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Reminisce about the iconic Raleigh Chopper, the ultimate Christmas gift of the 1970s

And let’s be honest, who wouldn’t have wanted one under the tree this morning! It’s Christmas, we’ve all had a few, so let’s finish the day right by going back to simpler times…

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.

TeamChopper 12

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.

Raleigh Chopper 201502

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 origins of an icon

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.

Raleigh Chopper 201507

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 experience

Raleigh Chopper 201501

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.

Steve Thomas Raleigh Chopper 1990s

Steve on a Raleigh Chopper he salvaged in the 1990s

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.

> Tales of a 10-speed racer: how getting a Raleigh for Christmas changed my life

The Chopper anthology

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.

Raleigh Chopper 201511
A rework of the Raleigh Chopper released in 2015

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.

Simon on Raleigh Chopper
road.cc community editor Simon MacMichael on his Raleigh Chopper in the 1970s

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.

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10 comments

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Jem PT | 1 year ago
1 like

Dad/Father Christmas wouldn't buy me a Chopper for Christmas ("too unsafe") so I was given a significantly cheaper (£5) used normal bike instead. Still a brilliant bike of course, for all the usual first bike reasons.

Imagine my delight when 50 years later I found an abandoned ultraviolet Mk2 Chopper in an empty property. It needed work, but at last I could relive the childhood I should have had!

In reality, they are blooming heavy and uncomfortable things to ride. But still cool!

Avatar
VIPcyclist | 1 year ago
4 likes

The wife still has a chopper. Doesn't ride it as often as she used to though.

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mark1a replied to VIPcyclist | 1 year ago
6 likes

Maybe she's after something stiffer and better handling.

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Jem PT replied to mark1a | 1 year ago
5 likes

Maybe it smells a bit musty with old age?

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essexian | 1 year ago
0 likes

Fifty years ago yesterday, I remember clearly rushing down the stairs of our East London slum, snow laying five feet deep outside, just an orange between the twelve of us for breakfast knowing that I had been really good all year, had worked hard down t’pit and got good grades at school so of course Santa would have brought me a Chopper bicycle.  And there it was, wrapped up in Christmas paper the likes of which my eyes had never seen before….okay, it was the previous days “Sun” newspaper but hell, times were hard and at least we had eaten all the chips out of it first before using it as wrapping paper.

The family assembled, my eldest sister went first opening her gift…. A pregnancy testing kit. Well…best be prepared my Mum said. Then my next sister turn…. Some new shoes. Now… my turn…!!!

Ripping the paper off the bike shaped object like…. Tries to think of an early 1970 sprinter and fails… something very quick, before me is my prize, the one thing I’ve always wanted…. A Raleigh Tomahawk…… a Tomahawk? No, no, that should say “Chopper” not “Tomahawk”. Surely, there must had been a printing error with the name sticker? And where….where was the gear stick? And why was the bike half the size of a Chopper???? AAARRRRGGGG….. they had brought me the wrong bike?

Several hours of crying later, it appears that they got me the Tomahawk as I was too small for the Chopper so went for the smaller bike. No, “I’ll grow into it” so they could take it back worked and I was stuck with it.

From that day to this, I still hate Christmas. The poor Tomahawk got used once or twice before “getting stolen” (I actually hid it behind the shed where no one would look).  For all I know, it still might be there behind a shed in an East London garden.

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stonojnr replied to essexian | 1 year ago
0 likes

Grifter was the better bike, just saying.

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OldRidgeback | 1 year ago
1 like

There was a 5 speed version with a rear mech as well. A mate had a purple one. They were pretty rare though, even in the 70s. I never had a Raleigh Chopper but I rode a few belonging to various friends.

I never really liked them and instead I built a 'tracker' from my elder brother's old three speed, 27" wheel bike, discarding the stock bars for a set of cowhowns and fitting knobbly tyres. That's what we had to ride before BMXs. The other option would've been to fit Chopper bars to it, but that was more for the hooligan riders. 

Avatar
yupiteru | 1 year ago
2 likes

Got my orange Chopper around 1971 and it was a Christmas present.  My mother bought it from the Co-op who used to sell bikes and toys at the time.

The bike came without pedals attached but there was a brown cardboard box taped to the frame and on Christmas morning, I exitedly opened the box assuming the pedals were in there ready to attach them so as to proudly hit the streets like a boss!

But no, all that was in there was a crappy pressed steel spanner and an instruction book!

I was devastated!  Santa you bastard!

Got the pedals a week later from the Co-op, longest week of my life.

Next Christmas some of my mates got the mark 2 version.

The mark 2 version had 'kinked' seatstays near the drop outs so as to push the rider weight forward and make it harder to throw a wheelie.

Both versions used to develop a devestating high speed front wheel wobble with some riders if you went above about 30mph, which was easy in south Wales because of all of the hills.

I had a Carlton Corsa next..................................

Avatar
AlsoSomniloquism | 1 year ago
1 like
Quote:

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!

Surely the only change was the white band telling kids no passengers. Surely the most ignored safety warning in UK history. Anyway, if yours was only used for backies......

One on the rear shelf, one on the seat facing back holding on to the rear child, one on the seat pedalling and one on the top tube wedged against the ball buster. This could be reversed with the stoker standing on the pedals and the seat used for the passenger. Finally one sitting in the handle bar drops. Needed a large stoker and smaller single-digit passengers. Coulld travel all of 50 metres before someone fell off or the bike fell over. Good fun. 

As you mentioned it was easy to pull a wheelie. It was harder to stop yourself going full over and off the back. I had a Tomahawk (without the gears) and then inherited my brothers Chopper a few years later so no Xmas gift.

Avatar
ktache | 1 year ago
2 likes

Thank you for a fine crimbo night bike at bedtime.

Never my most desired bike, my brother had a 2nd hand chopperish knock off. Wanted a grifter more, and REALLY craved the bomber. Mate got very old and tired one in the mid 90s, was awful.

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