The Raleigh Chopper is a children's bicycle, a wheelie bike, manufactured and marketed in the 1970s by the Raleigh Bicycle Company of Nottingham, England. Its unique design became a cultural icon and is fondly remembered by many who grew up in that period. The design was influenced by dragsters, "chopped" motorcycles, beach buggys, and even chariots, as can be seen on the centre page of the 1969 Raleigh US catalog.
The Raleigh Chopper's design has been a constant debate, with claims by both Tom Karen of Ogle Design and Alan Oakley of Raleigh. The Chopper was designed in response to the Schwinn Sting-Ray, and an earlier attempt, called the Rodeo, which was not commercially successful. The popularity of the Chopper also led to a range of smaller bikes following a similar design theme. These included the Raleigh Chipper, Tomahawk, Budgie and Chippy models, aimed at younger riders.
The Chopper's patent was applied for in the US in 1967. The Chopper was introduced at American trade shows in January 1969 but it was not until April 1969 when Raleigh Choppers were available for public to purchase. The bike featured a choice of a single-speed coaster hub, or a 3-speed or 5-speed Sturmey Archer gear hub, selected using a frame-mounted console gear lever — one of its "cool" features. Other features that appealed to the youth market were the unusual frame, long padded high-back seat, sprung seat at the back, high-rise (ape hanger) handlebars, 'bobbed' mudguards (fenders) and differently sized wheels — 16 in (41 cm) front and 20 in (51 cm) rear. The rear hoop above the seat resembled a dragster anti roll bar "sissy bar". Even the kickstand was designed to give the stationary bicycle a lean reminiscent of a parked motorcycle. Tyres were wider than usual for the time, with a chunky tread on the rear wheel, featuring a red line around the sidewall.
In 1969 the Raleigh Chopper was launched in the UK market this was a triple launch for Raleigh, with the Chopper branded as THE HoT oNE, alongside the Moulton Mk3 (The Smooth One), and the RSW Mk3 (The Dolly One). The Chopper bike was sold as a "must have" item and signifier of "coolness" for many children at the time.
The Mk 2 ("Mark 2") Chopper was an improved version sold from 1972. It had the rarely-purchased option of five-speed derailleur gears, and the gear lever shifter changed from a knob to a T-bar-style shifter. (The early 1969 'Tall frame' model already sported the T-bar style, albeit in black with the elliptical window within the shifter cover.) The frame was subtly revised, and the seat moved forward, to help prevent the front of the bicycle tipping up. A small rear rack was added. The handlebars were welded to the stem to stop children from inclining the "ape hanger" bars backward, thereby rendering the bicycle almost unsteerable. A drop-handlebar version, the Sprint, was also produced, this differed from the standard Mk 2, as it had a slightly taller frame. The Chopper Mk 2 remained in production until 1980, by which time the BMX craze had taken over its market. However, the Chopper almost single-handedly rescued Raleigh, which had been in decline during the 1960s, selling millions worldwide.
Handling and safety
The original Chopper is fondly remembered, though it was not without problems: It was less stable than a conventional bicycle and trickier to ride. The Chopper was not suitable for cycling long distances as it was slow and heavy, the wide tires creating significant rolling resistance. At moderate speeds it suffered speed wobbles. After several reported accidents, it was attacked in the press as a dangerous toy. The long seat lent itself to giving lifts to others, and accidents were not uncommon. It could perform involuntary wheelies readily, again a frequent cause of accidents. The position of the gear lever could also contribute to injuries sustained in a crash.
- MK1 - available only as a 3 speed model, Brilliant Orange, Golden Yellow, Flamboyant Green, Targa Mustard (HBR model), and Horizon Blue.
- Sprint GT - available in either Bronze or Flamboyant Green.
- MK2 - standard 3 speed models available in Infra Red, Ultra Violet, Fizzy Lemon, Quick Silver, Space Blue, and Jet Black (Prismatic decal model).
- MK2 - Pink 5 Speed (derallieur).
- MK2 - SE with cast alloy mags to commemorate 750,000 choppers being made.
The North American market saw a much wider spectrum of models and colours/colors available. In 1971 there was a ban on tall sissy bars so the chopper was only sold with a low back rest. A quick summary of models as follows;
- MK1 1969 'Tall Frames'; available as a single speed coaster (SC), 3 speed ( AW - three speed and TCW - three speed coaster), and 5 speed (S5 - 3+2).
- MK1 1970-1972 available as a single speed coaster (SC), 3 speed (AW - three speed and TCW/S3C - three speed coasters) 5 speed (S5 - 3+2) 5 speed and 10 speed (derallieur). The single and three speed models were also available as a Girls model without crossbar.
- MK2 available as a 3 speed (AW) and 5 speed (S5 - 3+2).
The Eatons Connection
The Raleigh Chopper was also sold through Eaton's in Canada, badged as Gliders, and sold as the Fastback 100, Fastback XT101, SS357, ULT, Princess, and MACH-2 models.
Raleigh sold the Chopper to many countries worldwide. In some countries Raleigh chose to sell Choppers with alternative brands. These included BSA, Hercules, Humber, Malvern Star, Phillips, Robin Hood, Rudge, and Speedwell Fireballs.
The runaway success of the Chopper led to many similarly styled imitators, such as the Pavemaster Trusty Tracker, Triang Dragster, Dawes Zipper, Panther and Vindec High Riser in the UK as well as the very close copy of an Mk 2 named "Cincoa" and in more recent years the Ground Cruiser which was sold in England at the same time as the release of the MK 3.
Revival: Mk 3
A new version of the Chopper, the Mk 3, was launched in 2004, the Chopper having being out of production for almost 25 years. The Mk3, in deference to modern safety concerns, adopts a more conventional saddle design to discourage "backies", and has dropped the groin-catching gear lever in favour of handlebar mounted gear controls; to commemorate this former feature the Mk 3 has a sticker where the lever once was located. The frame is made from aluminium alloy tubing, rather than the originals' steel, to make the bicycle lighter. The wheels are again 20 inches for the back wheel and 16 for the front wheel. The MK3 remained in production until 2009. In which the model was replaced by the slightly changed mk4 model. Since then there have been many editions of the Chopper, with the current mk5 still in production to this day. 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of the Raleigh Chopper.
- Sara Griffiths (9 May 2014). "The Raleigh Chopper's beginnings revealed: Early design sketches show the bike's iconic features before its 1969 debut". Daily Mail. Retrieved 2016-11-16.
Tom Karen penned the drawings for Raleigh. ... However, Raleigh's head of design, Alan Oakley claimed to have drawn the very first design for the Chopper on the back of an envelope in 1967.
- Richard Abraham (10 September 2014). "Raleigh Chopper: bicycle classic". Cycling Weekly. Retrieved 2016-11-19.
Initial designs for the Chopper are sketched on the back of an envelope by designer Alan Oakley while returning from a research trip to America
- "I designed the Chopper, argues Cambridge inventor". BikeBiz. 21 January 2004. Retrieved 2016-11-19.
Dr Karen's claim is backed by the Design Council, which gave Dr Karen a special commendation in 2002 for his lifetime achievements, including the Chopper.
- "Mark I Raleigh Chopper Bicycle". BBC. Retrieved 2016-11-19.
Designed in the late 1960s by Raleigh employee Alan Oakley, [although some contest it was the work of Tom Karen of the Ogle]
- "Raleigh Chopper's come back". Design Week. 29 January 2004. Retrieved 2016-11-19.
Despite some controversy over the original designer – Raleigh’s chief designer at the time was Alan Oakley, though inventor Tom Karen is reported to claim credit for the prototype
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