In 1888, Sir Frank Bowden’s doctor told him that cycling could improve his health. He bought an interest in a small bicycle company in Raleigh Street, Nottingham, where 12 men were making three bicycles a week. By 1896 Raleigh owned a factory that employed 850 people and international champions were winning races on Raleigh bikes.
Every young boy’s dream, the Raleigh Chopper (with three-speed Sturmey Archer hub and a T-Bar gear stick) was the coolest bike to be seen on. Styled on the dragster motorbikes of the 1960s, with a long seat and larger back wheel, it was the first designer bike for kids – also possibly the most unstable bicycle of all time.
A triumph of style over ability, the Raleigh Chopper was covered in knobs and whistles that didn’t really do anything, except the gear lever that made you fall off when changing gear.
It also wasn’t the easiest or safest bike to ride. It was sluggishly heavy (18.5 kg), prone to doing involuntary wheelies, and its extra-long upholstered seat meant you were obliged to let your mates ride pillion.
Its chrome mudguards looked the business but rusted easily, and the less said about the eye-watering injuries caused by the centrally-mounted gear shift the better.
Despite its impracticality, by 1973 it had become the country’s best-selling bike – it sold a staggering 1.5 million units during that decade – and is now an icon of the 1970s.
The concept was initiated by Tom Karen (who also worked on the Reliant Bond Bug) and the first prototypes were tested in 1968 and released in the United States in 1969 in an attempt to rival Schwinn’s similarly ape-handled Sting-Ray.
The Chopper failed to sell in large numbers in the US but Raleigh was undeterred and launched the MK1 in the UK in 1970, where kids immediately went crazy over the bike.
Originally priced at £32 (equivalent to around £540 today), it came in cool and outta-sight colours, like Infra-Red, Ultra-Violet and Fizzy Lemon.
As motorcycle stuntman, Evel Knievel’s popularity reached its height, Chopper even released a Knievel bike – complete with a fake exhaust pipe.
The Chipper (with a detachable crossbar) arrived in 1971 for girls, and the Tomahawk for younger boys came in 1972. A Chopper Sprint was also released, complete with drop handlebars, but was scrapped a year later.
By 1980, production of the Chopper had ceased, though it was brought back to life in 2004 as a limited edition MK3, which remained in production for five years. Costing between £200 and £300, it came with a new seat and a gear lever on the handlebars rather than in the groin-threatening position on the frame.
Other models have since been released including one produced for Halfords in 2014 and another in a “Scooter Cream” colouring in 2016. Fuelled by nostalgia, thousands of collectors and enthusiasts continue to invest great sums in the original 1970s models, buying spares and memorabilia on the internet.