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Common Tread

The new moto cafes: do they have the spirit as well as the look?

May 23, 2014

Plans to open a new Ace Cafe in Orlando, Fla., have me thinking about the state of the cafe racer and today's new moto cafe's. The original Ace Cafe in London draws thousands of people and has daily special events for all kinds of motorcycle and car fans, but certainly it has more authenticity than a shiny new building.

Also, there's the whole England thing to help with authenticity.

The U.S. Ace Café is set to open by the end of the year. Plans call for a motorcycle dealership and apparel shop on site, as well as a restaurant and bar. (See news video.) The location is in downtown Orlando, not outside of the city near the huge Disney tourism complex, so it will be interesting to see who is drawn there and how much the new venture can tap into the Bike Week culture just an hour away on Interstate 4 in Daytona.

The term café racer came from British motorcyclists in the 1960s who would hang out in coffee shops, listen to music on the juke box and race from one café to the next. Their bikes were modified and customized, both out of an appreciation for a certain aesthetic as well as a search for more performance. The goal was to “do the ton,” or reach 100 mph.

Today, motorcycles can easily hit 100 mph, and the 2014 versions of real café racers are probably found riding on The Snake or The Tail of the Dragon or their own local version of those more famous roads.

In the past decade, we’ve seen the renaissance of the café racer aesthetic. Motorcycle clubs and retro cafés sprouted nationwide. People built bikes based on the café racer style ranging from low-budget Honda CB350s from the 1970s to high-dollar customs by famous builders. The manufacturers followed with new motorcycles with retro styling, such as the Honda CB1100 and the Moto Guzzi V7 Racer. While many have focused on simply the aesthetics of the café racer movement, most have forgotten the spirit of the café racer: to customize your bike with a performance goal in mind and to ride with your friends.

Enter the new breed of motorcycle café. These places are still based around the aesthetic we’re used to when we think of the term “café,” but they are more about the community and events that attracted those original café racers to hang out. They’re no longer chasing the ton, but instead spend their time on pursuits ranging from flat track racing on innappropriate motorcycles to BBQing while celebrating thumpers or sidecars, or organizing group rides.

Here are three places I think are doing it right.

See See Motor Coffee Co., Portland, Ore.

See See Motor Coffee Co.
See See is defined by its unwillingness to be narrowly defined. Owned and operated by Thor Drake, with a decent amount of Drake McElroy sprinkled in, See See has its hands in just about everything. They customize motorcycles, design and sell apparel, have a café on site, host one of the country's best custom motorcycle shows, organize flat track and minibike races, and make short films about their adventures. Best yet, they welcome anyone who shares their passion at any of their events and are doing a fantastic job of promoting the spirit of the motorcycle café. I’m actually headed up there next week for Dirt Quake.

Deus Ex Machina, Venice, Calif.

Deus Ex Machina
Deus Ex Machina originally started in Bali and then, after gaining tremendous popularity in the United States, opened a shop in Southern California. The Venice location has a workshop on site where their builder, Woolie, builds his custom creations. There is also a large apparel section, where they sell Deus clothing and motorcycle gear, and a coffee shop. It’s a rare weekend when there isn’t an event in the Deus parking lot. One weekend it will be a gathering of single-cylinder thumpers and the next “Saturday School,” where they host educational classes.

Union Garage, New York

Union Garage is a motorcycle gear shop owned and operated by Chris Lesser. They’ve created a unique community around their whole block, surrounded by repair shops on both sides, aimed at improving the motorcycle community. Union Garage doesn’t do apparel or sell coffee (though they have some brewing and will gladly share a cup with any who ask). They strictly aim to keep the most sought-after gear stocked and ready. Intentional or not, they’ve created a community around their shop, and I often send friends riding through the area to stop and see Chris.

These are just some of my favorite spots, but not everyone agrees. Some people see too much trend-following in the café racer scene. Do you think this is driven by people's love for the aesthetic and spirit of the café racer, or just jumping on the fad to sell expensive T-shirts? Where do you draw the line between what is or isn't authentic? What places do you think are keeping the café racer spirit alive?