Was motorcycling better in the 70s?

motorcycling 1978

Published on 24 July 2016 by Robert Drane


Filed under Category: Features

By Richard Skelton

Following publication of my first book, Funky Mopeds: the 1970s Sports Moped Phenomenon, I set out to write something about motorcycling in the 1970s in general. It ended up being too massive a tome for conventional publication, so became available as a series of five ebooks entitled, logically enough, Motorcycling in the 1970s (MITS).

Teenage kicks

I was a teenager in the 1970s and motorcycling was a great discovery for me. I became hooked for all the usual reasons - fun, freedom, the joyful sensation of riding and the satisfaction of doing it well. And there was also the camaraderie of motorcycling, especially so as I was part of the sports moped generation, bound tightly with my peers, apprenticed together for a year before being given our wings. Finally, I was fascinated by biking history, and glad to be joining in with it.

In my ebook series I argue that the 1970s was a highpoint in motorcycling, and one not likely to be matched in the future. Am I right? When I was doing my research, reading through hundreds of 1970s magazines, I found lots of material by rheumy-eyed old-timers, waxing lyrical about the jitterbugging 1920s, declaring it to be motorcycling’s best ever time.

Then, when MITS was first published online, I came in for some criticism from Chris Scott, adventure motorcyclist and despatch rider whose autobiographical book, Adventures in Motorcycling, is slowly coming to the top of my ‘to read’ pile.

Who invented sex?

Chris argued that the 1980s was a better biking decade, and in a sense he’s right. Technically, the bikes had improved, and we enjoyed most of the same freedoms. We were older then too, earning more money and riding ever bigger, faster and more amazing machinery.

I also got feedback from one of my interviewees, former Honda UK boss Gerald Davison. “Every generation thinks they invented sex,” he said. I get the point. Once a teenage ‘Norton fanatic’, Gerald is particularly nostalgic about motorcycling in the rock ‘n’ roll years of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The 1960s is held similarly dear by another contributor to the ebooks, BSA development man Pat Slinn, who became a Ducati specialist in the 1970s, and went on to work on Mike Hailwood and Tony Rutter’s TT-winning machines.

And I was proud that none other than Cook Neilson chipped into an online debate on this very subject, instigated by Benzina Publishing, a fledgling firm planning to publish a cut-down version of my efforts as a physical book next year.

Cook said: “I’d vote for the ’70s; lots of great new superbikes, plus, back then we still had bikes from England and Spain: Ducati, Laverda; KR in Yerp winning World Championships, American dominance in motocross, CB750 all the way to the CBX, Z1 Kwacker, four-stroke Suzuki multis, four-stroke Yamahas. Hailwood at the Isle of Man; Smartie at Imola; Ducati at Montjuic! Boy, was it exciting!”

Finally, my friend journalist Rod Ker has always reckoned the 1930s would have been an amazing time to be awheel.

The leisure revolution

It strikes me that there were similarities between the 1920s and the 1970s. They were both generally happy, carefree, optimistic times attributes sadly historically rare and largely absent today. But on balance, I would go for the 1970s. So much happened. There was so much exciting change: new types of bike, new freedoms and a new way of looking at motorcycling. Riding became, above all else, a leisure activity; something unashamedly fun. And I was there.

The nostalgia drug

Clearly nostalgia is a mighty powerful drug, but I have become aware that too much of it can lead to unhappiness. And, as I get older and friends not much older than me are beginning to drop off the perch or become too decrepit to ride, I have realised that although we may be a bit overcrowded and hemmed in here in modern-day biking Britain, it is imperative we get out there and enjoy motorcycling in the here and now, whatever the current terms and conditions.


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About the author

Richard Skelton is the author of Funky Mopeds: The 1970s Sports Moped Phenomenon and five volumes of Motorcycling in the 1970s: The story of biking’s biggest, brightest and best ever decade.


Main image: Pat Hennen and Barry Sheene, author Smudge 9000. Resized and blurred sides added to fit aspect ratio. Original available here under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.