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Cafe Racer History

Over the years, we’ve seen many different movements within the motorcycle industry. Trends have come and gone but there have been few movements as influential and powerful as the cafe racer. These motorcycles first started appearing in 50’s England – though the culture soon thrived all over the world too.

What’s striking about the cafe racer motorcycles is that most none bikers have probably not heard of them. Despite this, their impact was incredibly powerful, though it was fairly short lived. However, the cafe racer is seeing something of a comeback on the streets. As such, this article will serve as a guide to cafe racers both then and now.

We’ll start with a history of the original racers and conclude with the modern-day cafe racers that are on the scene today. Of course, in between all of this we will touch on a few iconic parts of the original scene as well as taking a look at some of the racers themselves.

The History Of the Cafe Racers

Cafe racers came to popularity in the 1950’s on the streets of England. It was a subculture born out of the rock n roll music scene. Back then, traditional rock n roll music was very fast paced and incredibly raw. Those that loved the music saw it become a huge influence on their lives, particularly in what they drove. Soon, rockers wanted something that reflected the music they listened to, something fast, raw, and aggressive. Consequently, the first cafe racers were born.

These motorcycles were distinctive in their design and riding style. You could spot a cafe racer from a distance, and hear it from a mile away. They started off as classic British-made street bikes, but the rockers that rode them wanted to customise them for performance – most notably speed.

They were stripped down and made more lightweight, with dropped handlebars and racing fuel tanks fitted to them. The original street bike seats were ripped up and swapped for something designed to only fit one person. If you ever saw someone riding a cafe racer, you can bet they’d be on that bike alone. Of course, exceptions were made whenever a female companion was about!

So, cafe racer motorcycles were designed to be fast and ruthless. As a consequence of this, they had a huge impact on the industry in later years. Many believe that if these reckless rockers had never altered their street bikes, we wouldn’t see the modern superbikes that are on the roads today.

Having seen what a cafe racer is, one question still remains; where does the name come from? Well, the people that designed their bikes in this fashion were often in their mid/late teens. Once they’d kitted out their racers, they’d all ride up to transport cafes and wait outside them. You’d see these huge groups of kids all with their fast bikes just hanging out around the cafe.

They’d wait until someone drove past on a fast bike, and would hop on theirs and challenge them for a race. Back in these days, there wasn’t the concern for road safety that there is today. So, you’d see these kids zooming up the road racing other bikes to see who was the fastest.

However, it was only when they returned to the cafe after the race that the term ‘cafe racer’ was born. It’s thought that these cafes were primarily occupied by long distance truckers who were having a rest from their long drives. They’d all laugh at the kids as they came back in and tell them that they weren’t proper racers, they were just cafe racers.

This was intended as an insult, but the kids embraced it. They took this name with pride, and the cafe racer scene was truly created. Normally, after they’d had a few races at one cafe, they’d simply ride on down to the next one and do the same thing.

London’s Ace Cafe

When you look at the history of cafe racers, you can pinpoint certain places that were iconic in the formation of the movement. On the North Circular Road in London, there was an establishment called the Ace Cafe. It opened in 1938 and was a classic truck stop cafe that soon became one of the biggest and most famous locations for bikers to meet in the whole of England.

Before the rockers and their cafe racers came to town, Ace Cafe was seen as something of a revolutionary cafe with a difficult past. The original cafe was damaged during WWII and re-opened in 1949. It had service pumps, a repair shop, and even a washroom for people to clean their vehicles.

Soon, thanks to the rise of rock n roll, the bikers came calling. One of the main reasons teenagers went to cafes with their cafe racers was to listen to music. Rock n roll wasn’t played on radio stations, so, one of the only places you could hear it was on jukeboxes in transport cafes like Ace.

As a consequence, the cafe was often flooded with bikers all keen to listen to music and organise races on their customised bikes. Ace Cafe was the birthplace of many racers, and people would even start rock n roll bands there. It was even used as the set in one of the biggest British films of the 1960’s; The Leather Boys

Unfortunately, the cafe racer scene didn’t last forever, mainly due to changes in the social climate and the increase in cars on the road. People in England started to purchase more cars, making motorcycles less relevant. Consequently, the legendary Ace Cafe struggled for regular business and had to close down in 1969. But, fast forward to 2001, and the cafe was reopened to the public!

It’s become a place for avid bikers to ride to and meet up, just like back in the good old days. These days, it’s not so much a cafe racer meeting point as there are bikes of all shapes and sizes from different decades and movements. People can visit the cafe, enjoy refreshments, and take in the memory of an iconic place in motorcycle history.

The Ton-Up Boys

If you’ve not heard of cafe racers, then you may have heard of the ton-up boys. This was another nickname given to the teenagers that raced around on their customised Triumph Bonneville, Norton and other motorcycles wearing their open faced helmets and aviator goggles.

As mentioned, these kids were dead set on making their bikes go as fast as possible. They wanted to replicate what they’d seen from some of the legendary racers of that time. As a result, they became obsessed with doing the ‘ton’ – a phrase they used that meant hitting a hundred miles per hour on their bikes.

It almost became seen as a badge of honour, or a right of passage for someone wanting to get in on the scene and hang out with a crew of fellow cafe racers. If you attempted to do the ton, you’d be a proper ton-up boy and get welcomed on the scene.

These days, hitting one hundred miles per hour on a bike is light work. But, back in those days, it was a proper struggle and incredibly dangerous too. You needed a well-tuned engine and balls of steel! This ‘Ton-up boy’ label added to the image of cafe racers and made the riders and bikes seem way more hardcore.

The Return Of Cafe Racers

The cafe racing scene came to an end in the late sixties but its impact lived on. The things these ton-up boys did to their bikes helped influence modern motorcycle designs. Fast forward to today and the memory of cafe racers still lingers on.

So much so that the bikes are starting to make a fashionable comeback. Nowadays, retro things are becoming incredibly desirable and popular. People love looking backward and seeing all the cool things that used to be around in the old days. When the Ace Cafe reopened, it plucked at people’s nostalgic heartstrings and, once again, became something of a catalyst for the cafe racer movement.

These days, thanks to road regulations and strict laws surrounding speeding, the cafe racer scene isn’t what it used to be. You won’t find groups of teenagers in leather jackets listening to rock music and racing their custom motorcycles everywhere. However, the bikes themselves are certainly making a comeback.

People started to take old bikes from the 1970’s and customise them to turn them into the classic cafe racers from the fifties and sixties. Motorcycle enthusiasts started to want something that differed from what was on offer in this current market. They didn’t want a chopper or a modern street bike or pay loads for a high-performance sports bike. Instead, they saw individuals and companies building these custom cafe racers, and loved it!

The cafe racer has experienced a boom so big that some of the largest bike manufacturers are getting involved too. The likes of Yamaha and BMW have contacted independent motorcycle builders to create customised versions of their own street bikes. There are even a few off the shelf cafe racers being released by top manufacturers too.

Off The Shelf Cafe Racers

What is an ‘off the shelf’ cafe racer? In short, it’s a cafe racer that’s been specifically designed by a manufacturer and released to the public as such. This differs from how classic cafe racers are built, as their whole premise is formed on taking existing bikes and customising them. However, these racers are still very popular, and some of the biggest manufacturers are getting involved. To round off this piece, we’ll have a look at two of the most popular off the shelf cafe racers around today:

Triumph Bonneville ThruxtonTriumph Thruxton R Cafe Racer

Back in the day, the Thruxton was a bike of choice for many cafe racers. They’d take this street bike, strip it down, and turn it into an aggressive little machine with tons of power. Nowadays, Triumph has brought the Thruxton back to life as a ‘modern classic’ cafe racer. It’s kitted out with incredible power, an imposing style, classic looks, and modern capabilities. Essentially, it takes all that’s good about the classic cafe racer, with a few modern twists here and there, such as the multiple riding modes and contemporary safety features.

BMW R Nine T Racer

BMW Nine T is their best effort at replicating a classic cafe racer motorcycle. It ticks all the boxes in what you’d expect to find from one of these bikes. It has the retro style, the super fast engine (you won’t struggle to hit the ton with this machine, it maxes out at a huge 135mph!) and the aggressive feel that the classic bikes encompassed. Plus, it brings out the best modern technology too such as incredible safety features and even heated grips on the handles.

Some serious bikers aren’t too sure about these off the shelf cafe racer motorcycles. In some ways, the very concept of an ‘off the shelf’ cafe racer doesn’t make sense as they were never meant to be specifically designed bikes. The whole culture came from customising other bikes that you bought and turning them into these things.

Having said that, there’s no denying that these two models do their very best to represent classic cafe racer culture. Everything about the design and look of the bike is tailor-made to suit the style of the 50’s and 60’s. The only difference is that there are modern features that often make these bikes much safer.

Final Thoughts & The Future Of Cafe Racers

Cafe racer motorcycles were born out of a rich rock n roll culture in England during the 50’s and 60’s. Back then, these bikes were more of a symbol of the lifestyle than anything else. Now, they’ve become popular again thanks to the retro boom and what they represent in the history of motorcycles.

What does the future hold for cafe racers? It seems like they’ll stay popular for as long as retro things are still desirable. Also, we should see more and more off the shelf models as companies try and cash in on this trend while it lasts. No matter what, one thing will always remain, the cafe racer motorcycle is iconic and will live on in memory forever.

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Keith Haycraft

Friday 1st of September 2017

This story is incomplete! There is no reference to the Café Racer Kit Bikes where you supplied an engine & bought a frame such as: Dunstal (mainly for Norton engines) Rickman, La Parisian to name but a few. I had a Rickman with a Honda 4 engine in it, highly modified by the man from whom I bought it. The Rickman was the best bike I ever rode with a Reynolds 531 chrome molloy frame (based on a Norton Featherbed) with 3 Lockheed cast iron disc brakes, Spanish Betor front forks, Boranni rims & a bikini fairing. Contemporary, Japanese bikes of the time would want to either lie down or stand up under heavy braking where the Rickman would just stop, head into a corner, lean on one side of the handlebars & around it went. I weighed around 75kg at the time & at 120kph, there was no weight on my wrists.