The café racer is a light and lightly powered motorcycle that has been modified for speed and handling rather than comfort. The bodywork and control layout of a café racer typically mimicked the style of a contemporary Grand Prix roadracer, featuring an elongated fuel tank, often with dents to allow the rider’s knees to grip the tank, low slung racing handlebars, and a single-person, elongated, humped seat.
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A signature trait was the use of low, narrow handlebars that allowed the rider to “tuck in” — a posture with reduced wind resistance and better control. These handlebars, known as “clip-ons” (two separate bars that bolt directly to each fork tube), “clubmans” or “ace bars” (one piece bars that attach to the standard mounting location but drop down and forward). The ergonomics resulting from low bars and the rearward seat 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.
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The bikes had a utilitarian, stripped-down appearance, engines tuned for maximum speed and lean, light road handling. The well-known example was “The Triton”, a homemade combination of Norton Featherbed frame and Triumph Bonneville engine. It used a common and fast racing engine combined with a well-handling frame, the Featherbed frame by Norton Motorcycles. Those with less money could opt for a “Tribsa”—the Triumph engine in a BSA frame. Other combinations such as the “Norvin” (a Vincent V-Twin engine in a Featherbed frame) and racing frames by Rickman or Seeley were also adopted for road use.
1977 Harley-Davidson XLCR
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 Hondas 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, most notably the Harley-Davidson XLCR.
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.
1960s Rockers under canopy outside Busy Bee Café, Watford, England, UK.
Rockers were a young and rebellious rock and roll counterculture 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. 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. They are remembered as being especially fond of rockabilly music and their image is now embedded in today’s rockabilly culture.
The sub-culture continues to evolve with modern café racers taking style elements of the American Greaser, the British Rocker and modern motorcycle rider to create a style all their own. Google Trends shows that, since 2010, the number of searches for the term ‘cafe racer’ has increased by approximately a factor of three relative to the total number of Google searches.