Raleigh Chopper: The definitive history and collectors' guide

Raleigh Chopper Mk1, 1970
The Raleigh Chopper Mk1, 1970 model

The Raleigh Chopper brought the style of Easy Rider to the backstreets of Britain in the 1970s. It took the UK youth bike market by storm and saved Raleigh from financial disaster.

The Chopper was a different bike for young people and it was a first choice as a Christmas present, but experts had safety concerns. The 1980s' BMX craze killed it off.

Origins

The precursor to the Raleigh Chopper and the reason for its existence was the Schwinn Stingray.

Schwinn Sting-Ray Deluxe, 1964
Schwinn Sting-Ray, 1964. This bike was the inspiration for the Raleigh Chopper Image by Nels Olsen licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 (cropped with slight rotation).

The Schwinn Stingray came about because of a craze for customising bikes. Kids in California were taking bicycles made for younger children and turning them into something cool. They fitted high rise handlebars and banana seats bought from obsolete stock. Some fitted suspension forks and changed the front wheels for smaller ones.

Al Fritz, a Schwinn executive, noticed the trend. He persuaded the Schwinn bosses to introduce their own version called the Sting-Ray. It went on sale in 1963. [1]

The Sting-Ray had the same high rise handle bars and a banana seat. After a slow start, the Schwinn Sting-Ray became a best seller.

Raleigh wanted a piece of this market. They introduced two models, the Rodeo and the Fireball, which looked like Sting-Ray clones. They flopped.

What happened next is not clear.

Both Raleigh's Chief Designer, Alan Oakley, who sadly passed away in 2012 and Ogle's former Managing Director, Tom Karen, have claimed to be the Chopper's designer.

Dr Tom Karen says that Raleigh approached Ogle in 1968 to help them come up with a design to rival the Schwinn bike that was better than their first attempt, the Raleigh Rodeo. Tom Karen showed his original sketches, which look remarkably like the final design, to the Daily Mail in May 2014 after fishing them out of his garage. [2]

Alan Oakley always maintained he sketched out the design for the Chopper on a flight back from the USA in 1967 after researching into the American teenage market. He sketched out the design for the Chopper on an airmail envelope on his way back.

Tom Karen has said that Oakley played a part in the engineering needed to get the Chopper to market, but that the original idea was his.

Whatever the truth, the Chopper was a huge hit. It took the Sting-Ray concept and improved on it. The Sting-Ray might have been a great bike for the 60s. The Chopper with its wedge shaped frame was the ideal look for the 70s.

Neither bike was good design in terms of practicality. They don't offer any improved performance or ease of use over a conventional bike or one of the small wheel bikes such as Raleigh's own RSW or the Moulton, which were redefining cycling in the 1960s.

What the Raleigh Chopper did was to take some features from adult products, cars and motorbikes, and replicate them on a product designed for children. From the car, there was something that looked like an automatic gear shift. From some of the coolest motorbikes came the Hi-Rise handlebars, the padded rear seat and the sissy bar. These features made the Chopper irrestiable to boys who wanted to be grown up. At the same time, it was a product adults couldn't themselves have.

The Chopper design led to excellent sales results for Raleigh. So commercially the design was a great success.

Raleigh Chopper Mk1

The Raleigh Chopper Mk1 launched in 1969 in the USA and in 1970 in the UK.

In the UK the Chopper launched as 'The Hot One' alongside two new adult small wheel bikes: the RSW MkIII, 'The Dolly One' and the Moulton MkIII, 'The Smooth One'.[3]

Like some versions of the Schwinn Sting-Ray, the Chopper had 16 inch front wheels and 20 inch back wheels. The seat was large and padded.

The standard model had a Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub controlled by a gear lever on the cross bar. It had a stand to prop it up with, like a motor bike.

Raleigh Chopper Mk2 saddle

In the US market the Chopper was more evolution than revolution. In the UK market it was something new. On both sides of the Atlantic this style of bike was known as a Hi-Riser.

The movie Easy Rider premiered in 1969. In the film, Peter Fonda and Denis Hopper cruise around America on stripped down Chopper motorbikes. The film gave the Raleigh Chopper instant cool.

In 1971 Raleigh saw a 55% increase in cycle sales due to the Chopper. The cycle maker went through lean times in the 1950s and 1960s as sales of adult bikes slumped. With rising affluence, more people bought cars, motorbikes and scooters. The traditional push bike had a down market image.

Raleigh charged a premium for the Chopper over the price of a conventional children's bike. In 1970 it cost £34 19s (£360 in today's money). The Mk1 Chopper was also available with an extra high backrest for £2 more.

Read more: How much did a Raleigh Chopper cost in the 1970s?

The Chopper was so popular in 1970 that retailers had to persuade adults it was not a suitable bike for them. A Raleigh advert from 1970 suggested that grown-ups should try the Raleigh Moulton folding bike (Raleigh had bought Moulton) or the RSW, another small wheeled bike.

The Chopper gave the kids something different from an adult bike, something of their own. The Raleigh Chopper brought the style of Easy Rider to UK streets and to boys in the ten to fourteen age group.

The Chopper was joined in 1972 by a bike for younger children, the Tomahawk. But by then the safety record of the Chopper was being questioned. An Italian competitor, the Morando Easy Rider Bike, was withdrawn from sale due to safety concerns. Its UK distributors, the Barclay Group (Mobo, Chad Valley and Tri-ang), recalled models already sold.

Mk1 variants

1969 model year

The Chopper first featured in Raleigh's 1969 catalogue in the USA. There were four different versions with different gears, brakes and colour choices.

ModelDescriptonDetailsColours
DL500CSTSingle speed with back pedal Coaster brakeYellow, red, green
DL510AW 3 speedRear caliper brakeYellow, orange, red, black, blue
DL520TCW 3 speed3 speed hub and Coaster brakeYellow, blue, green
DL5303 + 2 5 speedTwin shift gear leverYellow, orange, green, black

DL500 and DL520 had a Sturmey Archer Coaster hub brake. The other two had rear caliper brakes. The 3 + 2 twin shift was also called a 'Split T Dual Control'.

1970 model year

Raleigh Chopper Mk1 10 speed

The Chopper changed for the 1970 model year in the USA. They strengthened the frame and added suspension springs to the rear to make the ride more comfortable.

There were two new models featuring Huret derailleur gears, a 5 speed and a 10 speed. There were also two models for girls added to the line up. The girl's bikes didn't have the cross bar.

ModelDetailsColours
Derailleur 10 speedPadded oversized sissy bar includedBlack, blue, orange
Derailleur 10 speedPadded oversized sissy bar includedYellow, orange, green, black, blue
TCW 3 Speed (boys)3 speed hubBlack, blue, orange, yellow
TCW 3 Speed (girls)Stem shifter (handlebar position)Blue or orange with black or white seat
AW 3 Speed (boys)Back pedal brakeBlack, blue, orange
AW 3 Speed (girls)Stem shifter, back pedal brakeBlue or orange
CST (boys)Single speed with back pedal Coaster brakeBlue or orange
CST (girls)Single speed with back pedal Coaster brakeBlue or orange

The 10 speed is the most highly prized of all Raleigh Choppers.

If you want one today, a perfect example will cost in the region of £2000.

Chopper Mk1 - UK market models

The Chopper was launched in the UK for the 1970 model year. The original colours were Golden Yellow, Flamboyant Green and Brilliant Orange.

In 1971 the colours were Brilliant Orange and Horizon Blue. There was also a new High Backrest model, which had a very tall backreset with extra padding. It also had its own unique colour, Mustard Yellow.

The Raleigh Chopper's car style gear leaver (Mk2 version)

Raleigh Chopper Mk2

A British Medical Journal report claimed that the high handle bars made steering unsafe. Others claimed that it was possible for two children to ride on one Chopper. Safety concerns prompted a revision to the basic design in 1972, with the Chopper Mk 2 having a shorter seat. Raleigh also made changes to the gear leaver style and handle bars. Raleigh had to defend the safety of the Chopper when questions were raised in Parliament.

Raleigh assured a safety seal of approval by geting RoSPA to test the Mk2.

The Chopper Mk 2, or Chopper II as Raleigh called it, got new colour schemes, Infra Red and Ultra Violet. In 1976 Raleigh added two new colours, Space Blue and Quicksilver.

The Chopper was a bike that put style before practicality. In the early years of the 1970s it might have been every boy's dream, but volunteers for a Which? report in 1972 found the Chopper slow and hard work. Most would have preferred a racing bike.

In spite of the style over substance approach, the Chopper won a place in the Council of Industrial Design (COID)'s Design Index.

Raleigh launched a new bike for the 9-14 age group in 1976, the Grifter. It had Sturmey Archer 3-speed gears, two sixteen inch wheels and off-road style studded tyres.

The last version of the Chopper was given a final makeover for the 80s. To fit in with the new desire for off road bikes and the coming BMX craze, it had a new studded rear tyre and new brakes. It was finished in 'Jet Black' and had more of an 80s' rather than 70s' feel to it. However, there was no hiding the original design. This was the last year Raleigh made the Chopper.

The Tomahawk also soldiered on to 1981. The model version was in 'Hot Red'.

Mk2 variants

These are UK market variants of the Mk2 Chopper:

Raliegh Chopper Mk2 GT Sprint (1972)

GT Sprint 1972-73

The GT Sprint was a Chopper with drop handle bars. It was available in two colours: flamboyant green (left) or fire bronze.

The Sprint had different tyres, a 'racing saddle' and a modified frame, but only 3 speeds.

It did not sell well. In 1973 Halfords offered the Chopper GT Sprint for £25.95, when a standard Chopper Mk2 cost £33.45.

The Chopper GT Sprint is a rarity today. Of course that makes it all the more desirable and a top notch one will now cost from around £1000 to £1500.

Raleigh Chopper Mk2 5 Speed, 1976

Raleigh Chopper 5 1972-1976

The Raleigh Chopper 5 had a new gear change based on the classic racing bike derailleur, but with the Chopper style gear shift.

Strangely, it was only available in pink, a colour guaranteed not to appeal to boys in the 1970s. The Raleigh brochure called this 'Sharp Pink'. It also had red and yellow lettering.

Like the Sprint, it did not sell well and was quietly dropped in 1976.

It is, of course, highly collectable today.  Expect to pay around £1000 for a good one.

Raleigh Chopper Silver Jubilee Speical Edition, 1977

Special Edition 1976-1977

To celebrate 750,000 Chopper sales Raleigh released the Chopper Special Edition or Chopper SE in 1976.

It had diecast alloy wheels and a rear hub brake. The colour scheme was silver with black and chrome detail transfers.

The silver paint job fitted in with Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee in 1977. Although the Raleigh brochure does not mention this.

It was not a great seller and is also a rare bike today. You will need to spend around £1500 for one of these.

Raleigh Chopper Mk3

Raleigh Chopper Mk3

Raleigh brought the Chopper back in April 2004. They launched the Raleigh Chopper Mk3. Just like the original, it was a kids' bike, not an adults' bike.

The Raleigh Chopper Mk3 had a lightweight alloy frame. The gear shift was moved to the handlebars to comply with modern safety regulations. The seat was in two parts. Much of the original style remained.

The Mk3 originally came in the 1970s' colour Infra Red. But purple, blue and black were soon added.

It sold for £199.99 at Halfords.

In 2015, personal trainer, Dave Sims rode the 2077 miles of the Tour de France route of that year on a Raleigh Chopper Mk3, which was only slightly modified. He wanted to prove that you did not need an expensive bike to do the Tour and he raised money for the charity, Help for Heroes.[4]

Production of the Chopper finally ended in 2018.

Competitors to the Raleigh Chopper

The success of the Chopper encouraged other manufacturers to bring out their own Hi-Riser bicycles. The following models were also available in the UK in 1972:

Source: 'Bicycles for older children' published by the Consumers' Association in Which? February 1972

At that time (1972) a Raleigh Chopper cost £35.60. A conventional children's bike, such as a Raleigh Rebel, cost £26.70.

What did children think of the Raleigh Chopper?

In 1972 Which? conducted a test of children's bicycles. They included a selection of Hi-Riser bikes, including the Raleigh Chopper, as well as conventional lage wheel racing and touring bikes and modern (for the 1970s) small wheel bikes.

Only the boys were asked to rate the Hi-Risers. They found this type of bike was comfortable and stylish, but they were difficult to ride, slow and hard work, particularly going up hills. Most boys in the survey preferred conventional racing bikes to the Hi-Risers. [5]

Although there were safety concerns around the Chopper, particularly the MkI, Which? found this type of bike was safe to ride, if ridden sensibly. Their testers didn't like the Hi-Risers generally, but if you had to have one they recommended the most expensive, the Unity Cycles Dragster.

A chopper for young children

Raleigh made several Chopper-like bikes for younger children.

Budgie

The Budgie was a scaled down Chopper lookalike for very small children. The brochures often showed them with stabilisers suggesting it was a child's first two wheeled bike.

The Budgie was first advertised in 1976 and continued until at least 1981.

Tomahawk

The Tomahawk came along in 1971.

It was for children in the six to nine age group. It looked like a mini version of the Chopper.

The Tomahawk had an 11 inch front wheel and a 16 inch rear wheel. It had the same Hi-Rise handle bars and padded saddle as the Chopper. But it did not have the Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub. There was no gear stick on the cross bar. A plastic plate looking like the one on the Chopper took the space where the gear stick would have been.

It was for children with inside leg measurements of 21 inches to 25 inches. The colour choices were Infra Red or Fuschia (pink).

By 1981 the Tomahawk had the Formula 3's cut down saddle (see below) and was only available in 'Hot Red'.

Chipper

The Chipper was available from 1971.

The Chipper was a scaled down Chopper with a removable cross bar. Raleigh designed it to be suitable for boys or girls. Although they did show older girls riding the original Chopper in their publicity.

The removable cross bar meant that the Chipper was not adjustable. It was only suitable for children with a 21 inch inside leg.

It had the Hi-Rise handlebars and the banana saddle, but lacked the Chopper's arrow shaped frame. In looks it harked back to earlier Hi-Riser bikes.

The Chipper was available in flame (red), orange or purple.

Formular 3

The Formnula 3 was a deluxe version of the Tomahawk. It came along around 1976. It had new diecast wheels and a new cut down Chopper style saddle without the high back. It also had a Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub. Unlike the Chopper, the Formula 3's gear change was in the normal position on the handlebars.

Fake Choppers

Towards the end of the 1970s and into the early 1980s a number of Taiwan-made fake Raleigh Choppers appeared in the UK. Raleigh had found examples all over the world of bikes sold under names such as 'Choper', 'Cropper', 'Clopper' and 'Rally Chopper'. [6]

There was still a problem in 1981, when a batch of fake Choppers were found with Nottingham spelt wrong.[7] The badge said 'Chopper Nottinghan'.

Raleigh Choppers on TV

In an episode of The Good Life, 'I Talk to the Trees' broadcast in 1976, Tom and Barbara Good are going through Surbiton on their cart powered by a rotary cultivator. They are persued by a group of children playing Cowboys and Indians. One of the children is riding a Raleigh Chopper. (perhaps a Tomahawk might have been a better choice!)

Raleigh Chopper values

The Chopper Mk 1 is worth a little more than the Mk2. The Mk1 is rare and more desirable. If you want a good, usable Chopper, look for a Mk2 in presentable, but not perfect condition. You should be able to find one for around £400. Perfect examples of both models are worth more than double this price.

Chopper Mk1

Buy Raleigh Chopper Mk1s on eBay.

Chopper Mk2

Buy Raleigh Chopper Mk2s on eBay.

Chopper Mk3 (2004 reproduction model)

After the Mk3 ceased production in 2018, values of mint examples in original packaging have soared.

Mk3s can be found in their original packaging and will fetch upwards of £300.

Buy Raleigh Chopper Mk3s on eBay.

How to tell a Mk1 from a Mk2 Chopper

Gear lever

The most obvious difference is the gear lever. See the pictures below:

Raleigh Chopper Mk1 gear lever
Raleigh Chopper Mk1 gear lever
Raleigh Chopper Mk2 gear lever
Raleigh Chopper Mk2 gear lever

Rear stays

The most significant difference is the frame. The Mk2 had an improved frame designed to address safety concerns. The obvious way to tell which is which is to look at the rear stays. On the Mk1, they are straight. They are curved on the Mk2. See below:

Raleigh Chopper Mk1 rear stay
Raleigh Chopper Mk1 rear stay
Raleigh Chopper Mk2 rear stay
Raleigh Chopper Mk2 rear stay

Saddle

The Mk2 also had a shorter saddle. The change to the shape of the rear stays allowed a shorter saddle. Look at the pictures below. You can see that the Mk1 saddle goes further back.

Raleigh Chopper Mk1 saddle
Raleigh Chopper Mk1 saddle
Raleigh Chopper Mk2 saddle
Raleigh Chopper Mk2 saddle

Colours

The Mk1 and Mk2 Choppers had completely different colour schemes:

Mk1: Golden Yellow (1969-71), Flamboyant Green (1969-71), Brilliant Orange (1969-72), Horizon Blue (1971-72) or Mustard Yellow (High Backrest model - 1971-72)

Mk2: Infra Red (1972 onwards), Ultra Violet (1972 onwards), Space Blue (1976 onwards), Quicksilver (1976 onwards), Jet Black (c1981)

Raleigh Chopper in South Africa

Raleigh had a factory in South Africa. The Raleigh and TI subsidiaries merged in South Africa in 1959, before the two companies merged in the UK.

Raleigh made similar bikes to those made in the UK, including the Chopper. Those made in South Africa have a badge that says 'Raleigh Springs South Africa'. They also used some different colours from those available in the UK.

More on the Raleigh Chopper

See the Raleigh Chopper Owners' Club and Raleigh Chopper on Wikipedia.

Look for Raleigh Choppers on eBay

References

[1] The Moulton Bicycle: A History of the Innovative Compact Design by Bruce D. Epperson, published MacFarland, 2018, pages 106-8

[2] The Raleigh Chopper's beginnings revealed: Early design sketches show the bike's iconic features before its 1969 debut by Sarah Griffiths, published in the Daily Mail online, 9 May 2014

[3] The F-frame Moultons by Tony Hadland, published by Lit, 2014 page 49

[4] This man rode the Tour de France route on a Raleigh Chopper, published in the Daily Telegraph, 31 Jul 2015

[5] 'Bicycles for older children' published by the Consumers' Association in Which? February 1972 pages 40-41

[6] 'Taiwan imitation goods cost UK firms millions' by Nick Davies, published in The Guardian, 6 December 1979, page 2

[7] 'Watch out for these toy fakes' by Len Collis, published in The Daily Express, 6 May 1981, page 24.

Your comments on the Raleigh Chopper

"I had a Chopper bike. I used it from the age of ten to fourteen. It was fantastic, red colour, the ease of lowrider seat. The banana seat was very comfortable and the gear position was attractive.

My Difficulties were: whobbles, wheelies were not uncommon, hard to run or make long distances with it." Chopper Lowerider

"i had a 'Raleigh chipper' (it was the smaller brother of the chopper) my dad brought back from the dump and restored it, but nether fixed the broken front seat bracket, so the whole seat used to tilt upwards exposing the stem, once i was out over the park on it, stood up to give it fast burst of accelaration and sat back down, you can guess the rest! it was about a week before i was able to ride it again! thanks dad." robert

"I rode a yellow Raleigh chopper from the mid-seventies right up into the mid-eighties and came off it most memorably as it wobbled out of control while I was freewheeling down a hill. I lost half an eyebrow and bear the scar to this day. Another time I almost castrated myself on the famously malpositioned gear lever. Not long after that I got a racer but missed the upright sitting position and the comfort of the wide saddle with its sturdy suspension." Chopper cropper

"hi ive just got one im having dowts on weather its a mk1 or mk2 its got gear solector in between your legs witch is the T bar shaped and the top of the seat back grab rail is curved squair not like a arch if you can help please contact me thanks damo" damion milner

Raleigh Chopper Mk 1 gear stick (Image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0, author:Gerry Lauzon, imaged cropped to show gear lever only)

Hi Damo, It sounds like a Mk2 to me. The Mark 1 gear stick is left, the Mk2 is as illustrated above. Retrowow

"eek, i have vivid memories about the 'purple raleigh chopper' and that 't' bar geat changer....it almost turned me into a gelding... after one particular top spec crash....lol great days" tim

"I have just discovered that my mk2 Raleigh Chopper is actually a Mk1. However, it has mk2 gears and pedals. My parents bought it second hand for me 29 years ago. We think it is dated 1970 from the crank. Anybody got any ideas why it would have the wrong gear?? Thanks!" Lor

"I am now 49 years of age and in the 1970s had an original chopper bike, I still remember it to this day as it was such a sturdy and fun bike to ride. probably the best bike I have ever owned . I am looking to buy an original chopper in good condition soon if I can find one and keep it for prosperity." kevin hull

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sanjay
I own a Silver Raleigh Chopper since 1976 MK2 in need of restoration work, mainly re-chroming. The frame is in excellent condition. I live in North London and looking for a specialist who can carry out this work. Can anyone recommend where I can get this work carry out? Thanks
el padrino 4.27.2021 LI NY
i have an original MKII that i got when i was eleven years old, i am 53 now. my MKII has the original badge from the Raleigh Company the betina is perfect. paint is still original. frame is staight with the original handle bars. i will be restoring it. i already had an offer of $1500 but turned it down. this is still a great bike and can't wait to ride it again.
Paul Kernan
I seem to think the first batch of Mk 1 in Glasgow in 1971 was yellow and orange only(all my mates had them) and my parents special ordered a blue chopper for me that Christmas Loved the thing. True it could be tiring after a long trip and it did wobble going at speed down hill (a lot of scrapes and scratches to prove it) but I wouldn't have changed it for a second
Steven
Hi Lorna, eBay would be my suggestion. They are very rare. None sold in the last 3 months. Do a search and if nothing comes up, save the search. You will get something eventually. A chain guard for a Tri-ang Dragster sold on eBay recently for 35 pounds. So don't expect a full bike to be cheap. One in poor condition sold for 94 pounds in 2018. best regards
Lorna
Hi, does anyone know where I can buy a Triang Dragster. They were similar to the Raleigh Chopper in the late 70s Many thanks for any information.

 

 

   
Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

20th Century History ★ Antiques & Collectibles

Retrowow - vintage, retro and social history

★ 20th Century History ★ Antiques & Collectibles ★