It is perhaps the most influential motorcycle movement the world has ever seen. Born in the streets of England in the 1950s, its culture still thrives around the globe. There will never be another motorcycle–or rider–quite like it. And yet, most of us have never heard of the café racer.
The café racer is both man and machine. With its Spartan appearance and aggressive styling, the café racer is one of the most distinctive and revered motorcycles in the world. 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.
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.
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.
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 uncomfortable to ride.
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.”
More recently, and in particular on a local front, the biggest player on the Café Racer scene is Deus ex Machina – (god from the machine) which roared into Australia’s cultural consciousness in 2006, with some neatly customised motorcycles and a quaint notion that doing something is more fun than just owning something.
Deus ex Machina is a step bigger than a brand: it’s a culture. The Deus brand has expanded from their Australian origins to bring their impressive design and fabrication into flagship emporiums in Los Angeles, Bali, Tokyo, and more recently, Milan.
Deus didn’t set out only to sell custom parts and hand-built motorcycles, but to celebrate a culture of creativity. The Deus ex Machina showroom/cafe/headquarters in Sydney immediately became a shrine to fun, resourcefulness and street-honest industrial art. The Deus philosophy recalls an era before the various pursuits of fun – motorcycling, surfing, skateboarding, whatever – were marketed into fundamentalist factions. All are welcomed under the Deus roof, where there’s simply respect for the honesty and enjoyment of the machine.
CRUISING AROUND TINSELTOWN – THE ‘RACER’ SCENE.
IT SEEMS TO BE THE CURRENT ‘MUST HAVE’ ACCESSORY FOR THE RICH AND FAMOUS.
Long before Steve McQueen moved to California & became an international celebrity, he was a struggling young motorcycle racer who spent his weekends competing at the Long Island City Raceway.
McQueen made the Café Racer cool and now there are many celebrities cruising around on these custom ‘cool machines’. Some of the big names in Hollywood that have been bitten by the Café Racer bug are:
But be warned, these celebrities have the means to buy whatever they want and one of these sexy pieces of machinery start at around $20,000 and can blow out to $175,000. Jump online and check out the local offerings at: