I’ve frequently commented in this space about how often the CRTV crew hears some of the best stories about the café racer heyday from veteran rockers long after the taping has finished for the day. Maybe it’s the glare of TV spotlamps or perhaps it’s regular riders forgetting some of their best stories when the cameras are rolling, but it’s usually when we’re relaxing in some small, cozy British pub, hours after the shoot has concluded, when the genuinely jaw-dropping tales start to emerge. In the interest of recalling some of these conversations not captured on tape, I’ve started keeping a diary during our frequent overseas travels, and I find myself paging through the entries every so often for a good laugh.
One of my favorite stories came from Steve Paulson, a grizzled old Rocker who, today, lives in the South English seaside town of Southend On Sea. The annual Southend Shakedown run reaches this destination point each April, and that’s when we met Steve, smoking hand-rolled ciggies and leaning on his vintage café racer. He explained that, in the 1960s when mods and rockers made boxing arenas out of tidy Victorian vacation towns like Southend, two distinct differences were apparent. “There weren’t many birds (girls) around, and what of them we saw was usually with some bloke who would take a swing at anybody who looked at his bird.”
“Second, the Rockers all was together as mates, but you had to keep an eye on your motor if you had a really mint bike, because they could and did get nicked,” he explained.
Steve went on to explain that, while hanging out at the Cellar coffee bar and café in what was then his hometown of Windsor, a few days before the annual Southend run, his prized AJS 7R café racer was stolen while he was inside playing pinball. The 7R was one of the fabled, and very fast British racing singles produced in the 1950s and for a young man like Steve to own one was a feat only achieved by working long hours and borrowing as much money from friends and relatives as possible, he explained.
Though most of the rockers in the Cellar knew each other quite well and had ridden and raised hell on the rods between London and Windsor for months, Steve says there was always “a few dodgy characters about” who everyone suspected of being thieves of one sort or another.
Word quickly spread to be on the look-out for the stolen AJS and by the time the weekend arrived, Steve had arranged to ride pillion down from Windsor to Southend to keep and eye peeled for the missing motorbike. All the blokes were ready to find the bike and do whoever nicked it in the first place,” Steve explained. “While we was passing a café on the way down, we spots the AJS parked up outside. It was painted a very distinct red and white and I knew the moment I saw her. I start yelling like a madman when I spot her, so we all pull in, and off come our belts and the chains we used to secure the bikes, ready for a dust-up. But then I remember that I still had me key on a chain around me neck, so I just slips it into the ignition, kicks here over, gentle-like and off we go. I never did find out who nicked my AJ, but the bastard had a nice, long walk home.”
- Mike Seate
“You call that a café racer?’ These six words are familiar in our ears, minds and e-mail in-boxes, and they emanate from readers of all stripes, nationalities and specific motorcycling preferences. It appears there are more individual definitions of what constitutes a true café racer than there are backaches from too-low clip-on handlebars, but that, as they say, is the beauty of the thing.
To the purists we meet, a café racer can only be British, air-cooled and imbued with certain character traits including but not limited to, leaky crankcases, dodgy electrical systems, kick starters and a mechanical lineage that can be directly traced back to Guy Fawkes and Bracebridge Street. We heard lots of this while filming the Café Racer series in the United Kingdom, a place where, very often, café racers are locked in a place and time that hasn’t moved forward technologically since pints cost pocket change and smoking was permitted in pubs. These machines are, beyond debate, the true essence of the café racer, but I’d like to think the term can have a much broader definition these days.
In other parts of the world, for instance, people held equally strong opinions about just what quantifies a café racer, but their differing views make for a wild, unpredictable genre of custom streetbikes that, to be honest, is as malleable as a block of billet aluminum. In Germany, stripped-down, high-performance streetfighters are considered the natural, 21st Century heirs to the Café Racer mantle, while in Japan, rockers tend to favor small-displacement Japanese retros and commuter bikes, dressed up in throwback bodywork that makes Yamaha SR 500s and Honda GB’s resemble everything from Manx Nortons to Matchless’ stunning G50 and everything in between.
Here in the States, at risk of sounding chauvinistic, we seem to enjoy the broadest possible re-defining of what a café racer can be, as builders across a vast age and cultural range continue to amaze us with their creations. Attend a cutting-edge streetbike rally like Milwaukee’s Rockerbox or one of the many Mods and Rockers events happening these days, and you’ll be blown away by the sheer, unbridled enthusiasm and experimentation that’s happening right here, right now. I’ve spent long moments staring at bikes that were so odd they defied description, only to ask myself, “is it stripped down, unique and faster than it was stock?” Well, that, my friends is a café racer. As we say on the show, the cool thing about the café racer is there really aren’t any steadfast rules about what constitutes the prefect machine, which is a large part of what makes these motorbikes so fascinating.
Some of my favorite ton-up motorcycles seen during the past few years have, surprisingly, been powered by American-made V-Twins. This is a development not many of us could have anticipated, as Harleys are very often, associated with anything but performance riding. But the way a V-Twin motor fills a café racer frame, the sheer length of the mill lending itself perfectly to the stretched-out riding position, the ominous rumble of a pair of megas holding back wads of torque. – it all seems somehow, well, proper.
There’s also lots to dig about how the café racer craze has helped resurrect and in many cases save, old, otherwise discarded Japanese strreetbikes. I can honestly recall- which is a nice way of admitting to being over the hill – when mid-1970s Hondas, Yamahas Suzukis and Kawasakis went for only a few hundred bucks each, mainly because few North Americans realized their remarkable mechanical resilience and timeless style. Today, you may pay upwards of a Grand for clean, running examples of these ideal café donor bikes, but the fact that they’re being rebuilt, ridden and cherished by a new generation of custom builders means they’ll be around for another 30 or 40 years. And though purists may turn their noses up at newfangled sportbikes and water-cooled machines being turned into café customs, well, until you’ve ridden one of these nitro-charged road-burners at full-throttle with the wind rushing by at warp speed and your senses overloaded with adrenaline, you really shouldn’t knock ‘em.
So what, after all does make a motorcycle a café racer. Well, we put that question to Dave Degens, racer, engineer and serious builder who has cobbed together several hundred café racer specials over the years, and his answer was as illuminating as it was direct.
“A café racer is a racer for the road. A race bike you can ride to work and ten take to the track or backroads on the weekends and race against your mates,” he explained. That about covers it for me.
- Mike Seate