Moral panic: the story of the mods and the rockers

21st April 2020

Starting to get a little bored in lockdown? Since you can’t come in and check Classic Motorcycle Mecca out for yourself, we thought we’d share some of the stories behind our collection. Stories like the clashes between the mods and rockers, which dominated headlines and sparked the phrase 'moral panic' in 1960s Britain.

Rockers and café racers

Young and rebellious, the rockers took their inspiration from Marlon Brando’s character in The Wild One. Keen on motorbikes, they were seen wearing the typical ‘rocker’ look: battered black leather jackets, motorcycle boots or brothel creepers, and of course their hair styled in a slick pompadour. 

Rockers typically drove bikes known as café racers: lightweight motorcycles optimised for speed and handling. This style of bike’s nickname derived from their use for short, quick rides between cafes. Legend has it that the goal was to reach 100 miles per hour, so that a rider could race to a predetermined location and back to the café before a single song finished on a jukebox – what’s known as ‘record-racing’. Their music of choice? Rock, of course. 

Café racers typically had minimal styling, with prominent seat cowling and elongated fuel tanks, low-mounted handlebars, and large carburettors.

(“Café racers” was originally a derogatory term, used to describe bikers who ‘played’ at being serious speedsters but instead merely parked their racy machine near their table at the local outdoor café.)

Mods and their scooters

Meanwhile, the mod subculture was focused on fashion and music and the overlapping of the two. Their musical tastes leaned towards the blues-inspired: soul, rhythm and blues, and ska.

Mods could be spotted thanks to their clean-cut clothing choices: they were often decked out in suits and preppy-looking attire. And their bikes had to match.

Scooters were a zippy and accessible form of transport that allowed young people to stay out dancing, long past the time public transport closed for the night. The mods treated their rides as an extension of their fashion. Italian marques like Lambretta and Vespa, with their gleaming chrome, clean lines, and curves, were the most admired. 

Mods would often customise their rides, adorning them with two-tone and candy flake paint, luggage racks, crash bars, mirrors galore, and fog lights. Engine panels and bumpers were often chromed to match. 

Tensions erupt

If you think the two very different groups were able to happily co-exist, think again.

Back in 1964, tensions between the two subcultures became so extreme that clashes were frequent. 

The violence reached its peak one weekend in May 1964, when teenagers descended on coastal resort towns like Margate, Bournemouth, and Brighton and chaos – allegedly – ensued. 

The clashes dominated the news, with papers hyping up the violence with headlines like ‘Battle of Brighton’. But did it live up to the panic? 

Hindsight says probably not. For instance, in Brighton, there was a crowd of about 1000 youths involved in the clash, but a mere 76 arrests – so perhaps things weren’t quite as chaotic as the press of the time made it out to be. Plenty of stone-throwing and scuffling, yes, but not exactly carnage.

(It’s worth pointing out that, at this stage, Brando’s film The Wild One was still banned by for fears it would “incite juvenile delinquency”.)


So, that’s the story of the mods and the rockers. It’s a tale societies have seen repeated fairly frequently since the end of WWII: young people rebelling, and a fair amount of fist-shaking by older generations.

When our lockdown ends, and some kind of normalcy returns, we’d love to show you our collection of mods and rockers items. See you soon, and take care.