Why motorcycling's bad boys are a thing of the past

Richard Hammond with motorbike
Richard Hammond has been riding motorbikes since he was a teenager  Credit: Ellis O'Brien

I didn’t start riding bikes because I thought it would make everyone like me. I started riding, in fact, in a hot fever of anticipation, thrilled at the idea that I would be viewed by all and sundry as an outsider, a rebel – and quite possibly a dangerous one.

Old people and postmen would roll their eyes as my mates and I rolled into town and leaned against our bikes in the market square. When I was knocked off at a junction, having bounced off the car’s bonnet in the time-honoured fashion and lain in the road for a bit, I stood up shakily and looked at the driver. Surrounding the car were various witnesses to the accident. Of course the young biker, with his long hair and smelly jeans, was in the wrong. The police agreed. It was my fault.

Hammond stars alongside James May and Jeremy Clarkson in the new Amazon Prime series, The Grand Tour, which starts on November 18 Credit: Ellis O'Brien

This was the early Eighties, long after the glory days of the real biker bad boys. But there remained enough of a trace of the reputation once enjoyed by the leather-jacketed to render me and my friends on our bikes just unpopular and scary enough for our own satisfaction.

The trail to this reputation, though cooling by then, was long and twisting, because the motorcycle was not born as a red-eyed demon.

It might have been ex-servicemen blowing off excess adrenalin from battle, or the then undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder, but the partygoers got a bit carried away

The pioneer motorcyclists of the early 1900s, in pursuing their passion, were not taking up satanism or crime. Presumably those early bikers were merely looked upon, as bikers are today, as a bit mad to choose a dangerous form of transport that involves getting wet and cold in bad weather, too hot in good weather and knocked off by cars and lorries in all weathers.

Right from the start, people got together around bikes. It started out of necessity: if you went out on your bike in the early days it would break down – always – and you would need to know what to do to get it going again. In time these gatherings took on a social nature. And they grew.

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Before the Second World War the American Motorcyclist Association used to run something called the Gypsy Tour motorcycle rally every July 4, in a town called Hollister in California. They were social gatherings, with some racing and general partying. The rally was cancelled during the war but in 1947 the AMA decided to restart the Hollister event. It might have been ex-servicemen blowing off excess adrenalin from battle, or the then undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder, but the partygoers got a bit carried away. Just high jinks, but the press, suddenly short of exciting stuff to write about, got even more carried away than the partygoers and told tales of riots and devastation.

There’s nothing like a good photo to back up a story, and Life magazine’s snapper set up a shot in which a fat bloke with a big belly sat on his Harley, shirt open and holding a beer bottle. Underneath his bike were dozens of empties, put there by the photographer. The image went viral, or the 1947 equivalent, and the image of the outlaw biker was born.

Richard Hammond believes that the bad-boy reputation of motorcyclists is no longer an issue Credit: Ellis O-Brien

For whatever reason, bikes soon found favour with less savoury types as well as those looking to save a shilling, develop their engineering skills or just experience the rush of the road. In March 1948 in San Bernardino, California, the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was founded.

The “Angels” would go on to become as much a part of Sixties culture as The Beatles, weird music and free love. What started as a California-based club gradually spread across the United States throughout the decade.

One of the most famous Hells Angels incidents was the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in December 1969. Intended as a West Coast equivalent of Woodstock, it turned out to be a very different scene to the earlier festival, where peace and love had wafted in the air. The crowds swamped the place and there were worries that the stage would be overrun, so someone suggested that it would be a good idea to use the local Hells Angels as security. The bikers were just meant to sit on the edge of the stage to put people off jumping up on to it. Payment for this service: $500 worth of beer.

A group of "Mods" arrive on scooters in Clacton, Essex, to be closely watched by police, 1964 Credit: Popperfoto/Getty Images 

Altamont was practically a riot. Two festivalgoers were killed in an accident with a car and another drowned in a drainage ditch.  It was a sad note to the passing of the Sixties era of peace and love and it cemented, rightly or wrongly, the image of the Hells Angels.

By the Seventies, if you rode a motorcycle you would have trouble being served in a pub

But the action was not confined to the US. The tranquil British south coast seaside resorts of Margate and Brighton were soon to bear witness to the new biker terror when thousands of teenage Mods and Rockers ran amok on the beachfronts. Mods rode Lambrettas and Vespas and wore parka coats with furry collars; Rockers rode British bikes like BSAs and used oil from their leaky engines to slick back their hair. Or that’s what it looked like.

Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis ride a Kawasaki GPZ900R in Top Gun (1986) Credit: United Archives GmbH / Alamy

By the Seventies, if you rode a motorcycle you would have trouble being served in a pub. But then, slowly, it began to change. Barry Sheene arrived and became grandma’s favourite. He was brave, cheeky, good-looking, fun and he didn’t wear black leathers.

By the mid-Eighties the image of the outlaw biker was pretty much consigned to history. The bikes didn’t spew oil everywhere and the riders wore modern gear that didn’t leak. Successful young advertising executives bought Ducatis.

Prince William leaves Coworth Polo Club on his Ducati motorbike after playing in the Westbury Shield charity polo match Credit: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty images

Tom Cruise rode a Kawasaki GPZ900R in the 1986 film Top Gun and everyone’s mum loved Cruise. The biker image just got cleaner and cleaner. In 2004 the very nice young actor Ewan McGregor and his pal Charley Boorman rode a couple of BMW GS adventure bikes around the world and made a film about it.

Then, the moment that closed the book on bikers being nasty and dangerous: the night before his marriage to Kate, Prince William was photographed riding his Ducati 1198S Corse. The damage done by a fat man on a Harley in a small town in California in 1947 was finally undone. 

Taken from a Short History of the Motorcycle by Richard Hammond (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99). Order your copy for £14.99 plus p&p: call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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