Tonic supporter Steve Robson writes about his first trip to Brighton on a scooter, and his encounters with the police and a gang of Rockers.
A young Steve Robson on his Vespa
I have ridden Lambrettas all my adult life. I love the design, the sound, the two-stroke smell, and even their unpredictable nature. If something didn’t rattle loose, break or just stop working on a regular basis, you would come to take them for granted. A Lambretta demands love – it is more like a pet or a small child. If you give it love and attention, it’s your best friend, but neglect it, and it will cause you no end of grief.
My very first scooter, however, was a Vespa. A shiny blue Vespa 50 Special, just two years old, purchased from Brough Hall Motorcycles, Newport, IOW for £320 on hire purchase at £20 a month.
When I picked it up, the guy at the garage gave me a catalogue of extras I could buy – shiny chrome racks and trim you could bolt onto pretty much every part of it. As it was still 5 months before my sixteenth birthday, when I could legally ride it, all I could do was polish it and, each week, with my wages (I was still clearing graveyards evenings and weekends), I would buy one of these extras.
Wheel discs, front rack, back rack, flip flop backrest, crash bars, whip aerial… by the time I got it on the road its restricted top speed of 30mph had dropped to about 25mph with all the extra weight!
On the long wait for my sixteenth birthday, my best Mod mate Phil and I would often sit on the scooter revving it up on an imaginary journey to Brighton, where, as two Ace Face Mods, we would be greeted by crowds of gorgeous Modettes and jealous Mods!
That journey finally happened on the Saturday of the August bank holiday weekend, 1981. Phil had bought his own burgundy Vespa 50 Special and, like me, had thrown extras at it.
Our parents were far from pleased that we were going as, on the previous bank holiday weekend in Brighton, Mods rioting and getting arrested had been all over the news. This time, the police had prepared, declaring that they would come down hard on any unrest from the “Mod Invaders”. Back then, whenever a few Mods got together and rode anywhere on scooters, we were “invading”, like we were a foreign army or aliens from another planet!
So, before we left our parents, they read their own ‘riot act’, which included a list of punishments that would be dealt out if we got into fights, as well as an assurance that we needn’t bother coming home if we got arrested.
We set off with our Scooter Club – The Isle of Wight Jaguars. There were about 30 of us on the Sealink Ferry to Portsmouth. We were the youngest there and the only ones on 50cc scooters, so it wasn’t too long into the journey until it was agreed that we would have to meet the rest of the club down there, as our 50s battled against inclines and the gentlest of sea breezes.
The Isle of Wight Jaguars – Steve Robson is the tall one on the left
Over two and a half hours later, when we finally arrived in Brighton, we were disappointed to find that we were not greeted by waving Modettes, but by a police road block instead.
We were ordered to stand against a police van, hands up, feet apart. We had our boot laces removed and we were searched for weapons. Apparently, we were in possession of many weapons – screw drivers, spanners and, worst of all, metal cables, which we were going to strangle Brighton residents with!
What we didn’t realise was that, as we were being searched and our tool kits confiscated, a TV crew had set up on the other side of the road and were filming us. So, we were completely unaware that, on that evening’s BBC Six O’Clock News, the headline read “20 arrests already in Brighton as thousands of scooter riding Mods invade Brighton for another bank holiday weekend”, with clear footage of me and Phil with our hands up, surrounded by an array of weapons and angry looking policemen.
Of course, our parents were watching, as were many of their friends, who had called them over the weekend to tell them that their son had been arrested. With no mobile phones in those days, it wasn’t until you called home that anybody heard from you, which of course we did not.
Mods arrested in Brighton
Blissfully unaware of the trauma going on back home, we rode into Brighton like conquering kings. We were invaders – Jimmy & Sting back in Brighton, this time on 50s with acne and very little chance of bumping into Steph in an alleyway.
The police were directing us all down to the far end of Madeira Drive and keeping us there. By the evening, there must have been about three thousand of us. We bought beers from an off licence and, in the sunny weather, kicked back to watch the people and scooters buzzing around. Most people were camping on the beach but, as we had brought our whole wardrobes with us, there was no room to pack a tent – so we snuck off and found a B&B. I’m pretty sure it was only £12 for a twin room so, unsurprisingly, we had no bellboy running at our beck ‘n’ call.
Sunday daytime was spent wondering around Brighton’s shops and being moved on by police whenever we stopped. That evening, the police started letting us leave Madeira Drive in the hope we would go home, which we were certainly not going to do. In groups of 100 scooters, they would open the gates at the start of Madeira Drive and try to escort us out of town.
A group of Mods on Scooters
Phil and I managed to nudge our way to near the front of the second group preparing to leave, and found ourselves smack bang in the middle of the feared Scarborough Black Helmets – a new tribe of Scooter Boys who apparently beat up Mods for fun. As well as dressing in black, their scooters were mostly black Lammy cutdowns with camo netting draped over them and straight-through exhausts. They sat there, revving their engines and looking menacing. I am sure they were nice guys and the rumours unfounded but, back then, we thought that if they noticed two Mods in their midst, they would have us for dinner!
I was slightly scared, but mostly excited, as the barrier was opened – for about 3 seconds, two Mods were riding with the Black Helmets! The police were trying to keep us in a convoy heading out of town, but it wasn’t long until most of us slipped away and did what we really wanted to do – ride up and down Brighton seafront.
Sunday night was crazy – more scooters, loads of beer, music, and banter – pretty much the same as a Scooter Rally is nowadays. After a skin full of beer that we were not really used to drinking, we didn’t wake the next morning until the landlady was banging on the door shouting “Come on, we need you out!”.
It was gone midday by the time we returned to collect our Scooters. The night before there had been thousands of scooters and mountains of rubbish, but there was now nothing – just two very dirty Vespas with stickers stuck to the front of them: “Remove by order of Brighton Council”.
So, time to head back home. First off, we went to the café under the arches for a full English breakfast – the Quadrophenia one. It probably wasn’t the café from Quadrophenia, but we let ourselves believe that it was.
As we ordered our breakfasts, the café owner said, “You guys are brave”.
“Why, is the breakfast that bad?” I responded.
“You cheeky git, you’ll find out!”, he replied, while laughing.
As we left, the café owner shouted, “Good luck”.
Strange guy we thought. What we didn’t know was that traditionally Rockers rode down to Brighton on bank holiday Mondays…
So, as we cruised happily along Brighton seafront, our breakfasts still warm inside us, and looking forward to our ride home, it was quite a shock when our peace was shattered by about 40 Rockers roaring up alongside us.
“Give us your parkas”, they shouted. They wanted two trophies to take back to their mates, no doubt with tales of how they had beat up a large group of big Mods. If we could do anything about it, our parkas were going nowhere. We swerved and weaved around, trying to lose them – not that easy when your top speed is less than 30 mph!
Phil swerved hard and flipped off his Scooter, ending up on the floor with his scooter beside him.
One of the older guys in our Scooter Club, Reg, had once told me how he had held off a half dozen Rockers by swinging his helmet around his head. So, I pulled up alongside Phil, jumped off my Vespa, and started swinging my helmet around my head shouting at them to “Kindly leave us alone”, or something similar. We were done for…
If we hadn’t been lying in our beds all morning, we would have been ushered out of Brighton with everybody else – the police had clearly decided that the Mods should all leave on Monday morning to avoid exactly what was happening to us now. However, one of the bigger scooter clubs was the Brighton Scooter Club, who had also had been escorted out of town, only to be released on the promise that they would all be nice lads and go straight home. Luckily for us, they decided to have a ride along the seafront.
So, with my swinging arm now fading fast, and the Rockers deciding which piece of us each of them was going to get, our Mod cavalry rounded the corner onto the seafront, at least 100 strong. We couldn’t believe our luck – 20 seconds later and they would have been scraping us off the tarmac.
It was now the turn of the Mods to be the chased. A big Mod with ‘Steph’ on the back of his scooter pulls up and yells, “You all right lads… let’s get these Rockers”.
“Yeah, let’s get ‘em”, we both shouted, as we got back on our 50s and headed for the nearest exit out of town.
It had been a long weekend.