Coffee & Counterculture: The History Of The Café Racer

Photo: Norton Motorcycles

In the same way that a surly chopper is to the hulking, tattooed bikers of gangs like the Hells Angels, the café racer is to leather jacket wearing figures of a more James Dean/Marlon Brando aesthetic. The café racer is a bike of a casual coolness, not as barrel-chested and brawny as Steve McQueen, not in the same quintessential English dorky dapperness of the Beatles – like a leather jacket with a pocket protector – but somewhere in between. The café racer has a rawness that’s likable because it isn’t an affectation, it’s authentic. It’s a beatnik bike, definitively rebellious but not contrived. There’s also a certain je ne sais quoi that’s very British. Though it is an emblem of the counterculture, that’s one reason didn’t see Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding café racers in Easy Rider. The café racer is a very British bike – though it’s origins were heavily rooted in American culture.

For as prevalent as they are – in Western culture as on the road – few know the origins of the bike with a street-fighting stance. Few know who first rode the bikes and why they were so desired. Few even know from where the name “café racer” actually originated. We’ll discuss all that and plenty more in this guide to history of the café racer.

Juke Boxes, Coffee And Rock 'N Roll

The Birthplace Of Café Racers

You can’t discuss the rise of café racers without mentioning the rock ‘n roll music that spurred on the early riders. Rock n’ roll music is inextricably tied to the creation and spread of motorcycle culture in the United Kingdom. Specifically, the epicenters were London, and Watford, a town about 15 miles outside of Northwest London. In the 1950s and ’60s, young blue collar Brits spent much of their time hanging out at cafés. Not just for the coffee; transport cafés were among the only places they could go to listen to American rock ‘n roll music, like Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry. The most historically significant cafés in the rise of café racer culture were the Busy Bee Café in Watford and The Ace Café in London. The two cafés formed the twin pillars of the British counterculture, the main hangouts for the young lads and ladies of the British working class. The order of the daily agenda for the young men of the day was: drink coffee and rollick at The Bee until their welcome invariably wore thin, at which point they dashed off to the Ace Café in London to do the same. The rock music-loving lads were known by a variety of names, one of which was “rockers.” They donned the aesthetic of Marlon Brando in 1953’s The Wild One, leather-jacketed and side-burned, channeling the American “greaser” scene pushing their hair up into slick pompadours. Naturally, these vivacious young people needed some wheels to jet around town.

Need For Speed

Watford ⇄ London

In the period following the end of WWII, more jobs were available for young people. As a result, the young working class had plenty of pocket change. The introduction of credit and availability of financing increased, too, as a result of the prosperity in the job market for working class youths. To accommodate their sudden economic mobility, young Brits needed a vehicle that was equally equipped for upward mobility. A nimble vehicle that could meet – and enhance – their fast-paced lifestyle. In British culture before the second world war, motorcycles had been generally viewed as vehicles belonging to prestigious and wealthy folk. Something purchased as an accessory by the bourgeoisie (how this connotation has been flipped on its head in the last half-century, though with the number of high-priced and unique bikes out there, it might be curving toward a full circle). The 1950s saw motorcycles decrease greatly in price and suddenly become accessible to working class people. They were perfect for the rough-necked lads of Watford and London, who wanted no-frills, fast-paced vehicles that could allow them to carve up the town.

The bikes they rode in those days were lean, with a single racing seat and low handlebars. They were the proto-café racers, and in general, defined the category. Other definitive features include: racing gas tanks (usually sheer aluminum or black-painted), cone megaphone mufflers, swept-back exhaust pipes, TT100 Dunlop tires and rear-set foot pegs. The trucker remarked: “You’re not real racers, you’re not Barry Sheen – you’re just café racers!” The rest was history.On the backs of these bikes, young men took to the streets of Britain, to careen and carouse. Many of them had grown up idolizing British GP racing heroes like Mike Hailwood and Geoff Duke. Naturally, they began using their modest Royal Enfield 650 twins to race one another. An apocryphal tale depicts the first use of the term “café racer.” A trucker at the transport café, outside of which two young men were racing their twin Royal Enfields, remarked: “You’re not real racers, you’re not Barry Sheen [another British racer] – you’re just café racers!” The rest was history. The tale is often cited as an origin story for the cognomen. Despite the derision the trucker no doubt intended, the young men immediately embraced it as their title. It was brash, rebellious, and acknowledged their own amateurism. They wanted not to be stodgy professionals, but instead to inject some antics, some heroism, and some frenetic energy into the mundane urban world.

Photo: Wikipedia

The Ton-Up Boys

Keeping It 100

Preceded slightly by the Teddy Boys – the first, most notorious group of young British boys, a rock ‘n roll music-loving group of young men who wore Edwardian garb and Brylcreem jellyroll hairstyles – the café racers were known sometimes as the leather boys, sometimes as café racers. But only an exclusive group, a subculture within a subculture, could call themselves the “Ton-Up Boys.” It was called “doing the ton,” or “tonning up,” and it referred to hitting 100 mph on the back of a bike.

Hitting that mythic speed on motorcycle – whether you were on a Triumph, a Vincent, a Norton, an RE Twin, or the common home-forgery of the Triton – was proof of your mettle. It was the like Chuck Yeager exceeding the speed of sound when one of these boys exceeded 100 – and for most of them, who rode rather meager motored bikes, equally difficult. As a result of this metric of badassery hanging over their heads, the young café racers began chopping up their bikes and bolstering them, seeking to making them lighter and more powerful. The ambitions of these young men to upgrade their motorcycles portended the future of the café racer as the ultimate canvas for motorcycle customization. The Ton Up Boys had no qualms with stripping their bikes down to its skeletal frame, removing anything that would add unnecessary weight, and doing whatever it took, in order to top the century mark.

Photo: Wikipedia

Rockers Vs. Mods

The British Outsiders

During the mid 1960s to the 1970s, the rockers/café racers in Britain clashed with another group of young Brits, a group of youths known as the Mods. The Mods were comparatively more refined and hipster in their aesthetic preferences. Their pop-cultural nickname had come from the fact that the men in their group listened to modernist jazz (not as cool as the café racer moniker’s origin).The two groups’ disdains for one another need not really be explained, other than to say that they didn’t agree on certain key subjects.Obviously, one can easily see how they might not have meshed well with the raw, ruffian Rocker boys. The two groups also differed in regard to their taste in vehicles; while Rockers rode their stripped down and amped up motorcycles, mods rode scooters and decked them out with a gratuitous number of mirrors and lights, like Jennifer Aniston’s Chotchkie’s vest in Office Space. The two groups’ disdains for one another need not really be explained, other than to say that they didn’t agree on certain key subjects. Their differences led to more than a few dust-ups. Much like the greasers conflict with the socs as depicted in S.E. Hinton’s book and the classic ’80s movie The Outsiders, these “rumbles” were often depicted sensationally in the British Newspapers. As a result of the exaggerated accounts in newspapers – one such fight became known as “The Second Battle Of Hastings” – between the groups incited a moral panic in the Brit gentry, and soured the public to the café racers, whose rockabilly, leathered-up style became associated with violence and depravity. This reputation was aided largely by the 59 Club, a social club for rockers that carried out philanthropic acts in the ’60s and ’70s, helmed by Reverend Bill Shergold.

From Mods To Modifications

Cafe Tweaking

There one kind of mod that café racers do appreciate – modification. Café racers have always been amenable, as have their bikes. There have never really been “café racer purists.” Alteration has been part of the café racer culture since the first race through the streets of Watford.

True, they veered from gratuitously muscular motorcycles and preferred a stripped down style – but they were never averse to changing things from the factory specs. The pursuit of the Ton inspired rockers to open up their machines and tool around, seeing how they could increase their machine’s power. One of the first true custom café racers ever produced was all the way back in the early ’60s. It was the legendary Triton, which quickly became one of, if not the most popular motorcycle for young Brits in the 1960s and early ’70s.

Photo: Wikipedia

The Triton

The First Custom Café Racer

Triton motorcycles were not made by a company called “Triton.” They were not factory models at all, but homemade hybridizations of Triumph and Norton Motorcycles. They were composed of a Triumph engine and a Norton frame. At the time, the Norton Featherbed frame was considered the best handling frame on the market, while the engines of Triumph Bonneville motorcycles were held in a similar regard.Triumph parallel-twin engines, like the Triumph Bonneville unit with twin carburetors and twin camshafts, were the most often used in Triton bikes.

The Triton wasn’t the only mash-up of the era. Other early customizations/hybridizations include the Tribsa, an amalgam of a Triumph and B.S.A. motorcycle, and Norvin, a Norton mashed together with a Vincent. None had the staying power of the Triton for a lot of reasons, not least of which was because they sported names vastly stupider than “Triton.”

Second Phase Of Café

Subculture Becomes Mainstream

As the ’70s arrived, the second phase of café racers did as well. This was an era marked by specialist manufacturers, a tradition that has continued on to this day. Some highly established motorcycle manufacturers entered the café racer market, including Italian companies Ducati, Moto Guzzi and Laverda, as well as Harley Davidson and even some Japanese companies like Yamaha and Kawasaki. Benelli, BMW, Bultaco and Derbi all released “café” variants by lowering the handlebars and attaching a fairing to the nose of the bike. The Moto Guzzi Le Mans and the Harley-Davidson XLCR became staples of the café racer collection, and frequently builders began using Kawasaki and Honda bikes as the bases for custom builds. Through the 1970s and ’80s, café racers developed into mainstream, and oft-customized road bikes, a far cry from the sheer metal Nortons ridden by the Ton-Up boys.

Photo: Vagabund

Contemporary Café Racers

The Perfect Canvas

The café racer has established itself as a prominent and popular category of motorcycle today. It’s not just a favorite among riders, but it’s a beloved canvas for builders and bike customizers. Innumerable motorcycle custom shops produce stunning and unique café racer mods every day (enough to justify entire websites’ dedication). Japanese bikes like the Honda CB550 or Yamaha XS650 are relatively inexpensive, handsome builds for artists of the café racer medium to tweak, and build out from. Plus, the café racer remains the most stylistically accessible for those wading into motorcycle culture for the first time. The café racer remains the most stylistically accessible for those wading into motorcycle culture for the first time

In summation, café racer motorcycles capture that rugged/urbane balance. While relatively frills-free and somewhat referential of the black-leather brutality of bike gangs, the café racer is less a Hell’s Angel than maybe a Hell’s cherub. They’re artful, understated, and badass. As far as I’m concerned, that’s all I could ever ask out of a bike.

The Best Custom Motorcycle Builders

The culture of the café racer gradually led way to the culture of customization we have today. Take a look at our list of the best custom motorcycle builders to see some of the coolest contemporary café racers out there!