It’s the middle of the 1970s, and you’re looking at the most fabulous vehicle you’ve ever seen in your entire life. Chrome trim contrasts the bright metal-flake paint on this product of the design geniuses at Ogle, the firm that also made such masterpieces as the Reliant Scimitar and the SX1000. A “floor” mounted three-speed gear selecter with a cool indicator window gauge transfers power to the back, where the rear rubber is bigger than the front.
You’d do anything for a machine like this, and you’re hoping that you’ve been good enough that Santa will bring you one this Christmas.
What? Oh, did I forget to mention that we’re talking about a bicycle and that you’re in elementary school? Well, if you’re a GenXer, the name “Raleigh Chopper” will mean something to you. If not, let me explain.
Rebel Machine For Suburbia
It’s hard to imagine this type of product ever existing today, but the Raleigh Chopper was a “Muscle Bike” or “Wheelie Bike”, a genre of bicycles that were kid’s toys inspired indirectly by the motorcycle culture Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper celebrated with outlaw drug-filled biker films like The Wild Angels and Easy Rider. We’re talking about movies with Fonda diatribes like:
“We wanna be free! We wanna be free to do what we wanna do. We wanna be free to ride! We wanna be free to ride our machines without being hassled by The Man. And we wanna get loaded. And we wanna have a good time. And that’s what we’re gonna do. We are gonna have a good time. We are gonna have a party.”
Honestly, anything that involves Dennis Hopper doesn’t sound much like something to influence children’s playthings, but then I never thought Vampire films like The Hunger would ever transmogrify into tween drivel like the “Twilight” series.
The Raleigh Chopper actually wasn’t the first wheelie bike. The Schwinn Sting Ray debuted in 1963 as a response to a California trend of fitting motorcycle-style accouterments to bicycles such as long “banana” seats, tall “ape hanger” handlebars, and small diameter wheels (often with the rear a larger size).
Parents were apparently hesitant to buy such odd machines for their kids, but eventually, they appeared all over the neighborhood streets. By the later ’60s, the “muscle bike” style accounted for up to seventy-five percent of all bicycle sales, with competitors from most major bike brands (and rebranded ones sold in department stores such as Sears and JCPenney’s when they were still a thing). Outlandish interpretations existed such as Murray’s Fire Cat..
..or the Huffy Slingshot with a Hurst branded shifter like on your dad’s 442 might have had.
Still, there was something just right about the British Raleigh Chopper that came late to the party in 1969, and it was always my favorite.
My favorite feature of the Chopper was the gear selector that made it seem like this bicycle was actually a car, which is what we as elementary schoolers really wanted anyway. Note the gear indicator window behind the giant shift knob (there were also 5-speed models as well as those with tandem gear selectors for models with gearsets in the back and on the crank). Look at that console!! As a ten-year-old I would have tricked out that metallic surface with one of those stick-on LCD clocks, a thermometer, and maybe a compass for full instrumentation. Ain’t nobody be bad like me.
The Chopper saved the Raleigh firm and was a massive success in the UK and across the pond. However, by the time I lusted after these things, the death of wheelie bikes was already imminent. BMX-style bicycles were coming into favor with buyers, and consumer safety groups were more than happy to see Choppers go away. With their tall center of gravity, these bikes were inherently unstable, hard to ride long distances, and the banana seats encouraged passengers to ride. The crossbar-mounted gear levers were, well, not good for young private parts in an accident, especially when the knob inevitably came off of the selector and turned it into a dagger (these were actually banned on new Choppers sold after 1974 in the US). Schwinn ceased producing wheelie bikes after 1982, while Raleigh held for another two years before throwing in the towel.
Today, most bicycles are highly functional machines that are a far cry from these heavy, silly toys of the ’60s and ’70s. Kid’s bikes are usually just scaled-down versions of dad’s Trek, which makes perfect sense, but I’d like to think that children of today might still want a bike that, like the Chopper, is a bit outrageous and aspires to be more than a bike. Our kids liked watching shows such as reruns of the one where father and son screamed at each other built often mind-boggling motorcycle creations. Is there a modern equivalent of these new-school Choppers?
We could actually make it rather easily. We’d take a standard bike like this little girl has and switch to smaller wheels (say 20 inchers on a bike typically made for 24s), allowing for a lower frame but keeping the length from getting ridiculous. Those wheels would not be standard spoked wheels but some kind of cast or molded form (similar to what BMX bikes have done).
For inspiration, I was looking at two things. One was a bright green “Lambo” chopper that ill-fated family from New York created some time ago. The other was a toy from GenXers’ youth called the Green Machine that featured stick-controlled steering, allowing for incredible slides and drifts. I never realized how much the wheels were inspired by Saab soccer balls.
The seat sits low, the pedals move forward so it almost becomes a recumbent bicycle. Lurid colors and graphics would have to be part of the package.
To give a real “chopper” look we can cover the frame with lightweight and durable blow molded body halves (the same production process used for Big Wheels). The blow-molded “body” would have a void space in between but we could utilize that space; note the fake “valve cover” would be a drawer for secret storage.
Reflective graphics could be complemented by add-on LEDs powered by rechargeable battery packs to illuminate the center or even throw “neon” wash light on the ground. Naturally, for the ‘bigger kids’ versions there would be gears, in this case selected by “console-mounted” shifters just like the original Chopper but in this case flush, so if you crash down on the crossbar the pain won’t be enough to make you plan a mass murder, as Morrisey sang.
Recently, certain firms have revived the old-school wheelie bikes, but somehow I’d rather children make memories on a newer style cycle. Another thing that’s nice about the “new” Chopper would be that the center of gravity is painfully low, so if anything it’s safer than even a standard bike. Old or new, I’m glad to see the comeback. The Muscle Bike era was half a century ago, but I think that kids today STILL want to ride their machines without being hassled by The Man. Or Mom. I mean, they did our homework already, right?