Cafe racers: return of 1960s


Cafe Racer subculture

Café Racer (originally “Caff”) is a name of motorcycles and motorcyclists. The roots of this subculture go to Great Britain of 1960s. Originally, it developed in rocker’s circle. Young guys and rock-n-roll fans were eager to be faster than everyone, distinguish themselves from the crowd and ride bikes from café to café along new highways connecting cities and suburbs of England.

Cafe racers: return of 1960s

The purpose of many café-racers was to reach more than 100 m/h. Races usually were arranged in cafes. Destination was chosen, which racer had to reach first and return back to café. Time, given to race, was limited by song ordered in jukebox.

Café racer motorbikes were and are modified stock motorcycles. Their main features are speed and good handling. Differential characteristic of classic Café is outstretched fuel tank and seat sticking out in tail. There is also installed a lowered handlebar (usually clip-ons), which provides accurate motorbike control on high speed. Traditionally, motorbikes were equipped with full or incomplete fairing (bikini) for protection from wind and better aerodynamics.

Cafe racers: return of 1960s

Most Cafes of 1960s were based on Norton Featherbed and Triumph Bonneville engine. Such combination was later called “Triton”. Those café racers, who had modest budget, used Tribsa – a Triumph engine on BSA frame.


Café-racer (this term is referred as to riders, so to their motorbikes) – is a bike modified for gaining high speed, and which has excellent handling on wind city streets. In this case, convenience is neither here nor there. Of course, such transport already existed, but was unavailable for common folk. These are serial prototypes from Moto GrandPrix, from which café-racers borrowed a lot. Short and low-placed clip-ons fastened under upper clamp and footpegs pointed skyward provided a sporting seat, and the pilot can lie down on long fuel tank, which reduces air flow resistance. In 1960s fuel tank foe café racer was handworked and made of aluminium. Later, in 1970s, lengthened tank was replaced with short narrow ones made of glass fiber. Racing style fairings were fastened directly to frame, if they were installed. All that is not needed was removed and thrown away, reducing the future café racer in weight. Necessary attribute is a seat with aerodynamic “hump” behind rider.

Cafe racers: return of 1960s

Engine also exposed to alterations. The key requirement is increasing of power and ability to “make a ton”. As a result, café racer was light in weight, maneuverable and very powerful for its time. Examples of motorbikes, which were turned in café racers of 1960s: Norton 500 Manx, Norton 30M, Triumph Bonneville and many other.

Cafe racers: return of 1960s

Evolution of style

In the middle of 1970s, Japanese motorcycles supersede British ones on European market. Basis for café racers more often were three- four-cylinder stocks from Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha. Manufacturers picked up on a trend and were quick to introduce serial models in popular style: 1977 Harley Davidson XLCR, 1979 Suzuki GS1000S, models from Ducati branded as “Super Sport”. A bit later manufacturers started building “themed variations” based on road models equipped with low clip-ons and specific one-place seat. But any complete remake of motorcycle was out of question: these were the very same road motorbikes, but with inconvenient seat. Of course, they were no faster than their “civil relatives”. Due to efforts of manufacturers, the interest to the theme started fading step by step.

Cafe racers: return of 1960s

The situation was saved by ordinary motorcyclists, which didn’t want to refer serial motorcycles to café racers. Motorbikes created by amateurs of 1970-80s might were the most beautiful and powerful of their type. Airy contours, roar of 4-stroke Japanese engines – these are signatures of café racer of that age in addition to following stylistic canons of 1960s.

Present day

The present-day concept of “café racer” is quite vague and is referred almos to any city motorcycle with one-lace seat and low handlebar. It is also referred to streetfighters and vice versa. Though, the building approach for streetfighter is completely different. These types of motorcycles have some similarities, but they are built in different ways.

Cafe racers: return of 1960s

What about manufacturers? Have they understood the mistake they made in far 1970s? No, they haven’t. Serial café racers are still the same road bikes (which are now called naked bikes) built the same way as earlier. It is understandable: the demand for very specific motorbike meant for speed races from bar to bar is minuscule and won’t repay expenditures. And the history repeats! Vigorous youth of 1960-s now have work and families. Only now they have regular income, and some of them want to revive experiences they had, when they were young. So, they spend night in their garage building ideal motorcycle. So, as before, café racers ride though night streets of Europe…

The Legend is alive

It is hard to believe that legendary Ace Café is not a figment of the imagination, but a real place. It was opened in 1938. The purpose of its owners was provision of services for traffic flow coming along recently built North Circular Road. The café worked day and night. Due to this it was captivated by motorcyclists. In 1949 the café was rebuilt after bombing during the WW II.

Many factors contributed to its success after war: hasty growth of car traffic, flourish of British motorcycle industry, biker’s and café racer’s activity boost. Ace café gained a reputation of meeting place for various bikers. In 1969 the café was closed, and motorcycle tyre store appeared on its place. But the history doesn’t end here. The café was reopened in 2001, but not as 24/7. The new reincarnation of the legend is famed as organizer of various biker, sport and classic car judge gatherings. Nowadays there are various events conducted EVERY day. Now you understand why people come here from all over Europe? This is not just a bar on a way, this is a living legend.

Cafe racers: return of 1960s

Time is an interesting phenomenon. It is like a huge road-roller, which just scrunches things, which seemed unshakable and eternal. But, something that is fundamental truth for one generation, for another - is just a fact, which can be questioned or conveniently transformed. Here we speak about Café Racers.

Café customs

Popularity of café racers, which obsessed the Old and New worlds, yielded unexpected fruits by finding its way (even though fragmentarily) into streams, which considered not just opposing, but ideologically antagonistic.

But we’ll remind in short: in 1950s-1960s guys (mostly of working class) gathered in Ace Café near London. They readjusted their motorbikes as “racing”. And those, who had fat purses, equipped their Norton Manx or BSA with engine and electronics from Triumph. The café was long gone (though, it was reopened not so long ago), the guys got old, but social and technical heritage is alive and well.

• Let’s specify:
• Clip-ons;
• Lengthened tanks;
• Rear footpegs;
• Bikini fairing;
• One-man seat with specific “hump”;
• Large mechanical gauges (preferably round and especially Smiths; Veglia or aristocratic Jaeger don’t cut it, at least for canonical café racers).

From that time, but it referred to scooter theme, also survived to nowadays Flyscreen (small fenders made of piece of lino and tiny clipping of plexiglass) and checker pattern. Yeah, the very same checkers; incredible as it may seem, but this attribute originally belonged to ska style. But it does so well in café-racing that nobody could even consider that this is completely antagonistic origin.

By the end of 1960s this theme was caught by moto manufacturers. The quickly convinced customers that there can be installed M-bar (weld-fabricated handlebar with U-shape middle) instead of clip-ons, and the seat can be sesquialteral with soft “hump”. Moreover, the color scheme can differ from black, silver and British Racing Green, and chassis together with seat can be of - oh, the horror! – red color!

Cafe racers: return of 1960s

Step by step, the factory café racers were displaced by sportbikes. Though, sometimes flashbacks happened like Honda GB500 1987. This continued until nostalgia among people “after 40” from one side, and returning of fashion of 1970s among youth from another, which praised café-racer style to high heaven. And this revived such old bikes as Honda CB and Yamaha XJR. Let’s say that if Triumph Thruxton was considered by Britains as classic in order to “top it off”, then Moto Guzzi V7 Café Classic is a cause of new fashion.

Renewal of interest to this style was originated in Britain. But it gained extreme popularity in the USA. First, Americans followed the path described above, but then they started making café racers of…cruisers.

Well, customizers tried to combine different styles before. Most successful in it were fusion genius Fred Krugger and Ronald Sands. Some extraordinary customs were quite impressive, but they made no difference. Though, they planted a seed of doubt among chopper owners.

Two years past and low handlebars, bikini and round “tails” are offered by dozens of companies, and not only for Sportster, but also for Big Twins. But Sands and some other customizers (like Deus Ex Mashina from Australia) took a step further and created a style almost officially called Café Sportster: you cut off everything you can from serial Sporie, handlebar is replaced with clip-ons, and instead of original speedometer installed…no, not Smiths motometer, but similar modern device (Autometer, for example) with white display, redline blinker, internal scales and large in size.

Cafe racers: return of 1960s

Another push for café racer popularity was increased interest for record races. And if to Bonneville come to ride through soles come dozens or hundreds of bikers, then customs stylized as lakesters are everywhere. Now these motorbikes (which are, in fact, good old dragsters, but with blown bikini) are made as meat pockets in Siberia.

Café racers: 7 attributes

For the last few years, the interest to retro bikes has increased in modern world, and in particular, to café racers. So, some builders while making their bikes copy the style completely, and some of them do it fragmentarily choosing one or two features. So, what attributes does café racer have?

Cafe racers: return of 1960s
1. Clip-ons (halves of handlebar mounted with attachment clips on motorcycle fork tubes).
2. Lengthened fuel tank (not long, but lengthened).
3. Bikini (mini fairing).
4. Humped one man seat.
5. Checker pattern.
6. Large mechanical gauges.
7. Painting should be black, silver or British Racing Green.
Cafe racers: return of 1960s
custom racing

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