Under discussion here is a different sort of 'cafe society' than you may be imagining, since it is about the English 60s motorcycling cultural phenomenon known as 'cafe racing'. Join me as we take a look at 'rockers', 'ton-up-boys' and the 59 Club.
Café Racing: Rockers, Ton-up Boys and the 59 Club
Not long ago I was doing some research on the UK’s Rockers and Mods of the early 70s and in the course of investigating I came across a site selling café racer (properly pronounced ‘caff racer’ by intimates) T-shirts printed with various logos and designs. One of them was a black T-shirt that said simply (in white lettering) “More speed, Vicar!”
That was intriguing for several reasons, not least among them being my status as a nontheist, but mostly due to my intense curiosity over what possible relationship a church could have with leather jacketed bikers (excluding the not-uncommon ‘Christian biker club’ fundamentalist types who usually belong to a conventional American evangelical or ‘born-again Christian’ Protestant denomination), since the term Vicar denotes a cleric in the English Anglican Church (Vicar being a uniquely UK/English term), alternately known in its various forms as the Episcopal Church or the Church of England.
I quickly discovered that this particular phrase (“More speed, Vicar!”) was linked to one of the largest motorcycle clubs in the world, known as the ’59 Club’. Although I tend to be quite well-read and culturally aware considerably beyond the usual level of familiarity most have with recent social history, I had never before heard of the 59 Club. It’s always a humbling thing for me to stumble across an aspect of our culture I lack any knowledge of whatsoever, but at the same time it is also invariably a rewarding learning experience. That said, whatever the association “More speed, Vicar” had with religion I could not even vaguely begin to imagine!
The 59 Club, as it turns out, is in fact the largest motorcycle club in the world (exactly as the initial references I found on it had stated), although it began not as a motorcycle group at all, but as a Church of England youth fellowship club in April of 1959. In order to understand how the 59 Club ties in to modern (1945 onwards) motorcycling history, one needs first to understand a bit about what back in the day was known as the rocker youth subculture of the post-war years.
Motorcycles and motorcycling in England had, prior to the Second World War, been the preserve of wealthy young men who enjoyed the benefits of family fortunes that permitted them to acquire expensive ‘toys’, such as high performance automobiles and motorcycles, since at that time the cost of such vehicles was rather steep and many machines were literally hand-built in factories that relied exclusively on skilled labor and high-quality craftsmanship. A good, although atypical, case in point was the Brough (pronounced with the same sound as ‘cough’) Superior SS100 motorcycle favored by T.E. Lawrence (‘Lawrence of Arabia’), considered back in the 1930s as the apex of excellence in motorized two-wheeled vehicular design, engineering and performance. Universally admired by motorcyclists the world over in the 30s, the Brough machines were all hand-made and were considerably expensive to acquire (assuming one could acquire one, since there was always a back-logged waiting list), assuring that only the very well-off were able to buy them. Such was the state of motorcycling until the war ended. The changes that war brought about in societies all over the world had a collateral effect on all forms of personal transportation, once the Axis powers had been defeated and the victors enjoyed unparalleled new opportunities for expanded economic growth.
In the UK, the new post-war personal wealth of most social classes grew considerably, resulting in the lower working classes being able for the first time to afford such material luxuries (as cars and motorcycles) that the relatively high cost of luxury goods had previously denied them. Too, with the expansion of new technologies, the growth of consumer markets and the availability of new forms of consumer credit, motorcycles became commonly available to many working class young men. Other influences were the importation of post-war American pop culture (something those in England had had a tantalizing taste of in their fraternisations with the Yanks stationed in the UK during the war) and American noir cinema popularizing rebellious youths. The motorcycle accordingly became for many of the young working class what the bicycle had previously been for them: reasonably inexpensive transportation that was also fun.
Additionally, with the war finally concluded, Britain was finally able to develop more modern highways and high-speed roadways around the larger cities. With more and more young Britons finding work in factories and the expanded commercial goods industries, a motorcycle made good sense in every way, since they were inexpensive, well made, fast and also great fun to drive. With regard to the last quality, it wasn’t long before England’s youth seized upon these fast and economical machines as a symbol of their rebellious, youthful lifestyle.
Prior to the 60s (when the ‘rockers’ really became established as a social subculture within England), disaffected youths had of course existed; their immediate spiritual predecessors were the English 'Teddy Boys'. In the immediate post-war years and the early 1950s decade that followed, many of the young, lower class soldiers that had fought in the war returned to society profoundly changed by their war experiences. Having witnessed unspeakable horror and tragedy in the fighting, many were restless and unaccustomed to the relatively peaceful and uneventful routines that characterized lower-class wage earning. Many marginalized and socially disprivileged youths (and returned soldiers) thus found an exciting sense of purpose, identity and camaraderie on motorcycles and the impact on English society was at once profound and substantial as English media focused on them as disruptive, undesirable social elements. It was in the early 60s that these youths came to be identified by the media as ‘ton-up boys’ and ‘rockers’ (the latter likely an allusion to their attraction to the new rock music that the 50s had introduced). Prior to 1960 such socially outcast rebellious youth had been occasionally referred to as ‘ton-up boys’, the term ton-up being English slang for driving in excess of 100 mph, but with the arrival of the 60s and the ‘new rock’ age built upon the youth music of the 50s, the term rockers became the single most common term used to describe them in the UK.
Meanwhile, the post-war images of American juvenile delinquents that came through in motion pictures like Brando’s memorable movie The Wild One registered with youths in the UK, complete with the clothing styles associated with motorcycle gangs (leather jackets, boots, Levis, T-shirts, etc.). Quite quickly the standard rocker uniform came to be almost exactly what Brando had stylised in his movie: the leather biker jacket, jeans, boots and T-shirts, but even as this motorcycle gang style took form, the introduction of new kinds of motor powered two-wheeled vehicles in the form of the new Japanese bikes and the Italian motorscooter caused schismatic divisions among those youths who favored two-wheeled transportation.
In England this resulted in the establishment of two distinctly different motorcycling subcultures: that of the leather jacketed, motorcycle-riding rockers and the fashion conscious motorscooter riding mods (who affected the latest styles coming from the Carnaby Street subculture that identified itself with psychedelia and musical groups like the Beatles). Interestingly, the rockers were not generally in favor of drugs or mind-altering pharmacological substances, simply favoring alcohol as the exclusive agent of their desire for inhibitory release and scorning those who took drugs. The mods, on the other hand, readily identified with and sought out drug substance experiences. Clearly, there were distinctive differences between the two groups that could not be resolved easily and any gathering of rockers and mods was sure to result in hostility and altercations.
But with this back story laid out, I feel it is much easier to understand more readily what the ’59 Club’ was all about. Although it may seem surprising to some to discover that a motorcycle club began under the auspices of the Church of England, in April of 1959 the 59 Club was strictly a social fellowship program for disprivileged youths begun by the Eton Mission, an Anglican faith premises located in Hackney Wick (in London’s East End). Initiated by Eton Mission’s Curate John Oates, the 59 Club shortly became closely associated with youthful motorcyclists in an effort to provide a positive venue for rockers and a program within which to foster positive rather than anti-social values. By 1962 the 59 Club had become a favored social nexus for disprivileged youths and due to the popularity of motorcycle-riding, the original social focus expanded to actively embrace the cycle riding rockers. Taking over the leadership from Curate Oates, two priests, father Bill Shergold and father Graham Hullet assumed responsibility for organizing and guiding the group and although it eventually became identified almost exclusively with the motorcycle riding rockers, the 59 Club originally offered a broad variety of other social activities that included football and even skin-diving. As the involvement of motorcycle enthusiasts grew, annual events such as the famed Nurburgring ‘Elephant rally’ (a rally held each year in the dead of German winter) and rides to the annual TT races at Isle of Man.
Of interest here is the fact that Father Shergold used a motorcycle for making the rounds of his parish in Hackney Wick. Shergold enjoyed motorcycles in much the same manner as had T.E. Lawrence and was quite an enthusiast himself. So much so, that he soon bought a newer and more powerful twin-cylinder bike to replace his smaller one. Not long after that he had read that a nearby (and newly opened) Anglican cathedral in Guildford had recently conducted a special service for motorcyclists, which gave him an idea: why not have a service for youthful motorcyclists at Hackney Wick? With backing from other mainstream motorcycle organisations (such as the Triumph Owners Club), his idea gained impetus and by May of 1962 the 59 Club (so named originally because it was felt beneficial to stress the fact that this was not a conventional stuffy ‘church fellowship) had become almost exclusively linked to the motorcycle section of Father Oates’ original group.
Although it was originally thought to invite members of the regular ‘respectable’ (read: ‘mainstream’) motorcycle clubs to participate in the service, someone suggested that the 59 Club reach out and embrace the somewhat less respectable ‘hooligans’ on bikes that regularly caused social mayhem on the London streets. The logical place to connect with these ton-up boys was at the Ace Café, one of the more well-known hangouts. Father Shergold was understandably nervous at first about making an approach, given the fact that he was (as he described it) a “…middle-aged clergyman invading the stronghold of one of the toughest groups of youngsters in the country”, but invade he did and the service attracted a number of the ton-up boys (with unexpected success).
Thanks to the novelty of the event and interest by the media, word spread quickly about the Anglican vicar who was drawing youthful motorcyclists to his church service. As Father Shergold became closer to many of the youths, he began to realize that as social outcasts, these young men had few opportunities for recreation. Dance halls, bowling alleys and normal youth social venues didn’t want them around, owing to their disruptive qualities and reckless tastes. Gradually he formed the opinion that what they needed was a positive outlet for their energetic passions that would benefit both them and regular society. It was a brilliant idea and very soon, thanks to Shergold’s vision (and support from the media), the motorcycle section of the 59 Club became a reality. Over the following years it grew to become a focal point for a great number of London’s rockers, who found in it a positive social outlet, companionship, and more importantly a sense of identity and social self-worth that had been previously denied to them. The 59 Club, although begun as an effort by Father Shergold’s church to instill positive moral (‘Christian’) and social values in youths who greatly needed purpose and direction, eventually grew into an entirely secular social organization, with the positive nature of its formative intent remaining strongly embedded at its core.
By the time the decade of the 70s had begun, however, things had changed considerably and the relatively innocent nature of 60s English ‘rocker’ motorcycling ultimately yielded to the imported and far more anarchic American ‘outlaw biker’ influences. Due to the involvement of genuine criminals, drug traffickers and older, more truly lawless types of individuals found in the American style ‘biker gangs’ (the ‘Hells Angels’ being the most obvious example) that had caught the imagination of many, the old English 59 Club eventually lost its status as a central fixture of the rockers culture. For their part, English ‘outlaw biker’ gangs (one of the earliest was the London ‘Road Rats’) inspired by the American example, continued to grow as the drug culture spread throughout English society. Their overtly criminal aspects quickly overwhelmed the ‘socially positive’ image that the 59 Club had striven to establish, although the 59 Club remained a venue for more socially positive motorcyclists.
It may be fairly stated that although the 59 Club was begun under the auspices of the English Anglican Church, it had almost no actual association with organized or conventional religious dogma whatsoever, after that first ‘service’ held in the Eton Mission. It should be noted also, contrary to the ‘in your face’ affect of Pentecostal Evangelical Christian denominations (that actively try to convert individuals to their fundamentalist religious faith), the Church of England has always been characterized by its intellectually austere focus on rational inquiry and secular philosophy. Thus, despite the fact that the 59 Club had been initiated ostensibly as a Christian ‘fellowship’ for bikers, the theological underpinnings were very much in the distant background and there was no intent to convert ‘heathen bikers’ into socially productive Christian individuals through the 59 Club. Rather the intent was more to enable British society to amicably absorb what was previously a disaffected and disruptive subculture back into the mainstream of British life. It that goal, the 59 Club succeeded admirably until the sinister effects of American style biker drug culture intruded to forever change things.
Further, despite the passing of the rockers era, the 50 Club presently persists as an active, registered charity in the UK, staffed by unpaid volunteers and existing to aid and assist motorcycle owners and riders the world over. Reputed to have over 30,000 members world-wide (with about 800 who renew their memberships annually), the 59 Club is today a bastion of fond nostalgia for the wonderful days when British motorcycle technology led the world of powered two-wheeled cycling, and welcomes any and all who love motorcycles of any origin or nationality. It deserves to be stated here that 59 Club members do not consider themselves “1 percenter” outlaws in the American definition (a reference to an alleged statement made by an American Motorcycle Association spokesman describing the infamous July 4th 1949 Hollister Motorcycle Rally rioters as ‘not representing the 99% of upstanding, responsible American cyclists’) and regard themselves strictly as mainstream motorcycle enthusiasts. Members of the club mainly own vintage machines and enjoy perpetuating and keeping alive the history of the ‘golden age’ of English café racer culture of the 60s. In that, it is a distinctly English phenomenon.
All of this historical background quite naturally brings up the matter of café racing: what it is and how that definition came into being, of course.
First, consider what has become the accepted definition of what we refer to as a café racer. The typical café racer motorcycle is a machine stripped down of all its unnecessary parts and components, conform largely to what passed for a typical racing motorcycle of the 1960s. In actual competition, a 60s era racing motorcycle conformed (more or less) to a specific pattern. That is, it was essentially paired down to the essentials of gas tank, frame, engine and wheels. All else was removed in the interest of reducing unneeded weight and improving handling. Even the race-style seat was not about comfort as much as strict utility (cushioning was thin and sparse, ideal for short races but completely lacking in longer term riding comfort). Regular handle bars were removed and ‘clip-on’ bars were added in their place. Brake and gear shifting actuators were placed further back on each side (so-called ‘rear-sets’), thus reducing the rider’s posture to a crouch so as to minimize wind resistance, and a small, lightweight quarter race fairing was often added to further enhance aerodynamics.
Given the idealized, appealing and exciting image of 60s era motorcycle racing teams (sponsored in most cases by motorcycle makers to promote their advancements and to showcase their mechanical engineering expertise), the race bike configuration caught on among young street riders (in necessarily modified form), who thought that making their bikes into street legal one-off racers was the essential ‘cool’ of the day to be emulated. So popular was the street bike appearance conferred by this treatment that hardly anyone kept a new machine in its OEM ‘stock’ condition, with the result that just about every machine of that period reflected the characteristic street racer look.
As for the origin of the café racer appellation, back in the late 50s and early 60s UK rockers, who all favored this type of converted street racer bike, tended to congregate at specific local venues (most in or around London). Almost all of the gathering spots were what were termed transport cafes (a uniquely English term for what Americans call truck stops, offering rest, fuel and dining support for commercial transport drivers). The rockers would hang out at certain transport cafes (London favorites were the ‘Ace Café’, ‘Chelsea Bridge Tea Stall’, the ‘Ace of Spades’, the ‘Busy Bee’, and ‘Johnson’s’). Often these venues were designated as starting or ending points for spontaneous rocker street races and as a result, the bikes themselves as well as their riders came to be known as café racers. One of the most famous hangouts was, of course, the Ace Café, which was closed in the 70s only to be reborn again in the 90s, as nostalgia for the old café racer days of the rockers gained renewed popularity among older motorcycle enthusiasts. The Ace Café in London is now a (rebuilt and reopened) club open to anyone who wishes to submit annual membership fees and it serves as a symbolic epicenter of modern UK ‘café racer enthusiasms.
The characteristic gear worn by the original rockers (and still emulated today as ‘the look’) originally migrated to the UK from the United States’ 50s era (that look having been stereotyped by so many Hollywood grade-B ‘biker flicks’, featuring outlaw motorcycle gangs) and the style likely gained popularity as much from internationally distributed ‘rebellious youth’ films (such as Brando’s iconic The Wild One) as from the fact that leather is (or was, at least) the near perfect practical protection against the effects of roadway scrapes, spills, ‘road rash’ and abrasions. Although today there are synthetic materials (notably Kevlar fabrics) assisted by insertable ‘armor’ sections (for the back, shoulders, knees, hips, tail and elbows) that protect a rider somewhat better than does leather, the classic rebellious ‘look’ of the black motorcycle jacket has an attractive appeal all of its own that will forever be with us as a symbol of youthful hipness, ultra-cool, and that dangerous look that seems to be so attractive to young women. Today, although there are a great number of options in terms of styles, colors and types of cycle jackets to choose from, the basic ‘black leather jacket’ is still the most popular with most motorcycle riders, who also tend to prefer dark (i.e. ‘cool’) colored helmets and accessory gear.
Over the years, as times, taste and attitudes have predictably changed, there is a strong nostalgia for things that are older, not least including a fondness for the café racer and rocker culture of the UK 60s era. This has prompted a modern revival of the café racer style all over the globe, and today it finds renewed expression in a revival of manufacturer produced new ‘old’ bikes. Classics like the BSA, Triumph and even the classic Norton machines have been brought back in newly modified or updated form, incorporating newer technology, but that still captures the spirit and look of those heady earlier times. A current wave of cafe racer popularity exists among many leading edge motorcycle fans who seek out older 60s and 70s motorcycles to restore or rebuild them in the café racer manner. After several decades of motorcycle industry concentration on producing either cruisers (in the traditional Harley-Davidson style) or superbikes (barely street legal versions of powerful Japanese racing machines often known as ‘crotch rockets’) for consumer purchase, the new wave appears to favor the old café racer and so-called street fighter machines (which are essentially high powered sportbikes with their fairings removed).
In a sense, it had to happen, since nostalgia for the past is a predictable aspect of human technological and social progress, and there’s always money to be made by manufacturers wishing to help create and then cash-in on new fads that reflect a past that may (ironically enough) be entirely ‘new’ to younger individuals.
That desire to recapture the past is today undoubtedly fueled to a great extent, by aging motorcyclists who are perhaps unconsciously trying to regain their lost youth through such associations with the wild adventures of their late adolescent and early adult lives. Of course, to those who were not yet born when all this went on originally (in the 50s, 60s and 70s), café racing subculture is an entirely new and fascinating object of interest. Regardless of the motivations one may be able to isolate and identify here, that heady essence of youthful anti-social rebelliousness that comprised the spiritual core of the rocker subculture and its followers is infectious, and corporations readily recognize in it yet another profitable means of parting individuals from their money in today’s hard-edge materialistic consumer culture by catering to these nostalgic associations!
So popular at present is this nostalgic ‘retro-culture’ that café racing represents that a whole new growth industry has developed to accommodate interest in the motorcycle community. Retro gear items like the original Davida ‘pudding basin’ and three-quarters helmets are very hot, as are Halcyon reproductions of the original RAF MkVIII pilot goggles so much favored by rockers in the 60s. Traditional ‘rocker style’ leather jackets and other items of apparel (such as 60s era café racer boots) continue to proliferate on the accessory market. And of course there are the new ‘retro café style’ motorcycles being sold and the street fighter stripped-down superbikes.
In the United States, motorcycle enthusiasts tend to divide themselves into two traditional camps: the ‘made in America’ Harley-Davidson crowd and the Japanese superbike fans. Constituting a much smaller (but growing) group are the retro café racer enthusiasts and my prediction is that this third group will continue to grow in numbers in the future as the novelty of that early 50s and 60s form of English motorcycling gains further adherents.
Regardless of which style one is attracted to, there is no arguing that despite the radically escalated hazards and dangers present-day vehicular traffic poses to riders of all two-wheeled machines, motorcycles of all types and styles will continue to generate interest by those who appreciate that keen sense of spirited adventure that awaits them on a cycle.
Be safe. Drive smart!