How the Raleigh Chopper went from a ’70s icon to a cult classic loved by David Beckham and Lady Gaga
It was the bike that every child dreamt of having in the 1970s, with its huge trademark handlebars and ‘iconic’ seat.
Now, more than 50 years after its release, the Raleigh Chopper has become a cult sensation, counting megastars like David Beckham and Lady Gaga among its growing list of adoring fans.
And after featuring in a string of Hollywood movies, blockbuster TV shows like Stranger Things, and music videos, fans of the bike insist it is riding high on a wave of newfound popularity.
The British design, exported across the globe, was the brain child of the late Tom Karen – who died peacefully on New Year’s Eve, aged 96 – and released when man first landed on the moon, in 1969.
Britpop legends Supergrass rode the iconic Raleigh Choppers in their 90s hit ‘Alright’, cementing the two-wheelers’ cult status
The bikes were first launched in 1969 and rapidly grew to be the must-have present for children across Britain before gaining cult status with celebrities like Amanda Holden in later years
Within months, it had become a staple in most British streets, with children of all ages clamouring to get their hands on a Chopper.
And as the 60s turned into the 70s, the popularity of the Brit classic continued to balloon as it captured the imagination of young Americans.
By the end of the decade, Raleigh had sold more than 1.5 million models – reportedly saving the company from bankruptcy.
However, by the mid-1980s, the bike fell out of fashion and ceased production, overtaken by more modern models.
It wasn’t until tricked-out versions of the Choppers were ridden by members of the Oxford-based Britpop band Supergrass for their breakthrough 90s hit ‘Alright’ did the bike cement its cult status.
The chopper was based on dragster cars and bikes of the 1960s and was a signifier of a child’s coolness in the 1970s. Above: A model demonstrates the Chopper at the Ideal Home Exhibition in Kensington in 1971
By the 1970s, the Choppers had proven themselves to be a global phenomenon – and were even one of the prizes in Bob Monkhouse’s ‘Golden Shot’ TV show
Fans say the bike, which stopped production in the 1980s, has seen a recent resurgence in popularity, with a new, limited edition run a few years ago. Pictured: a chopper rider in 1984
Since then, the two-wheelers have been snapped up by other celebrities.
England legend David Beckham was rumoured to have brought one of the newest releases of the bikes back in 2004, allegedly reserving the number ’23’ to match his Real Madrid shirt number.
Blur’s Damon Albarn and pop princess Lady Gaga are also among the high-profile fans of the bike.
While Beckham’s old teammate and ex-England goalkeeper David James once sold off one of his prized collection of Choppers in 2014 after filing for bankruptcy.
Popstar Lily Allen even followed in the footsteps of Supergrass, blazing into the music video for her hit, LDN.
More recently, Choppers have featured in music videos of popstars, including Lily Allen and her tune, LDN
The bikes are a celebrity favourite. Ex-England goalkeeper David James had a collection – and once auctioned off one of his Choppers after filing for bankruptcy in 2014
And reportedly, Comedian Johnny Vegas once cycled a Chopper into a swimming pool after crashing on the first six attempts.
The bikes even featured alongside the late Robin Williams in his 1995 blockbuster, Jumanji.
‘Choppers are so iconic. They stand out so much. They’re bold – they’re like nothing else,’ says Welsh superfan Harry Potter, 28, who runs the 3,300-strong Raleigh Chopper Owners Club.
Harry, who is one of the UK’s biggest collectors, has about 80 of the iconic bikes – including some worth close to £7,000.
Speaking to MailOnline, he said he wasn’t surprised celebrities were snapping up the bikes.
‘I’ve spoken to famous people who have them – they just love them, they see them as discussion pieces to have on their walls,’ says Harry, who has been collecting and restoring Choppers since he was 15.
‘Harry Enfield was one of them. He is a big fan. I got a bike off the Kaiser Chiefs. which they signed to give away.
‘Apparently they did it it because they had one as a kid and they loved them. That’s the thing with Choppers, people loved them when they were kids and want to show their kids what their childhood was like.’
Speaking of musicians and pop acts owning the beloved Brit bike, Harry added: ‘They’re 100 per cent cashing in on the Chopper icon status. They’re so unique. There’s nothing else that looks like them.’
Fellow enthusiast Jake Bonnici, of Bromley, London, said it was the nostalgia behind the bikes that has inspired their resurgent cult following – as well as the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.
Shane Richie poses with a Chopper for Boogie Nights – The Musical during a photocall in London
And cycling ace James Cracknell showed his love for the iconic British two-wheeler in 2016 as part of the Great Sport Relief Bike Off
‘You get people with a midlife crisis buying an expensive car. Not everyone can afford to buy a classic car so they look at the next best thing – a Chopper,’ says the 29-year-old DJ, who boasts of having a collection of Choppers worth more than £100,000.
‘During Covid everyone was sitting around and doing nothing in furlough then everyone wanted a Chopper and it became a surge of demand. People wanted to relive their childhood.’
Among those recently seeking to relive their youth was comedian Paddy McGuinness, who returned to the saddle of his beloved Chopper in June.
The Top Gear presenter rode his boyhood bicycle outside his old stomping ground in Auburn Street, Bolton, as part of a project highlighting famous Mancunians.
The bikes were at the peak of the fame during the mid-1970s, when they were the envy of most schoolchildren. Pictured is a proud Stacey Dorning with her bike in London, 1976
‘All of the values you have as a child stay with you as you get older. It’s very much a working-class mentality,’ the Take Me Out host told Manchester Evening News.
‘It’s great that celebrities can take it and give Choppers the public exposure they deserve,’ added Jake.
News of the Choppers’ newfound surge in popularity comes after the death of Tom Karen, last week.
He was managing director of Letchworth’s OGLE Design from 1962 until 1999 and was seen as a driving force behind the bike’s creation.
During his tenure, he designed several famous British products – including the Raleigh Chopper, the three-wheeled Bond Bug vehicle, and the children’s game Marble Run.
A retrospective of Tom Karen’s career is currently taking place at One Garden City in Letchworth.
Tom Karen, the man behind some of the UK’s most recognisable designs, has died aged 96. Mr Karen died peacefully on New Year’s Eve surrounded by his family. Above: Mr Karen on his famous Chopper bicycle
Town historian Josh Tidy, who curated the exhibition, said that Mr Karen was ‘thrilled’ with it. ‘Tom was a true great,’ he said.
‘I had the pleasure of meeting him several times over the last year or so, putting together the exhibition which celebrates his life and work, and runs until March 10th, (we will have a condolence book in situ, which we’ll pass on to his family).
‘I’m very pleased in retrospect that we were able to do the exhibition last year – timely as it turned out, and as we feared. I know Tom was thrilled with it which makes me happy, at this sad time.’
Speaking to the Guardian, his daughter Eugenie said it was a ‘privilege’ to have been close to ‘such a creative person’.
In 2019, he was appointed OBE in the New Year Honours. Reflecting on Marble Run on his website, Mr Karen called it ‘my most inspired creation’. He said the idea came to him while watching his children play with a simple wooden marble run
‘He had such an extraordinary life and found such happiness living his last couple of decades in Cambridge,’ she added.
Mr Karen was born in Vienna in 1926, but settled in England during the war in 1942.
In 2019, he was appointed OBE in the New Year Honours.
Reflecting on Marble Run on his website, Mr Karen called it ‘my most inspired creation’.
He said the idea came to him while watching his children play with a simple wooden marble run.
‘It occurred to me that if such a game could be made up of a number of components and be assembled in alternative ways to make up a run, it would offer an inviting test and end up with a hugely satisfying reward,’ he said.
He added: ‘I find it hugely rewarding to know that millions of children round the world have derived endless pleasure playing with my marble run.’
Chopper enthusiast Jake, who met Tom three times, added: ‘He was a really nice guy. I had a lot of time for him. The stories he would tell you, not just about the Chopper were amazing. It’s something that will stand the test of time.
‘Hopefully it’s the kind of thing in 50 years time people will look back at it and say that’s a cool bit of history… It’s had a worldwide impact.’
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-11597993/How-Raleigh-Chopper-went-70s-icon-cult-classic-loved-David-Beckham-Lady-Gaga.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 How the Raleigh Chopper went from a ’70s icon to a cult classic loved by David Beckham and Lady Gaga