A look back at the Raleigh Chopper
More than 50 years after its release, the Chopper still has a huge cult following, with celebs like Lily Allen and David Beckham counting themselves as fans. Here’s a little look back on one of the world’s most iconic bikes.
1969 was, by all accounts, a pretty big year. Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Woodstock attracted more than 400,000 music fans. And, on this side of the pond, the now-legendary Raleigh Chopper was launched.
From its first ride in ‘69 all the way through the 70s, the Chopper was a bike that defined youth culture for a whole generation of kids. For the first time, bikes weren’t just about getting around the block. They were about style and envy and cruising around with your mates. They were, above all, about being cool. And, more than 50 years later, that cool still stands.
In a culture obsessed with all things vintage, the Raleigh Chopper is still remembered as an icon – with legions of fans to prove it. Even rusty, beat-up versions sell for hundreds in auctions: last year, one Chopper destined for the skip sold for almost £700.
So, how exactly did this bold-looking bike earn its icon status? Today, we’re taking a ride down memory lane to find out.
The history of the Chopper
The early 60s was a pretty quiet time for bikes in the UK. It might be hard to believe with everything that came next – the Chopper trend of the 70s and the BMX craze of the 80s – but the increasing ubiquity of private cars had started to dampen the popularity of bikes. No longer did you need to queue for a bus or hop on a bike to see your mates in the next town over. You had wheels – four of them, to be exact. And bikes were struggling to compete.
But over in the states, one bike in particular was having a moment: the Harley-Davidson. Championed by the Hells Angels, chopped-up motorcycles like the Harley were sweeping across America, appearing in magazines, comics and films throughout the 60s. And, in the UK, kids were starting to take note.
Then came another big cultural shoutout for the Harley-Davidson: the Oscar-nominated film Easy Rider. Released in 1969 – the same year as the Raleigh Chopper – this instant classic depicted two drug dealers riding across America on their Harleys in search of spiritual truth. The film became a huge cultural touchstone, with the bikes themselves capturing the imagination of kids and teenagers across the US – and beyond.
Enter: the Chopper.
With a design inspired by the same chopped-up bikes that appeared in Easy Rider, the Raleigh Chopper offered something unique and totally new to young riders: the chance to feel like a real Hells Angel. Huge, U-shaped handlebars. A swept-back body. An iconic leather seat. It was everything they’d been dreaming of.
And everyone wanted one.
a 70s icon
Launching with the MK1 and developing into the superior MK2, this distinctive bike was an instant success, going on to sell 1.5 million models over the next decade. And what a decade it was.
Along with the whole man-on-the-moon thing, the world was getting busy with a host of new technological inventions – including the Concorde, Teletext and the first-ever mobile phone. Meanwhile, disco and punk were exploding out of clubs, and the counterculture of the 60s was still alive and well, adopting new fashion, music and films as the decade went on.
But if you were a kid – too young to get into clubs and way, way too young to care about the Concorde – the 70s were about one thing: the Chopper.
If you were lucky enough to own one back in the day, you’ll know how good it felt. Cruising around after school, giving your mates lifts, feeling like the raddest person in the world – or at least, the neighbourhood. It was the coolest bike on the planet – and everyone knew it.
But the Chopper wasn’t just about cruising: it was also about tricks. The rise of Evel Knievel and other daredevil stunt artists inspired a whole new style of riding, defined by hair-raising jumps and gravity-defying wheelies. As described by writer Helen McGurk in LeftLion, kids would “compare our Chopper cuts and bruises. They were almost a badge of honour, an up-yours to the kids still riding boring [older bikes].”
This propensity for stunts eventually paved the way for a new style of bike – one more suited to off-roading. With the rise of the BMX in the early 80s, the Chopper started to fall out of fashion. But everything comes back around – and now, those old-school, chunky Choppers are as cool as they ever were.
The Chopper today
If the Chopper became unfashionable in the 80s, it didn’t last long. In 1995, rock band Supergrass was spotted riding them in the music video for ‘Alright’, catapulting it back into the cultural spotlight.
And that’s not the only time the Chopper has wheeled its way through an iconic music video. In the early days of Lily Allen’s career, she filmed a low-budget music video for her single ‘LDN’, named by Rolling Stone as one of the ‘100 Best Songs of 2007’, which saw her riding around London on her very own Chopper. The video was eventually remade with a higher budget, but early fans still remember those epic shots of her gliding through the city in a big yellow coat.
Since these notable appearances, a slew of other celebs have been linked to the Chopper – including David Beckham, Lady Gaga, Paddy McGuinness and Damon Albarn.
But it’s not just famous names keeping this cult classic alive. From high-profile auctions to online clubs and forums, the Chopper fans are as loyal as they ever were. For many, the luxurious leather seat and oversized handlebars still evoke the feeling of being the coolest kid on the block.
Or, in the immortal words of Supergrass: We are young. We are free.