Mods and Rockers: the 1960s moral panic that still hurts UK motorcycle racing


Sixty years ago this summer, vicious battles between bikers and scooter riders darkened the country’s view of motorcycling, which still hurts UK racing, all the way from club level to MotoGP

Rocker motorcycle gang on the way to Hastings

A gang of Rockers on the road to Hastings in July 1964

Terence Spencer/Popperfoto via Getty

The Punk Rock and Acid House movements may have scared the good people of Britain in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, but those moral panics were nothing compared to the hysteria that greeted the war between Mods and Rockers in 1964.

Throughout that summer, British seaside towns became battlefields between warring gangs of motorcyclists and scooter riders who didn’t like each other because they disagreed on music, fashion, their preferred mode of transport (Nortons and Triumphs versus Vespas and Lambrettas) and anything else that came to mind.

The opposing tribes fought in Brighton, Margate, Southend, Bournemouth, Clacton, Skegness, Bognor Regis and Hastings, where the fracas became known as the Second Battle of Hastings.

One Brighton newspaper wrote that Mods and Rockers had “smeared the traditional postcard scene with blood and violence”.

“These long-haired, mentally unstable, petty little sawdust Caesars find courage like rats by hunting in packs”

The police were so keen to calm public fears that they flew reinforcements to the worst-affected areas in Royal Air Force transport planes. And judges hit the guilty with the strongest sentences possible. Both signs of an Establishment desperate to show the country that it was still in charge.

“It is not likely that the air of this town has ever been polluted by hordes of hooligans male and female, such as we have seen this weekend and of whom you are an example,” said a Margate magistrate while handing down a sentence to one of the perpetrators. “These long-haired, mentally unstable, petty little sawdust Caesars seem to find courage like rats by hunting only in packs.”

Why were people so scared? Because Mods and Rockers were Britain’s first youth subcultures to rise up and threaten the rule of the law. Those Britons accustomed to neatly mown lawns, respect for the local bobby and half a bitter down the pub feared the end of the world – or certainly the end of Britain – was coming.

Newspaper editors fretted about the “disintegration of a nation’s character”.

The summer of 1964 had a huge effect on motorcycling and motorcycle racing in Britain, which we still feel today.

Daily Mirror front page from August 1964 with the headline Riot Police Fly to Seaside

Mods and Rockers scared Britain so much that police reinforcements were flown to troublespots in RAF transport planes

Daily Mirror

The lurid newspaper headlines that followed those seaside disturbances changed the British public’s perception of motorcyclists in a way that caused massive damage to biking and bike racing.

Motorcyclists were more than ever regarded as second-class citizens, eyed with suspicion by many who expected trouble whenever they heard the rumble of engines entering town.

‘No leather jackets’ was a common sign in pub windows for decades – I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve been turned away for being a motorcyclist. That’s not such a big thing now but ‘biker-friendly pubs’ are still a thing, which suggests we are still considered troublemakers elsewhere, so the biking lifestyle and sport still live in the shadow of 1964.

Think of Britain’s greatest bike racers and teams before the Mods and Rockers changed everything. Geoff Duke, John Surtees and Mike Hailwood all spoke the Queen’s English and knew how to behave in polite society (although Hailwood also knew how to misbehave).

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In the late 1950s the factory Norton team acquired its first title sponsor Slazenger, at that time an upmarket clothing brand known for its tennis and cricket kit and associated fashionwear. The marketing arc was obvious: Wimbledon, Lords and Brands Hatch.

It is pretty much impossible to imagine such a brand becoming a title sponsor of a motorcycle-racing team today. And who would mention bike racing at Brands in the same breath as tennis at Wimbledon and cricket at Lords?

That’s because the summer of 1964 turned Britain’s monied classes off motorcycles, which were now dirty, oily symbols of rebellion, beloved of delinquent, long-haired youths.

Thus upmarket businesses had no desire to invest motorcycle racing, which struggled to attract sponsors and became a mostly working-class pursuit.

Since 1964 Britain’s greatest racers have come from working-class backgrounds: Bill Ivy, Barry Sheene, Ron Haslam, Carl Fogarty and the country’s most recent MotoGP winner Cal Crutchlow (whose dad was a rocker). Nothing at all wrong in that but it shows that the monied classes – and the money with them – abandoned motorcycle racing.

Mods and Rockers were a turning point in British motorcycling, but that point had already been passed in the USA.

The 1953 US release of The Wild One (banned in UK cinemas until the late 1960s) had the same effect on the American public mood as Mods and Rockers had in Britain.

Mods and Rockers clash on Margate beach

Mods pursuing Rockers on Margate beach, watched by holidaymakers, May 1964. Hardly the end of Britain as we knew it

Mirrorpix/Getty Images

The iconic movie, starring Marlon Brando, told the story of several wild motorcycle gangs – The Pissed Off Bastards, Boozefighters and Market Street Commandos – that trashed the Californian town of Hollister in 1947.

Biker gangs were a growing phenomenon in the States following the Second World War. Demobbed soldiers bought ex-military Harley-Davidsons and Indians for a few dollars, rode together and drank together, often at the same time. Charging around the country in gangs was probably their way of dealing with PTSD (although they didn’t know it).

The Hells Angels (sic) is the most famous biker gang of them all, named after a B-17 Flying Fortress which flew bomber missions in WW2. The Angels was founded by a soldier who had split from the Pissed Off Bastards, established in 1945.

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The Wild One did immense damage to American motorcycling. It created the mainstream image of the outlaw biker, which struck fear into everyday Americans.

“An ugly, debauched and frightening view of a small but peculiarly significant and menacing element of modern youth,” proclaimed a New York Times review of the movie. “There is briefly injected into this picture a glimpse of utter monstrosity, loose and enjoying the privilege of hectoring others in a fair society.”

The American Motorcyclist Association – founded in the 1920s to promote the motorcycling lifestyle – was appalled at this turn of events and did what it could to change the mood of the public. The AMA issued a statement insisting that 99% of motorcyclists were good citizens. In other words, only a tiny minority was a problem.

Gang members seized on this with glee – they proudly proclaimed themselves to be one-percenters and sewed ‘1%’ patches on their riding gear.

The fallout of The Wild One undoubtedly had an effect on US motorcycling, which still lingers today, not least because biker gangs are still a thing in the US.

And you know what? I’m leaving the best to last… The Mods and Rockers panic and The Wild One movie were a media scam.

Marlon Brando in biker gang fight scene in The Wild Ones film

Marlon Brando and biker gangs up to no good in The Wild One


Yes, there were disturbances and punch-ups in British seaside towns in 1964. But they were relatively minor. Certainly not big enough to have people fearing for the end of civilisation as they knew it.

This is how the media deals with minorities that its Establishment friends don’t like – it uses its huge power to damage them.

Newspapers love a lurid headline, and Mods and Rockers provided plenty for the journalists that preferred not to let the facts get in the way of a good story. Colleagues that did their jobs properly found different stories: families visiting the towns and beaches in the hope of seeing a few teenagers hurling deckchairs at each other. In other words, it wasn’t that bad.

During the first seaside fracas – Clacton, Easter 1964 – the two sides caused damage totalling £513, or £8700 in today’s money. Hardly the sacking of Carthage.

It was the same in Hollister. Whereas The Wild One tells the story of biker gangs causing murder and mayhem in a quiet country town, the reality was much less exciting. Yes, there was lots of loud, bad behaviour, but police activity amounted to no more than a few dozen arrests for drunkenness, reckless riding and disturbing the peace.

The movie was sensationalised Hollywood nonsense, but also very enjoyable. Its creators didn’t intend to hurt the cause of motorcycling and motorcycle racing, but they did, while at the same time attracting many more rebellious young souls to the joys of fast-spinning wheels, roaring engines and black-leather jackets.

What does all of this tell us? It tells us that motorcycle racing doesn’t exist alone – it is subject to all kinds of external forces, from the political to the financial and everything else in between.