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Inman Column: Scooterboys

This is another of the columns I originally wrote for Cafe Racer magazine is France a while ago. Hope you enjoy it.

May 1987. I turned 16 on Tuesday and had bought a Vespa by the weekend. I must be honest, I had no interest in motorcycles then, just scooters. When I was a kid I remember a teenager on the next street had a Honda Super Dream CB250N, but I couldn’t have given less fucks about it. A guy who volunteered at our local youth club wore a leather WWII-style flight jacket, the brown ones with a big sheepskin collar and lining. He was a really nice guy, said he had a Triumph, that sounded cooler than a Super Dream, but I never remember seeing him on it and I went to the youth club every week. My dad had owned Vincents, he bought one of them brand new from the Stevenage factory, but they’d been sold long, long before I was born. Motorcycles weren’t in my universe.

Then, when I was still 15, two lads a couple of years older than me who lived in the same area, both bought Vespa PX125s. Their names were Terry and Wayne. That gives a clue to the era I grew up in. I knew all about the mod revival, one of my older brothers was well into it early on, but it had totally fizzled out by this time, ancient history. It was five years since The Specials had released Ghost Town and that spelt the end of Two-Tone. These scooters and the lads who rode them had nothing to do with mods. They were a new breed, scooterboys, and I wanted to be a part of it.

All these memories, over 30 years old and as vivid as last weekend, were stoked back into life by a new book written and compiled by an old friend. The subtitle of the book, The Lost Tribe, goes some way to explain why Martin ‘Sticky’ Round was inspired to write it. Virtually every youth cult has had a comeback or has been retrospectively examined in the press, but not scooterboys and it was a massive, unique cult in the 1980s.

The thrust of the lifestyle were national runs: mass exoduses to seaside towns, seven or eight times a year. At the end of August 1987, three and half months after my birthday, the next ‘National’ was scheduled to be held in Scarborough, a town that can lay claim to be the first seaside holiday resort in the world.

I’d bought magazines that showed reports of what happened on rallies, but I didn’t really know what to expect as I set off on the 100km (65 mile) journey on my own on Friday morning. The ride there must have been uneventful, because I can’t remember any of it, but what followed was vivid. I put up my tent in the campsite and a guy on a two-tone metalflake, tuned Lambretta pulled up next to my nylon domicile. He was wearing a filthy Belstaff waxed jacket, worn-out Doc Martens and an open face helmet. He said he’d come from Kent, over 450km away. This blew my mind. He had a dead dragonfly mashed into his dirty face next to his right eye. I’d never seen a dragonfly before, living or dead. I don’t remember standing, open-mouthed, staring at him, but I think I was. I was 16. He seemed old. He was probably 21.

At the time I was working an apprentice engineer, I’d only just started work and before I’d landed that full-time job I’d been working 18-20 hours a week for the previous two years, delivering milk before school, from 4.15am till 8, three or four days a week. This alone makes me shake my head in disbelief. What were my parents thinking? I sound like I grew up in Dickens’ London or something, but it’s how I could afford the secondhand scooter and insurance.

August came and I cleared off on my scooter, on my own. I don’t recall my parents asking any questions or checking I got everything I needed. My kids can’t even go to school without my wife going through a 15-point check list.

On that temporary campsite in Scarborough, 1987. An acquaintance from my home town turned up and I had someone to walk around the site with. Scooters from all over Britain, some brand new, some battered and home painted in camouflage colours, others airbrushed. I still have the packet of photos I took that day somewhere. Perhaps the reason the scooterboy cult has not had a serious critical reappraisal is because in sartorial terms it was as ugly as a plane crash in a leper colony.

The MA1 green flight jacket is a perennial fashion favourite, but the scooterboys ruined theirs with cheap rally patches, sewn on to show which events they’d attended, and also beer towels, the 30cm-long towels pubs would put on their bars to soak up spilt lager. Trousers were tight jeans, often splattered with bleach, or Army surplus trousers (mine were Italian, zipped bottom and the best of a bad bunch); flannel shirts had their sleeves hacked off at the shoulder, King Kurt or Meteors T-shirts underneath; psychobilly flat top haircuts; 20-hole Doc boots and, sometimes, grass skirts. There was nothing that would be regarded as stylish. There was none of the precision of the mods, skins or suedes, very little of the leather fetishism of the rockers, that attracted the gay scene, then in turn, the fashion world. It was a pure working class, lower middle-class cult scene committed to travelling places to have fun and meet their peers.

A swarm of two-wheelers in it just for kicks, not one of them over 25 years old, and the vast majority 21 or under. The perfect time to grow up and a period that makes most contemporary motorcycle scenes look like catalogue-bought lame excuses for fun. I don’t want to go back, but I thank life’s lottery for giving me the chance to live through it as a wide-eyed, teenaged suburban adventurer.

//Scooterboys: The Lost Tribe by Martin Round is published by Carpet Bombing Culture//

Buy Scooterboys book

All photos are from the book courtesy of Carpet Bombing Culture and the original photographers.

1 Comment

Aug 11, 2021

How I see two wheels now , Adventure bikes !😂At aged 16 , Vespa 90 , I rode the entire length of the A34 to Morecombe ,11hours ! Snowed on the way home ,slept in a subway. that was my first national scooter rally , I still do the nationals and the odd European jaunt , still on a 50 year old italian shoping bike !

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