Rockers, leather boys or ton-up boys are a biker subculture that originated in the United Kingdom during the 1950s. It was mainly centered around British cafe racer motorcycles and rock and roll music.
British mods and skinheads commonly called rockers greasers or grease as an insult. Since then, the terms greaser and rocker have become fairly interchangeable in the UK but are used differently in North America. Rockers were also derisively known as Coffee Bar Cowboys. In Japan, their equivalent was called the Kaminari-zoku (Thunder Tribe).
Until the post-World War II years, motorcycling held a prestigious position within British society and enjoyed a positive image, being associated with wealth and glamour. Starting in the 1950s, the middle classes were able to buy inexpensive motorcars, and motorcycles became transport for the poor. The rocker subculture came about due to factors such as: the end of post-war rationing in the UK, a general rise in prosperity for working class youths, the recent availability of credit and financing for young people, the influence of American popular music and films such as The Wild One, the construction of race track-like arterial ring roads around British cities, and the development of transport cafes. These factors coincided with a peak in British motorcycle engineering.
Rocker-style youths existed in the 1950s, and were also known as ton-up boys because ton-up was English slang for driving at a speed of 100 mph (160 km/h) or over. The Teddy boys of the 1950s are considered their "spiritual ancestors". The rockers or ton-up boys took what was essentially a sport and turned it into a lifestyle, dropping out of mainstream society and "rebelling at the points where their will crossed society's". It had a damaging effect on the public image of motorcycling in the UK, and led to the politicisation of the motorcycling community.
Around this time, the emerging mass media started targeting what were socially powerless groups who could not resist negative imagery, and cast them as "folk devils", creating a moral panic through highly exaggerated and ill-founded portrayals. From the 1960s on, due to the media fury surrounding themods and rockers, motorcycling youths became more commonly known as rockers, a term previously little known outside of small groups. The public came to consider rockers as hopelessly naive, loutish, scruffy, motorized cowboys, loners or outsiders.
Rockers immersed themselves in rock and roll music and fashions, and began to be known as much for their devotion to the music as they were for their motorcycles. Many rockers favored 1950s and early-1960s rock and roll by artists such as Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Elvis Presley; music that George Melly called at the time, "screw and smash" music.
Two groups emerged, one identifying with Marlon Brando's image in The Wild One and with the Hells Angels, hanging around transport cafes, projecting nomadic romanticism, violence, anti-authoritarianism and anti-domesticity; the other being non-riders, similar in image but less involved in the cult of the motorbike.
Rockers bought standard factory-made motorcycles and stripped them down, tuning them up and modifying them to appear like racing bikes. Their bikes were not merely transport, but were used as an object of intimidation and masculinity projecting them uneasily close to death, an element exaggerated by their use of skull and crossbone-type symbolism. They raced on public roads and hung out at transport cafes such as The Ace Cafe, Chelsea Bridge tea stall, Ace of Spades, Busy Bee and Johnsons. Hence the term cafe racer, (pronounced caff racer).
First seen in the United States and then England, the rocker fashion style was born out of necessity and practicality. Rockers wore heavily-decorated leather motorcycle jackets, often adorned with metal studs, patches, pin badges and sometimes an Esso gas man trinket. When they rode their motorcycles, they usually wore no helmet, or wore a classic open-face helmet, aviator goggles and a white silk scarf (to protect them from the elements). Other common items included: T-shirts, leather caps, Levi's or Wrangler jeans, leather trousers, tall motorcycle boots (often made by Lewis Leathers) or brothel creepers. Also popular was a patch declaring membership of the 59 Club of England, a church-based youth organization that later formed into a motorcycle club with members all over the world. The rocker hairstyle, kept in place with Brylcreem, was usually a tame or exaggerated pompadour hairstyle, as was popular with some 1950s rock and roll musicians.
Largely due to their clothing styles and dirtiness, the rockers were not widely welcomed by venues such as pubs and dance halls. Rockers also transformed rock and roll dancing into a more violent, individualistic form beyond the control of dance hall management. They were generally reviled by the British motorcycle industry and general enthusiasts as being as an embarrassment and bad for the industry and the sport.
Originally, many rockers opposed recreational drug use, and according to Johnny Stuart,
They had no knowledge of the different sorts of drugs. To them amphetamines, cannabis, heroin were all drugs - something to be hated. Their ritual hatred of Mods and other sub-cultures was based in part on the fact that these people were believed to take drugs and were therefore regarded as sissies. Their dislike of anyone connected with drugs was intense.
The rockers' look and attitude influenced pop groups from The Beatles in 1960  to punk rock bands and their fans in the late 1970s. The look of the ton-up boy and rocker was accurately portrayed in the 1964 film The Leather Boys, starring Rita Tushingham and Directed by Sidney Furie. After 2000, the rocker subculture became an influence on the rockabilly revival and psychobilly scenes. The modern-day rocker-style and reunion motorcycle runs have followings all over the world, especially in Japan, the United States and Australia.In the 2000s, many rockers still wear engineer boots or full-length motorcycle boots, but Winklepickers (sharp pointed shoes) are no longer common. Some rockers in the 2000s wear Dr. Martens boots, brothel creepers (originally worn by Teddy Boys) or military combat boots. Rockers have continued to wear motorcycle jackets, leather trousers and white silk scarves while riding their bikes. Leather caps adorned with metal studs and chains, common among rockers in the 1950s and 1960s, are rarely seen any more. Instead, some contemporary rockers wear a classic wool English driving cap.