Café racer

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BSA café racer at the Ace Cafe. (The rider is wearing a 59 Club badge).
Triton café racer with a Triumph engine in a Norton Featherbed frame

A café racer is a genre of sport motorcycles that originated among British motorcycle enthusiasts of the early 1960s in London. Café racers were standard production bikes that were modified by their owners and optimized for speed and handling for quick rides over short distances.[1] Café racers have since become popular around the world, and some manufacturers produce factory-made models that are available in the showrooms.

Noted for its visual minimalism, a 1960s café racer would typically be an English parallel twin motorcycle with low-mounted clip-on or "Ace" handlebars with rear-set footrests. Items considered "non-essential" such as side panels, rear chain enclosures, and voluminous mudguards (fenders) were replaced by lighter items, or dispensed with altogether.[2]

Café racer origins[edit]

Café racers were particularly associated with the urban Rocker or "Ton-Up Boys" youth subculture, where the bikes were used for short, quick rides between popular cafés, such as London's Ace Café on the North Circular ring road, and Watford's Busy Bee café.[3][4][2][5][6] In post-war Britain, car ownership was still uncommon, but as rationing and austerity diminished, by the late 1950s young men could for the first time afford a motorcycle.[7] Previously, motorcycles (often with voluminous sidecars) provided family transport, but the growing economy enabled such families to afford a car and dispense with a motorcycle at last. Young men were eager to buy such cast-off motorcycles and modify them into café racers, which for them represented speed, status, and rebellion, rather than mere inability to afford a car.[8]

The café racer idea caught on in the US, which was already a major market for British motorcycles. In 2014, journalist Ben Stewart recognised the café racer as a European style that would be appreciated in America.[9] Writing in 1973, Wallace Wyss claimed that the term "café racer" was originally used in Europe to describe a "motorcyclist who played at being an Isle of Man road racer".[10]


1960s Rockers outside Watford's Busy Bee Café

"Rockers" were a young and rebellious rock and roll subculture[11] who wanted to escape the crushing convention of dreary 1950s UK culture. Owning a fast, personalised, and distinctive café racer gave them status and allowed them to ride between transport cafés in and around British towns and cities.[12][13][14] Biker lore has it that one goal was to reach "the ton", (100 miles per hour (160 km/h)), along a route where the rider would leave from a café, race to a predetermined point, and return 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.[15] Café racers are remembered as being especially fond of rockabilly music and their image is now embedded in today's rockabilly culture.[16][17]

The café racer subculture 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.[9][3]

Café racer configuration[edit]

A 1962 AJS 7R 350 cc race bike, with features often imitated by café racers
BSA Gold Star 500 café racer

Café racer riders would often lighten their bikes, and tune their engine, typically fitting "clip-ons" (or dropped handlebars) and rear-set footrests,[4] which enabled the rider to "tuck in", reducing wind resistance and improving control.[18] Occasionally, café racers might be fitted with half- or even full-race-style fairings.[10] Some bikes had swept-back pipes, reverse cone megaphone mufflers, TT100 Dunlop tires, and larger carburetors (often with inlet trumpet rather than air filters). Occasionally the standard dual seat would be replaced by a solo saddle.[19]

As owners became more experimental, they would fit engines in different frames. A typical example was the "Triton", a homemade combination of a Triumph Bonneville engine in a Norton Featherbed frame.[18] A less common hybrid was the "Tribsa", which had a Triumph engine in a BSA duplex frame. Other hybrids included the "NorVin" (a Vincent V-Twin engine in a Featherbed frame), and bikes with racing frames by Rickman or Seeley.


1977 Harley-Davidson XLCR
Honda GB500 TT café racer

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[20] and the Harley-Davidson XLCR.[21][22][23] 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.[24] 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,[25] without any modifications made to make them faster or more powerful,[26] a trend that continues today.[27][28]

Although many riders of four-strokes associate cafe racers with four-stroke motors and British marques, and with an era prior to the onslaught of mostly-Japanese two-strokes, owners of two-stroke standard motorcycles have also been as enthusiastic at modifying their motorcycles into cafe racers, although the riders are less likely to ape 1950s clothing and hair fashions. During the course of the 1980s, manufacturers mostly phased out two-stroke standard motorcycles, replacing them with race replicas. Many obsolete standard designs continued to be manufactured or distributed from remaining stocks, especially in less wealthy countries. 1970s Yamaha and Honda designs, by example, were distributed or manufactured in India and elsewhere through partnerships with Indian manufacturers such as Escorts (partnered with Yamaha) and Hero Cycles (Hero Honda). Owners of these machines in countries where they are still available, such as India, Malaysia, and the Philippines have continued to modify these two-stroke standard motorcycles into cafe racers.[29][30][31][32] Manufacturers of newer two-stroke designs also produce cafe racer inspired models, including the British 250cc Langen cafe racer announced in 2020.[33][34]

Modern café racers[edit]

1200cc Triumph Thruxton R
Suzuki S40 customised in a café racer style[35][36]

Major manufacturers, such as BMW, Norton, Ducati and Yamaha, have responded to consumer interest in ready-to-ride café racers[37] and have exploited this niche market. Triumph produced a turn-key retro motorcycle with their Thruxton R. Another modern cafe racer is the Ducati SportClassic, made from 2006 till 2009.

The café racer influence is apparent in the design of some electric motorcycles, for example, the TC model of Super Soco is commonly referred to as a café racer.[38]

A shared design foundation that can frequently be found among many café racers are clip on handle bars, a flat alignment of the passenger seat and gas tank and spoked wheels for a distinctive look.[39]

Modern stock café racers from motorcycle factories include:[40][41]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ James Adam Bolton (November–December 2010). "Moto Guzzi T3 Special". Motorcycle Classics. Retrieved October 11, 2009.
  2. ^ a b 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.
  3. ^ a b 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.
  4. ^ a b 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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ "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.
  7. ^ Siegal, Margie (January–February 2017). "1975 Norton Commando 850 Mark III". Motorcycle Classics. Retrieved April 20, 2017.
  8. ^ Duffy, Martyn; Robinson, Terry (2004). "An econometric analysis of motorcycle ownership in the UK". International Journal of Transport Management. 2 (3–4): 111–121. doi:10.1016/j.ijtm.2005.04.002.
  9. ^ a b 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.
  10. ^ a b 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ "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.
  13. ^ "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.
  14. ^ McEwen, Charles; Brooke, Lindsay; et al. (3 June 2011). "The Books of Summer, Awaiting Your Armchair". New York Times. 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 the 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.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  15. ^ McDermott, Jim (3 February 2009). "Cafe Racer Rave Up". Hardscrabble Media LLC. Archived from the original on 27 December 2014. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ Fullerton, Georgia (8 May 2014). "Throttle Roll motors into The Vic". City Hub. Sydney: Alternative Media Group of Australia. Archived from the original on 27 December 2014. 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.'
  18. ^ a b 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 also the gearbox, clutch, suspension, and brakes.
  19. ^ "What Is a Cafe Racer? John Glimmerveen, 28 February 2017, archived from the original 3 January 2018. Retrieved 22 December 2019
  20. ^ "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.
  21. ^ 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
  22. ^ 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.
  23. ^ 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.
  24. ^ 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.'
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ "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.
  28. ^ Plowright, Adam (23 December 2013). "Retro revival: Café racers are back!". Independent Online. Cape Town: Independent Newspapers (Pty) Limited. Retrieved 27 December 2014.
  29. ^ "Two-Stroke Cafe Racers". BikeBound. BikeBound. Retrieved 2021-06-01.
  30. ^ "Track Racer: Yamaha RD350 by Moto Exotica". BikeBound. BikeBound. Retrieved 2021-06-01.
  31. ^ "Yamaha RX King 135 Cafe Racer". BikeBound. BikeBound. Retrieved 2021-06-01.
  32. ^ Shah, Pradeep (2017-03-20). "This customised Yamaha RX100 cafe racer will almost perish your Monday Blues". Zee Entertainment Enterprises Limited. Retrieved 2021-06-01.
  33. ^ Barstow, Ollie (2020-07-10). "The two-stroke is back in a gold-plated, 112kg 250cc cafe racer: The two-stroke is back in this smart British-built and very lightweight Langen cafe racer!". Visor Down. CMG Ltd. Retrieved 2021-06-01.
  34. ^ "Langen 2-stroke cafe racer". Motorcycles News. MotorradMedien. 2020-07-12. Retrieved 2021-06-01.
  35. ^ "Ryca CS-1 cafe racer", BikeEXIF, Mar 13, 2012
  36. ^ "Ryca CS-1 – Suzuki S40 Cafe Conversion by Paul Crowe", The Kneeslider, 2014
  37. ^ Adams, Bradley (November 7, 2016). "Ducati Jumps Into The Café Racer Segment With Its New Scrambler Café Racer". Cycle World. Retrieved January 16, 2017.
  38. ^ "Super Soco TC Cafe Racer now with free on road costs". 2021-11-19. Retrieved 2021-11-20.
  39. ^ Trelogan, Charlie (2014-03-03). "How To Build A Cafe Racer". Bike EXIF. Retrieved 2023-07-06.
  40. ^ Westville, Joe (October 15, 2015). "12 Best Modern Cafe Racer Bikes". BikeBrewers. Retrieved August 7, 2017.
  41. ^ Baldwin, Geoffrey (September 26, 2018). "10 off the shelf cafe racers". Return of the Cafe Racers. Retrieved February 12, 2019.

Further reading[edit]

  • Steven E. Alford; Suzanne Ferriss (2007). Motorcycle. London: Reaktion. ISBN 9781861893451.
  • Beale, Paul; Partridge, Eric (28 December 1993). Fergusson, Rosalind (ed.). Shorter Slang Dictionary. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415088664.
  • Clay, Mike. (1988) Café Racers: Rockers, Rock 'n' Roll and the Coffee-bar Cult. London: Osprey Publishing. ISBN 0-85045-677-0
  • Cloesen, Uli (15 October 2014). Italian Cafe Racers. Dorchester: Veloce Publishing. ISBN 9781845847494.
  • D'Orléans, Paul and Lichter, Michael. Café Racers: Speed, Style, and Ton-Up Culture. Motorbooks, 2014 ISBN 978-0760345825
  • Duckworth, Mick (2011). Ace Times Speed Thrills and Tea Spills, a Cafe and Culture. UK: Redline Books. ISBN 9780955527869.
  • King, Anthony D. (26 April 1984). Buildings and Society: Essays on the Social Development of the Built Environment (Reprint ed.). London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0710202345.
  • Puxley, Ray (2004). Britslang: An Uncensored A-Z of the People's Language, Including Rhyming Slang. London: Robson. ISBN 9781861057280.
  • Seate, Mike (2008). Café Racer: The Motorcycle: Featherbeds, clip-ons, rear-sets and the making of a ton-up boy. Stillwater, MN: Parker House. ISBN 978-0979689192.
  • 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.

External links[edit]