New Zealand’s gang phenomenon was deeply influenced by the United States, where youthful delinquency emerged as a specific problem, and the term ‘teenager’ became common, in the 1950s.
After the rock ’n’ roll era commenced in the US around 1954, bodgies and their female counterparts, widgies, appeared on the New Zealand scene. Bodgies typically wore tight jeans and their hair plastered down with Vaseline or Brylcreem. Rock ’n’ roll’s arrival signalled a revolution in youth culture, and was accompanied by rising public concern about the erosion of traditional values.
Rock ’n’ roll
In the 1950s young New Zealanders flocked to buy hits by Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and others. They imitated new styles of dance, dress and haircuts. Motorcycles, gangs and violence were glamorised in films such as Marlon Brando’s 1954 The wild one (originally banned in New Zealand), James Dean’s Rebel without a cause (1955), Elvis Presley’s King Creole (1958), and hit songs like ‘Black denim trousers and motorcycle boots’ (Cheers, 1955), ‘Rebel rouser’ (Duane Eddy, 1958), ‘Rumble’ (Link Wray, 1958) and ‘Mac the knife’ (Bobby Darin, 1959).
From the mid-1950s teenage gangs such as Currie’s Cowboys and the Saints became common in Auckland and Wellington. The Coffin Cheaters were active in Dunedin. By 1959 there were about 51 different gangs in Auckland and another 17 in Wellington, many centred around motorcycle ownership.
In 1961 a chapter of the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club in Auckland formally affiliated with its American counterpart and became the first chapter to be chartered outside of California. The Hell’s Angels’ formal structure of elected president, vice president and sergeant-at-arms, and membership denoted by a circular back patch with top and bottom bands (called rockers), became the template for most New Zealand gangs thereafter. Like overseas gangs, New Zealand motorcycle club members preferred American or British motorbikes, such as Harley Davidsons and Triumphs. Only men could be patched members of outlaw motorcycle gangs.
By the late 1960s some of New Zealand’s most notorious gangs had appeared. The Head Hunters were formed in 1967, followed by Highway 61 in 1968. Highway 61 was the largest motorcycle gang in New Zealand in 2010. In 1969 the Epitaph Riders – the first major South Island gang – appeared in Christchurch, followed by the Devil’s Henchmen in 1978. Another South Island gang, the Road Knights, formed in Tīmaru in 1979. In 2010 the Road Knights had chapters in Timaru, Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill.
There are many New Zealand outlaw motorcycle gangs. Some members are involved in the illegal manufacture and sale of drugs, and organised crime. However, although members may wear the 1% ‘outlaw’ badge, they argue that their primary reason for membership is a shared interest in motorcycles, and that any criminal activity has nothing to do with the club. Most members of motorcycle gangs are Pākehā, although they are not overtly racist.
The book Staunch: inside New Zealand's gangs, written by Bill Payne with photographs by Peter Quinn, was published in 1991. By 2009 all of Wellington library’s lending copies were missing, and the only reference copy was held at the desk. Auckland Public Library also had many copies stolen.
In the late 1970s Pākehā street gangs with neo-fascist and white power tendencies were formed, particularly in Christchurch. Their emergence may have been influenced by an economic downturn and rising unemployment, as well as by overseas trends. White supremacists generally form disorganised groups that are tied in with other racist organisations through common beliefs. They are conspicuous by their dress – often shaving their heads and wearing combat fatigues emblazoned with Nazi-style regalia. Operating under such names as United Skinheads, White Power, Bandenkrieg (a now defunct group of neo-fascist teenagers who worked with the Road Knights motorcycle gang) and The Fourth Reich (a gang formed inside Christchurch Prison in 1992), racist groups have been involved in firebombings of marae and police stations, and random attacks (including murders) on ethnic minorities and gay men.