed with ginger beer and spam sandwiches. It was just a smaller version of whatever your dad rode.
The Chopper, by contrast, was tough and urban; a fashion accessory styled after the ‘chopped’ Californian muscle bikes with their ‘ape hanger’ handle bars. Something about the Chopper’s powerful looking wedge design and psychedelic colour schemes chimed-in with the counter cultural mood of the times; when the first Chopper bikes were sold in British shops at Christmas 1969 Easy Rider was still fresh in the minds of the older brothers and sisters of potential Chopper owners.
The bike became an instant and a passionate object of desire for kids aged 7 to 12 or even older. All over the country parents were being pestered to lob out £32 on this revolutionary bicycle with its chunky, odd sized tyres (16 inch front, 20 inch rear) macho Sturmany-Archer three-speed central stick-shift (like a car) and fat banana-shaped saddle.
The fact that the health and safety brigade were getting in a stew about the Choppers safety issues only added to the frisson of excitement around the bike for most kids. Because the centre of gravity of the thing was so aft, and the saddle so long, it was possible  – by sitting well back – to get the front wheel in the air – a positive point in its favour as far as most leery wheelie-pulling owners were concerned. Similarly the patented seat design seemed to invite the possibility of giving pals a ‘backie’ with negative effects on the Choppers already questionable stability. Again – what’s not to like?
400,000 had been sold by the time Raleigh introduced a MkII version in 1972 and an icon of nineteen seventies childhood was born. It resonates across the decades more powerfully than the lucky bag, the space hopper or lusting after Jenny Hanley off Magpie.  If you are aged between 40 and 50 and reading this magazine you either had a Chopper or wanted one.
I was lucky enough to get a MkII Chopper (in Ultra violet) for my 9th birthday. It was heavy, slow and didn’t stop or corner very well but I loved it. Here was a rugged thing you could mistreat with no apparent ill effects and, to me, it was always more of a car than a motorcycle substitute with that automatic gearbox style selector.
Being a MkII mine had the shorter seat with the universally ignored warning strap (‘THIS BICYCLE IS NOT DESIGNED TO CARRY PASSENGERS’) non-adjustable handle bars and a ‘T’ shaped  gear lever designed to be marginally less damaging to tender young goolies than the rounded knob of the original.
The Chopper was more closely aligned with automotive design than I realised at the time. Raleigh of Nottingham, Britain biggest cycle makers, had been struggling to make big in-roads into the American ‘muscle bike’ market, – dominated by home grown Schwinn Stingray – since the mid sixties but its Rodeo model had failed to capture imaginations. So they approached Tom Karen’s Ogle Design for fresh ideas.
‘One day the marketing director of Raleigh came to see me at Ogle’ says Tom ‘He explained that they wanted to compete with the American Schwinn with its big handle bars. I decided straight away that it had to have a big wheel and a small wheel – it symbolises power coming from the back, like a dragster. I thought it could afford to have a straight frame and some other features like the fake rear disc brake and springs.’
‘There was a lovely guy working at the office called Jimmy English. He was very intuitive and I got him to do the first sketches. That was 1967, I think. I only gave Raleigh a few options – possibly four drawings which I have photographs of. They came back and said the engineers don’t like having a big wheel and a small wheel on the production line. I was really crestfallen because I was sure that was the answer. I think they must have read that and the big wheel stayed. Then we did some big drawings. At some point they became afraid that the Banana shaped Schwinn seat was in danger of being infringed so we prototyped a different saddle and I had that big reflector put in the back. It was developed around the same time as the Bond Bug and the Scimitar GTE. I was happy with the design and it had a great image. Raleigh developed all the subsequent versions of the Chopper themselves.’
‘The dark side of the story was that years later I heard that Raleigh claimed that its technical director had designed the Chopper on the back of an envelope while he was flying around the states. I tackled them about that and eventually got someone to admit that the story was invented by the marketing department.’
Despite being offered in many more exotic U.S versions – five and ten speed and even a girl’s variant less cross bar – on the American market the Chopper was swapped by the local competition. In the UK a variety of special editions attempted to maintain its appeal through the 70s and it even spawned baby versions (the Chipper and the Tomahawk for annoying siblings) but only the basic bike made money. Production ran through to 1982 but by that time the once lusted-after Chopper had become distinctly un-cool thing to be seen on. I put mine away in 1980 and never rode it again.
I don’t know what happened to mine but I wish I still had it, because the Chopper has long since pulled out of that tacky period to become highly collectable item. Tom Karen has a MkII Chopper which was restored for him by the Chopper Club in his front room.  Even he admits that this, the coolest bike ever, is a triumph of style over function.
‘I don’t think you would finish a stage of the Tour De France on one. It would kill you.’

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