A rat bike

Bikes in the City Part Two: Rat Bikes


They say that in London you’re never more than six feet away from a rat. Gary Inman – Sideburn Magazine publisher/editor and aficionado of biking subcultures remembers a lost coterie of dark clad urban rebels.

Where once motorcycles offered the working person an intense, but usually manageable, injection of rebellion at virtually every opportunity, there is now a canyon between the real bad ‘uns, wheelying through sink estates on stolen ‘crossers, and the rest of us, cowed into submission by the surveillance state and their web of one-eyed NPR snitches.

I know we’re supposed to obey the speed limits, and always were, but who is buying a supercharged Kawasaki H2 to do 70mph? So, let’s assume the disobedience of which I write (and crave) while not entirely socially responsible, was exercised when there was both ‘the time and the place’.

Motorcycle subcultures, the street styles that form much of today’s two-wheeled landscape, where born specifically to revel in snatched moments of illegality. Let’s be clear, we’re not outlaws, we’re tax-payers with steam to blow. Café racers were a lifestyle accoutrement, but one that was derived to be faster than anything on the road, including the police. Streetfighters brought crashed superbikes back from the dead. Choppers turned fairground ride Harleys into the (relatively) lightweight, lane-splitting mounts of highway hellions. All have been co-opted by the industry, adopted by the mainstream, monetised. Rebellion turned into money.

Rat bike

One breed stood apart, quietly encapsulating the daily one-two, eff-you to authority, from the top of their rattle-canned tanks, to the bottom of their filth-caked sump plugs: the rat bike. The rat is an unremarkable model of bike bought cheaply, repaired quickly, transformed artlessly. The original rat bikes, and their owners, did everything possible to stay off radar screens. Nothing, except perhaps a cheap, four-into-one exhaust, attracted attention. Everything, barring brakes discs and light lenses, was painted matt black. Nothing was masked off. Paint as social signifier and Loctite.

Rat bikes were a product of squat mentality, of hunt saboteur fundraisers, of post-war thriftiness. Invisible in plain sight, and free to push the boundaries just far enough.

It’s hard to think of a more anti-establishment internally combusted sub-culture, formed in the UK at least, because rat bikers turned their backs on the consumerism that drove every other cult. Money could not elevate your rat bike, only transform it into something else, because there was no hierarchy, no spotlight to aim for. While they could be fast, a Suzuki GSX1100 rat could try to burst the zip on the rider’s cheap leather jacket at over 140mph, a true rat bike was never a street sleeper. They weren’t a race replica slumming it for effect. That would be seen through.

Rats, like their rodent namesakes, evolved to be unobtrusive. If you’re noticing either of them something has got badly out of kilter. Instead, break the law, as a matter of course, with a machine that is as memorable as a patch of tarmac. ‘Can you describe the motorcycle that passed you?’ It was black. ‘The make or model?’ Sorry. ‘What was the rider wearing?’ All black: boots, trousers, jacket, helmet, gloves. ‘Any distinguishing patches or colours?’ No. ‘Anything about the bike that stood out?’ [Pause] I’m not being much help am I, officer?

A rat bike
A rat bike in all its glory.

There was a splinter cult, often lumped in with the rat bike milieu, the survival bike, and this is what most people now think of as rats, but the purist in won’t allow. These machines shared the dull paint, but set out to draw attention to themselves with the kind of ancillaries their owners thought might help survive society’s collapse – panniers made from army surplus ammunition boxes, multiple lights, zombie-spearing subframes, sub-Heath-Robinson suspension and brake assemblies.

Bikes that were made to look terrible, impossible, and monstrous. These were awarded the magazine covers they demanded, they entered custom shows, they were Mutoid Waste Company choppers for men who couldn’t talk to women, but they missed the point.

 I realise I’ve written much of this article in the past-tense, and that’s because the original rat bike seems extinct. Rat bikes were not built because that’s all the owner could afford. They were a conscious choice, acquired with factory paint and graphics that could have been retained, engine cases that could’ve been polished with Autosol and an old sock. It was a conscious choice.

Now there are no longer swathes of hinterland for them to covertly exploit what is the point? Big Brother won. It’s impossible to be an off-the-grid rider in modern Britain. You’re either obeying, or risking jail due to your actions. Or, and I really wish this is true, perhaps I’m not looking in the right places. Perhaps the rats are thriving and I just can’t spot them.