The Raleigh Chopper could quite possibly be the most iconic bicycle ever designed. With its high backrest and distinctively curved handlebars, it was a must have for any child of the 70s. It proved to be extremely popular, with Raleigh as they sold over 1.5 million of them, however, come the 1980s they would cease production. 50 years on and it is still widely recognised, sought after, and often hailed above all other bikes. This article looks back at what made the chopper bike so popular.
Raleigh Chopper MK1 - Photo by Thethotone at English Wikipedia CCO
The Chopper stands out due to its unique design, but who designed it is in dispute. Alan Oakley worked as Raleigh’s chief designer in the 60s and sketched the first Chopper concept design on the back of an envelope. Oakley visited America in 1967 looking for inspiration and found it in the form of “Chopped” motorcycles, such as the Harley Davidson which were very popular at the time. On the plane home, he drew a rough outline of what would later become the Raleigh Chopper.
Alan Oakley’s initial design for the Raleigh Chopper - 1967
However, a designer named Tom Karen has insisted that it was, in fact, he who came up with the Chopper. In 1968 Karen’s consultancy firm, Ogle Design, were approached by Raleigh with the intent to design a bike that would rival the popular 1963 Schwinn Sting-Ray. Karen left Ogle design in 1999 and took with him sketchbooks that contained his designs for the Raleigh Chopper. He gave the Chopper the mismatched sized wheels to give it the feel of American dragster cars which had larger wheels at the back because that's where the power lied.
Tom Karen’s Original design for the Raleigh Chopper
In April of 1969, the MK 1 edition of the Raleigh Chopper went on sale to the general public. As well as the different sized wheels, the Raleigh chopper had many other features that made it stand out from other popular bicycles. One notable element was a 3-speed Sturmey-Archers gear hub with a frame-mounted console gear level placed worryingly between your legs. This positioning was just a way for it to stand out and appear cool for kids who loved the novel way of gear changing. Many of the design features of the MK 1 was to appeal to a young customer base longing to be old enough to ride the cool American Harley Davidson style motorcycles. The Chopper mimicked the high-rise handlebars, long seatbacks, anti-roll bar, different sized wheels, and decorate rear wheel disc brake. The MK1 went on sale for £34 which is the equivalent of just under £550 by today's standards.
Raleigh Chopper MK2 Advert.
The MK 2 Chopper was released three years later in 1972 and was considered a new and improved version. It featured a T-bar style gear lever shifter instead of a shifter knob, the seat was moved forward to stop the bike from tipping, and a small rear rack was added. There was also a warning placed on the saddle stating “This Bicycle is not constructed to carry passengers” which many children chose to ignore. Throughout the 1970s Raleigh sold over 1.5 million Choppers, but come the 1980s times would change and due to the rise in popularity of the BMX, Raleigh ceased production of the MK 2.
Many years later, Raleigh decided to capitalise on people’s nostalgia and in 2004 they launched the MK 3. The MK 3 Chopper was a very similar design to the MK 2, except they removed the gear lever from the top tube. The frame was also made from aluminium alloy tubing instead of the originals’ steel. This was to make the bike lighter. The original weighed 18.5 kg (40.7 lbs) but the newer model weighed just 14.5 kg (32 lbs).
Raleigh Chopper MK3
The Chopper was designed with practicality taking a backseat to style. The placing of the gear lever on the frame may have looked different from other bikes on the market, however, during crashes this would give the rider unnecessary additional injuries. The saddle was also redesigned to discourage riders from giving their friends “backies”. The saddle and backrest were separate from one another, whereas they were joined in previous versions. The 2004 Chopper run never really got going, proving to be popular with parents overwhelmed with their own childhood nostalgia but not so much with the new generation of children. They lasted for a few years before discontinuing production.
In the last 10 years, Raleigh has released several limited editions of the Chopper, all with unique identifying themes. These include a Beano edition, Hot One, JPS, and the Mod which is the most recent. So far there has been no mention of a 50th-anniversary edition which is a shame. No matter what your thoughts on the Chopper, it is impossible to argue against their place in British Cycling history. They have crafted an impressive legacy over the last 50 years and deserved to be celebrated. There are thousands of adults with fond childhood memories that feature the iconic bike. It is so ingrained in 70s culture that even though there are many generations who didn’t experience the Chopper in its hayday, if one cycled by then all head would turn. That is the power and allure of the Raleigh Chopper.
2017 Raleigh Mod Chopper - Image from www.raleigh.co.uk