Alan Oakley: Designer whose Raleigh Chopper bike was a defining image of the 1970s

Oakley had an envelope, his wife said, 'and he just drew this bike on the back of it – and that was it'

It is hardly possible to avoid the term "icon" when referring to the creation of the cycle designer Alan Oakley, for he produced one of the objects which helped define 1970s Britain: the Raleigh Chopper bicycle. It mattered not that some considered the Chopper ungainly and absurd, or that others worried it might be unsafe because it seemed difficult to steer, with a large saddle which sometimes encouraged two kids to clamber aboard. Its shape, at once unorthodox and irresistible, and the cachet that came with it, made it the must-have equipment of its day. It conferred instant cool on its young owners, generating envy among their peers. In effect it was the Apple iPad of its time.

Its impact came from the fact that it revolutionised the traditionally conservative world of British cycle design. It conjured up, with its outsize handlebars, the world of the Hell's Angels and the road movie Easy Rider in a form acceptable to the young and their parents. It was eye-catching, flashy, snazzy. It was a huge success for Raleigh, selling a million and a half during the 1970s despite being more expensive than standard cycles. Its devotees can still be found out there on the internet, where Choppers and their spare parts are still bought and sold.

Its invention is the stuff of British cycling legend. "Alan had been over to America looking to pick up a design for a bike," Oakley's wife Karen recalled. "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."

While that was the high point of Alan Oakley's 40-year career as designer of bicycles for the Nottingham-based Raleigh firm, he had a hand in many other products. In the 1950s he was, for example, responsible for developing the track bikes for Raleigh's world champion track cyclist, Reg Harris. This laid the foundation for the Raleigh road team leader, Joop Zoetemelk, to win the Tour De France in 1980 in the famous red, black and yellow colour scheme conceived by Oakley.

Alan Oakley was born near Nottingham in 1927, the son of a local printer. He studied mechanical engineering, joining Raleigh as a trainee draughtsman, originally working on projects connected with the Second World War. His early interest was in aviation but he quickly made a lifelong connection with bicycles. "It's funny because Alan initially wanted to work with planes," Karen Oakley recalled, "but as soon as he became involved with bikes he knew that was for him."

Oakley will always be primarily identified with the 1970s classic which, with its strong visual appeal, developed a cult following. His inspiration came during a trip to California, where cool West Coastinnovation was far ahead of the comparatively staid Britishapproach. Some manufacturers were turning out bikes with a dash of Hell's-Angels chunkiness about them, while individuals were customising orthodox cycles.

The Chopper was appealing on so many levels: for one thing the choice of its name was inspired, as were itsexcitingly named colours, such as fizzy lemon, infra-red and ultra-violet. Even its price, higher than the average bike though not at a forbidding level, added to its allure.

Many Chopper owners were not old enough to be allowed in to watch the Easy Rider film, in which Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda cruised the wide-open spaces of the US on Harley-Davidsons, free spirits of the thrilling new counter-culture. But images from the movie were everywhere, and posters were pinned up by the million in adolescent bedrooms.

All this combined in a phenomenon which soared beyond the bounds of mere transport to become an immensely desirable fashion and lifestyle accessory. The kid who got a Chopper got respect and envy. According to Gary Hughes, who runs the Raleigh Chopper Owners' Club: "It's the whole thing of the dragsters, the actual shape of the bike, the big wheel. The Easy Rider film – it was the next best thing to that Harley-Davidson bike that Peter Fonda used to ride."

Traces of that envy have persisted for decades. The journalist William Cook reminisced in the New Statesman in 2004: "I was never allowed a Chopper, but that didn't stop me admiring them from afar. This absurd but beautiful bicycle was the acme of childhood chic. The boys who rode Choppers wore Wrangler jeans and beetle-crushers, danced to records by Mud, Slade and Sweet, and snogged all the girls at youth club discos."

There were some early safety concerns over the stability of the high handlebars, known as "ape-hangers", and the fact that the seat could, at a pinch, precariously hold two kids. It also had a tendency to wobble at speeds, and would sometimes tip over backwards. A quickly produced Mark II version addressed such shortcomings.

In 2004 Raleigh introduced a new version of the Chopper which, however, failed to repeat the success story. Oakley attended its launch but conveyed privately that he was unhappy it was to be made in the Far East rather than in Britain. After retiring from Raleigh in 1982 he went to work for the Department of Trade and Industry as well as the Design Council and Science Research Council.

Alan Oakley, bicycle designer: born 27 Netherfield, Nottinghamshire 27April 1927; married 1954 Brenda Wilson (one daughter deceased), 1992 Karen Oakley (one son); died 18 May 2012.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
voicesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Life and Style
tech

Apple has been hit by complaints about the 1.1GB download

Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC
tv

Much-loved cartoon character returns - without Sir David Jason

Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff
tv

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Arts and Entertainment
tv

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife
film

Matt Smith is set to join cast of the Jane Austen classic - with a twist

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmWhat makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me
tv

Actress to appear in second series of the hugely popular crime drama

Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
Life and Style
i100

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Analyst / Marketing Database Analyst

£24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Analyst – 2 year fixed term contract – Kent – Circa £55k

£45000 - £55000 Per Annum 31 days holiday, pension, healthcare, annual bonus: ...

**SEN Primary Teacher Serf Unit **

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Preston: We are looking for an experie...

Experienced Foundation Teacher

£100 - £222 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: We are currently recruiting f...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week