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Common Tread

What is a cafe racer?

Dec 01, 2014

Challenge accepted!

Lemmy closed out his "how to speak chopper proper" screed by warning everyone not to get me started talking about what constitutes a "cafe racer." So of course I'm going to do just that. How did this term, born as derogatory slang, transform over the years into a term of endearment for “go-fast” styling accents?

The cafe racer

Popular Mechanics page
Old issue of "Popular Mechanics" with a cool article on building race fairings.
In 1973, Wallace Wyss, most popularly known in the automotive community for his historical works on Shelby Mustangs, wrote a small editorial piece in Popular Mechanics about how to install a race fairing on street bikes of the era. In the opening paragraph, he explained how the term “cafe racer” had originated as a derogatory term among the motorcycle racing community in 1950s.

“It referred to the motorcyclist who played at being an Isle of Man road racer, someone who owned a racy machine but merely parked it near his table at the local cafe,” Wyss wrote. By this definition, all the BMW guys who park their R 1200 GS Adventures at Starbucks are the 21st century's “cafe racers.”

Imitation, it has been said, is the sincerest form of flattery.

My current wiring nightmare: A 1976 CB550 I am tearing down in my garage. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar
Alongside all the exhibitionists throughout history, there were also the authentic enthusiasts focused on more than appearance. Greasy guys and girls who simply wanted to make it through their day at the local factory or office so they could get home to the garage and spend their evenings chasing stoplights. In the era in which the cafe racer term originated, the bikes were lightweight machines of the day, typically British in origin (prior to the Japanese invasion of the 1970s), transformed into go-fast machines.

In its simplest form, building a cafe racer started with removal of the stock handlebars, sitting in a clamp above the triple tree, in favor of clip-on bars mounted to the front fork tubes, which lowered the rider's hands and forced a tucked, aerodynamic riding position. From there, rear-set footpegs were installed to allow for additional ground clearance, a fairing was sometimes added, and any unnecessary weight was lopped off.

The more mechanically inclined riders of the 1950s and 60s would take the best parts from different bikes and create Frankenstein machines. While riders often varied on their choice of engines, the original Featherbed frame built by Norton was ubiquitous. Designed for race use at the Isle of Man, it utilized over 40 feet of premium steel tubing and was widely considered the best race frame of the era.

One of the most popular combinations of the time was the “Triton,” which combined the acclaimed Norton Featherbed frame with the less powerful but more dependable 650cc Triumph twin as its powerplant. The lucky few who could get their hands on a land-speed-record-holding Vincent 998cc V-twin would utilize this engine in their builds, calling their creation a “Norvin.” The Vincent engine was a temperamental mistress, but its raw brute power could not be ignored.

The Norvin: Vincent engine, Norton frame. In this author's opinion, one of the most aesthetically pleasing engines ever to ever roll off an assembly line. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

In the 1970s, Japanese manufacturers took over the race with Honda’s revolutionary CB750 and the rebirth of the two-stroke engine, technology smuggled out from behind the Iron Curtain of the Cold War and utilized by Suzuki, Yamaha, and Kawasaki. If you have never read Mat Oxley’s “Stealing Speed,” add it to your winter reading list. It documents the tale of Walter Kaaden, an engineer living in war-torn East Germany after World War II, who incorporated technology from Hitler’s V1 rocket and developed the modern two-stroke motorcycle engine. The technology was then stolen by Ernst Degner, a member of Kaaden’s race team, smuggled out of the country and sold to Suzuki.

Kawasaki H2
The Widowmaker: This was the original H2 from Kawasaki. A 748 cc two-stroke triple engine that was notorious for overwhelming the frame, brakes, and suspension attached to it. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Often the engines of this era overpowered the frames, suspension and brakes. Building a cafe racer in the 70s often meant addressing these shortcomings.

Seeley bike
This 1978 Seeley F1 belongs to Michael Hüby, owner of Music City Metalcraft, restorer at Lane Motor Museum, and one of the most talented fabricators around. Photo by Michael Hüby.

Guys like Colin Seeley were able to gain notoriety by harnessing the power made by Honda’s large, four-stroke, inline fours. Seeley was a retired roadracer who had specialized in sidecar racing, often utilizing his own designs. He applied that knowledge to building a frame that could handle a beefed-up Honda CB750 engine. Original Seeley CB750s can still command upwards of $30,000. That’s a lot of beer money.

On the modern stage, we have seen manufacturers cashing in on their past with vintage-styled machines using modern hardware. While I have no problem with manufacturers like Triumph, Moto Guzzi, and Royal Enfield creating modern versions of their own history in the Thruxton, V7, and the Continental GT, respectively, I do not see those bikes as finished products. Rather, I see these bikes as blank slates. Empty canvasses for riders to use to develop their own creations.

Would you consider this a cafe racer? Matt Capri's Triumph 1147 Mirage RT build puts down 105 horsepower at the rear wheel. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar

Today, high-profile builders are designing great-looking bikes off of modern and vintage platforms alike, and I applaud all of them. Guys like Matt Capri of South Bay Performance in Southern California, who builds custom Triumph Thruxtons and Bonnevilles that produce well over 100 horsepower. The boys down at Revival Cycles sweating it out in the Austin heat, building the Ducatis and Guzzis we'd love to see coming out of Italy. And the loners like Michael Hüby, who heads up metal fabrication at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville during the day and runs Music City Metalcraft at night, forging metal by hand to create wildly unique and inspired creations.

To me, the term cafe racer can be applied to any bike being reinvented by men and women who are genuinely trying to squeeze more ponies out of their aging machines or adding elements which will allow them to increase lean angles and improve handling. So while Lemmy favors setting strict guidelines for defining genres in his "Moto-linguistics" article, I take the opposite approach. I feel strict definitions can be confining, as they don't allow for interpretation and evolution.

My buddy Stevie's 1977 Suzuki GS750, right before it gets a heart transplant to upgrade the powerplant to a GSX-R1100 motor. All work done by Michael Hüby at Music City Metalcraft. Photo by Michael Hüby.

Yeah, we could argue over a set of guidelines that one would have to adhere to before being able to throw around the term “cafe racer.” I would rather think of the term as one that encompasses the evolution of the “go-fast” mentality over the past 60 years, rather than any specific mechanical or stylistic guidelines.

That is one guy's opinion. What are your thoughts? Who are the builders you think are taking the spirit of the cafe racer in the most interesting or innovative direction?

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” — Charles Darwin