Thursday, August 23, 2007

The short Dvisible history of the Cafe Racer.

Written by Courtney Walker from
"One of the first widely customized styles of motorcycle, the café racer trend was born out of the poverty of Post War Europe. The café racer, pronounced ‘caff’, was the precursor to the widely popular sportbikes of today. In the 1950s, motorcycles were primarily used for everyday transportation. But then came Rock and Roll and the rebellious youth that took claim of this new musical style needed a special type of bike. Before the blanket 70 mph speed limit was laid forth unto the masses, the goal of many of these racers was to reach the coveted ‘ton’ or a speed of 100mph while traveling from one transport café to another. Often times the challenge at London’s famous Ace Café on North Circular Road was ‘record racing’. Averaging a ton, after selecting a Rock and Roll song on the jukebox, the racer would jump on the bike, zoom down the bypass, hit the roundabout and race back before the song was done playing. The need for speed, the need to look cool, especially in the right environment, which seemed to be anywhere Rock and Roll was played, mainly in the transport cafes, and the need to be different were the primary reasons for a bike’s conversion to a café racer. The bikes were customized not only to reflect the individual style of the rider but also to be agile and aerodynamic along Europe’s newly built twisting arterial motorways. British motorcycles were restyled and modified to reach these goals. Ducati, BMW and Moto Guzzi also played their parts in the café racer trend.

Two groups to spearhead the café racer movement were the British ‘Ton Up Boys’ called so for their enthusiasm in reaching the coveted ton and the ‘Rockers’ so named for the new style of music they listened to. Stock motorcycles were no good for these groups; they didn’t handle well enough, as well as the fact that the new bikes were far too expensive for the teenagers and 20-somethings that were the groups’ primary members. Since Triumph engines were considered powerful and Norton frames and forks delivered exceptional road handling, the definitive racer of the day became the homemade Norton Featherbed chassis/frame put together with the Triumph Bonneville engine and retitled ‘The Triton’. With a 650cc motor and lightweight frame, the nimble Triton was an appealing mix of speed and style and had enough power and handling to more easily reach the ton. It became, essentially, the world’s first sport bike.

A racer image would be the effect most sought after, so, naturally, modifications were in order. The standard handlebars were replaced by super low ace bars or one-sided clip-ons, which were fastened directly to the front forks. The bars were not only for looks but also for more accurate control of the bike and aerodynamic purposes, so that the racer would be better shielded from the wind. Next came racing style petrol/gas tanks and seats. The aluminum gas tanks were large and hand-made and most often left unpainted. Then came modifications such as swept-back exhausts and rear set footpegs, which helped give better clearance when leaning through fast corners. Lastly was the paint job, though the Rockers and Ton Up boys were distinctively black clad, from their leather jackets and down to their jackboots, they often painted their bikes in ‘fast’ or ‘racing’ colors, like yellow, blue, or silver/chrome.

By the early 1960s, the bike market was changing due to new traffic laws and road systems and many riders switched to cars. This didn’t seem to bother the racers very much. However, by the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the British bike makers were trying to cope with the emergence of the Japanese manufacturers, with the Kawasaki Z9 and the Honda CB750. The Brits ceased to innovate, simply rehashing the same bikes over and over and sending them into the marketplace.

Recently, a light resurgence of the café racer is being seen by consumers with Ducati launching their Sport 1000, Norton, with the Thruxton, Triumph and its updated Bonneville and the French Voxan Café Racer. The demand for the vintage style of the racers is growing with custom manufacturers seeing a small boom in requests from customers, as well. Like all things vintage, whether authentic or inspired, the café racer has never really gone away but has been held on to by true enthusiasts only to be appropriated by the masses much later. The rebelliousness and love for speed that bore these bikes is something that will never go out of style, only reformed and reshaped for modernity, whether that be using the look of the vintage bikes and coupling them with today’s technology, racing an actual bike from that era or riding their offspring, sportbikes."