"We were in love with speed," said one old Rocker. "Our life was bikes, burning and birds."
-By David Edwards
They’re old now. Or dead. But 50 summers ago, in England, they laid down blueprints for the sportbikes that some 125,000 of you will buy this year. They were called Rockers for the new style of music they listened to, or Ton-Up Boys for the top-speed highway burn-offs they engaged in. Stu Savory, a Velocette Clubman rider who back in the day hung out at the famous Ace Café on London’s North Circular Road, explains the drill: “This was before the days of the blanket 70-mph speed limit. Doing the Ton, 100 mph, was in! The Ace was famous for ‘record racing.’ Put a coin in the jukebox, select the Animals’ ‘House of the Rising Sun,’ jump on the bike, blast down the bypass to the roundabout and back before the record ended, averaging the Ton.”
American moto-journalist John Covington was fascinated by the scene, still going strong in the late Sixties when he dropped in.
“They don’t do the Ton on a race course or a flat stretch of country road,” he wrote in Cycle magazine. “Likely as not, they do it on the North Circular Road or the Watford Bypass or the M1 expressway. They don’t do the Ton in broad daylight when there’s no traffic and the pavement is dry. They do it at night, when challenged to a burn-off. The air will be damp and the high-beam won’t be good for more than 60 mph and there will be trucks and cars of all sizes on the road. And that, mate, is when you do the Ton.”
Early café-racers were a British invention and used combinations of engines and frames from home-market bikes. Later came Japanese bikes such as the Honda CB750, which responded well to the café treatment.
Stock bikes were no good for this sort of thing, plus new ones were too expensive for teenagers and 20-somethings, so Rockers built their own, often from scrapyard beaters.
“First to go are the standard handlebars, which are replaced by clip-ons,” noted Covington. “Racing-type tank and seat are next, then come modifications to the exhaust system, plus new paint and other minor decorating. The Rockers strive for a racer image, and so rarely hang superfluous goodies all over the machine.” The ideal was to find a gutted Norton Featherbed frame (geometry so good it was copied for decades) and stuff it full of hopped-up 650cc Triumph motor. Top off the resulting “Triton” with an aluminum gas tank, monster front brake, alloy rims and premium rubber, and you had the ultimate café-racer, an appealing mix of speed and style—in effect, the world’s first sportbike.
The term was at first derogatory, bestowed by older riders dismissing these young turks of the tarmac and their lashed-together machines as barely being able to get from one transport café to another. The local authorities also took a dim view of Rockers, who favored black-leather jackets and jackboots, and traveled in packs. Much like American hot-rodders in the Fifties, chopper riders in the Seventies and urban street-racers and stunters today, they were subject to being hassled at any time—though a rundown of their crimes suggests a certain period quaintness.
An English newspaper report from 1961 tells of police swooping down on the Ace Café and rounding up 100 Rockers, guilty of atrocities ranging from “insulting behavior” to “jeering at passing motorists” to the unbelievably heinous “indulging in horseplay.”
Everything's Ace: Originally just a cheap decorating trick, black and white checkerboards are now synonymous with café-racers.
Harry Martin, 18, was one of the perps. “We were arrested for the simple reason that we wear leather jackets,” he protested. “People are always blaming us for causing trouble, but we keep to ourselves and the Ace is our café. All the boys and girls get down there to see the bikes, and it’s the done thing for the lads to do a bit of a ‘flash turn’ when coming into the car park. There’s bound to be a bit of noise, but no rowdiness.”
Martin was fined £5 for his indiscretions, and with the others was back at the Ace the next night.
Just like blue jeans and leather jackets, that kind of rebelliousness never goes out of style (thank goodness), and café-racers still look good today, as evidenced by Steve “Carpy”Carpenter’s Rocker-style sohc Honda CB750 (above), which, he says, “snaps more heads than a cordless screwdriver on steroids.” His Southern California shop, Nostalgia Speed & Cycle has turned out about 20 examples so far, and demand is growing.
Why not? One old Rocker explained the attraction, just as viable now as then. “We were in love with speed,” he said. “Our life was bikes, burning and birds.”
Cheers, mates. Next pint’s on us.
Friday, August 31, 2007
From Cycle World: