A café racer is a lightweight, powerful motorcycle optimized for speed and handling rather than comfort – and for quick rides over short distances. With bodywork and control layout recalling early-1960s Grand Prix road racing motorcycles, café racers are noted for their visual minimalism, featuring low-mounted handlebars, prominent seat cowling and elongated fuel tank – and frequently knee-grips indented in the fuel tank.
Café racer origins
The term originated among British motorcycle enthusiasts of the early 1960s in London, specifically within the Rocker or "Ton-Up Boys" youth subculture, where the bikes were used for short, quick rides between popular cafés, in Watford at the Busy Bee café, and the Ace Café in Stonebridge, London. In post-war Britain, car ownership was still uncommon, but by the late 1950s the average Briton could afford a car, so by the early 1960s the café racer's significance was that a bike had come to represent speed, status and rebellion, rather than mere inability to afford a car.
In 2014, journalist Ben Stewart described the café racer as a "look made popular when European kids stripped down their small-displacement bikes to zip from one café hangout to another." Writing in 1973, Wallace Wyss maintained that the term café racer was originally used in Europe to describe a "motorcyclist who played at being an Isle of Man road racer" but was actually "someone who owned a racy machine but merely parked it near his table at the local outdoor cafe."
In addition to light weight, a tuned engine and minimalist bodywork, the café racer typically features distinctive ergonomics. Dropped bars that are low, narrow handlebars (called "clip-ons")  – enabled the rider to "tuck in", reducing wind resistance and improving control. Along with the rearward located seat, the posture often required rearsets, or rear-set footrests and foot controls, again typical of racing motorcycles of the era. Distinctive half or full race-style fairings were sometimes mounted to the forks or frame.
John Glimmerveen declared in 2017 that the typical specification of an early café racer would be: swept-back pipes, low-mounted clip-on handlebars or 'Ace' bars, reverse cone megaphone mufflers, TT100 Dunlop tires, rear sets, and larger carburetors (often with inlet trumpet rather than air filters).
The bikes featured minimalist styling, engines tuned for speed and responsive handling. A typical example was the "Triton", a homemade combination of a Triumph Bonneville engine in a Norton Featherbed frame. A less common hybrid was the "Tribsa" which had a Triumph engine in a BSA duplex frame. Other hybrids café racers included the "NorVin" (a Vincent V-Twin engine in a Featherbed frame), and bikes with racing frames by Rickman or Seeley.
Café racer styling evolved throughout the time of their popularity. By the mid-1970s, Japanese bikes had overtaken British bikes in the marketplace, and the look of real Grand Prix racing bikes had changed. The hand-made, frequently unpainted aluminium racing fuel tanks of the 1960s had evolved into square, narrow, fibreglass tanks. Increasingly, three-cylinder Kawasaki two-strokes, four-cylinder four-stroke Kawasaki Z1, and four-cylinder Honda engines were the basis for café racer conversions. By 1977, a number of manufacturers had taken notice of the café racer boom and were producing factory café racers, such as the well-received Moto Guzzi Le Mans and the Harley-Davidson XLCR. The Japanese domestic market started making cafe racer replicas in the early 1980s, first Honda with the GB250 in 1983, then GB400 and GB500 versions in 1985. The GB400TTMKII has a frame mounted fairing and single seat with cowl. The Honda GB500 TT, sought to emulate BSA and Norton café racers of the 1960s. Markets outside got the XBR500 in 1985, with more angular modern styling to compete with the Yamaha SRX600, until Honda USA released a version of the GB500 in 1989.
In the mid-1970s, riders continued to modify standard production motorcycles into so-called "café racers" by simply equipping them with clubman bars and a small fairing around the headlight. A number of European manufacturers, including Benelli, BMW, Bultaco and Derbi produced factory "café" variants of their standard motorcycles in this manner, without any modifications made to make them faster or more powerful, a trend that continues today.
Modern café racers
Manufacturers have noticed that there is a lot of recent consumer interest in café racers. While this approach was not new to the industry, manufacturers[who?] have realised the market appeal of this type of ready-to-ride café racer. During the past decade, over 50% of the larger motorcycle manufacturers have adopted the trend. In 2004, Triumph produced a turn-key retro motorcycle with their Thruxton. Another modern cafe racer is the Ducati SportClassic, made from 2006 till 2009.
- BMW R nineT Racer
- Ducati Scrambler Café Racer
- Harley-Davidson XL1200CX Roadster
- Métisse Mk5
- Moto Guzzi V7
- Norton Commando 961 Café Racer
- Royal Enfield Continental GT 650
- Yamaha XSR900 Abarth
- Ducati Scrambler (2015) Cafe Racer
- Honda CB1000R Neo-Sports Café Racer
Rockers were a young and rebellious rock and roll subculture who wanted a fast, personalised and distinctive bike to travel between transport cafés along the newly built arterial motorways in and around British towns and cities. Biker lore has it that the goal of many was to be able to reach 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) – called simply "the ton – along such a route where the rider would leave from a café, race to a predetermined point and back to the café before a single song could play on the jukebox, called record-racing. However, author Mike Seate contends that record-racing is a myth, the story having originated in an episode of the BBC Dixon of Dock Green television show. Café racers are remembered as being especially fond of rockabilly music and their image is now embedded in today's rockabilly culture.
The Café Racer sub-culture has created a separate look and identity with modern café racers taking style elements from American Greasers, British Rockers, 70s bikers, and modern motorcycle riders to create a global style of their own.
- James Adam Bolton (November–December 2010). "Moto Guzzi T3 Special". Motorcycle Classics. Retrieved October 11, 2009.
- Pratt, Paul Richard (April 1963). "A Trip Through North America". American Motorcyclist. American Motorcycle Association. XVII (4): 20. Archived from the original on 11 November 2014. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
The American 'Cafe Racer' rides with 'ape' type handlebars as high as possible in order to attract attention whereas, in direct contrast his British brother rides with the handlebars as low as possible in a feeble attempt to emulate racer John Surtees. One thing they do have in common is the making of excessive noise.
- Koutsoukis, Jason (9 December 2014). "Keep the motor running". Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
'The cafe racer culture is a phenomenon, not just in Australia, but around the world,' says motorcycle adventurer Rennie Scaysbrook, editor of Australia's Free Wheeling magazine, who spent 10 days last year riding an Enfield across the mountains of Nepal.
- Travis R. Wright (29 July 2009). "Highway stars". Detroit Metro Times. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
What about the so-called café racer – that low-profile vintage motorcycle rider who looks as if he just rode away from the Marquee Club circa '62? His motorcycle is minimal and slim-lined, unlike the mainstream Harleys and those angular sport bikes you're used to seeing on the road.
- Cafe Society (DVD). Sewickley, PA: Beaverbrook. 2009. ASIN B002L3OVJ0.
From their origins on the streets of 1950s England, the cafe racer has become one of the world's most desirable and distinctive motorcycles.
- "The History of Café Racers". Cafe Racer TV. Discovery Communications. 12 October 2010. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
The café racer movement may have been born in London in the 1950s, but it has developed into a subculture encompassing a desire for speed, a love of rock and roll, and ultimately an enduring love for a motorcycle that’s being revived worldwide.
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- Stewart, Ben (20 June 2014). "You Should Build Your Own Retro Café Racer". Popular Mechanics. Hearst Communication. Retrieved 25 December 2014.
Take a look around the hippest neighborhoods across the country and you'll see motorcycles that look like something out of an old Steve McQueen movie—retro, minimalist, and tough.
- Wyss, Wally (September 1973). "How to fit a fairing and ride a racer!". Popular Mechanics. Vol. 140 no. 3. The Hearst Corporation. p. 166. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
The American trend toward cafe racers caught most of the world's bikemakers by surprise and, at this writing, only Triumph has anything that approaches a cafe racer—a new model called the Hurricane that has a seat-molded-into-the-gas-tank one-piece unit designed by American fairing designer Craig Vetter.
- Melling, Frank (26 September 2004). "Classic bikes: DIY Tritons". Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 26 December 2014.
Originally, cost was a major influence. In 1965, a good engine from the ill-handling Triumph Tiger 110 cost £30. Another £30 bought a rough Norton Model 50 or ES2, which provided not only the frame but the gearbox, clutch, suspension and brakes.
- "What Is a Cafe Racer? John Glimmerveen, www.thoughtco.com 28 February 2017, archived from the original 3 January 2018. Retrieved 22 December 2019
- "The 50 Greatest Motorcycles of All Time". Complex Magazine. New York: Complex Media. 28 March 2011. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
The sinister Le Mans was an immediate hit when launched in 1976.
- Brown, Roland. "Harley-Davidson XLCR". Motorcycle Classics. Retrieved August 24, 2009.
The Harley-Davidson XLCR was Willie G. Davidson's one and only brush with the cafe racer set, and it created a classic for all time
- Lindsay, Brooke (5 November 2006). "Harley's Sportster: From a Wild Child to a Grown-Up in 50 Years". New York Times. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
As grim as those days were in terms of performance, it was an era that produced two of the Sportsters considered most unusual and sought-after by collectors, the 1977-78 XLCR Cafe Racer and the 1983-85 XR1000. Both of these racebike-inspired models were risky departures for Harley, and both originally languished unsold in showrooms long after production concluded.
- Welsh, Jonathan (16 March 2012). "New Era for 'Hogs?' Harley-Davidson Styling Chief To Retire". Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. Driver’s Seat blog. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
His road-race-styled Café Racer built from 1977 to 1979 was a departure and a famous flop. However, the sleek bikes are now coveted by collectors.
- Backus, Richard (2011). "Honda GB500 Under the Radar". Motorcycle Classics. Ogden Publications (January/February). Retrieved 29 December 2014.
Ducati, Triumph, Guzzi and others have enjoyed considerable success with repli-bikes in recent years, so maybe the Honda was just 10 years ahead of its time. 'Simplicity and grace are never out of style,' wrote Peter Egan in Cycle World’s 1989 review of the GB500, 'and the GB is a simple, handsome bike.'
- Welsh, Jonathan (29 March 2010). "Moto Guzzi Cafe Classic: Retro, But Not Painfully So". Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. Driver’s Seat blog. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
The Cafe is based on the V7 Classic that came out about a year ago. The differences are cosmetic, but significant. The Cafe’s exhaust pipes are swept upwards and its it handlebars are low, “clip-on” style that give it the look of a vintage racer.
- Welsh, Jonathan (3 August 2011). "Moto Guzzi V7 Racer: A Test Ride". Wall Street Journal. Dow Jones & Company. Driver’s Seat blog. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
Its low, compact shape, racy down-turned handlebars and spoke wheels give it the look of a vintage grand prix bike while jewel-like details from the engine to the foot pegs suggest a hand-built custom machine. But it is really a dressed up version of the Italian company’s earlier mass-market V7 Classic.
- "Top 10 production café racers". Visordown. Immediate Media Company Ltd. 18 December 2013. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
Café racers are an odd phenomenon. They’re popular enough to inspire endless shed-built specials and even dedicated websites, magazines and TV shows, but when it comes to strolling into a showroom and buying one, the options are surprisingly thin on the ground.
- Plowright, Adam (23 December 2013). "Retro revival: Café racers are back!". Independent Online. Cape Town: Independent Newspapers (Pty) Limited. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
- Adams, Bradley (November 7, 2016). "Ducati Jumps Into The Café Racer Segment With Its New Scrambler Café Racer". Cycle World. Retrieved January 16, 2017.
- Westville, Joe (October 15, 2015). "12 Best Mdern Café Racer Bikes". BikeBrewers. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
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- "Cafe Racer Bikes in India". Mototechindia.com.
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- Clinton, Jane (30 January 2011). "Old Rockers in tune with Mods". Daily Express. London: Northern and Shell Media Publications. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
Lenny Paterson, 61, who was a Rocker back in the Sixties and remains one at heart recalls the sense of being outcasts and rebels. 'Often you wouldn’t be allowed into cafes or bars with a leather jacket,' says the father of three who lives in Wallington, near Croydon, where he runs his own spare parts business.
- "Ray Pickrell". The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group Limited. Obituaries. 1 May 2006. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
Those were the days of the 'rockers', and Ray learned to ride fast on the north London roads around the Ace Cafe and the Busy Bee where fellow bikers used to hold impromptu races.
- "Leader of the pack". Western Daily Press. Bristol: Local World. This is Somerset. 30 January 2009. Archived from the original on 2014-12-27. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
Now aged 89, Father Bill, as he was known in east London, was one of the founders of the world famous 59 Club – the home of hordes of tearaway rockers, the hoodies of the day, who used to scream around London's North Circular on their Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs, terrifying the populace and causing retired majors to splutter into their sherry.
- McEwen, Charles; Brooke, Lindsay; et al. (3 June 2011). "The Books of Summer, Awaiting Your Armchair". New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
Built in the 1930s on the busy North Circular Road, the open-all-night Ace [Cafe] was a haven for truckers and other nighthawks, serving up tea, coffee and thFe usual 30-weight diner fare. By the 1950s Ace regulars began to include a new breed of motorcyclist, mostly young, looking for a place to gather with their mates. They would listen to the jukebox rock 'n' roll and explore their machines' speed potential on the surrounding roads.
- McDermott, Jim (3 February 2009). "Cafe Racer Rave Up". Superbikeplanet.com. Hardscrabble Media LLC. Archived from the original on 27 December 2014. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
- Jensen, Eric (5 November 2011). "Rose-coloured goggles: throb of the wild lures cafe racers back in time". Sydney Morning Herald. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
Mr Travis has noticed a rise in cafe-racer culture in the past few years - the motorcycle scene that grew out of rockabilly.
- Fullerton, Georgia (8 May 2014). "Throttle Roll motors into The Vic". City Hub. Sydney: Alternative Media Group of Australia. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
Throttle Roll promotor, Mark Hawwa, says the partnership between rock ‘n’ roll and motorbikes is an important one: 'The reason I brought in rock ‘n’ roll to the actual event is that back in the ’60s that was the music that these guys were listening to. The roots of the Cafe Racer comes back to rock ‘n’ roll music. Young guys on motorbikes, the pin-up girls and the guys with their slicked back hair-dos. It’s all just a whole lot of fun.'
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- Walker, Alastair. The Café Racer Phenomenon. 2009 Veloce Publishing ISBN 978-1-84584-264-2
- Walker, Mick (1994). Cafe Racers of the 1960s. Wiltshire: Crowood Press. ISBN 978-1872004198.
- Walker, Mick (2001). Cafe Racers of the 1970s (Reprint ed.). Wiltshire: Crowood Press. ISBN 978-1847972835.
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