As motorcyclists, we are familiar with derogatory remarks and negative depictions of our community. We are used to stereotypes of bikers scarfing down steaks with their bare hands and having a closet full of sleeveless shirts and leather pants, but what makes us impervious to those insults and that small-minded way of thinking is our ability to transform ignorance into badges of honor. We aren’t the grunts of the world. We are hard workers and strong minded, and we persevere. We aren’t low-IQ, unskilled, nomadic laborers. We are engineers with a sense of adventure. While the world outside can be hard enough on a biker, sometimes the community can turn in on its own, like in the case of the café racer, but even when it is our own bias, we still find a way to turn the indifference on its head.
What makes a cafe racer unique is how it went from an insult to creating a subculture built on ingenuity and respect. The term was primarily used to criticize riders and accuse them as being pretend or wannabe racers. However, as the years went on and the subculture grew, café racers became a significant part of the motorcycle community.
History and Evolution
The term café racer originated in Britain during the 1950s and 60s, and it was prominent mainly among the Rocker or “Ton-Up Boys” subculture. Mostly, these bikes were used for short trips between cafés. The origins of the racer were built in poverty, as many British citizens struggled financially during the wars and couldn’t afford cars. However, as the wars ended and the country began to prosper, these small bikes became more symbolic of rebellion, speed and status, or lack thereof.
Stripped down and customized, these bikes were capable of speed and agility, but they were often used solely as a means of city transportation. The lack of sophistication and the apparent ignorance of design and capability made café racers a joke among serious riders, as noted by Wallace Wyss in his 1973 article, How to Fit a Fairing and Ride Racer, when he states, “(Café Racer) referred to the motorcyclist who played at being an Isle of Man road racer… but merely parked near the local café.”
However, while café racer may have started as a derogatory remark, the people who chose to create these machines were capable and hard-working. Many of them did not have the money to buy new bikes and found ways to increase the capabilities of what they had. They were the original Makers. DIYers that did what they had to for transportation and survival. If that doesn’t say biker, then what does?
Through the 1950s and 60s, the world was graced with several Frankenstein-like models, the Triton and the Norvin being the most popular. The Triton utilized the Norton Featherboard and the 650cc Triumph. The Norvin, on the other hand, was reserved for only a lucky few and used the Vincent 998cc V-twin engine. However, During the 1970s, Japanese manufacturers created a new standard in the racing world by introducing the Honda CB750, using the design of the two-stroke engine and eventually evolving into four-stroke models. While these manufacturers wowed the racing world and excited the dedicated café racers, their polished machines were still often modified to suit the needs and desires of the growing subculture, and these modifications have led to the café racers we know and love today.
Configuration and Customization
Café racers are light in weight with a highly tuned engine and minimalist appearance. These bikes are designed to keep the rider leaning forward and tucked in as close to the body of the bike as possible, making for a maneuverable and aerodynamic machine. Modifications make the motorcycle. Most café riders pride themselves on creating the Frankenstein’s monster of motorcycles because it demonstrates their ingenuity and effectiveness as mechanics. Most riders start by removing stock handlebars, replacing them with low-mounted clip-on ones. However, the mechanically inclined go far beyond the basics and dive deep into the nitty-gritty.
Café riders often add custom suspension. The dampening and spring rates are unique to the bike and the rider. Therefore, for optimum performance and speed, you should look into a fork kit and new shocks, but do your research and don’t be afraid to spend.
A common phrase in the racing world is to add lightness, which means to reduce the weight of the overall bike. A lighter bike means faster pickup and speed. There are several ways to do this by replacing the rims, tires and brakes.
If you upgrade your tires, you can quickly improve your leaning and steering ability. Going from a 19-inch wheel to an 18-inch wheel will decrease the gyroscopic effect and provide you with a more agile bike that can transition through turns and leans quicker and easier. Additionally, swapping out steel with aluminum rims for the 18-inch wheels will decrease the weight of your bike.
Switch out your brakes to allow for lighter and smaller hubs and better stopping power. You can go with braided stainless brake lines and new pads or something original to your bike, whichever works best for you.
Modifications are part of owning and working on a café racer. Sure, there are manufactured models that have a vintage throwback, such as the Thruxton or Continental GT, but even these are not considered finished by true rider standards. These models are a good starting point for something greater to develop.
The café racer is a bike that was crafted and created out of necessity and poverty. It became a symbol of rebellion and ingenuity. Through the years it has evolved from a joke into an icon, and now it is a bike with a growing subculture of DIYers, engineers and historians alike. To be a part of the café racer culture is to be inventive and ambitious. Café racers are more than the imitation riders they were made out to be, they are a community, and they are bikers.
A certain bravado is necessary when considering what makes a café racer. There is a requirement to go beyond the initial purchase with OEM parts & aftermarket mods, but once finished you will have a bike uniquely yours and a proud contribution to the legacy motorcycle genius.