Last week I wrote about a fashion for Cafe Racer among builders and customizers. And this fashion’s quite obvious problems. I’m all about custom bikes and what they represent, but I’m also trying to be respectful to the origins and the real soul of this particular custom motorcycle segment (or any other). The drive for performance and engineers that were inspired by it.
Since engineers were mentioned – I’d like to focus this “2nd part” on the “Factory Cafe Racers”.
First of all – is there such a thing?
No. But let’s consider that the big manufacturers want to pay a tribute to the segments and styles. Be inspired by them and release a modern classics. That their intentions are more than just creating a “hipster toy” that has a cool vintage name. What then? It still leaves us with 2 options: there are those who do it the right way and those who don’t. Simple as that.
Those who do it right
In this case, I believe that “Contemporary Cafe Racer” would be a name that would connect both the orthodox cafe racer fans with the regular folks, who can’t tell the difference between a chopper and a scrambler. It actually already works on Facebook for example. Obviously, Cafe Racer associates best with old British brands. From these (that still exist) – 2 are the most related: Triumph and Norton. Let’s exclude Norton – since they are currently extremely exotic and niche brand.
It wasn’t all butterflies and rainbows for them. The first Thruxton that was supposed to be a pure cafe racer… was simply put: crap. Released in 2004 it was just a redesigned basic version of Bonneville. It had the looks but didn’t have the “engineering” part. 68 bhp – were not impressive at all. The brakes – one disc (in 2004!). Suspension – cheap and non-adjustable. Engine sound – boring. It took Triumph 12 years to see, there is a problem with this bike. So they rebranded the “old Thruxton” to Street Cup. And released a proper performance upgrade of the Bonneville. 1200cc engine, almost 100bhp, Ohlins suspension, double front brakes designed by Brembo. Price went up for the Thruxton R – but in return, You got a full package: every aspect was covered.
2 years after the first Thruxton jumpstarted the “Modern Cafe Racer” fashion. Ducati released the SportClassic model, which was a beautiful spin of the concept – with the Italian design touch. Basically, it was a very similar story to Thruxton – they got the styling right, but the suspension was non-adjustable, wheels were spoked – but very heavy etc. So they improved over time (way faster than the British), but what I would like to mention especially is the name. Like Triumph (who actually had all the right to use the “Cafe” word), they didn’t go for any Cafe or Racer catchphrase. SportClassic – sounds cool enough so the client is aware of what he’s looking at, and yet the company while paying tribute to the old design has the respect not to use the Cafe word.
Scrambler is also a good example of building something true to its origins by the right brand and people. But let’s continue (as this is not about this segment of bikes).
What is Honda doing here? At the moment of writing this post – they don’t have any “fashionable” designated model in the range. Well, they are here as a counterexample how not to overuse the fashion for vintage. They have a brilliant CB1100 modern classic. 2 versions available – EX, with proper retro spoked wheels, the chrome is actually made of metal, the engine is beautiful and air-cooled, rear shocks – clean and simple. And they have an RS version. You know immediately that RS stands for sports and performance. And it actually is – rims are alloy, the suspension is upgraded. A beautiful bike built on the legacy of the CB Four series. But it’s not called anything fancy.
Honda used their own designations range. They still have the area to improve. Every brand has its own heritage and a namespace they can use. Like legendary Kawasaki ZRX -> Eddie Lawson Edition. Honda has the Bol d’Or or Mike Hailwood – to pay the tribute to.
And there are the ones who do it wrong
Fashion for vintage drives the sales among a certain group of clients? So let’s make an abomination like SV650 XA… The product is average, but the name is fine. But when You release it to the press, and suddenly everyone is calling it a “Cafe Racer” version of an SV… It’s where it stops being fine. Suzuki is in some kind of parallel universe right now. Their model range is the smallest in history. The fact that they revived the SV model – after a massive failure of the Gladius, says they are in trouble. I’m really sorry for them and wish them best… but why would You start this promo line of accidental “word choice” by the press? It’s just cheap.
Like Suzuki with SV – let’s try to convince the riders that XSR line is retro! The motorcycles are way better than the SV line – but they have basically no potential for “modern classic”. I wouldn’t expect that from a brand like Yamaha. But when You think about it… Since they killed their last bastion of this segment (XJR, ruining it for a short time with a plastic fuel tank, explaining something about not being able to meet the eco standards (see Honda CB1100 before You go this road))… they chose to “dress” the MT series with a different name, and then convince clients that it’s their old-school product range.
Just look at this thing, with its ugly frame (with a plastic box screwed to it – that’s some lazy engineering) trying so hard to have a straight tank/tail line. With sticking out bikini fairing. It’s hilarious.
I wrote more about this “Racer” version of R9T here.
I have nothing against the “fashion for vintage” or even the “factory cafe racers” (let’s just call them modern cafe or something similar – and everybody will be happy)… I even like that in general – people become more aware of styles and origin stories… that it’s going mainstream. What I don’t like is the sales aspect of it. Unfortunately this “BS marketing” works. People buy the “vintage style”, without much thought… this direction of advertising sells – basically forget about the origin story or the real value of engineers and designers. It becomes just about the statement on the street.
“What can we do about it?” – You’d ask.
Well, I don’t know if we actually can do anything about it, but at least we can try! Can we try not to blindly buy the worthless design, that feeds on the true history that built the motorcycle world we know today?
We are petrolheads! We should be sharing the passion, knowledge and “motorcycling” culture. Educating the hipsters, that the real “cool” comes from somewhere else, then a good product placement. Motorcycles are still fun, and in over 100 years of their evolution – they deserve to be remembered by remarkably important milestones (like the CB750, Z1)… and small cultures and riders (Rockers, Mods)… that defined them and inspired new directions of building motorcycles by the big companies.