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The Motorbike’s role in films, television and fashion

During the Second World War there were so many troops riding around on motorbikes that when the war ended, the thrill of going out on the road came to an abrupt end. This was partly responsible for the emergence of the bikers, which were large groups of young motor cyclist enthusiasts getting together in their free time and going out exploring the country on their bikes.

James Dean with his Triumph Trophy 500

This was the period of young people challenging society and its role models, and as time passed into the 1960s, the new rock music genres opened avenues where people were seen being closely associated with their motorcycles.

No one represented the feeling of social estrangement better than James Dean who died at the age of 24. Although he only starred in three films, his image was admired, and he was idolized by millions of young people around the world. He had a love for bikes and one of his most famous pictures is him sitting on his beloved Triumph Trophy 500 which he called “Dean’s Dilemma”.

The Triumph was again the star of the show when it was used in the famous escape scene in the 1963 film “The Great Escape”. The film, often aired during the Christmas period, shows the prisoner of war, Steve McQueen, being involved in a bike chase trying to evade his captors. It ends when he attempts to jump a barb wire fence at the border.

The motorbike with leather jacket, tight fitting t- shirt and jeans became a real status symbol. Another Hollywood star who played this to perfection was Tom Cruise in the 1986 film Top Gun. Training as a fighter pilot, Cruise’s character would spend his days-off running his Kawasaki Ninja around the US airbase surrounded by planes both landing and taking off.

As its image became popularized in the early 1960s, the motorbike became a fashion accessory as well as a mode of transport. The first groups of people that rode around together were known as the rockers, they consisted of youngsters riding around on their Triton motorbikes at high speeds. They were also known as greasers due to their slicked back hair, and their appearance was complete with jeans and leather jackets.

The Mods arriving in a group

Later on, the Mods appeared, and they looked a lot different than the rockers. They were known for their Parka jackets, suits and smarter haircuts. Their choice of motorbikes was Lambretta or Vespa Scooters, and their rivalry with the biker gangs led to many confrontations in the 1960s.

There was an episode featured in the 1979 film Quadrophenia which was based on the troubles between the gangs during holiday time in the British resort of Brighton. One of the film’s leading parts was played by Sting who was also the lead singer for “The Police”. The success of the film resulted in “The Police” becoming a popular mod band.

This negative image of motorcycle gangs was continued in the 1970s with the appearance of the Hells Angels and other such gangs. The members of these groups were associated with the heavy rock bands and were generally riding around on powerful Harley Davidson motorbikes.

The members had long hair and their leather jackets usually had their motif of their Hells Angels chapter emblazoned on the back. Hells Angels became associated with organized crime groups, often associating drugs, violence and guns as being part of their activities. This was to the detriment to the large numbers of peaceful bike groups who were just for people who loved their motorcycles.

Today the image of the motorbike has grown into a positive one. Bikes in films and television series are often used in a positive manner signifying speed, efficiency and wealth. One of Britain’s most popular television series has been “Heartbeat” which was about the work of police in the Yorkshire Dales in the 1960s. In the series, the police would be seen travelling to crime scenes on either their Francis Barnet motor cycles or their BSA 650 bikes. This provided viewers with fond memories of the bikes.