The Cafe Racer is perhaps one of the most iconic images - not just for Motorcycling but for youth culture in general. Taking shape in the late 50s and early 60s the original Cafe Racers were a generation of motorcycle enthusiasts whose influence on the industry can still be felt today.
In fact, the retro scene has enjoyed a huge boom over the last few years and modern Cafe Racers like Triumph's Thruxton, Kawasaki's Z900RS and the new Continental GT from Royal Enfield all showing why this classic style is truly timeless.
In this blog, we are going to take a look at the history of the Cafe Racers, the bikes they rode as well as the effect they had on the modern manufacture of motorcycles.
From Rockers to Racers
After surviving WWII, the youth of 1950s Britain were now enjoying an economic upswing. Jobs and apprenticeships were more commonly available, and these youngsters found themselves with money in their pockets and new financial independence. On top of this, finance deals were becoming much more readily available and obtaining a vehicle to suit this new independent lifestyle was a real possibility.
By the end of the 50s, two main subcultures began to form among the youth - the Rockers and the Mods. Both groups had been defined by their taste in music, with the Rocker’s affinity for Rock n' Roll and the Mods' enjoyment of modern Jazz giving them their names. Another important factor that came to define these groups was their taste in two-wheeled transport, with the Mods gravitating towards trendy Italian scooters and the Rockers' love of speed leading to the creation of the original Cafe Racers.
These two groups would have a notorious rivalry but for this blog, we are going to focus on the Rockers. They wanted speed and excitement and a motorcycle was one of the most affordable ways to get it.
The Cafe Racers
It was the Rocker’s love of music that took them to the popular cafés of London. American Rock n' Roll music wasn't exactly mainstream, and you couldn't listen to it on the radio at the time. One of the only places to hear music from the likes of Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry was on the Jukeboxes found in these cafes. They slicked their hair back in the style of the American Greasers and wore leather jackets like Marlon Brando in 'The Wild One' - the film being banned in Britain at the time only added to the allure of that rebellious image.
Those that could afford it rode motorcycles, with models like the Triumph Tiger T110 (the direct successor to Brando's 6T Thunderbird) becoming very popular and later in 1959 the first Triumph Bonneville became a huge part of future custom Cafe Racer builds.
The Rocker's love of speed led them to customise their motorcycles in an attempt to squeeze every last bit of performance out of them. They added clip-on bars and rear set footpegs and stripped away any unnecessary parts in an effort to reduce as much weight as possible. This stripped-down look is one of the key enduring stylistic elements of the Cafe Racer motorcycle today.
When you get a bunch of motorcycle-loving youngsters with an enthusiasm for speed congregating in the same cafés it would inevitably lead to racing. The riders would race between the different cafés attempting feats of bravery or perhaps madness, simply trying to achieve as much speed as possible.
Where exactly the name 'Cafe Racer' was coined isn't certain but one popular legend claims it began as a derogatory term used by a trucker to describe a group of motorcycle riding youths in a café, who in turn embraced the title and adopted it as their own. Whether this is true or not, the name simply encapsulates what this subculture was all about; Rock n' Roll, jukeboxes, fast motorcycles and youthful rebellion.
The Ton-up Boys
Perhaps the ultimate achievement for a Cafe Racer to gain prestige among his peers was to reach the elusive 100mph mark, no easy feat back in the late 50s and early 60s. The bikes of that era were nowhere near as powerful as some of the options we have available today and would require plenty of customisation on the rider's part.
This quest for speed led to one of the most popular and iconic Cafe Racer configurations: the latest Norton Featherbed frame with a Triumph Bonneville engine inside it. This combined the best of both worlds, the raw power potential and reliability of the Triumph with the ground-breaking handling and agility of Norton's racing frame. This particular hybrid became known as the 'Triton', a simple mash-up of both brand names, the fact that it was also the name of a Greek God is a happy coincidence. Another popular hybrid configuration was the Tribsa, once again using the beloved Triumph engine but housed inside a BSA frame. Not quite as catchy a name but still a formidable machine.
Even after obtaining and customising your ride, doing the ton (British slang for 100mph, also known as 'tonning-up') was not easy. The roads back then were not in the condition we are now accustomed to with gravel patches, potholes and oil spills commonplace. Accidents were frequent and lots of youths lost their lives in pursuit of this milestone. One of the original names this group became known by was 'the Ton-Up Boys' as a result of this quest and the rare few who did manage it would have pride of place among the Cafe Racers.
The next generation of motorcycles
Aside from being an enduring British cultural image, the Ton-up Boys had a lasting influence on the manufacture of motorcycles in general. Until then regular production motorcycles were seen as an affordable mode of transport and nothing more, high performance was reserved for the racetracks. The Cafe Racers showed that there was an appetite for motorcycles that could be ridden for thrill and enjoyment as well.
One of the first manufacturers to catch on was Royal Enfield, whose original 1963 Continental GT 250 was built with the Cafe Racers in mind. This was a bike that came factory-ready with the kind of spec that would usually have to be customised. And nowadays, it's still going strong.
By the ‘70s a new generation of motorcycles was arriving from overseas, perhaps most notably from Japan although European manufacturers like Moto Guzzi would also get in on the action with their 1976 Le Man’s model. One of the major breakthroughs of this era was the Honda CB750, a motorcycle that would become known as the first true 'superbike'.
Released in 1969, the CB750 was the result of everything Honda had learned from their production and race bikes throughout the 60s. A high-capacity motorcycle equipped with a 4-cylinder engine and front disc brake (the first affordable mainstream production bike to feature either), this bike represented a huge leap forward for performance motorcycles and set the bar for future models.
The Kawasaki Z-1 followed in 1972 - another excellent 4-cylinder bike that used a cutting-edge double-overhead-camshaft system that was previously unheard of on a relatively inexpensive production bike. The Yamaha RD350 arrived in 1973. While it featured a smaller 2-stroke 347cc engine, it still had a reasonably impressive (for the time) 39 bhp power output and, more importantly, weighed almost 100 kilos less than the Honda and Kawasaki.
These affordable Japanese bikes became popular base models for custom Cafe Racers because they offered high performance at a price point the traditional British manufacturers just couldn't compete with.
The modern classic
As we entered the 80s and 90s performance motorcycles became much more mainstream. We saw the rise of the modern sportsbike which came with rear-sets, clip-ons and powerful engines as standard. It was no longer necessary to customise your own racer, they came ready from the factories. As a result, Cafe Racers became more of a style choice or a way of life than purely a desire for speed.
In the modern era, the perception of the Cafe Racer has changed a great deal. No longer figures of danger and suspicion, the Cafe Racers are a nostalgic piece of British history and their stripped-down motorcycle-style has become the timeless choice of trendy bikers all over the world.
Perhaps the reason these bikes have endured for so long is down to their mix of understated good looks and thrilling ride performance, a combination that is pretty hard to beat. With manufacturers now producing these bikes as standard too, it's never been easier to get your hands on an excellent retro racer. All the looks and spirit of the originals, now bolstered with cutting-edge technology and comfort.
The Ton-up Boys were simply ahead of their time, pursuing their love of performance motorcycles before the world was ready for it and they were naive to the terrible dangers they subjected themselves to. Despite the young lives that were lost in those early days, the legacy of the Cafe Racers will live forever.
The last stop
So that is a quick run-through of the history of Cafe Racer motorcycles in the UK. If you are interested in modern-day production Cafe Racers then why not rock on over to our 2021 Top 10 Cafe Racer article to whet your appetite!