Speed / March 2016

Thunder Tribe: Sartorial Motorcycling Subculture Goes Mainstream

The new passion for elegant motorcycling ignites a global phenomenon in heroic style.

Fade up from black. A lonely horizon bisects the screen separating sky and firmament like oil and water. Out of the rising sun comes the silhouette of a man on a motorcycle, the throbbing magic of the combustion engine igniting fossilised dinosaurs into exhaust fumes. He surges toward us, “the chrome and steel he rides colliding with the very air he breathes”. Then, as he draws near, we see he is resplendently arrayed in a bespoke tweed Huntsman hacking jacket and suede gilet, paired daringly with cashmere jogging trousers and the most extraordinary Prussian riding boots. Once upon a time, wearing a spread-collar Charvet denim shirt and cashmere denim necktie astride a motorcycle would have been akin to donning a burqa in Cap d’Agde, the world’s biggest all-nude city. Which is to say, the source of neck-snapping, jaw-slackening, double-take-inducing perplexity. Because not so long ago, the two-wheeled world was unequivocally divided into mods and rockers — camps that stood in irreconcilable opposition as regards their sartorial philosophy. So much so that, in 1964, these youth subcultures felt compelled to do battle in the otherwise soporific English seaside towns of Margate, Brighton and Bournemouth, stabbing each other with sharpened sticks of butter — largely because the latter could not abide the former’s affection for the necktie.

tumblr_muigg1Notj1s8tg3xo1_1280Yet before the second world war, when motorcycles were the canvas for visionaries such as George Brough (whose bikes were dubbed the ‘Rolls-Royce of motorcycles’), the men who road them, such as T.E. Lawrence (otherwise known as Lawrence of Arabia), were considered impossibly glamorous and dashing. These were the aviators of the firmament, paladins astride gleaming high-power beasts. They would augment their classic suiting with raffish sheepskin blousons and goggles gleaned from aviation. To see such a man blasting around town on his Brough or Vincent must have provided a shimmering glimpse into the inexorable future expounded upon by the Italian futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. So how did motorcycles get their counter-culture reputation? Following the second world war, motorcycle companies such as Harley-Davidson, Triumph and BSA began producing accessibly priced, high-performance machines. American servicemen returning from the war and looking for a thrill took to these machines in droves. Movies such as The Wild One placed the motorcycle in the crosshairs of cultural rebellion. The rise in prosperity of the working class, and the availability of credit and financing, made motorcycling hugely popular with working-class youth. They soon adopted Marlon Brando’s uniform from The Wild One: black leather motorcycle jackets based on the Schott Perfecto or Buco J-24, cuffed Levi’s, and engineer boots (and in Britain they modified this look with thin-shelled Davida Aviakit helmets and aviator goggles. In England, the sobriquets ‘café racers’ and ‘Ton-Up Boys’ came from their penchant for frequenting and using transport cafés (in particular, London’s iconic Ace Café) as race markers, while the moral imperative of exceeding the ‘ton’, or 100 miles per hour, resulted in stripped-out and lightened ‘café’-style bikes replete with clip-on handlebars, megaphone exhausts, and solo saddles. Perhaps the ultimate café bike was the Triton, which was crafted around the extraordinary handling characteristic of a Norton featherbed frame paired with a more reliable and powerful Triumph engine.

rockers Rocker culture, and the freedom and thrill it represented, quickly spread around the world. In Japan it was bestowed the unforgettable moniker Kaminari-zoku, or Thunder Tribe, for the cacophonous roar of exhausts splitting the air at dawn. But across both sides of the ocean, rockers were considered the anathema of style — they were dirty, greasy-haired and with engine oil under their fingernails. In contrast, mods, who came out of the late-1950s’ modernist (modern jazz fans’) movement, were obsessed with French and Italian art films of the era, and pored over the pages of Italian style magazines for ideas for their tailor-made suits. They consumed Jean-Paul Sartre and existentialism with disturbing avarice and indulged in all-night dance parties fuelled by stutter-inducing amphetamines, which is the reason for Roger Daltrey’s intentional stutter in the seminal anthem My Generation.Hastings Mods Their chosen mode of transportation were Lambretta or Vespa scooters.
Amusingly, while rockers seemed to relish their proletariat roots, mods, taking a page from the French satirist Molière, seemed determined to rise beyond their humble working-class station and embrace all things bourgeois. And so it was that motorcycling and suiting were for many years at opposite ends of the style divide. Today, however, and thanks to an all-new generation of enthusiasts, motorcycling has returned the association of two-wheeled speed machines to the pre-second world war period in England when bikes were associated with elegance, wealth and glamour. The epistemology of the rebirth of elegance in the motorcycling scene can be traced to several factors. One would be the globally renowned charity rally known as The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, which was conceived in 2012 in Sydney, Australia, when founder Mark Hawwa noticed an image of Mad Men’s Don Draper astride a classic Matchless resplendent in a brown mohair suit. He was inspired to “combat the often negative stereotype of men on motorcycles”, and his first ride united 2,500 riders in 64 cities. In 2014, The Distinguished Gentleman’s Ride, which encourages participants to behave in an affable manner, and to ride classic café racers, bobbers or street scramblers, was held in 250 cities on the same day and raised $1.5m for the Prostate Cancer Foundation in the U.K., U.S.A. and Australia.  In 2014, Blitz Motorcycles joined forces with Ralph Lauren to created the RRL Riders’ Tour, a celebration of nostalgic heritage wear and tailoring as well as vintage and customised motorcycles.

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Wei Koh

The Rake's Founder & Editorial Director.