The bike: The Café Racer is a light-weight, lightly-powered motorcycle optimized for speed and handling rather than comfort — and optimized for quick rides over short distances. With bodywork and control layout recalling early 1960's Grand Prix Motorcycles, café racers are noted for their low slung racing handlebars, prominent seat cowling and elongated fuel tanks, often with indentations to allow the rider's knees to grip the tank.
The term itself developed among British motorcycle enthusiasts of the early 1960s, specifically the "Rocker" or "Ton-Up Boys" subculture where the bikes were used for short, quick rides between cafés — in other words, drinking establishments.
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. Their impact on the motorcycle industry includes legendary high-performance motorcycles like Triumph’s Bonneville, Honda’s CB-750, and Kawasaki’s Z-1. Without the original café racers tuning and designing their ordinary street bikes for power and handling, manufacturers may never have designed the modern sportbike.
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.
The human side of the café racer was a perfect match for this type of motorcycle. The riders of these machines were young, and they wanted to go fast. The goal of many of the café racers during the 50s was the ability to hit a hundred miles an hour, better known as “the ton.”
The term café racer came from what’s actually a derisive term used to describe kids who hung out in cafés and raced fast. They would hang out in transport cafés and wait until somebody else came by on a fast bike and challenged them for a race, and they all rushed outside to see who gets up the road the fastest. When they get back to the cafés, which were often occupied by long distance truck drivers, the truck drivers would laugh and say, ‘You’re not a real racer, you’re not Barry Sheen, you’re just a café racer! And the kids thought, ‘Well you’re damn right I’m a café racer!’ So they would race to the next café, and then to the next one as fast as they could, and the name stuck; they embraced it despite the fact that it was a derisive term,”.
One of the birthplaces of the café racer was London’s Ace Café. The Ace was one of many cafés that provided a gathering place for teenagers and their motorcycles in the 1950s and 60s. Many, like the Busy Bee and Café Rising Sun have succumbed to the wrecking ball, while others, such as Jack’s Hill and Squires Coffee Bar have survived, hosting annual Ton-Up reunions each year. Avid motorcyclist Mark Wilsmore, who reopened the Ace Café to its former glory in 1994, says that rock and roll helped spark the subculture known as “ The Café Racing.”
“The UK kids were a rock and roll generation who went out and bought the fastest vehicle they could afford, which was a motorbike. In North America, it was a car, and the hot rod culture come directly out of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly. The same sort of thing happened in the UK but it all based around motorbikes because of the different income levels. The other great attraction of cafés in the UK and diners in N.A. at that time, was the jukebox. When rock and roll first came around in the mid-50s you could only hear rock and roll on the jukebox. There was no radio stations playing it, no clubs playing it, so this new music of youngsters mixed with having their own vehicles and their own identity. Along came the Ton-Up boy and his bike, the café racer, it was inevitable — the racing would be from one café to another,”.
The hunger to make their ordinary streetbikes go faster and resemble the machines ridden by British racing heroes like Mike Hailwood and Geoff Duke was all part of the café racer’s character. Doing the “Ton,” or hitting a hundred miles-an-hour, became a badge of honour—whether you made it back…or not.
Riders from those days say attempts at reaching the “Ton” (100MPH) on your average 650cc parallel twin were dodgy affairs at best. Riders could consider themselves very, very lucky to reach it as their engines had to be tuned well, but even the worst engines could out-perform the skinny, bias-ply tires and meager drum brakes of mid-century design.
And that my friends is the condensed history of the café racer.
To steal and edit a quote from Bob Marley;
"Café racers feel the rain, other riders just get wet"
Safe Riding, Café Racer Canada