I live in the USA and often read British magazines on classic motorcycles. The‘ton-up boys’ are a frequent subject and are always a pleasure to read about. It recently occurred to me that we had a very similar fringe element of society that was active here as well, and that I was part of. Despite the fact that there was essentially no communication between the youth of the two countries, there are a great many similarities between that group of British kids and the American kids of that era.
Going back to the mid-1950s when it all seemed to start, we listened to the same music; the rockabilly and roots rock of Jerry Lee, Elvis, and Eddie Cochran among others. We wore jeans with the cuffs rolled up, engineer boots and air force surplus leather jackets. If we were lucky enough to have a job we might spend a month’s salary to buy a leather jacket with zipper pockets all over. We were the children of the working poor from the wrong side of town, so money and jobs were scarce.
We had our hangouts just as the British kids did. Where they had places like the Ace and the Busy Bee that served tea and coffee, we had our soda fountains and burger joints where the preferred beverage was cola. I would bet that the records on the juke box were nearly the same and we would rock till late hours and maybe have a dance with the girls.
One difference was the type of bikes that we rode. Where the British youth had Triumph, BSA, Norton and Ariel, most often we had surplus V-twins that were big clumsy beasts with hand shifters and foot clutches. The end game was the same though, and that was to go as fast as we could, not crash and not get caught by the police.
Most importantly, we were with our own kind – tough kids with an attitude from poor neighbourhoods where we learned how to make do with what we had. Those clothes we wore, the music we listened to and those motorcycles were all symbols of our independence and our unwillingness to follow the norms of ‘proper society’.
Over the next 10 or 15 years things did improve. A building boom opened up opportunities in construction. The music had changed to the Rolling Stones, Cream and other ‘bad boys’ of the British invasion. The bikes available here changed too a bit as a few more British bikes filtered into this area, but our attitude was the same and it was still driven by that loud raucous music and the sound of noisy exhausts.
Then suddenly it all changed when Mr Honda and his competitors sent us affordable, dependable machines that were even bought by‘ the nicest people’, and which didn’t require that you be a roadside mechanic just to get from point A to point B.
Our day had lasted a remarkable 15 years but suddenly it was over… except for a fortunate few diehards who still ride in the old style that we knew in our youth. Even though we never met, those British kids and American kids shared so much in common that I believe in my heart that they would have been the best of mates.
A similar parallel exists today, of course, although more in the custom world than in the world of impoverished speed. Bikes are still being bought and converted into specials, and long may it continue! FrankW