Nope. Never had one. Definitely wanted one, but it just never happened. I never owned a ‘Chopper.’
I had to make do with a second hand bike bought from Brick Lane (which was probably nicked) and then add ‘Chopper’ like accessories to it, cow horn handle bars, with multi-coloured plastic tassels affixed and a long ‘banana’ seat, all bought from Edwardes the bike shop in Camberwell. Knowing me, it would have had a glossy paint job too.
Even now though, if I see a ‘Chopper’, I fancy buying it. No doubt about it, they were the iconic bike of the 1970s and that legacy lives on. Made by the Raleigh Bicycle Company based in Nottingham, you can see that an American ‘Easy Rider’ style influence was foremost in the minds of its designers, though who gets the credit for it, is still the subject of some debate to this day.
Alan Oakley of Raleigh and Tom Karen of Ogle Design have both stuck a flag in claiming the ownership of the idea. They were both certainly working on similar designs at the same time, but it appears no one knows for certain.
The look of the bike stems from the design of the best selling ‘Sting-Ray’ from US company Schwinn, launched in 1964, which itself was a result of the company seeing kids customising their own bikes. (Seems like I was following that trend, though I would have had no idea of that at the time.) This version followed on from an earlier model called the ‘Rodeo’, which failed to find much of a market.
The Chopper Mk1 was patented as early as 1967, and began to hit the trade shows in early 1969. It immediately caught the imagination of those it was aimed at. Featuring different sized wheels, 16 inch at the front and 20 inch at the back, complete with a chunky tyres, its Sturmey Archer gears were movable by a shift knob which was placed between your legs (definitely to be avoided if you come a cropper on it) it also had a padded seat that seemed to go on forever with the ‘sissy bar’ attached. The ‘Hells Angel’ style raised handle bars looked great and on my estate anyway, the bright orange frame colour seemed the most popular choice. A kickstand to keep the bike upright when not in use and very reminiscent of similar models on motorbikes, finished off the look.
It was priced at £34 and 19 shillings, the equivalent to nearly £400 or so in today’s money. No wonder I can still hear the cry from my old man of ‘how much?’ when I politely enquired about getting one for a birthday or Xmas. Those lucky enough to get one, were soon pestered by the cry of ‘go on mate, gis a go on it’ for months on end.
If memory serves it was quite awkward to ride until you got used to it and sadly I wasn’t on one long enough to ever do that, but its interesting to read that the Mk2 from 1972, had quite a few design changes and adjustments, therefore making it not quite so dangerous to ride. The positioning of the gear lever, now a remodelled T bar in shape, was particularly damaging on occasions as I recall.
So despite the negative reviews it picked up from some quarters of the press, and questions on its safety being raised in the House of Commons, nearly 2 million of the bikes were eventually sold, achieving a 55% increase in sales for Raleigh, practically saving the company from extinction after a few bad years of trading. Adults were being actively discouraged from buying the bike back then, as the company couldn’t cope with demand from kids as it was, without a load of adults joining in.
Of course the sales numbers it was attracting, meant that a steady flow of imitators tried to cash in on the popularity, but for most, if you couldn’t get the real thing, you defininitelty swerved the poor copies. The younger kids who were keen to be part of all this were taken care of when Raleigh introduced the ‘Chipper’ and ‘Tomahawk’ in 1971 and the ‘Budgie’ in 1976
Celebrating sales of 750,000 Chopper bikes by 1976, Raleigh released a special edition ‘Chopper SE’ and a special Silver Jubilee chopper edition in 1977. The ‘Chopper’ continued to sell well up until the BMX craze began to hit big in the early 1980s and then its production line finally stopped as the decade wore on.
It was revived in early 2014, with the Mk3 being introduced. Technology had improved and so this version was lighter, made from Aluminium rather than steel, thus dropping the weight down from 40lbs to 32lbs. It struck me at the time, that it was being bought more by adults who missed out the first time around, than kids who in truth, didn’t really take to it in any significant numbers. As a result, production ceased again in 2018, ending with the Mk5 model.
During research for this, I’ve read that prices for an Mk1 in excellent condition could be in the region of two thousand pounds, with a decent Mk2 coming in at £400 or so.
At that second price, I think could still be tempted. So, you might yet see this old plum with his chopper out in SE5 after all, if you know what I mean….
The Mumper of SE5
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