In the beginning was the sea…or more accurately, the seaside. A promenade is a public walkway constructed along the strand to keep the sand from our shoes. Promenades attracted droves in the 19th Century – what else was there to do –  and soon pleasure piers, amusement parks, and music venues became their principal attraction, compounding the interest of a fun-seeking public.  Even in the midst of the Depression, the period examined here, Youth found a way to its opposite sex, and a tourist-laden seaside resort was a happy hunting ground for perambulators of breeding age, whether the hunter was on foot or awheel.  To the newly mobile, places like Southend-on-Sea became the hottest pickup spots outside of a London dance hall, and motorcyclists of a certain age and inclination were naturally drawn to them for the same reason: unintended procreation and forced marriage (kidding / not kidding).  Thus we have the creation of seaside promenades, upon which one promenades, in a typical Anglophone example of verbing a noun.

Hello, Percy. An unknown but stylish rider aboard a mid-1920s Coventry-Eagle Flying 8 with rakish zeppelin-bodied Mills-Furford sporting sidecar, an apex fairy-catching machine! [The Vintagent Archive]
The introduction of any new technology brings unforeseeable cultural consequences, and so it was with the motorcycle: who knew it would become an essential tool for the mating rituals of a certain youth subculture?   Beginning in the Twenties, a subset of mostly London-based motorcyclists made their gathering point exactly these seaside promenades.  They were noted for riding ‘modern, sporting mounts’ resplendent in extra chrome and straight-through exhausts, dressing snappily, and doing their best to attract the attention of so-called ‘seaside fairies’, or young ladies expecting to be courted by just such fellows.  These mostly male riders were disparagingly called the “seaside promenade Percy”, presumably in reference to Percy Shelley, the notorious 19th Century libertine, anarchist, and dandy, who died young and beautiful in 1822. Shelley was scandalous for his Bohemian lifestyle and free love antics, so decamped to Italy to live a hassle-free life with his young genius bride, Mary Shelley, who wrote the first, most profound, and most misinterpreted treatise on the unexpected consequences of technology, called ‘Frankenstein: or, a Modern Prometheus.”

Success! Perhaps a first-generation ca.1925 Brough Superior SS80 with Milford zeppelin sidecar is the ticket. The Stormgarde coat and flat cap help the effect, and the Flapper in her cloche hat seems quite happy with the situation. [The Vintagent Archive]
In the typical English gift for abbreviation, our obnoxious inter-war heroes were soon called simply Promenade Percys: a perfect double entendre. Calling a young motorcyclist Percy implied their amorous antics were not the proper focus of a young man’s energies: that would be war, not love.  Or at least, a battle substitute like sport. Finger-waggers made their displeasure plain via letters and editorials in the mid-1930s motorcycle press, when Percys were compared unfavorably with ‘real men’ like Jimmie Simpson, the square-jawed hero of the Norton factory racing team, who retired in 1934 with five European Championships under his belt.  Real men, it was implied, risked their necks in battlefields and on racetracks, while Promenade Percys (and later cafe racers) merely jousted for the attention of girls. [Sadly, I have yet to discover a similarly derided Promenade Pamela]
The Promenade Percy phenomenon was not limited to England, or even the sea, as this 1930 riding gang from southern Germany attests.  Terrific examples of stylish riding gear from leathers to woolens and every type of flying goggle! [The Vintagent Archive]
It’s been claimed the Promenade Percy was the origin of the species of what became known as cafe racer culture, but it’s not so. I argue in my book ‘Ton Up!’ that a subculture attracted to ‘racers on the road’ is evergreen, and simply human nature.  Included in the book is an account of the joys of speed on two wheels from 1869, on one of the very first Michaux pedal-velocipedes.  While not the first, our Percy is the direct ancestor of the Ace Cafe denizens of the 1950s, and were excoriated in the press in exactly the same manner. From the Western Gazette of Feb 12, 1932: “Pukka riders must not be confused with those ‘bright Percys’, the promenade pests, who float up and down their main streets and sea fronts adorned in spotless suits with carefully oiled hair, looking for some fair damsel to adorn their pillion seat.”  A 1934 letter describes Percys “engaged in ‘Simpsoning’ up and down the seafront with their pillions bedecked in beach pyjamas.”  From 1932 onwards such letters blossomed in The Motor Cycle every Springtime, but their condemnation sounds more like envy to our modern ears.  And frankly, I can’t imagine much better than riding a chromium-plated 1930s sports motorcycle along the seaside, in a fantastic tweed suit, with my fairy damsel on the back.

Fun by the seaside: even motorcycle parts can be leveraged for fun, as demonstrated by Stanley Woods (top) and his pals near the sea wall at Douglas, Isle of Man, in 1928. [The Vintagent Archive]
Rakish Promenade Percys with competition from pedestrians! But this is Sao Paolo, Brazil, in 1930, where only the very wealthy could afford a 1928 Moto Guzzi C4V racer to use as a street machine. The whole ensemble here is amazingly attired! [The Vintagent Archive]
Not to forget our Australian friends, who have nothing but beach on which to promenade. This 1928 picnic gang includes Phil Irving in regulation University woolens and his then-characteristic beret for rakish effect. [Harry Beanham photo: The Vintagent Archive]
Here he is: Percy. Aboard the hot crumpet-catcher of the 1920s, a 1925 Norton 16H Sports with sidecar. His outfit is impeccable, including collarless leather racing jerkin, woolen jodhpurs, white shirt and tie, summer gloves, and woolen fishing socks pulled up high, an affectation adopted by the classic Ace Cafe Rockers of the 1950s, but with engineer’s boots, which had yet to be invented in this period. [The Vintagent Archive]
By popular demand, here’s the North American style of sporting riding gear circa 1929, from my own hometown of Stockton California. A gang of riders on Harley-Davidsons, a a few of which hint at a new style of motorcycle emerging at this time, the ‘California Cut-Down’, or simply Cut Down as it became known, the first widely copied style of motorcycle customization. The gents are snappily but not too formally – no neckties required in Stockton! [The Vintagent Archive]
[This essay is adopted from a column originally published in Classic Bike Guide.  As CBG no longer includes columns in their pages, we are adding this content into The Vintagent so more readers can enjoy the thoughts of our publisher, Paul d’Orléans.  The photographs included here are all original and unpublished photos, included in his book ‘Ton Up! A Century of Cafe Racer Speed and Style’ (2020, Motorbooks), an exploration of the evergreen love for fast motorcycles since 1869.  If you want a signed copy, we’ll set you up with one here.]

 
 

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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