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What does Cafe Racer even mean anymore?

Posted on 16 Aug 2011 in Opinion | 7 comments

Thanks to shows like Discover HD Theater’s Cafe Racer TV and its sister magazine, Café Racer, the motorcycle style of the same name is currently enjoying a renaissance in the American zeitgeist. We were even part of a Cafe Racer Q&A this year at the IMS. It doesn’t get much more commercial than that. If America’s newfound fascination with Cafe Racers helps us finally move on from the OCC-style retardo-chopper, then that’s all well and good in my opinion. But in its growing popularity, is the Cafe Racer losing its identity? Did it ever really have one outside of England? In 2011, and in America no less, what does Cafe Racer even mean anymore?

In a recent Hell For Leather article, JT Nesbitt dismisses the “half-assed”, DIY attempts at “Cafe Racers” so often made and so rarely completed.

How many of them are out there? Half finished, taken apart, half-assed “Café Racers” languishing away in living room corners, in basements, in lawnmower sheds, under blue tarps and on the street. Yamaha RD350s, XS650s, Honda CB350s, CB550s. All with wiring pulled apart and vacant spark plug holes. Most got as far as a set of clubman bars that caused giant floppy loops in throttle cables and brake lines. Stock wire harnesses bunched up and stuffed into headlight buckets or worse. Perhaps a little welding here and there, angry blobs of porous steel lumped on with fluxcore wire from $100 Harbor Freight MIG machines. It’s too bad that there isn’t simply a Cafe Racer app and, if you spent more on your MacBook, iPhone and Xbox than on your motorcycle project, then it was doomed from the start. It never represented greater value than communication and entertainment.

What Mr. Nesbitt describes here is pretty common, but I think he’s painting with a pretty wide brush. Not all languishing Cafe Racer projects are misguided hipsters more concerned with the fashion of their motorcycle than anything else. Rather, I think that most would-be Cafe Racers are simply well-intended enthusiasts who feel an attraction to a particular look, or a particular kind of English bike, but bit off more than they could chew with their mechanical chops. I think they’re also often sincere fans who aspired to more bike than they could afford and that’s why they’re modifying an XS650 instead of restoring a Bonneville. Frankly, there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s true to what a Cafe Racer was in the beginning — a guerilla performance machine built frankenstein-style from the best components available. The problem isn’t with DIY, but instead with the poor state of mechanical know-how these days. The inexperienced think that it’s just nuts and bolts and that tuning carbs is easy. Sooner or later, they find out it’s not easy at all. To build a proper Cafe Racer out of any bike, British or Japanese, you’ve got to know what you’re doing and have access to the right tools.

Mr. Nesbitt continues:

Like most fellas my age, I went through the Café phase. For me it was the late ‘90s and, looking back on it now, I wonder why. Why was I trying to relive a past that did not belong to me or even my culture? Why did I feel so compelled to recreate that mid-sixties British ton-up boy, poser lifestyle? The clothing was cool, those Davida helmets snappy and the bikes, well…sweet sally in the alley, were they sexy! But how does all that really apply to me?

I have to say, he’s got a point here. Elsewhere in his article, Mr. Nesbitt talks about the baby boomer obsession with muscle cars and its roots in their nostalgia for the cars of their youth — pointing out that their nostalgia is “at least honest.” By the time the iconic British bike makers had all conglomerated and finally fizzled out, I wasn’t even born yet. Furthermore, anglophile though I am, I’m not actually british. In revering the Cafe Racer, are we pining for someone else’s wasted youth? I don’t think so. While there are some who adopt the clothes, the gear and the whole Ace Cafe look, I think that most of us who lust after the Cafe Racer are in love with the bikes, not the fashion. You certainly won’t find me in a “puddin’ bowl” helmet anytime soon.

However, I have to disagree that the only real Cafe Racers are the historically accurate ones. To say, as Mr. Nesbitt does, that “a Kawasaki LTD440 with no rear fender ain’t a Velocette Venom Thruxton” is a true statement. I’d go one further though, in 2011, the Velocette isn’t really a Cafe Racer either. Not anymore. It’s a piece of history, and representative of a style and a movement, but Cafe Racer has come to mean a lot more since then. Here’s what we think here at BlueCat Motors:

A Cafe Racer isn’t just a kind of motorcycle. It’s a kind of motorcyclist.

So Mr. Nesbitt’s hipster with the ratty CB350 that’s more fashion item than motorcycle? I agree, he’s not a Cafe Racer. But neither is the guy sitting on $20,000 worth of period-correct, featherbed frame show bike that travels from event to event in a trailer. He may have a Cafe Racer motorcycle, but he’s not a Cafe Racer anymore. That bike is simply a more expensive fashion accessory with historical pedigree.

We say a Cafe Racer is someone who cares about taking a stock bike of any vintage and making it not just better looking, but better to ride. That means it runs well. It’s got clean carbs, fresh plugs and correct tuning. It’s got good tires wrapped around the wheels and handlebars only as aggressive as they are comfortable. It’s got a good seat on it that’s appropriate to the bike’s frame. If it’s a ’round town bike, then it’s optimized for that. You don’t have to put a bump-stop seat on your bike to be a Cafe Racer. Instead, you have to care as much about performance and purpose as you do about aesthetics. There was definite method to the classic Cafe Racer madness.

If we look at the roots of a classic Cafe Racer bike, the whole point was performance. Unneeded crap was cut off to save weight. Clip-on handlebars made the bikes easier to control at high speeds. Rearsets made that forward, tucked seating position more comfortable. Suspensions components were upgraded. Brakes were beefed up. Only then did they start searching for horsepower. All of these modifications had a purpose: going very fast on Britain’s newly built highways. You couldn’t buy a high-performance motorcycle out of the box back then. Thing is, now that you can, what we learned from Cafe Racers of the past should inform how we look at our machines today — especially as the plentiful Japanese bikes from the ’70s and ’80s get old enough to be considered vintage.

In my opinion, these machines offer us a great opportunity to combine brilliant Japanese engineering with timeless English design, but all with a purpose. If we are to be Cafe Racers today, it’s not about clip-ons or bump-stop seats, but about the whole motorcycle package. Thing is, most of us building a Cafe Racer aren’t actually building a highway race machine. We want something we can ride around on weekends. We want a cool-looking, classic style bike we can commute to work on once in a while. In a world where I can buy a 200+hp sport bike off the showroom floor, I think that the weekend joy ride is the new Cafe Racer purpose. We’re not part of a anti-classist, countercultural movement like the original Rockers were. We’re just gear heads who like a particular style of bike. So let’s build bikes we can actually ride. Let’s finish those basement projects the right way. If you’re in over your head, we can help. If you’ve got something stock and want to turn it into something special, we’re good at that. BlueCat Motors has the tools, the taste and the know-how to make you a ton-up boy or a round town tourer. It’s up to you. Either way, we can make you a Café Racer.

  • It’s also worth nothing that the Hell for Leather article I’m referencing goes on to make a great case for classic ’80s sport bikes. If you’re looking for the thrills of speed and performance, instead of what he thinks of as faux Cafe Racers, you could opt for a classic sport bike that was purpose built by very smart people in Japan for just that purpose. We’re big fans of those bikes as well and if you think what you want is a Cafe Racer, take a second thought and make sure that a classic sport bike wouldn’t perhaps be a better fit for how you really want to ride. If you find one you like, we can help you keep it running in top condition.

  • upster from hiptown

    Really good perspective. I bought a 70s Honda with clubman bars not because of the cafe boom, but because it ran good. IT was under a thousand dollars and that’s the best I could do. I feel right at home putting parts on it (well most of the time taking off) from eBay or Craigslist. After all, if I did have the money, the Ducati dealer is just a few blocks away… Good to know I’m welcome over there.

  • Clancy

    Mr. Nesbitt’s words can all be explained by the “It may be cool again, but I was here all along and newcomers aren’t welcome” complex. It is no surprise. It happens in every hobby, interest, culture, movement, etc.

    What is ironic is that this is one of the primary traits of what people call hipsters–those who claim they were there before it was cool, while dismissing others.

    I don’t blame Nesbitt. It can be frustrating to lumped together with newbies who don’t know what they are doing. However, it should be exposed for what it is; resentment towards others in proxy for the displeasure that he feels that what he does is losing its unique edge.

    I came across this blog through a Google search. Just as I was finishing my comment I realized that you are also an editor at MotoringFile. Minis and MINIs went through the same thing. Classic Mini drivers dismiss MINI drivers who dismiss Clubman drivers who dismiss Countryman drivers as inauthentic.

    It is all quite immature.

  • RockyP

    Well said, sir. I’ve just started a project, a 1980 Suzuki GS 750 E, and I’m undertaking a cafe racer-inspired mod. Sure, I’m putting on clubmans because they look cool. No, it’s not a classic British bike. But as a $600 second or third or fourth-hand bike, it seems to live up to the basic idea of the cafe racer. It’s what I could afford, the mods it’s receiving are budget friendly, and it exists to be a hell of a lot of fun. That’s the purpose of the motorcycle in the Western world. Mr. Nesbitt’s assumption that an interest in cafe racers is based on a yearning for a time gone by, one that many of us, myself including, wern’t even alive for, is baseless. I love that look. It’s beautiful, muscular, lean. It’s just downright sexy. All the “good old boys” should stop protecting their perceived societal territory, and get back to having a damn good time with the rest of us.

  • Shino

    I have been restoring classic bikes for a couple of years now. I Started with old Honda Step-through, an old Honda S90, and a rusty old Suzuki B120. I joined a club and found myself selling all my bikes so I can buy a Vintage Gilera 175ss because my club mates where all riding classic Italian bikes.

    Nothing wrong with that. They were fun to ride and very classy looking but they frequently break-down and parts were hard to source. I got fed up with wrenching my bike more often than riding it so with my club mates disapproval I sold my Gilera and bought a CB77 Superhawk instead. Fast and strong I thought it was the Bee’s knees! I joined another club that goes for old Japanese bikes
    but no club was perfect. The guys were more into “Restored” prim and proper examples. I was at that time slowly gravitating into the cafe racer look.

    At first I tried to fit-in. I tried to restore my Superhawk to Factory specs. And you know what I found out? In doing so I wasn’t pleasing myself. I was trying to please my peers. Long story short I snubbed everybody off and built myself a CB750 cafe racer.

    Not British. Not vintage enough. But one helluva ride! To me that’s what being a Cafe Racer is all about.

  • Dave

    Great article Blue Cat! Hey racers! Anyone on two wheels is good in my book. Even If you want to wear the HD “uniform” wether its new swag or old smelly leather, or dress the part of the Ton ups, go for it! This is creativity at its best. Yeah some people don’t have as much as others… so what.
    Let the magazine writers write, they’re usually 1 1/2 years behind the times.
    Just get out there in the garage and build it, fix it, ride it, love it.
    See my cafe racer project on you-tube:

    Cheers,
    Dave / Solo City Racer