September 14, 2012

History of Café Racer & Its Culture

A Cafe Racer (/ˈkæff reɪsər/kaff racer) is a term used for a type of motorcycle, as well as the motorcyclists who ride them. Both meanings have their roots in the 1960s British Rocker or Ton-up boy subculture, although the type of motorcycles were also common in Italy, France and other European countries. The term, which originally arose as an insult from motorcycle enthusiasts towards riders who they thought were playing at being a road racer but merely parked outside cafes, refers to a style of motorcycles that were and are used for fast rides from one transport cafe or coffee bar to another.

Typical configuration

The cafe racer is a motorcycle that has been modified for speed and handling rather than comfort. Cafe racers' bodywork and control layout typically mimicked the style of contemporary Grand Prix roadracers featuring an elongated fuel tank, often with dents to allow the riders knees to grip the tank, low slung racing handlebars, and a single, rearwardly mounted, humped seat.

One signature trait were low, narrow handlebars that allowed the rider to "tuck in" to reduce wind resistance and offered better control when in that posture. These are referred to as either "clip-ons" (two-piece bars that bolt directly to each fork tube) or "clubmans" or "ace bars" (one piece bars that attach to the stock mounting location but drop down and forward). The ergonomics resulting from low bars and the rearward seat often required "rearsets", or rear-set footrests and foot controls, again typical of racing motorcycles of the era. Distinctive half or full race-style fairings were sometimes mounted to the forks or frame.

The bikes had a raw, utilitarian and stripped-down appearance while the engines were tuned for maximum speed. These motorcycles were lean, light and handled road surfaces well. The most defining machine of its heyday was the homemade Norton Featherbed framed and Triumph Bonneville engined machine called "The Triton". It used the most common and fastest racing engine combined with the best handling frame of its day, the Featherbed frame by Norton Motorcycles. Those with less money could opt for a "Tribsa" - the Triumph engine in a BSA frame. Other combinations existed such as "Norvins", a Vincent V-Twin engine in a Featherbed frame and racing frames by Rickman or Seeley were also adopted for road use.
Cafe racers and choppers

The cafe racer has something in common with the chopper or bobber scene in the USA where riders rejected the large transportation-oriented motorcycles of the time. Both took factory produced motorcycles, removed parts deemed unnecessary and made them loud by removing muffler baffles for freer exhaust flow and perhaps to draw a little attention to themselves as well. Both looked to make the standard factory motorcycles faster and lighter, although the difference between the nature of the US and European motorcycles and road systems led to somewhat different results. While the Americans favored a long and low cruiser style of motorcycle for straight line comfort, the Europeans preferred a higher, more nimble and better handling motorcycle suited to the more twisting roads of their nations.

1977 Harley-Davidson XLCR

Cafe racer styling evolved throughout the time of their popularity. By the mid-1970s, Japanese bikes had overtaken British bikes in the marketplace, and the look of real Grand Prix racing bikes had changed. The hand-made, frequently unpainted aluminum racing petrol/gas tanks of the 1960s had evolved into square, narrow, fiberglass tanks. More and more, three- and four-cylinder Hondas and Kawasakis were the basis for cafe racer conversions. By 1977, a number of manufacturers had taken notice of the cafe racer boom and were producing factory cafe racers, most notably the Harley-Davidson XLCR.

In the mid-1970s, riders continued to modify standard production motorcycles into so-called "cafe racers" by simply equipping them with clubman bars and a small fairing around the headlight. A number of European manufacturers, including Benelli, BMW, Bultaco and Derbi produced factory "cafe" variants of their standard motorcycles in this manner, without any modifications made to make them faster or more powerful. Eventually the cafe racer style became just a styling exercise that served no functional purpose and simply made the bike less comfortable to ride; so the trend quickly waned in popularity. Soon afterward, most new sport bikes began featuring integral bodywork from the factory, negating the need or ability to retrofit an aftermarket cafe fairing.

Rockers on cafe Racers at cafe, UK.

Rockers were a young and rebellious Rock and Roll counterculture who wanted a fast, personalised and distinctive bike to travel between transport cafes along the newly built arterial motorways in and around British towns and cities.[citation needed] The goal of many was to be able to reach 100 miles per hour (160 km/h)—called simply "the ton"—along such a route where the rider would leave from a cafe, race to a predetermined point and back to the cafe before a single song could play on the jukebox, called record-racing. They are remembered as being especially fond of Rockabilly music and their image is now embedded in today's rockabilly culture.

The term cafe racer is still used to describe motorcycles of a certain style and some motorcyclists still use this term in self-description. The sub-culture continues to evolve with modern cafe racers taking style elements of the American Greaser, the British Rocker and modern motorcycle rider to create a style all their own. Although slow to catch on there, the trend has grown in North America.

Present day

Suzuki S40 customised in a cafe racer style
Honda CB 400 Four cafe racer

Classic cafe racer style has made a comeback recently, thanks largely to the increased interest in vintage motorcycles in general. The baby boomers were responsible for a surge in motorcycle sales in the late 1960s and 1970s, and many of this generation now find themselves with the time and discretionary income to recreate the bikes they had—or wished to have—in their younger years.

A new generation of motorcycle designers and builders are using the style as a fresh alternative to the custom chopper scene. Furthermore, in many parts of the United States, there are large numbers of stock 1970s and 1980s era Japanese motorcycles available for relatively small amounts of money – in many areas a running motorcycle can be had for well under US$1,000 USD. There is a strong appeal to younger and less wealthy motorcyclists to build a cafe racer from one of these bikes and end up with a stylish personalised motorcycle at a fraction of the cost of a newer bike.

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