17th April 2020

You Are What You Ride: Mods & Rockers

In the classic bike world, at shows around the country, owners of scooters and bikes co-exist happily. It was not always so. In the 1960s, tension between Mods and Rockers led to violent confrontations at South Coast resorts, peaking during the Bank Holiday weekends of 1964. With 21st century hindsight, we can see that the press exaggerated the scale and severity of the clashes, but the reputational damage done to all who enjoyed two-wheeled transport lasted for decades. For years afterwards, some pubs and cafes displayed ‘no motorcycles’ notices.

How could one’s choice of machine create such a stark, almost tribal, division between two groups? It was not so much the bike, or scooter, but what it signified. Like rival football fans wearing their team strips, the Mods and Rockers presented their identity to the world through the machine they rode, the clothes they wore and the music they listened to.

The scooter appealed to riders wanting personal mobility with cleanliness, convenience and minimal maintenance. It supported a lifestyle of smart clothes, requiring little in the way of ‘dressing up’ to ride it, thanks to the integral leg shields. The small two-stroke engines could easily be kick-started in smart shoes. Even the spare wheel could be fitted simply, like a car wheel, in the event of a puncture.

By contrast, the motorcycles of the time were much more demanding of their owners. They offered a more involving ride (meaning faster and noisier) but required more frequent maintenance. You had to dress up for all weathers, in leather if you could afford it, and wear great big boots for kick-starting a big four-stroke engine. Many of the servicing tasks were inherently dirty jobs and keeping the rear chain oiled often resulted in the surplus being flung over rider and pillion; no spray lubes in those days.

While the fashions favoured by the Mods were bang up to date and often French or Italian, the Rockers’ appearance was firmly stuck in the 1950s ‘rock and roll’ era, as was their music. Though both groups enjoyed unprecedented affluence at a young age, because of the expanding UK economy and plentiful employment, they chose to spend their cash very differently.

Yet just how different was their spending profile, really? Both the Mods and the Rockers spent their wages on personal transport, clothes and nights out or weekends away with their pals, not much different to any young people since. What made the difference was that they themselves believed the particular choices they made set them apart from anybody else outside their group. At no other time in the history of two-wheeled transport have we seen such a powerful sense of identifying with a particular type of machine.

The era passed as the Japanese manufacturers came to dominate the market. Bikes became cleaner and less maintenance-intensive. Models like the Honda 50 blurred the distinction between bikes and scooters. Maybe that’s why today’s classic scene seems so nostalgic about the Mods and Rockers era? It was a time when WHAT you rode really mattered.

Were you a Mod or a Rocker? Tell us your story in the comments!