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12th May 2004

Opinion: Memories of an Old Rocker

Ready for a spot of time travel? The Oldest Rocker In Town is your guide to the era of coffee bars, rock 'n' roll and the ton-up cult of Britbike riding...

I left school in 1960 when the teddy era was being taken over by the motorcycle craze. At 16 years old I bought my first bike, a BSA B31. After riding it for three months with L-plates I applied for and passed my test first time and then I became an official ton-up boy - or, as we were sometimes called, a coffee bar cowboy. All my friends were into bikes and the café / coffee bar scene in London was hot. Every café had a jukebox full of good rock 'n' roll music and served great froffy coffee.

I consider the 60s to be the best era ever as we all seemed to earn good money and it also seemed to go a long way. Payday was always on a Friday and it was always good to receive the little brown envelope full of cash. They always had the paper money (ten bob and one pound notes) folded over in the corner, and little holes so you could check the loose change before you opened it. In the days of pounds, shillings and pence it always felt like a lot of money with pennies the size of... er... penny washers!

Jerry today. Saving those big old pennies was worth it...

We used to go to a café in East Sheen called The La'Tatuliar where they would serve the best coffee. As the owner was Italian this was where I sampled my first spaghetti bolognaise. The best coffee bar for music was in Mortlake and was a typical 60's meeting place full of ton-up boys talking about how fast they could go. The girls were always asking for money to play the latest American records which the owner seemed to be able to get before they were on sale in the shops.

Spice Girls, Boyzone, Peter Andre... The music on this Jukebox is way ahead of its time.As I grew up in South London we were spoilt for choice where to hang out. The favourite place was the Ace Café where you could always find plenty of bikes and someone to race with. A lot of riders had the 'ton' or '100' painted on their leather jackets and this meant they had reached the magic 100mph on their bike. It seems quite strange now, how that special speed meant so much in the early 60s but you became quite a special rider once you had done it.

I achieved my right to wear the ton badge at the age of 17 on my friend's Triumph T110, complete with ace bars and rear-sets on the A3 in Surrey. If I remember right, your girlfriend or mate could also wear the ton-up badge if they were on the back when the magic speed was achieved. A medal would have been more appropriate!

The North Circular Road became our race track but even in 1960 the traffic was quite busy so you had to be careful. The police were always patrolling and you had to watch out for them. The trouble was the police cars only had a bell to warn you they were coming... One day while speeding along I could hear what I thought was a rattle coming from my engine. I stopped to check it out only to find that I had been followed by a police car for the last mile, and it was his bell making the noise! I got a severe telling off but luckily was let off. The police were pretty fair in those days and a good telling off was what most of them gave you. They would take down your registration number and if they stopped you on the same night then you were in trouble.

I was a member of a club based in Hammersmith called 'The Friendly Motor Cycle Club.' It may seem a naff name but it was started by a bunch of ex-Vincent Owners' Club members who got fed up with the way their club was going; it had become very cliquey and did not welcome new members very well. Our club was the opposite and always made new members very welcome and we became a very big club because of this.

One night we had a visit from the Reverend Bill Sherman of the 59 Club fame (before it started). He visited our club to check out the interest for the new club and to invite us to a church motorcycle blessing that he intended to do. Some of our members attended and it made all of the daily papers. Leather jacketed ton-up boys go to church! After that the 59 Club was started and I was there on the opening night, and to this day still have my original membership number 36.

'What are you rebelling against, Johnny?' Well, lets start with the cap...

We would always go to the 59 Club on a Saturday night and it was there that I saw the Wild Ones film, starring Marlon Brando, about a motorcycle gang which took over a small American town in the 1950s. It was banned from being shown in England in case we all copied it...

After the 59 we would ride back for a coffee at the Ace and maybe an egg and chips supper. We used to keep our crash hats on as some guys would start flicking peas off the end of their forks and Ace peas were pretty solid. I would often eat to the sound of peas bouncing off my crash helmet! It was also a good idea to keep your goggles down as well...

The favourite place to really let off steam was Box Hill in Surrey, which is still to this day very popular with bikers. In the 60s the main meeting area was a lay-by on the side of the road, about 200 yards on the left as you leave the roundabout towards London. We would leave the lay-by in pairs, race down the road about one mile to a gap in the dual carriageway. When it was all clear we would take off and race back to the roundabout. As we passed the lay-by everyone would wave and cheer and the first one back got the handshake and plenty of pats on the back. The loser skulked off to try and find someone a bit slower to race.

After an afternoon's burn-up we used to visit a coffee bar in Leatherhead called The Tarrola for the best espresso coffee in Surrey and a well stocked jukebox. Most of the coffee bars in London were owned by Italians, hence the strange names.

Next time, The Oldest Rocker in town explains how the mods and rockers stuff was all media hype, and why a beehive hair-do forced him to buy a Ford Anglia. Oh, and how 100mph on a Clubmans Velo didn't quite go as planned...

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