Friday, August 26, 2011

A Chopper Legacy

Everybody needs a hobby. Mine is tinkering with bikes. It is more so from a need to get mechanical and my hands dirty.

In the 70s, the most ubiquitous bicycle was this Raleigh Chopper bike (see pix left). I don't think I ever owned one as a kid, but I did have a few of them when I was much older. It became a hobby of mine restoring them. Growing up, my brother owned a Raleigh gentleman bike - the one with the white saddle bag behind.

At my primary school (Mattar Primary), a classmate and good friend of mine owned one. The manner in which he got his bike left me rather flabbergasted. You see, this friend of mine, Lee Huat, was only average in his studies. One time, however, he did manage to get all blue marks (not the usual failing red marks!) in his report book and so his dad bought him a bike as a reward. It was the bike everyone was whispering about and eyeing. The Raleigh Chopper. Lee Huat's was blue (well, it could have been be a Kris, an imitation from Malaysia then).

I still remember the conversation we had that day when he invited us over to his house in Circuit Road to see the 'surprise' he had installed for us his closest buddies.

"Wah, your dad got you a bike!" I said.
"Yup!" LH was beaming from ear to ear.
"How come?" I asked, not being very discrete.
"I did better in my exams," he said, still beaming.
"But didn't you get like 30+ position in class?" I asked, in my head, of course.
He then let out the bombshell:
"What did your dad get you? You did come in 2nd."

I felt ashamed and looked down.
"Er, I got caned." Silence.

"What???" He was incredulous, and almost laughing.
"What kind of dad do you have? If I'd scored 2nd, my dad would have bought me...." He couldn't think of anything. I guess he all he wanted was a Raleigh bike. LH was not a greedy fella, maybe why his dad doted on him.

I did not answer, quietly fingering my thigh where the cane marks were still fresh.

Well, that's my dad. His message to me was: if I had scored 1st in one term, I should have gotten 1st again in the next term. If not, anything else was considered a step back, a failure. What my dad didn't consider was that the girl who topped the class most of the time was always miles ahead of us boys. Her final term 2nd spot in P3 was but a blip that I somehow managed to create. I was so happy about it at the time. Being 2nd was normal and quite an achievement over the other competitive boy, CY. Together, the three of us would always score 1st, 2nd, 3rd. Another girl, PC, would occupy the 4th place.

I don't take credit for my good results. An elder sister should because she was always the one to push me to study hard and practice more. I would rather go exploring outdoors or fly a kite. But I do learn things pretty quickly in terms of studies.

Mini, not Chopper
The bike that I actually owned as a kid was called a Mini Bike. It was like the Schwinn Deluxe Stingray (also known as the Stingray Mini). The Schwinn Mini bike was an icon in the U.S. at the time. The Raleigh Chopper was the swinging bike icon on the other side of the Atlantic, popular in the UK as well as in Asia and elsewhere in the Commonwealth. Because of its popularity, bike-makers in Taiwan and Malaysia soon made copies to sell. These bikes looked exactly like the original right down to the Raleigh Co brand plate in front. But instead of the 'RC' monogram lettering, it would be 'ER' (if from Taiwan) or 'Kris' (if from Malaysia). 'ER' stood for Eagle Rider. The other parts of the  bike would spot words like 'Joker', 'Champion' or an abashed 'Chopper'. I've seen one that read 'Chooper'. Later, I found out that the Stingray Grey Ghost model had suspensions and a small front wheel like the original Raleigh Chopper. (See pictures below.)

In 1958 Canada, the Raleigh Chopper was sold for C$59.99. I've never wondered why the Chopper was the Chopper but here it is: In the late 50s, folks started modifying the bicycle with motorcycle parts. They raised the handlebars, put in a banana seat, made the front wheel smaller, the back wheel thicker. All these features were similar to those found on chopper motorbikes.

Vespa cousin
The Chopper design story is quite similar to the other icon of the 70s: the Vespa. That scooter was created out of the vestiges of WWII and was inspired by airplane designs, i.e. the small wheels, single front fork and body casing. These histories remind me of the little boys in my neighbourhood today (more so the Malay boys, I notice). They would take a normal bike and add motorcycle parts like farings and seats to make it look like one. The bike they often use is the China lady bike with a curvy double crossbar. A popular brand is Junqi. The kids would often add an air horn that is powered by an inflated 2-litre softdrinks PET bottle.

First suspension bike
In 1976 when I had moved to another place, I wanted a Chopper but my dad bought me another bike instead. This bike was one of the first to have front and rear suspensions, and had a flatter but curved banana seat (which looked more like a stretched piece of naan). So maybe it should have been known as the bike with the naan seat. It'd cost $160 back then. I liked its modern copper-orange color but that bike was very heavy to carry, partly due to the fact that even its front wheels had drum brakes. The new suspension springs and thicker than normal tires added to the weight as well. It was indeed a mountain bike kind of mountain bike even before people even knew about mountain bikes. Plus it had those Scrambler bike handles, a precursor of those used in BMX bikes). Besides the term 'scramber', these bikes were known as motorcross ones as well. In any case, I loved my Scrambler bike as much as I loved my Mini bike. It was indeed able to handle riding in the mud very well.

As I got my mountain bike, my brother got his Raleigh racer, which my dad had bought from an old bike shop in Joo Chiat Road. For a long time, this shop still had a Chopper bike promotional sign hanging in its lobby from its heydays in the 70s. It could still be there - if the shop had not sold out and become another sleazy karaoke joint in the area.

Restoring Choppers
Sometime in the early 2000s, I was itching to hands-on again and so decided to start a hobby restoring Raleigh Choppers - perhaps as compensation for missing out on owning one. And to start, I needed an old bike to restore.

At the time, I knew reconditioned Chopper bikes were being sold at a shop along Bukit Merah near that famous seafood restaurant. I say 'reconditioned' because not all the bikes there came with proper parts. Some had new types of brakes, some had new tires without the famous Chopper signature color band at its side. They sold for between $700-$1200. I left that shop feeling disappointed and even more determined to do a better job than they did restoring the classic Chopper. What a travesty their efforts were to this icon!

Little did I know that finding spares would be a problem. A huge problem, actually. But first, I had  to find an old bike to begin the process of restoration. I found one abandoned in a dilapidated house near Keong Siak Road one day after a business meeting. Talk about fate!

A girlfriend had a van, so it was quite convenient for me to cart it away. The bike was in moderate condition. There was rust where the parts were chrome before, but still, all the nuts were original. They bore the letter R - a sure sign that this was indeed an original Raleigh bike.

The body of the bike must have been red or orange-red before it become sundried into a rust color. All the  Chopper parts were there: the gear-change lever, the rear book rack, the red reflector spot behind the seat, the tires with the red trim, and the grab bar behind the seat. All were there except for the the white band across the back of the banana seat. I would later replace that from one scrounged from a scrap bike. To my surprise, the gear-change lever worked. But the rear Sturmey-Archer gearhub was stucked; it would need some work I recall telling myself. I've always loved the Sturmey-Archer gear hub and found it superior to the external derailleur used in most bikes now. A Sturmey-Archer is self-contained and needs little  maintenance, so it will last and last. Many bikes from Holland and Japan use them. I still keep an expanded mechanical drawing of the gear hub. It is an astonishing mechanical feat. Presently, someone has gone a step further and invented an auto transmission gear hub for bicycles. It would be sweet to get my hands on one.

Hunting for spares
Restoring the bike was the easy bit. But as mentioned earlier, it was finding the spares that was difficult. But the search was fun and enlightening. I found some great old bike shops and talked to some wonderful shop owners. I also discovered some interesting bikes along the way. At an old shop in Waterloo Street, the owner thought he still had some old tires in his store. He said I could have it for free. He also showed me a real beauty of a bike, an actual Stingray Mini that was modified with the banana seat being supported by two cylinder-suspension units. It was golden yellow in color and had a white seat - all quite similar to that local Mini bike that I had. What a beauty!

At Race Course Road, a bike shop did not have the tires. It had instead some rather retro-looking brake lines.

The owner of a shop in nearby Owen Road was impressed by my effort. I, in turn, was impressed by his range of bikes that were mostly targeted at foreigners with cash to dole out. Among these was a pink Lady Schwinn Stingray Beach Cruiser with matching saddle bags. The owner, like some of the bike shop proprietors I've met or was going to meet, continued to have a love affair with bikes from the 70s even though that era had ended decades ago.

A quaint old shop I came across was located in Lower Delta. Its signboard was hand-painted and still bore a picture of the Chopper. Sadly the old couple there did not have any spares. But they did have an abandoned Chopper on the lawn outside. It was quite a sad and distressing sight. The bike was too far gone to rescue.

A great find/Mini Chopper
I next visited an old shop in Crawford Street, one that I had come across many times while visiting the nearby Golden Mile Food Center (the one with the army-gear shops). They have been there since a long long time ago. If not them, I was wondering, who else would have had some spares left still? Or at least know of someone who did?

At first, I was a bit disappointed because they said they did not deal with the original Raleigh Chopper but with its many imitations instead, i.e. those from Taiwan or Malaysia. But despair soon turned to joy when the lady confided in me that they had found two mint-condition Kiddy Choppers in a dark corner of one of their warehouses. She asked me if I wanted them. I did not even have to see them to say yes, but I said "You have them here?" A rustle at the back and out came the two mini Choppers.

Frankly, for those of you who have not seen the kiddy version of the Raleigh Chopper, I could have sold you on these two little wonders. They were made from Taiwan but were the exact replica of the original Raleigh Chopper sans the gear-change lever. (Because of their smaller size they did not have the rear gear hub, hence the absence of a gear-change lever.)

Plainly put, they each were a mini version of the Raleigh Chopper. Bikes that were sized just right for a 7 or 8 year old as opposed to the 10 or 11 pre-adolescent for the actual Chopper.

The problem was that the actual Raleigh kiddy Chopper did not look anything like its big brother. It was pretty ugly, to be honest. So, these two Taiwanese-made clones were pretty special. They were then, and even more so now. These two cute bikes even had those colorful handle tassels that the original Chopper came with. How disbelievingly accurate was that? And how cool that they are now mine?

So I quickly said yes and brought the bikes home. They had no problem fitting inside my big Hyundai van.

In the end, I kept one bike and sold the other to a fellow avid collector. Needless to say, he was over the moon with it. But he was quite the grateful fellow and gave me a few stick-on Raleigh badges that were of  the present-day design but yet reminiscent of the original ones - just in case the old badges were too damaged to be restored.

Modified bikes
How did I know what the actual Kiddy Chopper bike looked like? I researched on the Web and also found one at an old bike shop in Syed Alwi Road. This bike shop reminded me of the old shops in Geylang. In fact the building itself reminded me of those in my old neigbourhood. Further down the road were more bike shops. Talking to the customers, I soon found out that these shops made a thriving business out of modifying normal bikes to run on gas. This was before e-bikes became popular or had more models for consideration. Their modified bikes could go at speeds of more than 70 kph! Quite dangerous given that these bikes were not meant to run that fast nor had the disc brakes to do the braking job effectively. And as I witnessed later along Lavender Street, the bike chain would snap when the bike ran at top speed. Some poor shod could be walking around with his toes missing or foot mangled!

A chrome beauty
Probably the most interesting bike shop I came across was in Balestier. It was in the same row of shophouses as the famous tau sar piahs. The owner was a middle-aged man who also serviced motorbikes. He wore a singlet and his arms were greasy and oil-stained. When we got to talking about Choppers his tired eyes became animated. He took me inside his shop and stopped amid a row of new bikes. One bike was covered by fuzzy plastic. He threw that back. Underneath was a shiny and sparkling Raleigh Chopper all plated in chrome! CHROME!??

A Raleigh Chopper fully chromed? Yes, that was how much an owner loved his bike. He even bought it a rather swanky gear-change lever from Holland. Now, how sweet is that?

New generation Chopper
In 2004, twenty-five years after the original Raleigh Chopper ended production, a new Chopper was introduced. It was one of the most anticipated bicycle launches ever. But I found it a disappointment. It had a simulated banana seat (a normal bike seat with an added extension to give it a banana profile) and the gear-change lever was located on the handlebars instead of the old place. The reasons they gave were for modernity and safety, but i think they missed a chance to create an Apple moment, you know, when the masses would go gaga over a one-of-a-kind product. If you want to create an original again, don't fiddle with the parts that people loved most about it. Enhance them instead. This, they did not do.

Whenever I see a chopper bike, I am reminded of my friend LH and the circumstance in which he got his bike. I am also reminded of the different dads we both had. I've often wondered what if our places were switched, how his father would reward me with my good school results. But then again, if you were not made to aim high, you could hardly leave the ground. So, in a way, I am glad to have a demanding father. But for sure, I wished he had, that semester, patted me on the back and said "Well, son, you've tried your best. Now go enjoy your new Raleigh Chopper!" Ta-da! Unveiling my reward with a flourish. Haha, that was good for a  grin and fake cherish of a moment. With my dad, it would never happen. I would just have to study harder. And that, I suppose, would be his not-so-great legacy for me.

Next story: Unforgettable Teachers; Who designed the Chopper?

(Next to the Tomawan pix (2nd, below) was a pristine original Chopper I saw in a shop in Waterloo Street in 2012)

My Tomawan Chopper kid bike was probably copied after Raleigh's Tomahawk (see below). 
But I think I still prefer the Tomawan. It's more faithful in design to the original Chopper! This one
was spotted at the Children Little Museum, Singapore. (The hump design of the seat is to prevent the bike from tilting back, a danger complained by parents.)

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