Rockers: an American perspective

by John P. Covington.

Courtesy of the late

Friday, late afternoon, the weekend traffic is just beginning its jammed and crawling flight from London. It’s nothing like the bumper-to-bumper crush on an LA Freeway or on any of the expressways out of Philadelphia or New York. London streets don’t much resemble those in the U.S. cities.

For one thing, what few expressways there are end way out on the periphery of the city. These streets are narrower and there are fewer cars. Because traffic lights aren’t paced and many intersections have cops, driving is a block-to-block experience. On Friday night the lorries(trucks) are in a hurry to get back to their garages. For the summer weekend, everyone wants out of London.

We creep, sprint, stop, start again toward London’s North Circular Road. In the States, we might call it a beltway, only it’s much more primitive than that. Though at one time it was probably really outside the city’s metropolitan sprawl, now it arches across a mile or two inside. Still, in a land of crazy-quilt streets and roads, the North Circular Road is about the only continuous path from the West of London to the Northwest.

There are two lanes in each direction, sometimes three, divided for the most part by an iron fence or a bit of grass or hedge. Some stretches go for as much as a mile without a stop, but there are frequent traffic lights and intersections.

Lorry traffic is very heavy. Lorries from the industrial North circle about here to get a bead on their London destinations. Drivers on their way in and out of the city like to stop at diners of “kaffs” as they call them to exchange road information and the woes shared by their kind.

We learn that distances as measured in terms of U.S. cities are different here. Shorter, by and large, although metropolitan London’s nine million people occupy a large area. Maybe its because London’s a financial and trade center rather than a manufacturing center. Somehow industry doesn’t’ take up so much real estate, and quite beautiful homes line the side-streets in downtown London.

There is no abrupt transition from city to suburbs. Houses are everywhere. We get to the North Circular Road in about twenty minutes from Piccadilly Circus, the heart of the theater district.

Leaving by the North Circular Road, left-hand side in the British fashion, we drive along until we spot the Ace Cafe on the eastbound lane. We swing in and park, noticing half-dozen bikers out front and several large tractor-trailer rigs. The watch shows 4:30.

Inside sit a handful of leather boys and their “birds”, just like in the movies. The juke box is playing noisily, but not much is happening. The room is quite small and we see a newly added partition and door with a Lorry-Drivers-Club Members-Only sign on it.

There are places for maybe forty people to sit down, and the drill is to get your tea and chips at the counter and take them to your seat. Seats and tables are bolted into place and are made of chrome and plastic and formica and the floor is a kind of institutional imitation marble. The place has a cold feel to it and is moderately dirty.

A few of the leather jackets eye us suspiciously. We shuffle a bit, then go over to the counter for some watery coffee. We ask the counterman where all the motorcyclists are, feeling slightly idiotic. He tries to appraise us. “They don’t come here much anymore”, he says, dropping what has obviously become the management’s line. “We’re from an American Bike magazine”, we say. “Just wanted to ask some of the riders about the kinds of machinery they prefer over here.”

The counterman considers this a minute then calls out, “Hey, Terry.” A bearded fellow who has been watching the exchange stops munching greasy fries (chips). “Coupla ‘Merican chaps got some questions for ya.”

The word “American” has some magic to these riders, but for the minute it means only “not a cop”. Terry gets up and comes over, slowly. We tell him we’re from an American bike magazine and are curious about the London bike scene. We talk at the counter for a while, he very guardedly. We learn that he has a side car rig, and that its down for repair.

We diagnose his problem as one of the transmission alignment and tell him what to do about it. This proves to be our true introduction and suddenly our tan raincoats and neckties don’t matter anymore. The message is that we are motorcyclists and that we are safe to talk to, at least as far as motorcycles are concerned.

We take our tepid coffee over to one of the bolted down tables, get introduced, start talking bikes. Nearly all of these leather boys are younger than their American equivalents, ranging from about seventeen to twenty-two. At that age one can’t conceal enthusiasm beneath caution very long. Soon we are overwhelmed with questions about cycling in America, about what kinds of machine we ride, what sort of modifications owners make to their bikes, what the American “scene” is like. We answer, meanwhile trying to extract similar information from them.

The Ace Cafe, we learn, remains one of the major meeting places, despite the fact that two “Motorcycle” films have been shot there and innumerable press interviews conducted there during the brief era of mods-versus-Rockers publicity. The Ace has the advantage of lying on the North Circular Road and its relatively closeness to London compared with most other places on the circuit.

The Ace offers easy entrance and exit and the rough informality of a truck stop. Outside, the North Circular Road stands ready for any “burn-offs” that arise during the nightly ritual of comparing motorcycles. The riders come mostly from the north of London, although several cruising parties during an evening will come from the south side of the city or from outlying towns The Ace is a popular stopover. Terry names off a half-dozen other places frequented by the riders.

The Busy Bee, another truck stop, about fifteen miles out on the Watford Bypass, looms as the largest. Then there’s The Cellar, sixteen miles due west in Windsor, a town known for Windsor Castle and Eton College. In North London The Dugout, a basement jukebox club, lies at the end of a tortuous alley. And in central London proper there’s The 59 Club, run by two motorcycling clergymen.

A few other places complete this small constellation of motorcycle hangouts, all within thirty miles of each other, and each likely to be visited in a single night’s riding. On Friday and Saturday night, a thousand or more bikes may be plying this circuit.

Terry gets up. “Got to go to work”, he says. “You won’t see much action here until maybe nine o’clock. Some night there are two hundred bikes here at a time. Some nights none at all”. We asked him what his job was. “Diesel mechanic”, he says. “I work nights with plenty of overtime. Make maybe twenty-five quid a week.” He is obviously proud of this sum, which comes to seventy-five U.S. dollars.

Britain’s national average is about fourteen pounds sterling a week, and most of these “Rockers”, working as apprentices at skilled trades or as laborers, earn between fourteen and twenty. Besides his sidecar rig, Terry owns a big twin solo. He says about his pay, “It’s enough to keep me in bikes.”

We walk with him outside, followed by several other riders. A few bikes have come and gone since we arrived, but there are still fewer than a dozen machines. “Come back tonight”, everyone tells us. They have begun to enjoy the attention shown them and right away blow most of their cool. Terry fired up and cuts into the fast, ragged traffic of the North Circular Road. We climb into our sedan and head for the nearest pub.

Our first impression of the motorcycles seen about the streets of London was how terribly old and ratty they were. Pre-War bikes can still be seen in working order, not as collectors’ items but as daily transportation. Many other bikes from the fifties fall into this category. British weather does little to preserve machinery and all the commuters gave up polishing years ago.

This doesn’t hold, however, for the Rockers’ bikes. Perhaps just as old as purely commuter bikes, they are almost always immaculate. With little cash to spend, a Rocker’s repairs may be crude, and parts from different machines will be fitted if they’re cheap and in top running order.

Another thing we noticed about Rocker bikes is that they will only be “stock” if brand new. Customizing at a rather primitive level is the absolute rule.

First to go are the standard handlebars, which are replaces by clip-ons. Racing type tank and seat are next. Then come modifications to the cylinder head, engine and a swept back exhaust system. New paint is often forsaken for polished alloy and the bike personalised with a few minor decorations.

The birth process of a caferacer.

The Rockers strive for a “racer” image and so rarely hang superfluous goodies all over the machine. Neither do they do much about brake or engine modifications. We asked on rider why he hadn’t put on a better set of brakes. “There’s not much can stop you form the ton, is there?” he answered. A full-house engine job on any of the big twins would be prohibitively expensive. though it might shine in the “burn offs”, a bike is also used day-to-day where high reliability is essential.

The aim is therefore to get the best possible performance from essentially stock engines. Since individuality is highly regarded, we saw many specials, such as Tibsas, Norvins, and Tritons

The unannounced but widely understood ritual of initiation into this brotherhood, we learned, is “doin’ the ton.” As one young rider told us, “You have to do it once. Of course you don’t ride around at 100mph all the time, but its good to know you’ve done it, to know you bike can do it or once did it.” And they don’t do the ton on a racecourse on a flat stretch of country road. Likely as not they do it on the North Circular Road, or the Watford By-pass or the M1 (one of Britain’s few limited access expressways).

They don’t do the ton in broad daylight when there’s no traffic and the pavement is dry. Likely as not they do it at night, when challenged to burn-off (or burn out). The air will be damp and the high beam won’t be good for more than 60 mph and there will be trucks and cars of all sizes on the road. And that, mate, is when you do the ton. There has to be a story in it, for it will be told by a rider and his chums many times over. You have to make it good.

That night we made the rounds of the motorcycle kaffs. We returned to the Ace just as a group was leaving for the Busy Bee. The air was dark and chilly. Leather jackets and Barbour suits were zipped up snugly. Two sidecar rigs rode with us and half a dozen solos.

We cut into the heavy traffic immediately, motorcycle engines snarling angrily. A few miles of weaving and the group peeled off to the left and started cross-country on a winding in-town-and-out road. Traffic was light and we learned that a section of the north-south M1 had been opened almost to the North Circular Road.

A group of three riders split off from us, yelling “See you at the Bee.” Their screaming departure up a side road reminds us that traffic enforcement in Britain is a very random affair. Far fewer officers are assigned this chore than in the U.S., which makes driving or riding therefore a kind of lottery. The odds are against your getting caught-so everybody speeds. As one of our group said, “You’d be crazy to go the speed limit. Some lorry would flatten you from behind.”

At night traffic is light and your pace brisk. We circle a round-about and head down a long, very dark straight-away. We can dimly make out lights and the roar of traffic to our left- the M1 southern extension. Up ahead, a mile or two away, we see flashing blue light.

Slowing down, we come upon an accident scene. A twisted motorcycle lies in the street amidst broken glass and large pools of dark liquid. The only light is from the headlight of the police car. Another car stands at an awkward angle near the curb and several figures are dimly visible standing about. Our group roars past, continues another mile, crests a slight rise and descends on the Busy Bee.

For the leather boys, the Busy Bee offers everything. It stands as a super diner, all yellow tile and furniture of metal tubing. Once a large truck stop, it too has been bypassed by the M1 extension. there are acres of parking lot, perfect dramatic entrances and exits and for minor horseplay.

Then there’s the Watford Bypass, a road that by-passes the town of Watford and that has now been by-passed by the M1. There it is-more than two miles of lightly traveled straight-away, perfect for burn outs and for doing the ton. The Busy Bee, now that the lorry drivers no longer stop, has become a latenight refreshment spot for the young people from surrounding communities. the majority are cyclists, but many show up in cars. Among that second group are the Mods.

Now the Mods of Mods-vs-Rockers fame observe a considerable different lifestyle than the Rockers, thought they come from the same sixteen-to-early-twenties age group. Where most Rockers are tradesmen or laborers, most Mods are white-collar workers-clerks in any of the enormous bureaucracies that British society produces. The dress of the Mods is stylish, modish (or “Mod”), colorful, expensive, and carefully maintained.

For transportation, the Mods have chosen motor scooters, mostly Vespas and Lambrettas, which, again are more stylish or stylized than most motorcycles, and to which they add a vast array of lights, reflectors, horns and mirrors. Scootering has a functional value: the machines are cleaner and therefore protect the rider and his prized clothing from road grime as well as engine grime. Mod hangouts or meeting places are more often coffee-houses than diners and cafes.

These clearly distinguishable difference between groups of young people make for clearly defined conflict, especially in a society as class-oriented as modern Britain. Mods versus Rockers means clerk versus laborer, white-collar versus blue-collar, dude versus scrub, scooterist versus cyclist, dandy versus tough. A few rumbles at beach resorts and there’s a beautiful bit of puffery for the international press.

The flaw in such journalism is that the class origins of these young people are really not all that distinct. They all come from lower or lower-middle class families. Their respective incomes are about the same. Besides turning on to girls and music, they (like the papers say) all go to the beach. Each group harbours some overt homosexuals, but neither is characterized by homosexuality. Probably More girls flock to the Mod crowd, because fashion and artiness conventionally have more feminine appeal.

At the Busy Bee we saw just about how the group conflict works out-what the rules of the game are. Everyone accepts that the Busy Bee is primarily a Rocker watering place. So when the Mods show up, they must divest themselves of their most conspicuous symbol. This season the symbol is a kind of poncho or cape that pulls over one’s head and substitutes for a jacket. Rainbow colors and exotic weaves create a flamingo effect.

Mod males leave their capes in the cars when they come into the Busy Bee. Women don’t count in the battle, and the girls from either group come in dressed as they are. For the most part, the Mods and their girls sit apart in a group by themselves, rather stiffly.

In a Rocker stronghold, they don’t push their luck, and the Rockers usually leave them alone. The cyclists by contrast are spirited, playful, energetic and assertive.

No scooters are parked amongst the rows of bikes outside the Busy Bee. While the scooterists is inside, minor mishaps might occur to his ride, like getting knocked over, mysteriously dented, or otherwise abused Conversely, if a group of Rockers (and its always a group) should enter a Mod coffeehouse, they sit by the window within view of their machines. Mods are not unknown to pour a little sugar into a motorcycle gastank, pull out spark plug leads or deflate tires.

Very occasionally there actually is a “punch up”, but its usually between individuals rather groups. And what kills it as news is the fact that British young people are just too civilized to badly hurt one another. Fights are stopped by the others when one party has been bested.

“Fair play” actually means something in the nation that created the concept. If anything impressed us about the Mods and Rockers it was how considerate they were, toward their own and toward their opponents. No murders, no rapes, no frenzied sadistic beatings … just an occasional “row”.

Within the Rocker group itself lies more evidence of this kind of consideration. At the Busy Bee there is a kind of bulletin board where messages are left about injured or ill members of the group. Collections are taken for the family of a rider killed or badly injured in an accident. Parents are notified when one of the group is in some kind of trouble.

Riders lend one another parts and tools and almost always stop to help a stalled rider by the roadside, whether they know him or not. Many riders also belong to volunteer emergency blood service. They carry whole-blood or plasma from hospitals and bloodbanks to various points about London, or even, in relay teams, to places in the distant countryside. “The law won’t touch ya when you’re savin’ somebody’s bloody life”, one rider laughed.

Drinking, in a land where there’s a pub in every neighborhood if not on every corner, is largely avoided by the Rockers. They live too close to the road, too close to the memory of recent accidents.

In the rare instances when a group does stop for a pint or two, they will notice when one of their numbers has had too much. Many a ‘stolen’ machine has been ridden safely home by a rider’s mate while others distracted his tipsy friend.

Beside the nightly round on the cafe circuit, Rockers occasionally organize what they call a weekend “burn up”. This takes the form of a fast cross-country ride to some point in the north of England or to Wales of Scotland. Within sixty miles of London lie the Brighton resort area and the Snetterton and Brands Hatch racecourses. These are too close for an all out burn up, and more appropriate destination is Liverpool or Manchester or even Edinburgh (470 miles).

Trips take two days, possibly with a layover at a friendly club or possibly straight through. We asked the riders in our group how their bikes held up under such gruelling conditions (Until recently there was no speed limit at all on the open road in Britain).

“The bike will treat you right if you’ve take care of her”, said one, “It’s your back that pays”. Must be something about that hunched over, racing style riding position, we thought. In any case, a burn up is a major adventure for the Rocker. Like doing the ton, it gets plenty of re-telling (and possibly embellishment) in the weeks that follow.

We had finished making the rounds of the Rocker cafes and clubs by two-thirty or so in the morning. By then the groups were breaking up, the riders heading for home and all but the truck stops closing for the night. The riders had made us welcome especially after learning that we also were bike people and weren’t out for another big publicity smear.

We left feeling that whatever excitement the Rocker’s life contains, its mostly the excitement of two wheels. He enjoys the companionship of his fellows, but friendships are mostly superficial and changing. Life as a Rocker lasts only a few years, for most will marry and gradually become involved in the responsibilities and interests of middle age.

The oldest Rocker we met was twenty-six, and he had the distinction of owning a Triumph 500 that could outrun the 650’s. His role as the Grand Old Man was as pathetic as it was honorary.

London’s leather boy is trapped in a tightly structured world, in a country with an economy that’s at best static, in a society that promises him little social or economic advance. He hasn’t many outlets for self expression and he feels a lot of anger. It’s little wonder that he turns to two wheels.

“When you’ve got no place to go, mate, you go fast”, one rider told us. Perhaps the prospect of death is not so frightening from such a perspective. Those who are outside the Rocker world don’t understand. They call the Rocker a tough guy … and so might those who do understand.

Just how did the cafes of England’s highways and bi-ways become the centers of a whole motorcycle subculture? Why did these quiet little diners and restaurants go from serving a lite snack to motorists to be the gathering place of Rockers and their girlfriends. Where did the name Caferacer come from? And just what is a Rocker. To answer all this, two seperate things must be explained, the British road system (for those who’ve never been to England) and the rise of youth culture.

First you have to look back to the years following WWI. England had come through the war and things were returning to normal. By now the motorways of England were more trafficed with automobiles and motorcycles. No longer were ” horseless carriages ” or ” motorized bicycles ” thought of as novelties or fads. They had taken their place amongst the populace as essential additions to the workforce and recreation in general.

With this rise in traffic came the creation of a new road system in England. The quaint, old turnpikes and coach roads of yesteryear simply were not able to handle the increase in motorcars and motorcycles on the nation’s roads. They were upgraded and augmented by new roads such as the Cambridge and Southend arterial roads, North Circular Road and South Circular road leading out from the center of metropolitan London.

With the nation’s industries back to normal, the business of road-haulage and transportation grew rapidly on the new motorways. Still no where near the modern highways of today, the new roads allowed for the easy shipment of goods from one part of the country to another. And with this new industry, came the many cafe’s, petrol stations, and roadside stops that a weary trucker or motorist might want to visit and rest for a while. Nearly overnight a whole new industry sprung up around the motorways, and catering soley to its travellers.

The new motorways had men hauling goods out and across England to towns like Manchester, and Birmingham in the North. Now remember, even though these roads were called motorways, they were hardly up to the standard of today’s highways, in England or the United States.

They were still small and tight. Some were nothing more than the old dirtroads or tracks paved over and fitted with signs. Sharp turns, narrow lanes, and the occasional farmer’s herd making a unannounced crossing, all made traffic along these routes slow going at best.

Not only that, but the vehicles themselves were rather primitive compared to today’s modern hauling vehicles. Some small lorries( trucks ) reached speeds no greater than 30mph. So it was common for these haulers to stop every so often along the way. There were usually pullovers every couple of miles along these routes. Often times the pullover were junctions into the smaller villages and towns along the way. At each of these pullovers a cafe would often be found.

For years these cafe’s and resturants were only open during the daylight working hours. They catered to and served the weary travellers of the roads with a warm meal and hot cup of tea.

Some of the cafe owners, especially the ones that lived on or near the premises, would leave the door open an hour or two later in order to catch a few more customers, but they were by no means social centers or gathering places. They were simple rest stops along the new highway system of England.

The second essential factor to this rise of the Caferacer and Rocker was the rise of youth culture, although before WWII, this is a very loose definition. By the early thirties, England had come out of the great depression and young men who were now back at work.

With decent jobs, they found themselves with some extra money. Add to this, the sufficient supply of affordable old motorcycles about, and the result is obvious. Soon scores of young men were taking to the roads. Some to enjoy a nice Sunday afternoon in the country with their sweetheart, others out for a joyride on their new single.

Believe it or not, the Rockers and the Mods weren’t the first to drive their bikes or scooters down to Brighton to show off. During the 20’s and 30’s, “Promenade Percys” , a title given the young men who swarmed English seaside resorts, would ride up and down the promenade on their motorcycles, showing off.

As England was retooling after the war, literally dozens of different companies offered a wide variety of parts and bikes. Racing had again became a popular pastime and with it came the enthusiasts.

Not content with having a standard bike they would often replace stock parts with more elaborate ones they may have seen at Brooklands and other racing events of the time, or they would build a home-made “Special” out of parts from the many bike manufacturing companies that were around.

This all came to an abrupt halt though and at the end of the thirties, these same young men would have to shed their leather jackets for Army uniforms as England once again found itself at war with Germany. During WWII the English government took control over the bike industry for the war effort.

With the end of bike production, so came the slow decline of racing and motor cycle enthusiasts. When the war came to an end, it was still seven or eight years before the English could throw away the ration books and resume life as normal, but when it did things would never be the same …

Several things happened at the early part of the fifties that all combined to bring about the rebirth of the cafe racer scene. Again, young men all over the country returned to work and soon found themselves with a bit of spare cash. The English bike industry was at an all time high producing such bikes as the featherbed framed Norton Dominator, the BSA Gold Star, the Triumph Tiger 110, and the Velocette Venom.

Not only could you see these great bikes at the many races scattered up and down the country, you could also buy them down at the local dealer! And if you couldn’t afford the exact model you wanted, well just throw off those tanks and mudguards and replace and restyled them with all the equipment you had just seen at The Isle of Man TT or Silverstone. With the War ended, young men and motorcycles found themselves together again.

Probably the most important factor in what shaped the Caferacer or Rocker culture was the 50’s explosion of what is normally called Youth Culture and its new ‘anti-heros’. The sounds of Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, and Gene Vincent was heard on the radio. Rock-n-Roll had become society’s new menace. Marlon Brando and other rebels graced the silver screen in their leather jackets.

All of this soon made the motorcycle and its inherent lifestyle the epitome of ‘cool’ and, understandably, sales soared. Soon such items as clipons, glass fiber tanks, rearsets, and swept back exhaust pipes became standard equipment for any rider and, for the suppliers of the equipment, big business.

Even with the explosion of Youth culture, there wasn’t any real places for them to gather or call their own. But when this new breed of bike riders took to the streets and roads, the rediscovery of the Cafe’s was inevitable. Soon certain cafe’s up and down the North and South Circular road would stay open later and later to accommodate the motorcyclists and their girlfriends.

They became the social centers of this new culture. Groups would frequent a local cafe making it theirs. Often times they would race each other from cafe to cafe at speeds of over one hundred miles an hour (hence the term ‘ton up’).

This, the late nights, and the ominous leather jackets look earned them a bad reputation in the British Press, the police, and even, funny enough, the British bike industry and from it all a new youth culture was born:

The Rocker.

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This is a tribute site for members, non-members and former members of the old 59 Club, and for those with an interest and genuine respect for the Founding Fathers and especially for those young riders who made the Club what it was, world famous, in the 1960s.