Motorcycle History: Café Racers – The Early Years

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Café Racers – The Early Years

Each week RideApart looks back at key milestones in motorcycle history, from technical innovations to significant model introductions to racing successes and, of course, some of the disastrous things we’d rather forget. This week we take a look at the origins of the Café Racer.

This is not intended as a complete history, rather a look at the highpoints in the café scene which is timely because in recent years, it seems that the term “Café Racer” can be applied to any old motorcycle that has been spray-painted black and fitted with pipe wrap. However, motorcycle enthusiasts who raced each other from café to café were the true Café Racers in the UK during the 1960s.  The most famous of which is the Ace Café, in London, which is still in existence today.

Café Racers – The Early Years
Café racers

There is also a suggestion that the term Café Racer was created as the riders were only pretending to be racers as, instead of using their modified bikes, they just parked them outside cafes to show off.

It may also be part of motorcycle folklore too, but it is rumored that these riders would apparently select a record on a café’s jukebox and then race each other to a predetermined place, with the objective of getting back before the record finished. This would then prove their bike was capable of hitting 100 mph.

Predominantly most of the early Café Racers were British bikes – Triumph, BSA, AJS, Norton etc and none of them were particularly quick. But, the objective of most of the riders at the time was to try and achieve the ton – or 100 mph. If you could demonstrate your bike was capable of going at that speed or faster you could call yourself a member of The Ton Up Club.

To get anywhere near the magic 100 mph, riders at the time needed to heavily modify their bikes. Fortunately in the 1960s the British motorcycle industry was still alive and kicking and there was a big British presence in motorcycle racing. Consequently, there were a lot of aftermarket parts for the Café Racers to choose from to upgrade their bikes.

Café Racers – The Early Years
1969 Norton Commando Cafe Racer

It was, though, an expensive hobby, so over time as a rider added more and more parts the traditional Café Racer motorcycle, the look that we know today started to evolve.

Ostensibly for a bike to be a Café Racer it had to have a combination of some of these things: clip-on bars, swept back pipes, a racing seat, large carburetors, and a fiberglass or aluminum gas tank.

Fundamentally a Café Racer had to be light and powerful and able to achieve 100 mph. They often looked like stripped-down racers with anything that was considered superfluous or unnecessary or heavy taken off the bike.

As it was modified for handling and speed, a Café Racer often meant it was really not that comfortable to ride.

Café Racers – The Early Years
Café Racer

Other features that were adopted to make a bike a Café Racer included an elongated fuel tank (similar to Grand Prix racers of the 1960s) often with concave depressions to allow the rider’s knees to grip the tank, low-slung clip on bars and a single seat with a faired-in rear end.

Those narrow bars allowed the rider to ‘tuck in’, or to lie almost flat on the tank when riding for lesser wind resistance and a true Café Racer often had rear-set footrests and foot controls, which was again typical of racing motorcycles from that era.

Some owners took their bikes to even higher levels and designed and built their own fairings mounted on the bike’s forks or frame.

One of the best types of Café Racers from this era was actually a combination of two bikes. Enthusiasts who could afford it would use a Norton Featherbed frame and a Triumph Bonneville engine to get a fast, nice handling bike called a “Triton.” If your budget was a bit stretched, you’d still take the Triumph engine but use a BSA frame creating a “Tribsa.” There were other options too with Vincent engines used in the Norton frame with the bike called a “Norvin.”

Café Racers – The Early Years
Triton café racer

Big budget Café Racers would also take a Rickman or Seeley racing frame, used in Grand Prix bikes, and adapted it to make a road racer.

As the Japanese manufacturers started to gain a foot hold in Europe and the rest of the world in the early 1970s, there were some great Japanese Café Racers  created too, but the true pioneers of the café racer movement were the British bike owners of the 1960s.

Which would you have rather had to race: a Triton, Tribsa or a Norvin?

  • Aakash

    Homie in the featured image has cafeface

    • Aaron

      that’s exactly what a thought, when I saw that pic.

  • Jack Meoph

    The ton up boys are oROCKERS!!

    • Davidabl2

      John Lennon said that. Some of the youngsters @rideapart may not know it. Although I’d assume they’d know who Lennon was, in the same way that they’d know who Elvis was.

      • Tom Byrne

        Ringo said it during a mock interview in the movie “A Hard Day’s Night”

  • Hooligan

    I would have a Triton, The best of both worlds. The Norton featherbed frame and the Triumph engine. As far as the Ace cafe goes it would be a race from there up to a roundabout called Hanger Lane and then back. Now that part of the North Circular Road is three lanes each way in the old days it was just a two lane road. But now the traffic is too dense and there are too many speed cameras to be be able to get up to any decent speed. Recently people have been racing in the nearby Park Royal industrial estate. Which has caused a lot of problems with large crowds of onlookers and some stupid riding. It did get pretty crazy. It has been designated a Anti Social Behavior area and the Police can order the dispersal of crowds and the seizing of bikes. Personally I never go near the Ace, too many loonies doing wheelies and stoppies outside. Also the food is crap.

  • Jason 1199

    I like the bikes and history, but these clowns riding around in leathers with hundreds of buttons, 59 club patches, scarves and a pudding bowl helmet are the quintessential moto-poseurs. They cruise up and down commercial streets on junky/loud cb350s hoping for attention while reliving a past they never had. Lame.

    Speaking of poseurs, check out Rideaparts best ever article:’s-the-next-big-thing/

    • Hooligan

      Thanks not seen that Report before. S’alltrue.

    • Jack Meoph

      Yeah, that was a good read. I don’t know why people think the good old days were so good. I lived them, and they pretty much sucked. The tech is just so much better today. And when the manufacturers start jumping in on a fad, it’s been over for a good 5 years.

      • Mr.Paynter

        I shudder to think how bad it must have been…

        A colleague test-rode the Royal Enfield GT this weekend and just told me how aful it was, rough engine, gear changes with no feel of the gears changing or selecting or anything… makes no sense to me, cafe looking bikes, maybe, authenticity to bely quality, um… no.

        • Davidabl2

          If it’s an Enfield and you can get the gear you want when you want, instead of what’s called an “extra neutral’ between gears Well then it’s not
          all bad. All the earlier Enfield singles and twins had gearboxes like that, as the gearboxes were “Albion” design boxes, designed about 1927 or thereabouts. The Albion box wasn’t dropped until sometime in the 21st century. I sometimes ride a 2000 Enfield that still has one.

    • appliance5000

      Ironically this is probably similar to how the original rockers were described. I guess the modern day cafe crowd has the added layer of retro to contend with.

      But as obnoxious as they may seem, they are carrying on a noble tradition of tinkering and modifying and learning about arcane engineering such as carburatation. Many a noble 350 has been saved from the scrap heap, and many a fun bike has been created. You might not like their beards and skinny jeans, but their hands are dirty and the jeans smell like oil.

      • Jason 1199

        That’s a good point. The original rockers were probably seen as wannabe racers. We see the hipsters as wannabe rockers. Anyone who genuinely tinkers Is a good thing and people have to start somewhere.

  • Stig Sarangi

    where is the Vincanti ??

  • William Connor

    What I want is to finish the home built CX500 my buddy owns. If it weren’t for a permanent lack of his funds we would be done.

  • Aakash

    This guy is OC (original cafenista!):

  • Richard Gozinya

    Actually the Norton engine, at the time of the Tritons, was more powerful. It was also prone to mechanical problems, so people started sticking the more reliable, though slightly less powerful Triumph engine in the superior handling Featherbed frame.

    • VonSonntag

      Actually, the engine choice was not guided by reliability. Triumph engines had their own issues too.

      By that time, Formula 500 was a very popular car racing formula. Those little race cars used powerful bike engines like the Norton 500 single and later the 650 and 750 twin engines. Those engines were generally teared of used bikes and that made a lot of un-motorized wild and narrow featherbed frames available to backyard cafe-racering. Put a tuned up Triumph twin in that, and you’ve got a genuine cafe racer. I guess this can be a good explanation to the Triton trend…

  • appliance5000

    Quadrophephenia is a surprisingly good movie that paints a strong picture of the mods and rockers of the cafe era. Well worth the watch if you want to see the bikes in action.

    Also it confirms that Sting was born unbearably obnoxious, lending his sheer ability to maintain and refine this trait over so many years worthy of a a certain kind of respect.

  • appliance5000

    And then the Honda cb750 arrived and hitting a ton was a twist of the wrist and things were never the same.