Before the World War II motorcycling had a positive image in British society, being associated with wealth and glamor. But starting from the ‘50s, the middle classes were able to buy cars, and the motorcycles became transport for the poor.
The British rocker subculture was centered on motorcycling and rock ‘n’ roll music. It appeared during the 1950s as a result of the American pop culture influence, the construction of arterial roads around British cities, a rise in prosperity for the working class youth, the development of transport cafes and a peak in British motorcycle engineering
Rockers’, also known as leather boys, ton-up boys or café racers, reflected their hobby (or should we say ‘passion’?) in their appearance. Their style was influenced by Marlon Brando’s character in the famous movie ‘The Wild One.’ Black leather jackets and motorcycle boots (or brothel creeper shoes) were a go-to look. Some of their favorite musicians were Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and others.
Rockers bought standard factory-made motorcycles and tuned them up to appear like racing bikes, which were used as an object of intimidation and masculinity. The most appreciated vehicle of these days was the Triton, a custom motorcycle made of a Norton Featherbed frame and a Triumph Bonneville engine.
Bikers often used transport cafés as starting and finishing points for their road races. They turned moto-racing into a lifestyle, which was hazardous and often brought them close to death. This element of risk was illustrated by the skull and crossbones symbol, which they proudly put on their vehicles and clothing.
As every outlaw should, rockers were loud, violent and covered in mud most of the time. They were not allowed into local pubs and dance halls. The mass media used to call them ‘folk devils,’ creating a moral panic through highly exaggerated portrayals.
And lastly, rockers absolutely hated mods. They enjoyed different kinds of clothes and music and had a lot of free time on their hands, which was enough for constant fights and mutual hatred.
The mod subculture was centered on fashion, music, scooters, and amphetamines (yup). Mods were initially called so because they listened to modern jazz in the late 1950s. Although, later they switched on to ska, R&B, beat music and soul. They also enjoyed British bands such as The Who, The Yardbirds, Small Faces, etc. Lookwise, the Mods looked up to Italian style idols. They wore drainpipe or ankle-skimming trousers, three button jackets, pocket handkerchiefs, etc. They also wore Fred Perry or Ben Sherman, teaming them up with Union Jack jackets.
Many mods drove motor scooters, usually Vespas or Lambrettas. They treated scooters as a fashion accessory. It was particularly cool to customize your scooter by painting it in ‘two-tone and candyflake’ and to over accessorize it with luggage racks, crash bars, additional mirrors and fog lights. Some mods added up to 30 mirrors to their scooters!
A big part of the subculture was recreational amphetamine use, in order to fuel all-night dances at clubs like Manchester's Twisted Wheel.
The mods hated rocker's raw conception of masculinity, plainness, and clumsiness.
In early-’60s Britain, the two subcultures were often engaged in brawls, but the most famous one happened during on the south coast of England on the Bank holiday of 1964. Round one happened at Clacton. It ended with several fights and no serious injuries, but the relationship between the Mods and Rockers got very heated. Round two took place at Brighton, Margate, and Bournemouth on the next weekend (18 and 19 May 1964). Brighton fights lasted for two days and moved along the coast to Hastings and back. Hundreds of mods and rockers fought like their life depended on it. Mods used flick knives and batons, rockers used chains from their motorcycles and knives as weapons. All sun loungers on the beach were pulled apart, so the parts of them could be used as weapons. In the end, a small number of rockers were isolated on Brighton beach where they were overwhelmed and assaulted by mods.As a result of the media coverage of this brawl, two British Members of Parliament traveled to the seaside areas to survey the damage, and MP Harold Gurden called for a resolution for intensified measures to control youth hooliganism. Eventually, calm was restored, and a judge levied heavy fines, describing those 60 unlucky kids who got arrested that day as ‘sawdust Caesars.’
By 1965, conflicts between mods and rockers began to subside, and mods increasingly gravitated towards pop art and psychedelia. London became synonymous with fashion, music, and pop culture in these years, a period often referred to as "Swinging London."
If you want to learn more about the war between mods and rockers, we recommend watching an informative one hour BBC program ‘Mods, Rockers and Bank Holiday Mayhem,’ a 1979 British movie ‘Quadrophenia,’ and reading the book ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers’ by Stanley Cohen.