TALES FROM THE YEARS SPENT POLISHING
Chapter 16: The Archetype crumbles
For weeks I was preoccupied with the notion that somehow I was old fashioned. Fads and fashions come and go but all through my teenage years the black leather image had remained strong, now it was being diluted, now it was in flux.
Those were the days of 'a ride for a ride'. When the Cellar closed for the night, the crowd would dissipate. Unattached girls would just climb up behind any rider or bike they fancied and roar off into the night with their new chauffer. Those of us with big prestigious bikes did well, always getting a girl to fly with us to the next meeting place, usually an all night transport cafe. Finally we would race off to Windsor Great Park with our new passengers. Although these were the days of the liberated 60's we were quite moral and one night stands usually just ended with petting.
A few months passed, the weather was getting colder, Autumn was in the air and the fair weather riders had taken to travelling in their friend's cars.
I had arranged to meet Bill at the Cellar and arrived early, in the daylight. No bikes were there except a strange looking little thing. It was red with a petrol tank that looked as though it had been put on back to front and square mirrors that looked like wasp's antenna! I climbed off my Hurricane, parked my helmet on the dual seat and went over to examine this new phenomenon. A small winged insignia surmounted the word Honda.
The owner strolled over holding a fag between caged fingers to protect it from the breeze off the river. I recognised him as one of the youths that had been playing around with the girl behind the Cellar. He took a drag and swallowed the smoke. "Goes alright", he said "But I'm going to get a Bonnie when I've passed my test".
We talked and he let me have a go on the little Honda up the river bank. The electric starter amused me but I couldn't see why anyone could want to exchange such a gimmick for the manly swing of a kick start. I gave the throttle a buzz and trickled along the footpath. I wasn't impressed, the revs seemed to be too high if you wanted to get any sort of power. I was pleased that none of my friends were here to see me on this toy. I thanked him but didn't offer him a go on my steed in case it scared him to death!
The boy's name was Robbie, he spoke with a Scottish accent and was working with a firm of scaffolding erectors. On his jacket he had a gang insignia and a name I hadn't seen before 'Angels'.
There were a growing number of scooters on the scene that autumn, Vespas and Lambrettas mainly. They still parked round the side of the cafe leaving the front for the big machines. We largely ignored the scooter kids as they did us. Their 'uniform' consisted of an ex-army parka and a pork pie hat. Their girls seemed, in our opinion, to make themselves as plain and unattractive as possible. They were a tight knit group who sneered and laughed at our expense. This irritated some lads and tempers flared.
No one quite knows how it happened, it was more of a fashion thing at first. The groups seemed to polarize into Mods and Rockers. Rocker was presumably a term of derision but the media focussed on it and tarred us all with the same brush.
Our gang had broken up now, Alan had got married and was changing the sprocket on his SS Norton to take a Steib sidecar. Various steady girlfriends had taken their toll and parents had persuaded a couple of members to get cars. Bill and I usually did our riding together now, riding with various gangs but not actually belonging to them. We tended to avoid the more radical gangs.
Matty was an affable guy we met and rode with from time to time. He rode an Ariel Red Hunter which he had tuned to keep up with the more glamorous marques like Triumph, Norton, and BSA. In the second millennium with computerised engines and sealed unit engine components it amazes me how mechanically minded we were. Matty would think nothing of changing a blown head gasket at the roadside and a tube of red Hermatite was in all our tool kits.
Matty rode with a studious, quiet lad who was totally dedicated to Velocettes. They were an odd combination, one utterly sensible with a Kangol helmet and large rubberized motorcycle mackintosh, the other, Matty, with a shock of long black hair that tumbled over his shoulders whenever he removed his helmet! There was a third boy who sometimes rode with them. George was a Christian 'in inverted commas!' George rode an old Vincent Comet 500cc. He had a big crucifix painted on the back of his leather jacket and was a founder member of the London '59 club'.
One day we were all sitting outside the Busy Bee when Matty arrived grinning all over his face. He had recently traded in his Ariel in part exchange for a BSA DBD34 500cc Gold Star with the big one and a half inch GP carburettor and he had brought it to show us for the first time. After the usual admiring examination of his bike we gave him a chance to enthuse! "What's it go like then Matty?" someone asked. Matty's broad pink face frowned and he said "Well, some Mods tried to overtake me on the bypass…" then he paused. "What happened then", we chorused. "Oh they got sucked into my carb!" he replied his face cracking into a broad grin.
The next time I met George he'd had all his front teeth smashed out with an iron bar by a gang of Mods who waited outside the Christian 59 club!
In the Spring things had deteriorated even further. The tabloid press was in part to blame reporting every Mod/Rocker clash in lurid detail no matter how small. Hardly a day passed without a news report of gang warfare and with such glamorous media coverage what was a London based problem spread nationally with copycat clashes up and down the country. The participants were highly mobile and word would go round about a rumble that would bring thugs from miles around to share in a moment of glory.
Sometimes trouble would start spontaneously with an insult resulting in a one to one fight then the Mods would crowd in heavily on the side of their man. The bikers were not so highly organized but were not going to stand round while one of their own got badly beaten. These skirmishes usually broke up as quickly as they had started with the weaker side retreating mouthing threats and gesticulating.
Bill and I only got involved once. A group of Mods kicked over a Thruxton Velocette before scrabbling onto their scooters and buzzing away. It was like a row of dominoes! The Velo fell onto a Bonnie which fell onto a Beeza and so on until all the gleaming chrome including my Ajay were all inextricably tangled on the floor! Having attacked our pride and joy, those Mods had at a stroke made thirty enemies!
After disentangling the machines and attempting to polish off scratches with our leather cuffs, a roar of engines rent the air as we peeled off into the traffic bent on revenge.
Although the pace was very fast with lots of jockeying for front place, Bill and I could not reach the leaders who forced their way through traffic without regard for safety. It was all 90's and laying on the tank trying to reach a ton, yet the mad ones fuelled by vengeance were widening the gap at 100 to 110 mph.
Incredibly we caught up the group of Mods who, convinced that they had a safe head start, had started pottering along at about forty. They were systematically forced off the road by the lead bikes and by the time we arrived on the scene the carnage was terrible! Scooters had collided and gone off the road. Expensive looking skid marks of metal and paint scarred the road terminating in screaming, angry, wasp like engines and pools of oil or blood! I don't know who was hurt or how badly, we just left the scene. Zig zagging from side to side in sheer exhilaration we laughed loudly, justice had been done.
- Tony Sheppard