Apologies for the long spaces between posts these days, with the warmer weather finally here and three bikes in the stable I’ve been wrenching rather than pecking at keyboards.
Anyhoo, here’s some shots of vintage cafe racers I’ve picked up here and there. I’m not particularly nuts about jap bikes, despite the fact that I’ve owned several and recently bought an 750 Intruder: to me they’ve always felt more like one night stands rather than serious relationships. And Triumph/Norton engines are just a wee bit out of my price range. But I do like the lines on these, and I’m seriously considering cobbling one up.
As soon as I finish rebuilding the Russians…
The term “Café racer” has its roots in the 1960s British Rocker subculture, although the style was also common in other European countries. Originally intended as an insult towards riders who posed at being street racers but instead just parked outside cafes to show off the bikes, it more commonly refers to a style of motorcycle used for fast rides from one “transport caff” to another.
Rockers wanted fast, distinctive bikes to travel between stops along the newly built arterial motorways in and around British towns and cities of the 60’s. The primary goal was to hit 100 miles per hour -“the ton” from a cafe to a predetermined point and back before a single song could play on the jukebox.
Like custom chopper and bobber builders in the USA, British cafe racers rejected the large transportation-oriented motorcycles of the era and began removing unnecessary parts to make the standard factory motorcycles faster and lighter. But while the Americans favored a heavier and more comfortable “cruiser” style for the straight-line interstate highway system, the Europeans preferred a more nimble and better handling bike better suited to their twisting roads.
Cafe racers’ bodywork and control layout typically mimicked the style of contemporary Grand Prix road racers with elongated fuel tanks with knee dents and a single rear mounted humped seat.
A signature trait are the low, narrow handlebars that offer the rider better control when tucked down. These are either “clip-ons” (two-piece bars that bolt directly to each fork tube) or one piece bars that drop down and forward. The ergonomics resulting from low bars and the rearward seat often required rear-set footrests and controls, again typical of racing motorcycles of the era. Distinctive half or full race-style fairings were sometimes mounted to the forks or frame.
While the bikes have a raw, utilitarian and stripped-down appearance, the engines are generally tuned for maximum speed. These motorcycles are designed to be lean, light and to handle road surfaces well. The most defining machine of its heyday was a Norton Featherbed frame with a Triumph Bonneville Triton: it used the most common and fastest racing engine combined with the best handling frame of its day. Other British combinations were the “Tribsa” -the Triumph engine in a BSA frame- and the “Norvins”, a Vincent V-Twin engine in a Featherbed frame.
Cafe racer styling continuously evolved, but by the mid-1970s Japanese bikes had overtaken the British and the look of real Grand Prix racing bikes had changed. Hand-made, raw aluminum racing tanks of the 1960s had evolved into square, narrow, fiberglass tanks and the three and four cylinder Hondas and Kawasakis became the basis for cafe racer conversions. Still, by 1977 a number of manufacturers had taken notice of the cafe racer boom and were already producing factory cafe racers; notably the Harley-Davidson XLCR, the Ducati SuperSport and the Kawasaki Z1R.
But a number of European manufacturers including Benelli, BMW, Bultaco & Derbi also began producing factory “cafe” variants of their standard motorcycles, without any engine modifications to enhance the speed or horsepower; with this commercialization the cafe racer style served no functional purpose, and simply made the stock bikes less comfortable to ride.