I managed to tick something important off my list today, something I’ve been meaning to do for a while now: I joined the 59 Club.
Formed in, you guessed it, 1959, the 59 club was essentially a church youth club that formed a motorcycle branch in 1962. The club started in Hackney Wick, moved to Paddington, then back to Hackney and nineteen years ago it found its current home in Plaistow. A few dedicated volunteers open the doors twice a week to members and newcomers like me. A nice summary of the history can be found here. Membership grew at an astonishing rate; the club’s magazine for members, Link, records the membership rising from 8,000 to 10,000 in the space of a few months in the mid 1960s. Some good scans of the mags are on the Spirit of the 59 website.
The club has interested me for a while: its humble surroundings belie its contribution to motorcycle history, one that leads motorcycle clubs all over the world to form their own regional branches and wear the 59 roundel badge on their jackets. All these branches’ memberships are administrated from club’s east London location in a church hall. One of the most recent additions is the Colombian chapter. An impressive phenomenon about which I hope to learn more.
Several original members from the 1960s still attend the club, making them ideal for my study of motorcycle clothing. I was invited by Dick Bennett, a member since the late 1960s, and introduced to some of the other members. It was generously suggested that I could carry out interviews at the club for the oral history component of my research and I was also shown the club’s photography “archive” (a large cardboard box!) which, despite the humble, functional container, comprises some wonderful photos from throughout the club’s history. One highlight was being taken into a broom cupboard where I was shown a small, grey filing cabinet. In it was every membership card for every member since 1962 – I’m told that’s around 30,000 in total. And once a member joins, they’re always a member, although not all pay their membership subs (see below). We checked to see if any Arrowsmiths had ever joined and it turns out I’m the first. It was probably the first and last time I’ll ever say that seeing a filing system was the highlight of my evening. Perhaps I ought to get out more…
There are some dedicated and loyal members running the show on a shoestring; genuinely nice people who clearly enjoy keeping the club alive for the 900 paid-up members and, if my experience tonight is anything to go by, it’s a very easy-going and relaxed environment. That said, they’re custodians of a powerful brand that has a global appeal and a certain mystique: the resurgence of interest in British motorcycle culture in the Rocker and Ton Up revival subcultures and the US TV show Cafe Racer have created cultural icons of the Ace Cafe and the 59 Club, and the former seems to embrace this a little more readily than the latter. There are young men riding old Triumphs and Nortons in the US and Japan, wearing original 1960s leather jackets with the 59 roundel patch on the arms. Lewis Leathers had a concession in the club in the early years and vintage jackets that carry original patches and badges are highly prized. Searches for ‘Lewis Leathers’ on ebay bring up vintage garments that sell for hundreds of pounds; Lewis Leathers recently posted a link on their Facebook page to a hardly worn, recently made jacket, pointing out that it was attracting bids far above the price they’d charge to make a new one, again a fascinating phenomenon. Lewis Leathers prides itself on its heritage, capitalising on its design history and the unparalleled passion of its owner Derek Harris for vintage leather jackets to market beautifully made recreations of classic designs to customers who aren’t necessarily likely to ride bikes. In stark contrast, the 59 remains a motorcycle club for motorcyclists. They sell a few t-shirts, stickers and the odd badge and are protective of their brand identity. The club exists for its members who are ordinary people who happen to ride bikes. Tonight I learnt that they’d been visited by revivalist motorcyclists from overseas who were disappointed not to see dozens of classic British bikes parked outside. The reality is quite different: members are more likely to be riding the latest sports bike or Japanese commuter hack than a Dominator, Bonneville or the fabled Triton (OK, I’ll admit to being a little trite, there was a modern Bonnie and a lovely classic Royal Enfield present on this warm, summer evening, but you get the point, no one is going to ride a classic bike daily through winter unless they like walking more than riding. They also disbanded a classic bike section because it was all getting a bit strict with stipulations about dress that sounded more like subcultural uniform regulations than functional motorcycle clothing: leather jackets, retro pudding-bowl helmets, scarves and suchlike.
In direct contradiction to the popular perception of motorcyclist identity in the 1960s, a few riders, most recently some at the 59 tonight, have now told me that leather jackets were expensive and therefore beyond the reach of most riders, and largely useless in bad weather. Belstaff or Barbour wax jackets keep being mentioned as the garments of choice for the serious 1960s motorcyclist. They weren’t cheap but at least they provided a greater degree of protection from British weather.
Perhaps it’s time for me to rethink that PhD research project title: “Building a biography of Black Leather”…. Back to the drawing board.