In a nutshell, a café racer is a motorcycle that has been modified to race from a café to some other predetermined place. The most famous café (pronounced caff) was the Ace Café in London. Legend has it that motorcycle riders would race from the café, after selecting a certain record on the duke box, and return before the record finished. This feat often necessitated achieving 'the ton' or 100 mph.
In England during the 60s, affordable motorcycles that could achieve the ton, were few and far between. For the average worker and motorcycle owner, the only option of getting the desired performance was to tune the bike with various racing options. Readily available tuning parts made the task easier. Riders would add more parts as their budgets allowed. As riders added more and more parts, a standard look began to materialize - the café racer look.
The typical specification of an early café racer would be:
- Swept-back pipes
- Clip-on's or 'Ace' bars
- Reverse cone Mega's (short for megaphone mufflers - very much a misnomer). Later bikes used Dunstall's , which were silencers produced by tuning legend Paul Dunstall
- TT100 Dunlop tires
- Larger carburetors
- Rear sets
For many riders, having the café racer look was enough. But when the market for tuning parts really began to take off in the mid '60s, the list of available and desirable parts grew. Besides engine tuning parts, a number of companies began to produce replacement seats and tanks. These replacements resembled the current trends in motorcycle racing: seats with humps, and fiberglass tanks with indentations to clear clip-ons and the rider's knees. More expensive aluminum versions were also available.
To add more of a racing look, café racer owners began to fit a small handlebar mounted fairing (as seen on the Manx Norton racers). Full fairings were shunned as these would cover up the beautiful polished aluminum engine cases and swept-back chrome pipes.
Although many riders fitted different rear shocks to improve the handling of their machines, the defining moment of café racer development came when a Triumph Bonneville engine was fitted to a Norton featherbed chassis. Affectionately called the Tri-ton, this hybrid set new standards. By combining the best of the British engines and the best chassis, an urban legend was created.
For further reading:
Walker, Mick. Café Racers of the 1960s: Machines, Riders and Lifestyle : a Pictorial Review. Crowood Press, 2007.