So when did motorcycles start making an appearance in history? What role did they play in London’s culture?
Motorcycles are descended from the ‘Safely bicycle’. A bike with front and rear wheels which were the same size. With a pedal crank mechanism driving the rear wheel. There were many landmark developments around the same time which came together to create the motorcycle. Rather than a single idea or machine. Numerous engineers and inventors around the world were conducting experiments. Making a base for motorcycles to develop from.
In the 1860s
Pierre Michaux founded ‘Michaux et Cie’. Which was one of the first companies to construct bicycles with pedals. They called it a Velocipede. By 67 Pierre’s son Ernest had fitted a small engine to Velocipede. The first commercial design for a self-propelled bicycle was a three-wheel design called the Butler Petrol Cycle. Built by Edward Butler in England in 1884. Edward exhibited his plans for the bike at the Stanley Cycle Show in London in 1884. He also showed the design in 1885 at the International Inventions Exhibition, London.
In the early history of motorbikes, bicycles were adapted to accommodate an internal combustion engine. As engines became more powerful and designs progressed the bicycle frames were outgrown. At the turn of the century, the first of the major mass production bike companies were up and running. Such as Royal Enfield, Triumph and Norton.
By the 1920’s
Harley-Davidson had hit the market and became the largest manufacturer. The bikes were being sold in 67 different counties. BMW motorcycles weren’t far behind with a single shaft drive and a ‘Boxer’ engine. By the 1930’s, there were 80 different makes of motorbikes available in Britain.
When World War II was over, it is said that the veterans who rode bikes in battle carried on the camaraderie on two wheels. They found comfort, excitement and a touch of danger in motorcycle clubs. These clubs helped create a new subculture of motorcyclists or ‘bikers’. Going forwards the outlaw image would start to accompany motorcycles. This was reinforced by films at the time such as The Wild One.
Enter: Mods and Rockers
By the time the 60’s had come around, two dividing biking subcultures had emerged, the legendary Mods and Rockers. Although these groups were nationwide they were concentrated in the London area. They are a massive part of motorcycling history and culture for London. The forming of the mods and rockers began an uprising of the British youth. They became known as ‘Folk Devils’.
The mods and rockers had completely opposing cultures. The cleancut mods were obsessed with their style and had extreme attention to detail. Whereas the rockers were rough and ready, driven by their love of motorcycles and leather. The mods mainly gathered in Central London or the centre of other large cities. The rockers occupied other towns and the outer ring road of London.
The subculture of the rockers centred on motorbikes.
Their famous appearance usually involved black leather jackets. Black jeans, big boots or creepers in the manner of Marlon Brando. Rockers used grease on their hair, coming from the Teddy Boy look of the 50s. The artists popular with rockers were Bo Diddley, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran.
The rockers favourite bikes were the Triumphs, BSA Gold Stars or Bonnevilles. The term ‘Rocker’ may have actually come from the biking. Rather than the rock music as some believe, as they ‘rocked’ the machines. When the press at the time wrote about the rockers, they actually referred to them as the ‘ton-up-boys’. This was because they did a over the ton or over 100mph. Rocker culture involved gathering at greasy fry up cafes. Such as Ace Cafe in London, or the Busy Bee on the outskirts of London.
The mods were a massive part of the 60s fashion revolution in London.
While the rockers kept well out of it. Preferring the purity and simplicity of the 50s style. The mods fashion originated from the people on the streets on London. Smart yet urban. The preferred mod music genres were soul, rhythm and blues. Beat music like The Who and The Yardbirds.
Mods and rockers were not friends. Rockers thought mods were stuck up and snobbish. While mods thought rockers were old fashioned, dirty and greasy. British youths at the time found themselves falling into one of the categories. Pinpointing their identity and chosen culture. The two groups didn’t meet up apart from Bank Holiday weekends. Often around Brighton, Margate and Southend from 1964. The most famous occasion was the “Battle of Brighton” in the Whitsun holiday, May 1964. The town was invaded by around 3000 youths. Many smaller scuffles broke out, but the main trouble was around the Palace Pier. Windows were smashed and rocks were launched. 26 youths made an appearance in court the next week and were given stiff sentences.
The media loved writing about the violent clashes between the tribes, usually exaggerating the fights. The groups tented to associated with teen pregnancy, riots and general violence. There were further clashes between the groups but began to fizzle out after a few years.
Today London’s culture has massively been influenced by the times of mods and rockers. It can be seen in clothes fashion and bike style. The owner of Ace Cafe, Mark Wilsmore says…
“Previous generations, such as the Teddy Boys and Ton-up kids, were no different to today’s kids”
They still come to hang out together and appreciate bikes.
There is a huge audience today for custom cafe racer style motorbikes. Back in the 60s, rockers wanted a fast. Distinctive bike to travel between cafes on. The goal of many of the bikers was to reach 100 miles per hour. A race often set between people was to leave a cafe, race to a specific point. Then and back again before a single song in the jukebox playing. Cafe racers were fond of rockabilly music, which still has a huge culture today. Modern cafe racer bikes have taken styling from the British rockers and American Greasers. Creating a style of their own or keeping them as original as possible. Google Trend figures shows that since 2010 people searching term ‘cafe racer’ has increased by approx three relative to the total number of searches.
Motorcycling has been adopted by many different nations and cultures for different purposes. A few examples are commuting, long distance travel, trail riding, motorsports and enduro. It’s amazing to see people giving a nod to the generations before in cafe racers.
There are many biker subcultures throughout the world which can be seen in loosely knit social groups. London is one of the largest bases for motorcycle clubs, cafes and hang outs:
Ace Cafe is one of the most famous London biker hangouts, originally operating from 1938 until 1969 then reopening in 1997. It was extremely popular with the Ton Up Boys in the 50s/60s. This continued through to the 90s attracting 12,000 visitors at the reopening. Riders come from all over the world to attend Ace Cafes events as they often host live music. DJs and club gatherings.
This club was started in Hackney Wick in 1959, East London. The 59 Club is staffed by unpaid volunteers, as it has been since the 60s. The club became an icon of the London youth culture at the time of rock n rollers and still is today. They organise events throughout the year and offer a coffee bar. Jukebox and table tennis facilities in the main clubroom.
The Bike Shed is a fairly new establishment. But they offer a great retro vibe based around the cafe racer /scrambler/tracer style of biking. They have become extremely popular since established in 2011. Organising ride outs, meets and events. This venue is full of amazing food, gear, bar and you can even get your hair cut. The popularity of this venue shows how much people celebrate the custom culture.
More to mention…
If you are heading to London and would like to have a ride out with some clubs. Maybe to find out about some upcoming club events. Here are just a few you could contact:
- VC London
- Southern Sporting Motorcycle Club
- London Motorcycle Riders Club
- Dapper Shade Riders Club
- West London Harley Riders
- The Lost Saints
London Motorcycle Events
London has a load of motorcycle events, listed here are among the largest:
- MCN London Motorcycle Show
- The Ally Pally London Motorcycle Show
- Bike Shed London
- London to Brighton Bike Ride
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