Motorcycle History: 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?

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