1966 Triton Cafe Racer

Can Cafe Racers be saved from fashion? Part 1

It’s been over a year since I wrote a little rant about a similar subject: what kind of nonsense is being produced today as a “factory-custom” inspired motorcycles. So I decided to follow up on the topic but in a more general manner.

Cafe Racers built today… do they suck?

No, they don’t! Let’s get this out of the way: Cafe Racers are awesome. Both the original one and also the contemporary. What sucks – is the overuse of their name. But let’s start at the beginning – with the origin story. I don’t want to make this part too long. It’s was explained many times already – and You can find on Google or Youtube many texts or documents about it. Also, I don’t want to elaborate on the cultural aspects and the “Rockers vs Mods” background.

The birth of Café Racer

(this is the only time I’ll use the “é” in the name)

1969 Norton Commando Cafe Racer
1969 Norton Commando Cafe Racer

In this particular context, it is important to remember that the Cafe Racer origins are British. And the most significant thing: these motorcycles were built for performance. The goal was only one – make the motorcycle faster in the city environment. Improve it over the stock version.

Young people in the 60s didn’t have money, no accessory or performance parts available, no tire choices, no clothing designed for protection. The whole motorcycling world was in the early stages of development. Many of the classes (like the universal motorcycle, sport, touring, enduro…) were not born yet. The Japanese were not yet present on the market… they were coming. Soon enough. To kill the genre for decades a few years later.

“Do the Ton”

1966 Triton Cafe Racer
1966 Triton Cafe Racer (by GT Moto)

The ultimate goal of every Cafe Racer builder/owner. To “Do the Ton” means reaching 160 mph, which at the time was quite a challenge. So the riders did what they could with what they had available. The modifications included obviously losing weight, increasing power and driveability. Losing weight is straightforward – it’s what defined the styling. Lighter tail section, with a single seat, taking off the heavy and chromed fenders, putting smaller ones (or none), clip-on handlebars (or M-bar) to lower the rider position, small bar end mirrors, minimalistic speedo (if any) etc.

Increasing power and driveability was a little more complicated. Despite there were quite many motorcycle manufacturers in the UK, the bikes were imperfect. Triumph had a great engine family, but the frame was not stiff enough. Norton had a legendary featherbed frame, but their engines were unreliable. This is where (among others) the name Triton was born.  Created as a combination of the Triumph engine and Norton chassis. Other hybrids were also built (like TriBsa, NorBsa, NorVin), but Triton one became the most recognised.

This set of steps, with some more mechanical engine tuning, created the genre that this blog is mainly about.

How does this philosophy stand today?

Suzuki GSX-R750 1986
Suzuki GSX-R750 1986 – Next step in the evolution

Since nowadays motorcycles available for anyone, with any purpose, any engine displacement and cylinder config. Japanese, Italian, British, German, Austrian, American… Building a performance machine Yourself is not really the case anymore. Do you want to be fast on asphalt? You buy a GSX-R – or any other sports bike flagship and become the fastest guy on the block, without much “customization” effort. You can make it faster – buy some limited performance edition kit – minus 10 kg, carbon fibre, upgraded suspension and race tires, for triple the price 😉  But since the arrival of the UJM and a sportbike class – Cafe Racers became obsolete. What is left – is the iconic stance of a naked bike and a history, we should simply respect – and this, in my opinion, is the main problem we face.

Today Cafe Racers are mostly style over substance

Honda CB750 Cafe Racer by Hookie Co
Honda CB750 Cafe Racer by Hookie Co – they are great designers, but this is not a proper Cafe Racer

Most of the builds are just to show off. Ignoring the original purpose – people just reach for the aesthetics. In the 60’s the looks were the result of improvements – not the goal.

I agree, with styling comes the weight reduction. That is fine – it’s one of the ingredients. But… lowering the front forks – without being careful about the head angle and trail or the suspension travel.  Only to create a more aggressive and leaned forward stance.

Blindly going for pod-filters

Profesional pods tuning in place
Profesional pods tuning in place…

Putting them on the CV carbs that don’t like to lose the backpressure that the airbox provides. They look cool, clean up the frame and under the seat section, but they also (in most cases) ruin the rpm midrange and throttle response. They require a proper tuning just to work. Not mentioning that they should give something regarding the performance. I’ve seen countless forum threads about pods not working correctly…

Or the other way around, having a pretty modern retro bike and putting on the infamous Firestone Champion Deluxe tires (so basically ruining the ride, for the visuals).

Then You can cruise around the city, looking “cool” and all, but basically You wouldn’t be able to compete with anything. I know it’s not quite legal to “race” on the streets, but… see the point about being honest to the origin story? The above wouldn’t be a big issue – “at least it looks like a cafe right?”. But the other side of the problem is that

the name of this style is overused

Since it became a popular trend, a fashion – and on the internet all is about “range” and audience. You have hundreds of cafe racers for sale, because when You add a “Cafe Racer” to the name, suddenly, Your ad gets triple the view numbers thanks to the search engine.

Suzuki SV650XA
Suzuki SV650XA – claimed (by Suzuki of course) to have a Cafe Racer styling

And this fact is the reason for another subject in the community: brand new Cafe Racers. Since the motorcycle brands follow the fashion too – they know this trick sells. They will create all the ideology around it, hire experts on marketing… and make it sound reasonable. But… let’s leave this for the part 2.

Let’s try to maybe please everyone and do some more work on proper definitions?

Cafe Racer

Built based on a British motorcycle from the 60’s era. Classic stance, straight line backbone, clip-ons  (or M-bar) and characteristic tail. Built to improve over the stock version. Sometimes with a very characteristic fairing.

Contemporary Cafe Racer

CB 600F Hornet Cafe Racer by Jigsaw Customs
Nice contemporary modern custom example… some retro touches on a modern Hornet. Lost weight, gained oldfashioned tank and seat line.

It’s the most popular type. Based on any retro/modern motorcycle (like Honda CB, Hornet, Suzuki GS, Yamaha XS, BMW R-series etc). Younger than the above – but built with the same set of principles. Less strict about the donor bike and the general line of the thing (exception provided especially for Ducati and BMW).

Restomod

This is a term that is definitely not used enough. It’s a general term for customizing (ex. a motorcycle) and improving it with modern tech achievements. So installing better piggyback springs, stiffer front forks, modern rims with better tires… anything of this kind.

1982 Suzuki GSX750S Katana by caferacergarage.eu
My Katana build – upgraded suspension and brakes, modern tires, lighter chain,c lower rider position, lower weight (click the photo to see more).

And now it gets worse…

Latte Racer

The source of all evil. City monsters and abominations built without any idea or concept. Latte Racers have nothing to do with improving the performance or any kind of racing pedigree. A parody of a real Cafe Racer.

Factory Cafe Racer

Kawasaki Z900RS Cafe
Kawasaki Z900RS Cafe – quite nice modern retro, ruined by the fairing and high handlebars

A new trend of releasing stock version styled as Cafe Racers. I personally believe that this name should be reserved only for Triumph, Norton and maybe few other British brands if they’ll return.  Some companies make them look quite good, some don’t. You can’t deny that the new Thruxton is a real deal or the Commando. But please stop making Z900 Cafe, R9T Cafe, XSR Abarth or the worst of them all: SV650XA.

WTF

This one is tricky. It’s a genre of builds that… cannot be defined. I get that – there are many extraordinary projects completed with a clear purpose in mind of the builder. I featured many of them. But in most cases – it’s a disaster of a motorcycle, unfinished or worse – finished… and completely ruined.

Conclusion

I’m not suggesting – that we should invent a new name for what people do with their bikes. While not being a radical, I’m trying to draw the line – where does the Cafe Racer style end, and where it begins… I get that not many people have access to a British motorcycle from the 60’s. And they are working with what they have – but at least let’s respect the origins, know why they are like this. Let’s try to stay honest to the culture, it’s consequences. Cafe Racers inspired engineers, who designed better frames, engines, suspensions and brakes, in general: inspired them on how to build a fast motorcycle… not how to decorate them.

Stay true to the history, use it wisely… don’t follow the style and temporary fashion only.

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