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Page last updated at 06:26 GMT, Friday, 1 June 2012 07:26 UK
The Chopper: 'Every child's dream'

Niven Ladd's chrome Chopper
Niven Ladd's chrome Chopper conjures up images of a world long-gone

By Tom Bateman
Today programme

The Raleigh Chopper - the bike that became an icon for the 1970s - is remembered as the funeral takes place of its designer Alan Oakley.

There's something slightly weird about watching a grown man trying to ride a child's bike - the way the knees are forced out at an uncomfortable angle to allow for a fully grown leg where a much slighter one should hang.

It certainly gets the attention of passing drivers on a busy road in Kent.

Designer Alan Oakley with a Chopper
Alan Oakley dreamed up the Chopper on the back of an envelope

Especially as Niven Ladd, 54, has a BBC reporter jogging alongside, poking a microphone at him and trying to keep pace with his orange 1970 girl's edition of the bicycle.

But this is the power and unlikely charm of the Chopper - a bike dreamt up on the back of an airmail envelope in the late 1960s that went on to become an icon for an era.

Its designer, Alan Oakley, died last month at the age of 85 and his funeral takes place on Friday.

"It is actually a very comfortable bike to ride," says Ladd, a Chopper enthusiast since getting his first one at the age of 12.

"It just has that terrible wobbly factor," he adds, pulling his right hand back on the chrome high-rise handlebars and correcting his steering.

Ladd sits back in the seat and straightens his arms. "I could quite easily pop a wheelie."

Console gear lever

The Chopper first went on sale in the UK in 1970 after bicycle firm Raleigh sent Alan Oakley to the US seeking inspiration to revive their flagging fortunes.

The designer, who'd worked on specialised machines for races like the Tour de France, went looking for ideas for a mass-market child's bike.

Struck by the low slung bodywork of Harley Davidson and "chopper" style motor-bikes popularised in the film Easy Rider, Oakley sketched his new bicycle design on the transatlantic flight home.

His idea was put into production and the Chopper became an instant hit.

Every child's dream
Alan Oakley's widow Karen describes the Chopper

With its big back wheel - 20in (51cm) against 16in (41cm) at the front - and fat tyres, long padded high-back seat, tall motorbike-style handlebars and console gear lever, the Chopper was the bike that made a kid cool.

Within a decade Raleigh had sold 1.5m models - even though it represented a hefty outlay for parents with a £32 price tag, roughly equivalent to £350 today.

But the Chopper's significance went beyond it being a "cool" bike for kids - it came to represent a time when childhood had changed "dramatically", according to the historian Dominic Sandbrook who presents the BBC2 programme The 70s.

"It (the 1970s) was much more comfortable, much more affluent, children had far more toys - they were surrounded by stuff in a way that they hadn't been 20 or 30 years earlier," he says.

"So possession of a Raleigh Chopper for even ordinary working class kids was a sign of how much things had changed since the fifties."

For the first time in a generation, families had spending power - and a new consumer culture fused with an explosion in redesign: "This is an age in which cars have rectangular steering wheels," says Sandbrook.

Tackling pain

Yet part of the Chopper's enduring charm was another attribute which arguably also became associated with 1970s Britain - its tendency to go wrong.

The set-back position of its seat and its wide tyre spread meant it was a slow, wobbly ride and had a tendency to tip up.

It was also common for pairs of children to take advantage of the long seat and ride the bike together - something Raleigh had to discourage publicly.

And then there was that console-style gear lever: Perfectly placed for groin-agonising injury during a sudden stop.

Niven Ladd riding one of his Choppers
Enthusiast Niven Ladd still rides his Choppers around the streets of Kent

"I'd never seen a bike quite like it before," says Niven Ladd, who would take his Chopper on the six mile round trip to school every day.

"I remember in 1974 riding it to secondary school and thinking 'Christ, this is hard work'."

But none of it was enough to prevent the Chopper becoming so popular.

At Alan Oakley's home in Nottingham - the city where Raleigh is still based - a giant Chopper artwork greets visitors.

His widow Karen describes the bike as "every child's dream".

"I don't think he ever knew it would be so iconic," she says.

"Somebody phoned me the other week and said: 'I just want to say thank you to your husband. He made my three boys so happy having a Chopper bike'."

"I think he just drew this from his mind and I don't think he had any idea how big it would be."


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