If you grew up in the seventies, you probably had a Chopper, and if you grew up in the eighties, you probably had a Burner. Yet whichever ride was yours, one thing’s for certain - you looked cool as ice riding around the local estate with your mates…
Bicycles. Just collections of metal and rubber that take you from one place to another, right? Nothing noteworthy about that. Sure, that might have been the case before 1969. After then, though, the idea of a bicycle completely changed, shifting from a practical bit of kit to a stylish fashion choice, a declaration that you were, let’s face it, rad as hell.
You see, the year of the moon landing and On Her Majesty's Secret Service also saw the launch of the Raleigh Chopper, arguably the first bike to become a statement piece, a luxury item that made you the talk of the town and the envy of your peers. In short, Raleigh made bikes cool - and they’ve continued to do so ever since.
How did they orchestrate this stylish revolution in the cycling world? Well, by combining big old U-shaped handlebars, chunky rear wheels and a fancy leather seat, Raleigh channelled the spirit of a Harley Davidson into a vehicle for kids, allowing the youth of the day to feel like they were their very own Hell’s Angels (without the violence and organised crime, though, of course). Taking inspiration from the swagger of Peter Fonda’s motorbike in the Oscar-nominated classic Easy Rider, designer Alan Oakley spotted an opportunity - every young kid wants to feel like a movie star, an action hero, and with a Chopper, they could do exactly that.
If you grew up in the 1970s there was only one thing any self-respecting youngster wanted – a Raleigh Chopper
As Steve Fulford, a valuer at Hansons Auctioneers, says, “If you grew up in the 1970s there was only one thing any self-respecting youngster wanted – a Raleigh Chopper. The design, influenced by dragsters and ‘chopped’ motorcycles… was the coolest of bicycles and great for doing wheelies.”
“Wheelies” is exactly right. As the stunning stunts of Evel Knievel wowed audiences across the globe, youngsters wanted a bike that could bring similar thrills - and, while it wasn’t necessarily the most mobile of vehicles, the Chopper was perfect for satisfying your inner daredevil. As News Letter’s Helen McGurk explains: “Cruising up and down the road, attempting Evel Knievel-style [tricks] on my Chopper made me feel free. At school we 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].”
Each Christmas and birthday throughout the seventies would only boost the demand for Choppers further, as more and more envious kids ditched their traditional two-wheelers for something much more desirable, and within a decade Raleigh had sold 1.5m models, spreading the influence of the brand from Eastwood to pretty much everywhere you can think of.
Like all trends, though, this craze fizzled out eventually, and by the 1980s, the Chopper had finished its race. As Easy Rider was replaced by E.T., eighties kids decided they no longer wanted to ride like Evel Knieval, but rather like Elliott, the BMX-riding, alien-rescuing protagonist of Steven Spielberg’s world-beating blockbuster. Other big screen releases, like the subtly-named 1983 hit BMX Bandits, only added fuel to the fire, enhancing the appeal of these must-have, adventurous bikes.
If the Chopper offered the scrappy energy of a Hell’s Angel, the Burner channelled a rebelliousness befitting of its manufacturer’s Notts heritage
Yet, never one to find themselves behind the curve, Raleigh once again had their finger on the pulse - releasing their attention-grabbing MK1 Raleigh Super Tuff Burner BMX in the same year those pesky Bandits were tearing through the streets of Sydney. As well as boasting an “achingly cool chrome frame”, Mountain Bike Rider’s James Bracey explains, the Burner had “classic Tioga Comp3 skin wall tyres and the ability to turn any kid into the envy of the school”.
If the Chopper offered the scrappy energy of a Hell’s Angel, the Burner channelled a rebelliousness befitting of its manufacturer’s Notts heritage. With spinning handlebars and thick wheels, this new ride had a versatility that the Chopper simply couldn’t match, allowing youngsters the chance to not only cycle around their local neighbourhood, but go off-roading and explore wherever they wanted, regardless of the terrain. This struck a chord with the adventurous youth of the eighties, and within the first two years of its release, over half a million Burners were sold - making it the most popular BMX ever. “The bike is a key player in the Raleigh success story,” Bracey continues. “The first edition of the range [became] an instant success, kicking off a BMX boom.”
Decades after their release, these bikes aren’t just a popular relic of the past, though; both the Burners and the Choppers continue to be cool enough for people to fork out on. Celebrities such as Lady Gaga and David Beckham have coughed up big bucks to get their hands on a Chopper, and everyone from Paddy McGuinness to Jamie Oliver have bought a Burner - with the latter also adding a Boxer and Grifter to his collection.
While Raleigh continues to produce groundbreaking, trend-setting pieces in the modern day - with their Strada X mountain bikes taking off-roading to new levels and their Trace e-bikes offering a slick, stylish addition to the ever-expanding sustainability scene - these older classics are still an iconic symbol of the brand. Over fifty years after introducing the bike that launched a new wave of Evel Knieval wannabes, this Notts institution remains the brand that made cycling cool.
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