A visit from the Mod squad
Inspired by the 10,000 'scooterists' who travel to the annual Isle of Wight rally, Paul McKenzie knew it was time to realise a boyhood dream and join them
Wednesday 12 October 2011
When I was 16, I made a list of three things I had to do before I hit 40. 1) See Ray Charles in concert. 2) Watch Spurs win the league title. 3) Take part in a scooter run to the Isle of Wight. I never got to see the inventor of rhythm and blues. Manchester United hired some Scottish guy called Alex Ferguson. And over the years, as one British downpour followed another, I lost the desire to ride my Vespa to the south coast. My scooter was simply a means of nipping around the city, and, more recently, avoiding London's congestion charge.
But the ambition was rekindled, along with my inner teenage Mod, aged 43, on a visit to the Isle of Wight. Wandering around Freshwater Bay last year, I came across a fine collection of scooters. All glinting chrome and mirrors, gleaming in the sunlight with daytrippers swooning over the artwork on the panels. The scooters – and their riders (scooterists, as they're known) – were heading to Ryde for the annual Bank Holiday rally. The rally has been a fixture on the scooter scene since the mid-Seventies, but it was revitalised in the Nineties by the island's growing popularity among festival-goers.
More Britons have taken to two wheels as the cost of running four has soared. The latest figures from the Department of Transport report that there are more than 147,000 scooters on British roads, an increase of 12.5 per cent over the past year. And as more people have switched their cars for Vespas and Lambrettas, many have come to embrace scooter culture, with its love of sharp fashion and soul music. Combine these newcomers with the long-standing enthusiasts and the Isle of Wight festival has swelled to see more than 10,000 riders descend on its shores for the three-day festival.
I wanted in. The 16-year-old in me was awakened. So last year I made a plan – find myself a scooter club, and ready my Vespa for a trip down to the Isle of Wight's scooter mecca.
Getting into the scene was easy enough, finding a club to suit proved a little more troublesome. Typing "Scooter Clubs of London" into Google threw up hundreds of clubs. All had Facebook pages, all had a different take on the world of scootering. Some clubs defined their members as Mods and you couldn't ride with them unless you owned a vintage scooter, which ruled me out on account of my owning a brand new Vespa LX 125. Some groups were hardcore scooterists, travelling to every rally. For each rally there's a badge, and these are carefully collected and stitched on to parkas by the die-hard riders. Certain groups were incredibly well run, with membership lists, subs, committees and AGMs. I decided I would check as many as possible out over the coming weeks before aligning myself to a club.
The scooter season's opening rally takes place in March under the gaze of the London Eye. A circuit around town, followed by a pint in a pub in Essex. I rode up, nervously introducing myself to strangers, a predominantly white, male band of 40- to 50-year-olds. All seemed to be going well until we got on to the subject of scooters. My Vespa was a "new, automatic twist and go" scooter rather than a "classic" Sixties scooter with gears and original engine parts. This was my first taste of the snobbery that is rife among scooterists over the authenticity of their bikes. Where my new scooter cost £2,000, the carefully sourced vintage models cost upwards of £4,000. And then it started to rain.
Over the summer, the weather improved, and I warmed to the people. When not talking about wing-nuts and engines, scooterists are a good crowd. Many told me that they got into scooters because they loved "the scene". Peter Sceats, from The Foresters Scooter Club, explained the attraction: "It reminds me of my youth, clubbing, great music, spending every penny I had on fashion and on my scooter." The majority of scooterists can't stop that "Saturday night fever" feeling and they refuse to let age get in the way.
I ended up joining a club called the New Originals: an informal set-up that included a printer, a carpenter, a courier and a man who sold taps. Over the last few months, I have come to look forward to our sojourns; an evening ride to a London landmark, a cheeky half and a debate about who were the better band, The Beat or The Specials.
It was with three members of the New Originals that I headed off to the Isle of Wight scooter festival. It was the first time I'd ridden on an A road, with thundering HGVs, speeding cars and cross-winds that can thrust a scooter out of the safety of its lane. At 45mph, wiping a piece of grit from your eye suddenly becomes fraught with risk.
The journey took three hours and 15 minutes (including 25 minutes on the ferry). But I made it. And when I arrived, I was greeted by an awesome sight and an-ear piercing sound, thousands of shrill two-stroke engines rattling up and down Union Street. All welcomed by the islanders. As John Metcalfe, deputy director of the Isle of Wight Council, enthused: "This vibrant, colourful scene brings a significant economic value to the island."
Come midnight, the pubs were heaving and dancefloors were shaking. My new-found friends of 40-something men and women had travelled from Stoke, Nottingham, Frankfurt and Milan to share nights dancing to Northern Soul and classic Trojan reggae. We all spent hours gazing at chromed-up, two-wheeled chariots. Stuart Robson, who promoted two of the rally's biggest events, said: "Each year it gets more popular, it's just a fantastic spectacle – 10,000 scooters, no two the same, and it's a great party."
The 180-mile round-trip, costing a grand total of £14.50 in petrol, was the longest journey I've ever done on a scooter. Setting out in the rain, I arrived on the island in glorious sunshine. Riding through the lush countryside from Freshwater to Ryde, I couldn't wipe the grin off my face. I caught my reflection in my mirrors. And there I was. 16 again. That young boy in a parka bopping down Carnaby Street with a copy of Sound Affects under his arm.
New Originals Scooter Club
This motley crew of casuals, mods, dreads and scooter enthusiasts took me under their wing and helped settle me into the world of scootering.
Aces High Scooter Club
Hails from Brighton, the spiritual home of Mods and scooters. This club is known on the scene for its splendid annual 'Lazy Weekender' charity event.
Yorkshire Scooter Alliance
A one-stop web-shop that links more than 20 Yorkshire-based scooter clubs together. Rideouts, all-nighters and talking scooters is their thing. www.yorkshirealliance.co.uk
New Forest Scooter Club
Core members live in the New Forest area, but such is the club's appeal it attracts members from as far afield as Ringwood, Southampton and Bournemouth.
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