A café racer, originally pronounced “caff” (as in Kaff) racer, is a type of motorcycle as well as a type of motorcyclist. Both meanings have their roots in the 1960s British counterculture group the Rockers, or the Ton-up boys, although they were also common in Italy, Germany, and other European countries. In Italy, the term refers to the specific motorcycles that were and are used for short, sharp speed trips from one coffee bar to another.
Rockers were a young and rebellious Rock and Roll counterculture that wanted a fast, personalized 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 (called simply “the ton”) along such a route where the rider would leave from a cafe, race to a predetermined point and back to the cafe 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.
A classic example of this was to race from the Ace Cafe on The North Circular road in NW London to the Hanger Lane junction as it then was – it is now the more famous Hanger Lane Gyratory System – and back again. The aim was to get back to the Ace Cafe before the record on the jukebox had finished. Given that some of the Eddie Cochran tunes that were in vogue at this time were less than two minutes long, the racers had to make the three-mile round trip at extremely high speed.
The cafe racer is a motorcycle that has been modified for speed and good handling rather than comfort. Cafe racers’ bodywork and control layout typically mimicked the style of contemporary Grand Prix roadracers, featuring an elongated fuel tank and small, rearward mounted, humped seat. A signature trait were low, narrow handlebars that allowed the rider to “tuck in” to reduce wind resistance and offered better control when in that posture. These are referred to as either “clip-ons” (two-piece bars that bolt directly to each fork tube) or “clubmans” (one piece bars that attach to the stock 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.
The bikes had a raw, utilitarian and stripped-down appearance while the engines were tuned for maximum speed. These motorcycles were lean, light and handled road surfaces well. The most defining machine of its heyday was the homemade Norton Featherbed framed and Triumph Bonneville engined machine called “The Triton”. It used the most common and fastest racing engine combined with the best handling frame of its day, the Featherbed frame by Norton Motorcycles. Those with less money could opt for a “Tribsa” – the Triumph engine in a BSA frame.
The cafe racer has a lot in common with the chopper or bobber scene in the USA and both have their roots with post-World War II veterans. Riders rejected the large transportation-oriented motorcycles of the time by taking these motorcycles and removing parts deemed unnecessary. While American GIs would take military-spec Harley Davidsons and “chop” off anything unnecessary to improve performance, European veterans took similar measures with their motorcycles. Both looked to make the standard factory motorcycles faster and lighter, although the difference between the nature of the US and European road systems led to somewhat different results. While the Americans favored a low heavy cruiser style of motorcycle for straight line comfort, the Europeans preferred a higher, more nimble motorcycle better suited to the more twisting roads of their nations. In Britain, many roads can be traced to Roman origin and even older roads following terrain. There were no interstates/autobahn type roads until late 1950s. ‘A’ roads were(are) better surfaced and wider with multiple travel lanes in built-up areas or between urban areas but may be only two lane undivided highway in low traffic areas. It must be remembered that it was also a style born largely out of the poverty of Post-War Europe and so not given to the excesses of later Harley-Davidson billet barge style customization.