November 2013 was a milestone in India’s motorcycling history. It marked the introduction of one of the most enduring motorcycle cultures to our shores with Royal Enfield launching the Continental GT café racer and Triumph coming in with the iconic Bonneville and the Thruxton café racer. Just a year prior to that, in 2012, Vespa had entered India with its two-wheeled heritage of a different kind. We take a look at the Rockers sub-culture that led to the creation of café racers and the Mods who made scooter riding fashionable back in the ’60s.
Back in the 1950s and ’60s if you were a working-class youth growing up in Britain and in love with motorcycles, you’d find yourself donning blue jeans, a pair of strong boots and a black leather jacket just after dinner at eight. You would then head to the garage, strap on your pudding basin helmet and goggles before firing up your souped up British motorcycle and then head out to meet your chums. And that pretty much sums up the average evening in the life of one of motorcycling's everlasting icons — the Rocker. The Rocker look was made immortal by Hollywood’s Marlon Brando in the epic 1953 film, ‘The Wild One’.
With their love of fast motorbikes, the principal aim of a Rocker was to touch 100 miles per hour. Those who did, came to be called the ‘Ton Up Boys’, their name inspired by the British slang ‘ton’ denoting the 100 mph speed. For the rest, racing motorbikes from one transport café to another was what gave them the ‘buzz’. Typically, they would head out
to a transport café, meet other Rockers, listen to the latest rock ‘n’ roll on the jukebox and then race to the next café. Sometimes, they would play a vinyl record and then try to do a specified circuit back to the café before the record stopped playing — jukebox racing.
The fondness for such jukebox racing and café racing led to a majority of them modifying (souping up) their motorcycles to make them quicker. Modifications involved replacing regular handlebars with low-set clip-ons, putting a single seat with the petrol tank being stretched out and narrowed down. These modified motorcycles came to be known as ‘café racers’, courtesy the use they were put to.
With their aura of spirited romanticism, the Rockers essentially took the sport of motorcycle racing and turned it into a street-based lifestyle statement that has endured over decades.
Alongside the Rockers, another very different two-wheeler culture was rapidly taking shape in the 1960s. Inspired by the emerging consumerism in an increasingly prosperous Britain, the Mods culture was based on style and fashion. They too listened to a lot of music on jukeboxes, but their chosen venues were coffee bars and all-night clubs instead of transport cafés. The Mods preferred R&B, modern jazz, ska and soul music. They were the ones who made the sixties so swinging.
Influenced by the style they saw in Italian and French films, the Mods were very conscious of their appearance. They wore clean-cut tailored suits with narrow lapels, button-down shirts, narrow ties and loafers or pointed-toed boots. They wanted to be seen as sophisticated two-wheeler riding urban folk in contrast to the greasy Rockers. Women riders sported mini-skirts and short hairstyles.
Where the Rockers gravitated towards fast motorcycles, the Mods chose to lounge around on Italian scooters like Vespa and Lambretta, often adding cosmetic embellishments that would help them stand out visually in a crowd. One of the most popular additions to a Mod’s scooter would be a large number of headlamps, giving the diminutive scooter a curious many-eyed bug-like look. Crash bars, two-tone custom paint jobs too were very popular. The fact that Italian scooters had clean-cut lines, curving shapes and gleaming chrome only added to their appeal with image-conscious Mod. Not to mention, in the 1960s they were cheaper to buy and run than cars.
Scooters also provided more protection for the Mods’ fashionable clothes. Where Rockers turned bike racing into a road-going phenomenon, the Mods took the mundane and practical scooter and turned commuting into a fashion statement.
Unfortunately, the Mods did not last beyond the mid-1960s. Good news, though, is that with a growing interest in classic forms of two-wheeler riding means the Mods are growing. In India too, the better looking ‘aspirational’ scooters are becoming available. Their growing popularity amongst urban youth means that nearly four-and-a-half decades after the Mods faded away in Great Britain the scooter has once again become the choice of young wheels for the image-conscious and increasingly consumerist Indian society. So are we seeing a late rise of the Mods here? Something to think about.