How many of them are out there? Half finished, taken apart, half-assed “Café Racers” languishing away in living room corners, in basements, in lawnmower sheds, under blue tarps and on the street. Yamaha RD350s, XS650s, Honda CB350s, CB550s. All with wiring pulled apart and vacant spark plug holes. Most got as far as a set of clubman bars that caused giant floppy loops in throttle cables and brake lines. Stock wire harnesses bunched up and stuffed into headlight buckets or worse. Perhaps a little welding here and there, angry blobs of porous steel lumped on with fluxcore wire from $100 Harbor Freight MIG machines. It’s too bad that there isn’t simply a Cafe Racer app and, if you spent more on your MacBook, iPhone and Xbox than on your motorcycle project, then it was doomed from the start. It never represented greater value than communication and entertainment.
There must be an alternative.
Like most fellas my age, I went through the Café phase. For me it was the late ‘90s and, looking back on it now, I wonder why. Why was I trying to relive a past that did not belong to me or even my culture? Why did I feel so compelled to recreate that mid-sixties British ton-up boy, poser lifestyle? The clothing was cool, those Davida helmets snappy and the bikes, well…sweet sally in the alley, were they sexy! But how does all that really apply to me?
Folks my parents age are, and have for some time been, enthralled with muscle cars. The reason is simple, when they were in high school they came into direct contact with Hemi ‘Cudas, GTOs, 442s, Camaros, Boss ‘Stangs, etcetera. Maybe it was that crazy uncle doing a burnout in his new ’68 Superbee in front of mom’s house that seared an indelible blueprint for coolness on post pubescent brains for later retrieval. When the BMW 3-Series and Chrysler K cars that dominated the boomer lifestyle of the eighties finally gave way to the ‘90s, the blueprint resurfaced and a return to the cars of post adolescent freedom took flight. The floodgates of nostalgia opened, twenty years of corporate bullshit disappeared, and sexual potency was rekindled with vintage Detroit V8 fountains of youth.
It’s pretty silly, but at least the Boomer’s tastes represented more honesty than my yearning for a Triton, a machine that never entered my sphere until I was an adult, living in Louisiana, and had no real cultural context for it.
My first encounter with a real motorcycle was at my fathers annual office party of 1984. One of his co-workers arrived at the event on a strange new machine and I remember vividly the black and red Kawasaki GPZ900. I walked up to the thing mystified. Where was the engine? How did it even work? Were regular humans supposed to operate this thing? Was it a hovercraft or a spaceship? Then I saw the sticker, NINJA. Oh Yeah! NINJA! For a 13-year old, that was like finding a stash of Playboys under a pile of pistols, next to a crate of butterfly knives with a Haro sporting Skyway mags on top. In the midst of excited contemplation, my father found me and shooed me away from the death dealer. He pulled me aside and told me how crazy the guy who rode it was, and how he was going to kill himself on that thing. For the most part my father’s loathing of motorcycles worked, and I spent the rest of my adolescence and high school years focused on American cars from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Cadillacs especially. But I never forgot them, and was always secretly admiring those awesome ‘80s Japanese motorcycles from afar.
Fuck the Ace Café. I am a child of Miami Vice, and proud of it!
Its Always the same, I will be in a bar somewhere, drinking a Highlife and Jameson (New Orleans gloves, as it’s known), and if the conversation turns to motorcycles, the thirty something guy will start rattling on about Café Racers. “I want a café racer! A Café Racer, CAFÉ RACER!” I wade in with “Hey brah, a Kawasaki LTD440 with no rear fender ain’t a Velocette Venom Thruxton”. Confusing words from the half drunk cynic at the other end of the bar, I am waved off.
The information revolution effectively killed the expert. The only problem is that key strokes and TIG arcs aren’t the same thing and building a real customized motorcycle in any genre takes real commitment, money and infrastructure. The internet only ever seems to scratch at the surface. Everything seems easy, just follow the recipe, and presto! Custom motorcycle! The Café guy just wants a motorcycle that looks a certain way and, if you squint hard enough, a CB350 looks close enough. He is not really interested in owning a piece of history, he just wants the fashion vehicle that will allow him to wear the clothing that is in tune with his tastes, pudding bowel helmet being top of the list.
A year later and there it is, a miserable pile of shit in boxes, disassembled, missing hardware, and JB weld smeared onto cracked cases. He takes it to a motorcycle mechanic to “just get it running,” and when the estimate for putting it back together costs more than the original purchase price of $500, all work stops and the project is abandoned until the subject comes up at a bar. Suddenly, miraculously the retro dodo has a café racer at home.
Why are American motorcyclists so hug up on the distant past? I mean really, if we are going to get all retro, does it have to be one of three choices: a bobber, a chopper, or a café racer? None of our thirty something brethren experienced those forms in their proper context. Like me, they weren’t born yet.
I think that there is a lot to be said for living in your own time. There seems to be such a thirst in America for the distant past that we have ceased looking into the future. Adrift in waxing nostalgia with eyes in the back of our heads, trying to connect with our ancestors astride broken, phony time machines. Nothing gives a glimpse into the psyche of a nation like its motorcycle culture.
The reality of a Triton never exceeds the fantasy of it, even a real one. Much less so for a goofy cheap imitation. While fun to think about, the application of ‘60s rocker specials in modern times leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t think that the same can be said of those wonderful motorcycles from Japan, beginning in 1984 with the GPZ900.
I maintain that the renaissance did not begin with the Honda CB750. I have never liked them. Yes they were more sophisticated that the British stuff and yes, they put the rest of the world out of the motorcycle business (asshole move that, destroying instead of teaching), but if you really think about it, the CB750 is nothing more than an improved Triumph. The core design DNA is fundamentally European. The application of Japanese culture as a valid basis for design expression took longer to germinate, so most of the Japanese motorcycles from the ‘60s and ‘70s used European design sensibilities and marketed product based on features, performance, and quality. In the early eighties there were signs of a new ethos. Risk taking by Japanese companies began in earnest with the trickle of strange turbo bikes like the Honda CX500 Turbo and the Yamaha Seca Turbo.
The Hans Muth-styled Katana was a landmark motorcycle. It was popular but, more importantly, it succeeded in proving that Japanese culture itself had international appeal and pecuniary value. It actually had Japanese writing on it! It was called a KATANA! It was the first production motorcycle to experiment with a completely new paradigm that would change the motorcycle world. The conservative Japanese approach was starting to spidercrack and green shoots began to emerge. The accounting departments of Japan inc. loosened up as engineering hegemony and world domination of motorcycle sport was unchallenged. Evidence of the gradual relaxation manifested itself in the motorcycle sub-genre I like to refer to as the “Logan’s Run Era”. Playful, wacky and, at times silly, but things were about to get very serious indeed. It was time for 13 year old JT to meet the Ninja for the first time.
Now that it is my turn to yearn for sexual potency, lust for lost lust as it were, the big Four-O is looming. My eBay Motors account has a worn path that goes straight to the same refined search: 1984-1989 sportbikes. These motorcycles are simply astounding. Lets forget how they look for a moment, and focus on the objective qualities of these bikes in a historical context. How about a generational divide as the matrix for the analysis, in 20 year increments, using our 1984 GPZ900 as the crux, thus:
A fast, large displacement, sporty street motorcycle circa 1964 — Let’s say a Triumph Bonneville 650.
A fast, large displacement, sporty street motorcycle circa 1984 — Our benchmark for this exercise, Kawasaki GPZ900.
A fast, large displacement, sporty street motorcycle circa 2004 — How about a Honda CBR1000RR.
Our results are astounding! I would propose that the GPZ would do 8/10ths of the things that the CBR will do in everyday riding and 9/10ths or more in long distance touring! Reliability scale for the CBR? 9/10 Reliability for the GPZ? 8.5.
Now, moving back in time, the Bonneville would struggle to deliver 5/10ths of the everyday street riding of the GPZ, and maybe 4/10ths or worse long distance touring. Reliability for the GPZ? 8.5. Reliability for the Bonnie? Well let’s just say that they ARE pretty light which makes ‘em real good for pushin’.
Keyboards around the world are now busily clickety-clacking away, but before you deliver your anecdotal evidence to refute my statement, I just want to say that I love vintage motorcycles and the delusional fantasy that I myself, from time to time imbue them with. What is irrefutable, however, is just how amazing the motorcycles from the mid to late ‘80s are. Man I love kickstarting a motorcycle, especially when there is an audience to witness me jumping up and down on it, fouling plugs, fouler language. It’s cool. I like it. But if I could only have one motorcycle….Well that brings us back to our hipster friend and his motorcycle (or “motorBIKE” if you are a total fucking poser). Dilemma.
Let’s talk about the money. Hipsters somehow never can put together the skrilla to get the café bike out of hock. Shit just always be too expensive. Well, Mr. iPhone, its worse than you originally thought. The budget for an actual Café bike with a real British engine, is going to be at least eight grand. I wouldn’t begin to think about starting a project like that with less than 8K, dedicated money, in the bank and I already own a welding machine! If you are not a motorcycle mechanic, AND you are broke, seek your natural level. The sublime reality is that you can buy two great, running ‘80s superbikes for the price of one halfway presentable Café Racer. So how come the dilettante, tight black jean crowd ain’t smellin’ this bleeding edge, 80s neon irony?
When smashed over the head with these facts, the answer is always the same, “Oh I don’t really want to go fast, I just want to ride something cool.” Well hey there Velvet Underground, riding fast, competent motorcycles IS cool. A pile of parts in your kitchen is not. How about a few less trips to the vinyl record store, save a couple of bucks and buy a motorcycle that can scare the shit out of you?
If you read between the lines, what our hipster friend is really trying to say is that he doesn’t like the way the graphics and styling cues reminds him of a time when he just couldn’t get enough Magum PI. How embarrassing!
Ginormous fairings, bulbous mirrors and can-style mufflers just don’t look “euro” enough. Which bring me to the point of this whole exercise — GoGo Jap-O is awesome! Embrace your inner Sonny Crockett, dig out that icecream colored suit, pop the Purple Rain soundtrack into the Alpine tape deck of your Ferrari Testarossa and take a drive down (recent) memory lane with me. It may take a minute to get your head around it, might feel a little strange at first, but all our hipster fiend really needs is a little cognitive dissonance as working class hip yields to the excesses of futurism.
“There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” — Francis Bacon.
I dig motorcycles that have jumping spider faces, square taillights, and mysterious blocky, forward slanting two tone words like “EXUP”, “SACS”, “GENESIS”, “NEAS”, “FULL FLOATER” and “PRO ARM.” And, oh yeah and it’s GOTTA have a slanty “R” on it somewhere.
I love that first generation of aluminum full cradle frames too. The extruded two-inch ally, fully boxed cross section, all angled and home made looking. Back in the day, you could either have round headlights or square, two round taillights or one square one. Simple, awkward, blinkers protruding from slab sided Galactica-inspired plastic. The fairings actually looked like what they were – covers, origami paper turned waterproof plastic, broken up by strange arbitrary red and blue swooshes. Visual solidity, with only perhaps the carburetors playing a little peekaboo. How about those wacky anti-dive gizmos festooning lower fork legs? They don’t work, but they sure are neat! The aluminum swingarm revolution was in full swing, and every maker had a cute unique solution for chain adjusting. Full floating rotors had just come on the scene and not only stopped like nothing ever before, they looked simply magnificent and remained virtually unchanged to this day. Whether it was the graceful, flowing, yet angular FJ or the blunt and brutal GSX-R, the ‘80s superbikes all have one design element in common – the excitement of futurism. The argument could be made that the unbridled optimism contained within the design DNA sometimes went too far, but nobody could argue that these bikes didn’t have the guts to back it up. That the promise of a mind bending experience manifested in the styling was supported by the actual performance, translates to an honesty of shape/form expression.
Good bye choppa guy, hello Motion Pro!
Ok, now for the best part, our Café Racer project checklist:
Clipons – Check
Rearsets – Check
Reliable electronic ignition – Check
Modern carburetors – Check
High performance exhaust – Check
Decent brakes – Check
Good suspension – Check
Modern tires – Check
Alloy swingarm – Check
Strong wheels – Check
Horsepower – Check
Braced, stiff chassis – Check
All of the important things that would be top priority for MY café racer project bike already exist on the superbike, that’s what makes ‘em super! The only thing that you really need to have in the garage is a set of mercury sticks, and hell, with the stock tool roll you can just about take the whole motorcycle apart.
Fortunately, here in the States, the Streetfighter craze was a late and weak arrival and the extended swingarm crowd sought to fuck up more modern machines. Many of the superbikes were out and out smashed into bits, but the ones that did survive are generally unmolested. There are quite a few tinted windscreens, bad green metalflake paintjobs, and “No Fear” stickers out there, but these cosmetic things can usually be undone. I think that the market for restoration of these fantastic bikes is close at hand, because as the values go up (and I assure you that they will), a return to stock will make financial sense, just as the muscle car phenomenon has proven. Hopefully, our newly indoctrinated hipster will prove to be a conscientious caretaker of his incredibly significant piece of two wheeled history. These motorcycles need love right now, because many are perilously close to the precipice of the boneyard and, once undone, gone forever. If the superbikes have any weakness, it is just that. Unlike Harleys, mix and match Mr. Potatohead-style customs just aren’t possible. They have to be all there, complete, every nut and bolt accounted for, but the rest is easy.
Like most used motorcycles, these bikes need to have the carbs synced,and a fresh set of plugs, fork oil replaced, brakes bled, new pads, oil and filter, air filter, chain serviced and fresh rubber. These jobs represent an honest day of work in the garage, but that’s it. No welding, no machining, no drilling, no hammering, no English wheeling, or cussin’. All it takes is simple honest motorsickle mekanakin’. Wanna get really fancy? A jet kit and braided brake lines are about the end of the performance upgrade story. They simply don’t need anything else if you plan on normal street riding.
Just say NO to rockabilly lifestyle tattoos, chain wallets and Betty Paige, No to phony rat rods, Von Dutch, and puddigbowl helmets. No to Featherbed frames, drum brakes and blue collar stagnation!
Say YES to the Space Shuttle, Perestroika, and Def Leppard. Yes to Nagel prints, Appolonia 6 and ‘80s lingerie. Yes to Freddy Spencer, slanty Rs and a future filled with the sound of howling superbikes!
Think about how much fun it’s going to be, blasting past the greybeards choppa shop, doing wheelies through the crowd of lumpkin Harley bobber homos with metal flake half helmets, and doing the Ton on the way to the coffee shop around the corner. Feats of daring-do competently done on the most anti-social retro time machine ever conceived. Honest to god, rice burning, crotch rocketing, zip and splats are back! Unlike some genres, they have EARNED their place at the zenith of the retro motorcycle pantheon.
My top picks:
1986 Suzuki GSXR750/1100
1987 Yamaha FJ 1200
1984 Kawasaki GPZ900R Ninja
1986 Honda VF1000R
1989 Yamaha FZR1000
What are yours?
Editor’s note: all these shots of busted old bikes were found by Googling “Cafe Racer project for sale.”