Motorcyclists: a suspect community?
The BMF was founded as a response to the wave of anti-motorcycle media stories and current of public perceptions in the early 1960s. BMF Chairman Jim Freeman looks back at the long and sad story of discrimination against motorcycling in the UK
The origins of the anti-motorcycle media bias were social attitudes formed through the prism of class, and what could be more British than that?
The motorcycle had always been seen as primarily a means of transport for the working man, something one step up from a pushbike. Middle-class men might ride motorcycles as teenagers and students, but they were expected to move on to a nice family saloon when they bought their suburban semis and started a family – the very definition of ‘settling down’. In similar circumstances, a working-class man might get a sidecar outfit instead. This all sounds very odd today, but remember LP Hartley’s line: “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”
The 1960s were a period of rapid social change. The arrival of the cheap car – a Ford Anglia, perhaps, or maybe an original Mini – that cost about the same as a 650cc British vertical twin meant that buying a bike became much more of a personal choice than an economic one. If someone just wanted transport now, why wouldn’t they buy a nice, clean, civilised vehicle? Not only would the car be much safer but, if they splashed out on the optional heater as well, it would be much more pleasant to use in the reliably miserable British climate. In fairness, it should be remembered that the winter of 1962-3 was one of the coldest ever recorded and the snow lasted for months in large areas of the country.
The motorcycle market went into freefall during the 1960s. A common assumption was that the motorcycle would simply cease to be a mainstream form of transport, and that was one of the primary reasons why the British motorcycle industry stopped investing in research and development at all.
Wild Ones and wrong ‘uns
The perception that an activity is associated with low social status, as motorcycling traditionally was, doesn’t help its image. The perception that those who chose to continue to use motorcycles when there was a readily available, more aspirational and more socially acceptable alternative were in some way peculiar didn’t help either. People who deliberately chose to use an anti-social, frequently noisy and statistically dangerous mode of transport just had to have something wrong with them, surely?
The whole Mods and Rockers youth culture phenomenon, complete with ridiculous panic in the popular press, happened to coincide with the decline of the motorcycle as a ‘sensible’ form of transport. The film The Wild One, which was banned by the British Board of Film Classification until 1967 and eventually released with an X certificate (for the benefit of younger readers, that means an age limit of 16), is a perfect example of media discrimination. Frankly, anyone watching it now would wonder what all the fuss was about. The release of Easy Rider only a few years later, with its numerous examples of flagrant law-breaking, shows how quickly views can change.
How did this discrimination manifest itself? Riders were routinely banned from pubs and other social spaces. Groups of riders meeting up were often ‘of interest’ to the authorities – especially law enforcement. Parents would offer inducements to children to not get a bike when they turned 16. Girls were warned off boys who rode bikes. If a rider was seen in a mainstream TV show like Dixon of Dock Green, he (always a he, naturally…) was bound to have two characteristics: he’d be a wrong ’un and he’d come to a sticky end, probably involving railings somehow.
Standing up for ourselves
The BMF was founded as a federation of clubs to present the case that riders were citizens too – regular people who just happened to use, among other forms of transport, motorcycles. The clubs were often owners’ clubs or local clubs with a strong sporting bias with members who felt that, just because they rode a motorcycle to work and liked to turn up at events at the weekend, they shouldn’t be marked out as some sort of weird Untermenschen.
The 1970s and ’80s brought some changes, and the efforts of the manufacturers and riders groups paid off to a large extent. The advertising campaign with the tagline “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” ran with images of women riding bikes, young men as passengers, people with white trousers and so on – the antithesis of the greasy rocker with top-to-toe leather and a bad attitude. The arrival of the superbike took the motorcycle to the level of sophisticated engineering and made the family cars that were increasingly cluttering the UK’s roads look a little bit boring. Pubs might still turn riders away, but not nearly so often. Things moved along.
Unfortunately, the old perceptions about safety had led to a number of changes in licensing and testing for riders by the 1990s, all of which were opposed by the BMF. The introduction of restrictions on access to high-performance bikes by learners devastated the previous pathway into motorcycling. A 125cc bike is a very different proposition to a 250cc bike, not just in terms of performance but also in comfort and usability.
The aim of the restrictions and changes in licensing, particularly the third Driving Licence Directive from the EU, could be seen as blatant discrimination at a governmental level. Was the intention to make access to motorcycling so difficult and costly with a multi-tiered testing regime that no-one would want to take it up? The impact in the long run, just as with the shift from working man’s transport to the cheap car, would surely be extinction? As existing generations of riders die out, there would be no replacements. An apocalyptic view? Perhaps…
A bike doesn’t make a biker
Where are we now? The use of small bikes and scooters has proved more robust than some expected. As the cost of public transport has rocketed and the roads have got ever more congested, the attraction of commuting on an easy-to-ride twist-and-go scooter has increased. Having experienced the convenience and freedom that powered two-wheelers bring, many commuters start with a CBT, move on to the A Licence route and end up riding full-sized bikes.
However, there are some undercurrents. Some of those who might have got a provisional licence at 16 and then ridden a 250cc bike back in the day are now faced with a multi-tiered and expensive licensing system and simply don’t bother with the legalities. There has been the growth of a ‘Reckless Ryderz’ sub-culture of motorcycles and quadbikes, where unregistered vehicles are used to perform stunts and are ridden illegally in public spaces. In some urban areas, these groups are regarded as ‘bikers’ or ‘motorcyclists’ only when, in reality, they are breaking numerous laws.
There has also been a simultaneous rise in the number of small bikes, primarily scooters that are easy to both steal and ride, being used to commit crimes such as bag-snatching or smartphone thefts. These are, again, often referred to as ‘motorcyclists’ when they are simply criminals who commit one crime to acquire a means of transport and then use that to commit even more crimes. That doesn’t mean the motorcycle is the fundamental problem here, though. If these criminals were riding horses instead, would anyone in their right mind blame the horse?
So where do we go now?
The BMF feels this situation has the potential to lead to discriminatory action by the authorities, not to mention affecting public perception of regular, legal, motorcycle users – a situation that has led to social discrimination in the past.
That’s why we need to be continually aware of how the world sees us – we don’t live in a motorcycling bubble. Every time someone wakes up people in a street with an illegal exhaust, we lose friends and negatively influence people. The current 5dB noise reduction being proposed for new bikes is not a response to existing standard motorcycle noise outputs; it’s the direct result of every window-rattling illegal exhaust system.
Be legal, join the BMF, join an affiliated BMF club and be involved. If someone denigrates riders, take it personally and respond in a reasoned manner. Is that too much to ask for?
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of BMF Motorcycle Rider.
You can join the BMF and help us protect the rights of motorcyclists for just £28 a year. Find out more here.