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Bike reputedly sketched on the back of an envelope... although the truth is rather different

Alan Oakley, who as chief designer at Raleigh is credited as having come up with the design of the Nottingham-based firm’s iconic Chopper bike, has died at the age of 85 of cancer.

Company mythology has it that the outline of the bike, inspired by the type of motorcycles that would later be made famous by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in the 1969 movie Easy Rider, was sketched on the back of an envelope as Mr Oakley returned from a trip to California in 1967, although the truth is rather more complicated.

"Alan had been over to America looking to pick up a design for a bike," said his wife Karen, quoted on the BBC News Nottingham website. "While he was flying back, he had an airmail envelope and just drew this bike on the back of it and that was that, the creation of the Chopper."

But as BikeBiz points out in a comprehensive article about the bike's history, some of which is drawn from the dedicated website Raleighchopper.info, rather than being a new, ground breaking design, the Chopper was in fact a reinterpretation of existing bikes, including the Schwinn Stingray and subsequent models made by the American company.

That bike itself had been inspired by street bikes – known, yes, as ‘choppers’ – put together by youths in California, complete with apehanger handlebars and banana-shaped seats originally designed for bike polo, as the sought to produce pedal-powered versions of the custom motorbikes that had appeared on the West Coast scene.

Raleigh, whose USA subsidiary was already producing bikes very close in design to those made by Schwinn, had sent Mr Oakley to California to get a handle on what was happening with youth culture out there, and while he came back with the design of the Chopper, the idea he dreamt it up single-handedly is wide of the mark.

What is true, however, is that without Alan Oakley, there may well have been no Raleigh Chopper, a bike that is indelibly etched on the memory of anyone who grew up in the 1970s and early 1980s before the BMX boom consigned it to history – but not before 1.5 million bikes had been sold, helping save the company from bankruptcy in the process.

"As a friend and former colleague of Alan's said, 'Raleigh was Alan and Alan was Raleigh', "commented Mrs Oakley.

"He was there for 40 years and loved every minute of it. He made people very happy and I am very proud of him."
 

Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.

5 comments

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WolfieSmith [1244 posts] 3 years ago
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Little bit of oil on those flares Simon. I favoured the Millets bell bottom jeans with matching jacket in those days. Well actually I favoured Lee denim and my mum favoured Millets own brand. I wasn't allowed a chopper either. 'Vulgar'.  20

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keith roberts [200 posts] 3 years ago
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had to make do with a tomahawk till i was 15, then "upgraded" to a second hand chopper (thanks grandad)couldnt change from third for some reason (sturmey archer gears! pah!) hence my thighs were HUGE at 16 years old....what happened..?

Great fun bike though...ok in a straight line,no good round corners, brilliant for backies,scared me witless down hills, i rode this bike everywhere all the time,how many of us do that now?  3

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Simon E [2539 posts] 3 years ago
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The Raleigh Chopper was all about looks. It wasn't particularly comfortable and handled poorly but at least it was striking and really was an iconic model for Raleigh in the days of brown flares, moustaches and long hair.

At the age of 8 I had the smaller version, the Tomahawk. 16" wheel at the back and 12" at the front (with crappy rod brake) was a liability. By the time I was old enough to have a Chopper I was more interested in drop bars.

I doubt any sizeable company would dare to make a bike as quirky - or as scary to ride downill - these days.

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pwake [374 posts] 3 years ago
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Simon E wrote:

I doubt any sizeable company would dare to make a bike as quirky - or as scary to ride downill - these days.

Not sure about that; take a look at some of the 'cruisers' Felt produce for the US. I almost bought a 'Deep Six' last year, but just wasn't sure what I would use it for, 'cruising' I suppose  16

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Cauld Lubter [132 posts] 3 years ago
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One of those was responsible for nearly killing my younger brother, due in no small part to the stupidly small front wheel and very dodgy handling.