Motorcycling: An Illustrated Social History, by Roger Fogg

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A high quality hardback review of motorcycling from 1910 through to 1969, showcasing half a century of British bikes and the people who rode them…

I must shout this out straight away: do not be put off by the portentous title! Please. This is a cracking book of elderly photographs of more elderly motorcycles, and is packed with knowledge and humour. A remarkable amount of the latter for such a downbeat title.

Roger Fogg is extremely well-known in old bike circles, especially in the South West of the UK, where we both live, and to be honest I was delighted when he clattered into the driveway aboard a grimy old single clutching a copy of his latest book. One of his earlier outbursts, deliciously entitled ‘Rust’ is one of my all-time favourite books about the sort of transport we all appear to enjoy. You can work that one out, I’m sure.

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‘Motorcycling: An Illustrated Social History’ is a big, very high quality publication, and is ram-packed with photographs and a caption explaining them. Roger has a colossal collection of the things, accumulated over far too many years wasted (or not) in far too many jumbles, auto and otherwise, stalls and shops where can be found ancient postcards and old views of town and country from long ago. Surprisingly frequently, these old photos have a motorcycle in them, usually incidentally. Roger has also borrowed photos from his wide circle of friends (all are credited, too, which is good to see), and in those cases he can tell us who we’re looking at, as well as the where, when and occasionally why.

There are 160 pages, all of them thick, heavy, high quality paper, and all of them filled with photographs and explanations and descriptions of the images themselves. I suppose it is in fact a social history, given that the passage of time and the intrusion of world and local events is chronicled to some degree, but that sounds far too stuffy. Roger’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. Once you start to read, it becomes immersive, you just want to read another entry. The page layout is clean, clever in places and never gets in the way of our enjoyment, which is not always the case with other books.

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50s and 60s Nortons on

The photographs are in chronological order, which is intelligent enough, and it is amusing to observe how the fashions of the riders change, even though the bikes themselves develop far more slowly. So from the early years of the turn of the last century (the chapters start in 1910) we are treated to the sigh of those delicious period white tyres, big hats and breeches, followed by the sudden shift at 1914, then largely similar machine re-emerge into the 1920s, but with wildly different fashions and locations. It’s fascinating.

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Roger runs right up to 1969, by which time the machines from six decades earlier are making fresh appearances, first as barn finds and curiosities, then as VMCC delights. The post-war years, the 1950s and 60s, are my own favourites, and there are some superb shots, lots of them well-researched and described, as you can expect from Mr Fogg.

Personal favourites? A grim shot of German soldiers, post-Dunkirk, with a pile of abandoned British motorcycles, a couple of the soldiers sitting on a two wheel-drive Norton outfit. And a re-enactment of an ancient shot of an ancient corrugated-iron garage; both the original shot, the re-staged shot – with one of the original bikes in it – are just so evocative of two different past times.

An excellent book. If you’re making a list of presents you’d like to find in your sock on Christmas morning, add this to it. You will not be disappointed.

RC Reviewer: Frank Westworth


‘Motorcycling: An Illustrated Social History’, by Roger Fogg, is published by Halsgrove in hardback with 160 pages. ISBN 978-0857041975.

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