red cafe racer

A Brief Guide to Café Racers

Short distances – high speed

Café racers are a type of lightweight and well-powered motorcycle built to be used for short distances at high speeds. They originated in England in the 1950s, when Rock ‘n’ Roll was coming into full prominence. With this movement came a new rebellious youth subculture called ‘The Rockers’. ‘The Rockers’ rode motorcycles and wanted something fast, cool, and personalised to ride between the new cafes that were built along the English motorways.

This brought about café racers. The term ‘café racer’ was originally derogative, and was used to describe “a motorcyclist who played at being an Isle of Man Racer”, and would scarcely make it far from the cafes they visited. These bikers would often race from café to café, but many had a bad reputation for only pretending to ride, as they’d park their bikes outside cafes to show them off but rarely used them. The term has now evolved, and today is used to describe the type of motorcycle it has created rather than the bikers who ride them.

The Ton

multiple cafe racers parked

A major challenge back in the 50s was to reach 100mph on your bike, which was known as doing ‘The Ton’. Once you could do ‘The Ton’, you became a member of the Ton Up Club, which was highly sought after for its ultimate bragging rights. To reach 100mph on their bikes, riders would have to heavily modify them and would strip down and customise their motorcycles to imitate Moto Grand Prix bikes. Because of this, the style and specifications of café racers closely resemble the Grand Prix bikes typical of the era. According to legend, the early café riders would select a song from the jukebox of the café they were in, hop on their bikes and ride them around the block, then return before the song had finished. By doing this, they’d be able to prove to other riders that they could do The Ton on their bikes.

cafe racer bike parked

There are a few distinctive features of café racers. They tend to be lightweight, have minimal styling and bodywork, and also have a tuned engine for speed and handling. They also have low mounted handlebars called “clip-ons” that allow the rider to adopt a tuck in position and reduce wind resistance for more speed. Additionally, they contain swept back pipes, an elongated fuel tank with dents to allow the rider’s knees to grip the tank, a rearward located seat, and rear set footrests and foot controls, which are common for the racing motorcycles of the era.

Open to modification.

Café racers are traditionally hybrid bikes that have been personally modified by their owners. However, in recent years, manufacturers have realised the potential of the market and have produced their own ready-to-ride café racers. Some popular models include the Moto Guzzi V7 Racer, the Triumph Thruxton, the Ducati Scrambler Café Racer, and the Royal Enfiel Continental GT. Café Racers have now evolved into their own sub-culture, and many around the globe still customise their own racers while rocking a leather jacket, blue jeans, and a cool black helmet, echoing The Rockers of the 50s and keeping the café racer culture alive.

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