The Vintage Motorcycle Club keeps on Rollin’

We chat to Neil Lewis, President of the Vintage Motor Cycle Club (VMCC), the UK’s biggest association dedicated to the promotions and preservation of all makes of bikes over 25 years old. 

With over 11,000 members right across the UK, VMCC is a dynamic organisation that, although tending towards an older membership, includes a broad range of people, riding a broad range of bikes. Though, they all share a passion for the older model motorbikes, often because of a link or memory associated with a bike from their past. That is the case for Neil too. 

When the club was formed in 1946, they were all lined up at the Hogshead outside Guildford on motorbikes that were only 20 years old at the time.

“Going back to the end of the 60s my father had an old motorbike that his uncle had bought brand new in the 1930s,” says Neil. “That was a sort of seed sown in my head by my father. Then of course the bike languished in a corner of the shed for some 30 years. I’ve still got it, it’s a 1930 Francis-Barnett, at best a little ride-to-work bike. It is not that different to the scooters you see in Italy.”

“I got into modern motorbikes as a mode of transport riding motorbikes to work at one time. Then when I went into consulting, I moved to taxis and trains on expenses and the bike just became a hobby, pure pleasure after that – a rich man’s toy. I picked up this old motorcycle that my father had kept and fixed it up. Through that bike I joined the Vintage Motor Cycle Club which was a club my father had been in. It seemed an obvious thing to join, then you get to a point where you have to go for a meeting Wakefield and you’re the only guy who can operate a computer, so someone says, ‘you can be the Secretary then’. It slowly and surely grows until you end up President of the club.”

Neil Lewis, President of VMCC, and his father’s 1930 Francis-Barnett.

At its heart, the Vintage Motorcycle Club is about enjoying riding old motorbikes. The typical member is retired and riding a 1970s or 80s bike, usually British bikes from the period, European or Japanese bikes. The club doesn’t differentiate between them and has no affiliation with any particular brands of bikes. 

“The club definition of a vintage bike is ‘anything that’s made on or before the 31st of December 1930’, but we’ve always welcomed bikes that are over 25 years old. So it has shifted,” explains Neil. “When the club was formed in 1946, they were all lined up at the Hogshead outside Guildford on motorbikes that were only 20 years old at the time. We now have a hundred years of motorbikes that are eligible.”

“With the realities of modern traffic, riding really old motorbikes is difficult”

Neil Lewis

As we know, the technology has changed drastically in that period, but so has the infrastructure. The roads are a very different place than they were in the first days of motorcycles.

“With the realities of modern traffic, riding really old motorbikes is difficult,” says Neil. “You need to go to remote locations, because they don’t have any brakes in a meaningful sense, they don’t have any acceleration. People are not expecting you to slow down slowly. They are lovely things to ride but you don’t want to be riding one in the middle of Leeds at 8’o’clock in the morning. However, you might ride a 70s or 80s bike quite successfully in the city because it’s got a modern braking system and modern lights, an electric start and all of that good stuff.”

So, the group has a very broad range of motorbikes in it and by extension a very broad range of members. They are spread all over the UK but there are about 80 sections that are geographically based, with a section in Northern Ireland, Aberdeen, the Isle of Man, the Isle of Wight, Norfolk and all the points in between. There is generally a section within 30 miles of most people in the UK and the sections are just local variations of people coming together and putting on events which is what people join for.

“Traditionally they are riding events,” explains Neil. “We might do a sixty-mile circuit, go for lunch at a place of interest and then ride back again. Increasingly there is a social change, so you see coffee meet-ups or breakfast meet-ups that are becoming more popular during the week, because as we’re mostly retired people, you might have to take the grandchildren to school, then you can ride out for a cup of coffee with the lads. So having something a bit looser is what the club is drifting towards because that’s just what people do these days.”

Probably the biggest most welcome change to the riding demographic in recent years is the inclusion and involvement of more female riders. The VMCC is very welcoming to women, and is proud to have a female member on the VMCC board, but the membership is, at least for now, predominantly male and retired. It is difficult for younger members to find the time to dedicate to a vintage motorbike, explains Neil.

“Younger people have so much pressure on their time, working to pay the bills so the days of a man saying ‘Sunday’s my day of rest so I’m going out on my motorbike’ are gone. A modern man can’t say that anymore, it’s not acceptable.”

Given the great benefits we know social riding and having the time to take a breather from the pressures of modern living, we agree! But Neil is optimistic about the growing passion for vintage. Membership keeps rolling on. Nobody is getting any younger and neither are the bikes, so different generations are turning up, with different bikes. 

“Some of the bikes that are eligible now, I always think of as hyper sports bikes, but I’m casting my mind back to when I was in my mid-twenties, and they were sports bikes at the time. Most VMCC members don’t limit themselves to just one bike, I’ve got five and that’s typical of VMCC members. Some are well into double figures; most have one or two.”

“Mostly the bikes are ridden just for the joy of it. These events are not a competition, there’s no racing going on with the VMCC. Really, it’s just a group of people riding a route and giving someone a cup at the end of it for not getting lost,” says Neil. “It’s not a race. We sometimes do regularity runs, the Banbury Run is the pre-eminent event in the UK and internationally for pre-31 bikes, and that at its heart is an old-fashioned regularity run. So, you say you’re going to do 15 miles an hour average over a 60-mile route and then you get awards for getting as close to that as possible”.

Covid has put a slight dent in memberships as some people just got out of the habit of riding out at the weekend and never came back to it, but it will come slowly back. People always want to ride together, and the bikes are a great unifier.

Neil enthused “The bikes really bring people together and when you bring interesting bikes out into the public space, you’ll always have someone coming up to you to talk about them. The number of people where their dad’s owned a Vincent or a Brough Superior, many more than were ever made, but those bikes bring people together.”

There’s nothing elitist or exclusionary about the VMCC, in fact virtually anyone can join, you just need a passion for motorcycles, especially if they are over 25 years old, but not exclusively, as Neil explains.

“We’ve always been a very open club. We’ll welcome people who turn up on a new Triumph or a new Royal Enfield, we don’t associate with any one particular manufacturer, but probably half our members would be in a one-make club as well.”

As in any road race, the way has many twists and turns, ups and downs, but we are all getting older and the bikes we ride passionately are ageing too. At a certain point, we’ll all be in the vintage club, almost inevitably probably we’ll be in the Vintage Motor Cycle Club!

Thank you to Neil Lewis, President of VMCC for chatting to us here at the BMIC. For more information about their events and memberships please click on their website below