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What does Cafe Racer even mean anymore?

Posted on 16 Aug 2011 in Opinion | 8 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.