Shades of the ’60s are everywhere in our motorcycle industry. From Scooters making a huge come back in big cities to Old British Iron being renovated or used as the basis of new customs, from Scooter Clubs to Cafe Racers meetings, it looks like the Mods and Rockers subcultures may be back. Not only in their birthplace of England but all over Europe and somewhat in the US. In the mid-sixties you had to be a Mod or a Rocker to be anything. For those who were one or the other (it means that like me you are baby boomer…) and for those who are now inheriting or imitating their lifestyle, below is a short history of these important 2-wheeler movements.
The Mods. Post World War II England saw the end of rationing, military service had been abolished, economy was booming, people had money to spend on clothes and bikes. The Mods were essentially from London and the South East and were complete followers of the latest fashion. They were discovering new sounds, rhythm and blues, new jazz, rich exotic sounds like Ska brought over with the Caribbean immigrants (while mainstream England was listening to the Beatles). They were ultra hip subterranean night club dwellers. Mods held down well paid office jobs (whereas Rockers tended to be more rural and manual workers), were arrogant, strutting kids and loving to create confrontation in nightclubs. The green shapeless army surplus Parka coat became the uniform. It was adopted to protect their expensive weekend suits from the damp London climate and to keep warm when riding their scooters, predominantly Italian brands like Vespa and Lambretta. Because police was harassing them for insufficient lighting and size of mirrors, in derision they decided to install numerous headlights, crash bars, white wall tires and high backrest seats, each Mod competing to have the chicest ride and the hottest chick riding behind. Amphetamine was the Mods drug of choice, pot not fitting their ideology (Pot was slowing you down, amphetamine kept you hyperactive for days without need to sleep between office hours and nightclubbing). Their influence on the London music scene was such that the Mod subculture resulted in the creation of new bands like the Small Faces, the Yardbirds and the High Numbers, known later as The Who, the band who defined the Mods with the song “My Generation”. Mods hated Rockers that they saw as out of touch and grubby. Rockers saw Mods as arrogant and young effeminate snobs. Scuffles occurred wherever they happened upon each other. To protect themselves some Mods went to sew fish hooks into the backs of their lapels to shred the fingers of Rockers assailants.
The Rockers. The Rockers movement started sooner in Liverpool during the late fifties. Illegal import of rare rock and roll vinyl albums coming from the sea trade with the US created a scene of teen agers in black leather jackets be bopping in night clubs. They rode motorcycles, listened to Elvis ad Gene Vincent. and were rebellious. To the uninitiated, a Rocker looked like trouble, Typical rocker outfit was black leather, a white scarf tightly wound around mouth and neck when riding, a pair of Levi’s jeans or black leather pants and sometimes wool white socks folded over the top of their boots (a look borrowed from the World War I aviation pilots). They are credited for influencing rock stars of the mid sixties in wearing leather. It is also believed that it is at this time that the gay community adopted leather to copy the image of the manly Rockers. New ring roads were built around cities and for Rockers they became tracks to race their machines. Trucker cafés on these roads were meeting places, the most famous of them being the London Ace Cafe still in existence. Rockers main love affair was speeding on their bikes, something that they thought was very glamourous and a way to defy a very puritan and rigid English society. Rockers were a very tight group extremely supportive of each other. The rivalry with the Mods came to a culminant point in May 1964 during the Bank Holiday weekend. Traditionally, Londoners head for the seaside resorts of Margate, Broadstairs and Brighton. A large number of Rockers and Mods had the same holiday plan. Inevitably fights between the 2 groups started all along England south coast resorts, the most serious acts of violence happening in Brighton. Many protagonists on both sides were arrested and heavily fined. These serious riots were later immortalized in the cult film “Quadrophenia” (in it, a very young and next to be famous musician and singer called Sting, playing a Mod character)
The Rocker movement vanished in the 70′s. Then in the early eighties a few remaining Rockers organized meetings that would progressively become again very popular. The reunions include many too young to have been around in the early days. The lifestyle is still very appealing with groups all over Europe, in Japan and to a marginal degree in the US. At the end of the 60′s the Mod scene also disappeared. During these last years, as a consequence of the high price of gas, many have rediscovered the Scooter as primary mode of transportation. White collar Baby boomers just remembered the Mods and their children are looking for reference codes. For the 1st time in 4 decades it is not uncommon to see in Europe and America Scooter Clubs organizing meetings where members wear the traditional green Mod Parka and ride Italian Vespa decked out with multiple oversized headlights. At the same time the Cafe Racer culture is alive again and attracting a new generation of bikers with the number of participating Rockers growing more at each London Ace Cafe reunion. Could it be that we are seeing the beginning of a revival of both subcultures? Not sure, yet. But at least one thing is certain. The respective lifestyles are now based on nostalgia more than on rebellion and consequently both movements could grow again without any risk of confrontation. The potential benefit? More motorcycling and more customizing.
Added November 23, 09: “Hi Cyril, “The Ace Cafe was built and opened in 1938. During the blitz on London in WWII, the cafe was entirely destroyed in a night time air raid November 1940. Following this air raid a temporary cafe, consisting of a prefabricated concrete air raid shelter was put on the site and operated as a cafe for the duration of the war. At end of war a new cafe was erected, this being the building that still operates today. I feel I should add that the target of the enemy air raid of November 1940, was the numerous railway bridges adjacent to the cafe and not the cafe itself!…..they never got the bridges. It is also my understanding that no one was killed in the strike on the cafe. More info about the cafe, together with historic photos, can be found on the website’s history section. Kind Regards” Mark Wilsmore, Ace Cafe London.