Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro the house.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
Hopes that St. Nicholas would soon be there… with handlebars glaring from his sleigh afar, and a long-sprung PVC saddle crammed in between Rudolph and Prancer.
How would he do it, get that much-awaited Raleigh Chopper down the chimney, as we’d just had a new gas fire fitted? Well to be honest, at eight-years-old I was already wise to that one, because I’d found wrapping paper hidden in a wardrobe the year before, and so already knew that Santa was but a myth. My Chopper was going to find another way to get here; or at least that was what I’d pinned all my flared dreams and hopes on.
As a gloomy Christmas morning came around, Noddy Holder and Slade blared out Merry Christmas Everybody from the kitchen radio as the whiff of minced pies, a slow roasting turkey and over-boiled sprouts filled the house. In that same kitchen was the unmistakable outline of a Chopper, all wrapped in crinkled Christmas paper; although with my dad’s cruel sense of humour, it could well have been just a prank.
With a mile-wide grin of anticipation, I tore off the paper... and yes, my wishes had come true. I could then acknowledge that I hadn’t really believed in Santa for some time.
All purple (officially termed ultraviolet) with bold pink stickers and gear knobs, it really was the biz. My under-sized and overused Gresham Flyer was no more; I was one of the local cool cats now.
Anyone of a certain age can probably relate to what it was like to get a Raleigh Chopper for Christmas. It was, in many cases, a life-changing experience. Both for the good and bad, and to this day the mighty Chopper stands out to many as a much prized and highly valued icon of the 1970s, and rightly so.
The 1960s glory days were already way behind Raleigh by the second half of the 1960s, and as more regular people took to motorised transport the humble bicycle was losing appeal. Raleigh were in serious financial strife.
That’s when the Chopper came to their rescue, and effectively those huge handlebars, the long-sprung saddle and private part-crushing gear stick would save their bacon and put Raleigh well and truly back on track. Or at least it did for a decade or so.
Searching for a saviour, the top brass in Nottingham had looked west to the USA and had noticed that the Schwinn Sting-Ray, a chopper-like bike, was really taking off, and so they decided to produce a rival model.
Just how the Chopper actually came to be is still a matter of controversy. It was long said that Raleigh’s chief designer, Alan Oakley, went to the US in search of inspiration in 1967, and that on the flight home he sketched the outline of a bike that would become the Chopper. However, Tom Karen of the OGLE Design Company has since been credited with creating the Chopper under request from Raleigh in 1968.
However it came around, that mattered not to us devotees of those high-rise bars, and in April 1969 the first Mark 1 Chopper was unleashed into the post-psychedelia era when glam rock was evolving in the UK.
The Chopper first went on sale for the princely sum of £34, which is a tad over £500 in today’s money. It was an instant hit with young Brits, providing an ideal Christmas morning escape from the eternal replays of Rolf Harris’ Two Little Boys, Benny Hill’s Ernie & Jimmy Osmond’s Long Haired Lover from Liverpool, chants that would blight the festive mornings of the era.
The Chopper was vaguely intended as a ‘wheelie bike’, and by heck did those deadly riser bars ever pull that tiny front wheel off the ground; although given it’s great weight, the Chopper was not a bike that any youngster could keep off the ground for long. Despite the countless primitive dirt jumps and planks on bricks that would curse British kerbsides and parks for many a year, the Chopper was perhaps more of an easy rider bike in truth. But then again, it was also a beast of burden on any kind of hill.
Despite its limitations, my very own Chopper was ridden for countless miles, both on and off-road. It was pushed up the steepest hills in the area, and then hurled down them with a flapping flare that went way behind my trousers.
Back in the 1990s I did manage to get hold of both an old Mark 1 and a Mark 2 Chopper, which were in a state of disrepair. I did pedal Mark 2 on occasion (and it did make me grin), but sadly both of these relics were lost to the evil that is a musty shed rust.
My original version was, after way too many years, forced out of my raised arms and traded in for a ‘more appropriate’ Raleigh Europa racing bike, and I occasionally wonder what would have happened had that not of been the case.
Like so many pre-internet things, the exact anthology of the Chopper is a little blurry in places.
First launched in the US, the original Mark 1 was then released in the UK in April 1969. The slightly revised Mark 2 version came out in late 1972, with a slightly shorter saddle, different gear knob and new colour schemes. It was allegedly tweaked to meet safety concerns raised by the government over the Mark 1 being used by more than one person at a time… a backie? No, surely not!
The last of the Mark 2 Choppers rolled on to the streets in 1985, with Raleigh having sold over 1.5 million of them over the years and very much saving themselves from liquidation.
It was the rise of the BMX that forced the Chopper to skid to a halt, although Raleigh did produce a much revised ‘health and safety’ influenced Chopper in Vietnam and the USA between 1996-2005. Sadly, this simply didn’t cut it compared to the original.
There were numerous iterations and variants of the Chopper over years, with five-speed hub-geared versions, single speeders, and even the five and 100speed derailleur geared and curvaceously dropped barred Sprint model. It goes without saying that this didn’t sell (or handle) very well.
It was of course the original Sturmey Archer three-speed Choppers with those magically dangerous gearboxes and high riser bars that will forever hold a place in the hearts of 1970s kids. Thanks to Alan, Tom and Raleigh for defining many a childhood, and indeed an era. It’s hard to imagine a bike such as the Chopper being allowed out there today.