First Person: Niven Ladd

Niven Ladd on his 1970 Mk I girls’ Chopper, with gear lever at the base of the handlebars

Most people of my age will remember the Chopper from their childhood, thanks to the distinctive handlebars and banana-shaped seat. It’s the bicycle that every child wanted back in the early 1970s. Even today, I don’t feel out of place riding mine. I own 10 now – and even ride a girls’ model from time to time. People just smile or wave as I pedal by; nobody laughs. My bikes are quite a talking point among teenagers, because all they have are BMX and racer bikes. There’s never been another two-wheeler quite like the Raleigh Chopper.

I got mine for Christmas in 1971, when I was 12. The box was too big to fit under the Christmas tree, and I had no idea what was inside. When I pulled it apart and found a Chopper, I was totally gobsmacked. It was a three-speed Mk I model, painted in standard orange with big, chunky tyres. I can’t remember much else about that day, apart from the fact that I went straight out and rode my Chopper up and down the street until teatime. My dad worked in construction at the time, so he and Mum must have scrimped and saved to raise the £53 to buy it.

The Chopper was designed by Alan Oakley, who based it on the Harley-Davidson ridden by Peter Fonda’s character in Easy Rider. That’s why it was such a cool bike, because the high handlebars made it look like a “chopper” motorcycle from the film. It was such a radical style that I think Raleigh was brave to even consider putting it into production. Up until then, bicycles all had the same style of frame – the Chopper was totally out there and had a touch of Hell’s Angel about it. The gear-change was revolutionary. Instead of a thumb lever on the handlebars, the Chopper had a car-like gear-stick on the crossbar, which was inspired. More expensive models had five- or 10-speed options.

The Chopper was a brilliant-looking bike but it did have a few design flaws. Riding home from school was a nightmare for me because I had to cycle up a big hill with only three gears. The small wheels also meant my legs were spinning really fast but my friends could all overtake on their racers. But while I couldn’t go as quickly, my Chopper was great for pulling wheelies – I just had to lean back on the banana seat and the front wheel would lift up in the air.

The long saddle was also perfect for giving a “backie”, or carrying a friend. That changed in 1972, when Raleigh moved the seat forward on the Mk II model for safety reasons. The Chopper died in the late 1970s when the BMX craze started. A Mk III model was launched in 2004 but it was rubbish and never took off.

Unfortunately, the original Chopper had a structural weakness in the frame, which meant that mine rusted away in 1986. I was still living with my parents near Maidstone, in Kent, and I forgot all about Choppers for 10 years, until I read an article on them in a classic car magazine. My brother, Sheldon, had also ridden a Chopper as a child and I discovered his bike tucked away in the family shed. It was covered in dust but just needed a good clean-up. Not long after that, I started looking around for parts and old Choppers on the internet – and I became totally obsessed with them because they were such a special part of my childhood.

Some of my Choppers are worth a lot of money. A Mk I three-speed is worth from £500 upwards, and my 10-gear model has been valued at £5,000. Except for the rubbish Mk III, which I got rid of, I own every type of Chopper ever made, including a customised chrome model, so I don’t want any more. The bikes are just a hobby and I work full-time as a coach trimmer on classic cars. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist and like my freedom, which might explain why I never married. If the sun is out, I still like nothing better than taking my Chopper out for a ride.

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