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The history of motorcycle culture

The motorcycle continues to be a symbol of freedom but it hasn't always been welcomed
The motorcycle continues to be a symbol of freedom but it hasn't always been welcomed
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Tuesday, 12, Aug 2014 01:52

by Hayley McCrystal

For years the motorcycle has brought with it a cultural identity - here is our look at motorcycle culture

Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, 'Wow! What a Ride!' - Hunter S. Thompson

The quote from the renowned American journalist and author pretty much sums up the mind-set of a lot of riders; it's all about embracing the ride. For decades, the motorcycle has been a means of escape from the everyday mundane. The ability to take off on two wheels has allowed the possibility of freedom in an ever-shrinking world. Those lucky, enlightened ones who have realised the freedom that the motorcycle allows have all played a crucial role in the evolution of motorcycle culture that exists today. Far more than simply a mode of transportation, the motorcycle has provided a way of life, a counter-culture and a source of identity for a group of people who have, at times, been marginalised by society.

Since its somewhat abrupt entry into mainstream society, the motorcycle has sparked the imagination of the media the world over. But more often than not, the images portrayed of motorbike riders are overwhelmingly negative and often only represent a select few of our two-wheeled community. In recent years, thanks to growing popularity of motorbikes and the ever-improving status of motorcycle racing as a distinguished sport, we have managed to turn around the misconceptions so often assigned to the motorbike rider.

Bikes only entered the scene significantly after the Second World War. For some, riding a motorcycle was an attempt to get back the rush and adrenaline that the war provided. What would evolve into the one per cent motorcycle clubs first began as a brotherhood, born out of the need of World War Two veterans to feel that sense of belonging and camaraderie that they had in the military. The post-war era saw the popularity of motorcycling skyrocket.

The Hollister Riot of 1947 was somewhat of a turning point in the evolution of motorcycle culture and helped to cement common perception of riders. What was, in reality, a small disturbance at the Fourth of July, Gypsy Tour event in California, was sensationalised by the press and presented the image of lawless bikers terrorising the town. The 1953 cult classic, The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, was loosely based on this disturbance. A movie in which, two biker gangs terrorise a small town and that would go on to set the tone for the public's perception of bikers for decades to come to the point where the terms 'outlaw' and 'biker' were almost synonymous and went hand-in-hand.

Outlaw biker

The 1960s saw the rise of the outlaw image when perhaps the most infamous group, the Hells Angels, first set up in 1948, began attracting significant media attention .

Hells Angels were not the only the outlaw motorcycle club to emerge in this period, but they fast became one of the most notorious. The club was founded in the Fontana/ San Bernadino area of California and its 'Berdoo' chapter still exists today. The 1950s saw more and more cCharters crop up, initially having little connection with each other. They would soon become, however, an integrated network of motorcycle enthusiasts, among other things, who had standard criteria for admission to the club. It came to resemble a military operation with rank and file rather than a club.

The Outlaws Motorcycle Club was founded in Illinois in 1935 but didn't become an official member of the one per center Brotherhood of Clubs until 1963. The rivalry between the Outlaws and Hells Angels was widely known and is said to have led to members of the Outlaws to use the phrase ADIOS, supposedly being an acronym for 'Angels Die In Outlaw States.' We certainly wouldn't want to cross them.

The Angels also made an enemy club of the Pagans Motorcycle Club, founded in 1959 in Maryland by Lou Dobkin. The Pagans quickly established a reputation as a bad-ass motorcycle club and is remembered for fighting with the Hells Angels over territory.

The stereotype of the 'one per center', the outlaw, the tattooed rebel popularised by outlaw motorcycle groups such as the Hells Angels, is of course based on fact but also overshadows the majority of the motorcycling community. The other 99 per cent also hold a place in the development of motorcycle culture which is alive and well today, however it is the remarkable trends in this community that help shape the widely held perceptions of the biker to this sense.

If the 1950s saw the birth of motorcycle culture, the counter-culture explosion of the 1960s is where it came of age.


In a decade rife with unrest and societal evolution, the British mods, many of whom were working class, sought a distraction from the steady rumble of their everyday lives. As always, a key element of a subculture was the image that it portrayed.

For the mods, fashion was a crucial ingredient for the movement. This mod image included scooters, usually Innocenti Lambrettas or Piaggio Vespas, chosen for their Italian, continental style.

Soon after its formation, the formerly peaceful mods evolved into the group largely known as the skinheads. Their violent tendencies led to the Italian scooter being associated with violent mods. The Skinheads eventually grew out of the mod movement after the subculture split into the less aggressive, 'peacock mods' and the hard mods, commonly known as skinheads towards the end of the 60s by 1968.

Rockers /Cafe racers

Rockers, or cafe racers, were perhaps the most significant British influence on motorcycle culture, originating in the 1950s. Based on the up and coming popularity of rock 'n' roll music, the groups association with motorbikes came about because of their desire for fast bikes that could take them to transport cafes up and down the newly built arterial motorways of the UK.

The rockers immersed themselves in the counter-culture that had built up around them. They revelled in the romantic image of the nomad. Their highly publicised feud with the mods shot them into the public eye and helped to create the association of motorcycles and scooters with violence. This, again, was helped by the portrayal of motorcycle users in The Wild One, the movie which had a defining influence on the rocker movement.

A determining characteristic of the rockers was the motorbikes that they rode. Always after the thrill of the ride, they bought the bikes then stripped them down and rebuilt them to look and run like racing bikes. Not only looking to achieve the 'ton' - hitting 100mph - the bikes themselves were also chosen to send a message - to intimidate and portray an unwavering sense of masculinity.

The rockers brought with them their own style designed to enhance this air of masculinity. Leather jackets, embellished with studs, patches and pin badges completed the look, along with greased back hair that was popular with rock 'n' roll artists of the 1950s.

The media coverage of conflicts between the two British sub cultures helped to cement the idea that bikes equal trouble.

The 1970s saw a rise in attention to the violence of motorcycle groups. More and more clubs joined the one per cent ranks. Clubs also started going international. During this decade, the Hells Angels began 'patching over' British clubs it felt worthy of the synonymous Hells Angels title.

A clear indicator of the direction that motorcycle culture took was the creation of the Racketeer Influence and Corrupt Organisations Act or more commonly known as, RICO - first enacted in 1970. The act enforces severe consequences for those who engage in a pattern of unlawful activity as a member of a criminal organisation. Such crimes used as the basis for a RICO claim include: homicide, kidnapping, eyewitness tampering, extortion, robbery, arson, money laundering, counterfeiting, and mail and wire fraud.

A notable RICO case was that of the United States vs. Barger in which, the federal government pursued Sonny Barger, a founding member of the Oakland Chapter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, along with other members and associates of the club. The government attempted to charge Barger and his affiliates with gun and illegal drug offences.

In recent years, attention has turned away from these negative aspects. Today, whilst certain motorcycle organisations are still in existence, the motorcycle is no longer confined to this sphere of violence. With more and more people commuting to work, the motorbike has become less a symbol of cultural identity, and instead has become a practical mode of transport. That is not to say that motorbike culture has disappeared altogether, just that it has dispersed somewhat. The rise of competitions such as the MotoGP and World Superbike has given motorbike riding a level of legitimacy that they didn't have before.

The MotorbikeTimes can happily say that the negative stigma attached to motorcycle riding is no more - or has at the very least - ebbed considerably. Despite this we can't help but think that without the riders of the past, we wouldn't have the appreciation that we do for the bikes we ride into the future.

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