By ALAN PERROTT
There was a time when it was what you rode, not what you wore, could earn you kudos in the school playground.
If you owned a Raleigh Chopper in the mid-70s you were the Fonz, you were an easy rider, you were cool.
The English-built Chopper was a watershed on wheels for young pre-Star Wars Kiwis who had only ever known clunky old dungers with butt-numbing seats and girlie handlebar bells.
Now the Chopper is back, even if 21st century paranoia means they are not quite as bad as they were.
The groovy gearshift that threatened anguish to a young boy's nether regions and ended imports into the United States has been replaced by a twistgrip version on the handlebar, the frame is now aluminium, and the banana seat has been split in two.
Despite such meddling, 15,000 of the remodelled bikes have been presold in Britain, where a limited-edition release of about 30,000 begins next month.
The brand-new Mk III Chopper, expected to retail between $700 and $800, isn't due to pull its first wheelie here until August.
But some purists are unimpressed by this Chopper-come-lately.
The loudest harrumph came from John Gray, this country's representative of the Raleigh Chopper Owners Club, which spans Britain, Australia, the US, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia.
"As an RCOC member I can have my choice of the first release, but I've checked them out and they are ugly. To me they are really hideous compared to the original, they've lost their appeal for me."
The 37-year-old from Dunedin has been a fervent restorer of the old arrow-shaped bike since he found a frame poking out from a pile of rubble at his local tip three years ago.
As a kid, Mr Gray never owned one and had to make do with constantly hassling a friend for a go. He now spends up to $1000 on each of his eight bikes which are in various states of restoration as he chases parts all over the world.
"The Chopper is still renowned everywhere," he said. "There's never been anything to match it and for safety reasons there will never be anything built like it again."
The small front wheel caused speed wobbles and an inexperienced rider could either fly over the apehangers or flop back over the sissy bar. Either way was painful.
"I remember one time I came off my mate's bike. I broke my arm, got gravel rash up my chest and nearly got run over. But everyone had a story like that, crashes were like a badge of honour. We were kids and it just didn't matter."
Auckland DJ Cesar, "the Spanish Fly", owns three Choppers and a Dragster, and has also restored a Tomahawk, the mini-me children's Chopper, for his 4-year-old son.
The 39-year-old grew up in Madrid near a US airbase where the servicemen's children rode all sorts of exotic bikes. "Us middle-class Spanish kids only had these boring old bikes so we got obsessed with them, but you couldn't buy them in Spain.
"Riding around on my bikes now, I always get comments, especially from the kids. They ask for a ride, then I say no. For me it's just the arrow shape, it's so cool. I can't wait till I can go riding with my boy."
Kim Struthers, product manager for New Zealand importer Sheppard Industries, is not sure how many Choppers will be imported, but the release will not be large and a one-off.
He expected most interest to come from parents wanting their kids to own the bike.
By ALAN PERROTT
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