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The comeback of the cafe racer

These stripped-down machines are back as artisans transform well-used road bikes into modern-day racers – and big brands bring out their own retro models. Simon de Burton reports

October 01 2013
Simon de Burton

As a schoolboy back in the mid-1970s, I would occasionally ask my long-suffering mother to drive me to the Ace Cafe on London’s North Circular Road. Not in order to take any sort of refreshment, but just to gaze wistfully at the derelict fabric of the building that was once the throbbing hub of British motorcycle culture.

I was five years old when the Ace closed down in 1969, but it was only a short while later that my passing interest in motorbikes began to become an obsession. This led me to discover that around 20 years after the café opened in 1938 as a 90-seater truck stop, it unexpectedly became the most famous meeting point for bikers in the whole of southeast England.

To me, that made even the rubble worth looking at – and not least because it was intrinsic to the birth of a whole new genre of motorcycle: the so-called “café racer”. Built largely by tearaway rockers, these were stripped-down, British-made road bikes fitted with dropped handlebars, rear-set footrests, aluminium racing fuel tanks and selfish single seats – although it was acceptable to eschew the latter in favour of more female-friendly pillion accommodation.

Unconstrained by today’s tiresome bureaucracy, the owners of these bikes would race one another up and down suitably unsuitable public roads with impunity, aiming to crack the magic “ton” – ie, 100mph – while dressed in the standard rocker uniform of crossover leather jacket, jeans and high-top boots, sometimes with a pair of off-white seaman’s socks rolled neatly over the tops. Cranial protection, if worn at all, would consist of a woefully inadequate, cork-lined “pudding basin” crash helmet teamed with a pair of ex-RAF flying goggles.

It might just be coincidence, but the Ace’s closure came in the same year as the arrival of the first Japanese superbike, the Honda CB750, an off-the-shelf design that made the home-tuned British machines of the café racers seem slow and unreliable. And with that, the fad for such modified bikes quietly petered out.

Throttle forward to 2001 and motorcycle-mad entrepreneur Mark Wilsmore (and his co-directors) steps in to save a vital part of Britain’s two-wheeled heritage by reopening the Ace Cafe, which, fuelled by the world’s apparently insatiable appetite for nostalgia, has become both an internationally recognised tourist attraction and an even more popular haunt for motorcyclists of all tastes and creeds than it was “back in the day”. That same appetite for nostalgia – combined with a few other interesting factors – has also led to the welcome and widespread return of, you guessed it, the café racer-style motorcycle.

Currently, one of the most popular production models is Triumph’s £7,199 Thruxton, a souped-up version of its standard Bonneville with a racier riding position, “megaphone” silencers, retro-look spoked alloy wheels and rearview mirrors bolted to the ends of the dropped handlebars. Moto Guzzi, meanwhile, offers its £8,132 V7 Racer, a 21st-century take on the now highly collectable V7 Sport of 1971, and Norton (revived in 2008) will sell you a café racer-inspired version of its Commando 961 for £15,995 – if you don’t mind joining the six-month waiting list.

Lovers of the legendary, Indian-built Royal Enfield marque are catered for with the Bullet Clubman, which is built to order in the UK by Watsonian Squire at a price of £5,795. And, if you’re prepared to take the time to hunt one down, you can still find the occasional, low-mileage example of Ducati’s SportClassic café racers produced between 2005 and 2010.

But there’s one basic problem with all such off-the-peg models – and that is down to the fact that they have to be built to the very “type approval” standards that many people believe have caused the individuality of most modern, road-going vehicles to be seriously diluted. You could say that the average factory-built café racer is, sadly, somewhat “decaffeinated”.

As a result, the past five years has seen a burgeoning in the number of artisan motorcycle customisers around the world who are creating modern-day café racers from well-used, often neglected road bikes built during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s – an era when motorcycles were generally well engineered and reliable, but not so governed by complex electronics as they are today. Above all, however, they still looked like motorcycles, with exposed, air-cooled engines, analogue instruments, plenty of chrome and a lack of plastic trimmings.

These niche firms, rejoicing in names such as Blitz, Wrenchmonkees, Deus, Steel Bent Customs and Bare Bone Rides, have turned café-racer building into an art form, usually by working closely with their clients to create the machines of their dreams in practical, covetable and, most importantly, utterly exclusive editions of one.

One such builder is Untitled Motorcycles, which was founded at the beginning of 2011 by Adam Kay who, after 20 years in the fashion industry and having completed a later-life MA in sculpture, decided he wanted to turn his artistic talents to making his own modified motorcycle.

“I had been looking at the website Bike Exif, which specialises in showing high-quality photographs of the world’s best custom motorcycles,” says Kay. “There was a bike on there that I really liked, and it inspired me to make one for myself. At the time, I didn’t really know how to go about it, so I went to Victory Motorcycles – a small, independent bike shop near my home – and asked the owner, Rex Martin, if he would allow me to build a bike in his workshop with his assistance.” The answer was yes and, starting with a down-at-heel, 1970s BMW, Kay and Martin created a cool-looking, minimalist street bike in the best café-racer tradition.

“During the construction,” Kay continues, “I posted pictures of the bike on Facebook, Twitter and the specialist site Pipeburn, and suddenly realised it was attracting a great deal of attention. We made two further bikes and then Rex and I decided to go into partnership and set up Untitled. We’ve now completed more than 20 projects.” Kay says, however, that the modern-day interpretation of the café-racer term no longer relates strictly to the dropped-handlebar look of old: “The definition isn’t so clear any more. In general terms, the bike has to look individual and minimal, but still be usable on a daily basis – not the sort of show machine that an owner would worry about taking out on a wet day.”

Untitled’s first client was John Watts, a 31-year-old rail-industry executive who wanted a standout motorcycle on which he could ride to work, the basis of which was an elderly BMW. “I have owned various standard modern motorcycles and reached the point where I wanted something that was unique,” explains Watts. “What Untitled did was build a bike that incorporates both a high level of craftsmanship and individuality with unique touches such as brass-finished spoked wheels and old-fashioned English switchgear. The quality of the work is excellent, and the end result has probably increased in value beyond the £9,500 it cost me [excluding the price of the basic machine].”

Some of the most revered of the current café-racer producers are to be found in mainland Europe. One of them, Hamburg-based Kaffeemaschine, was set up by Axel Budde, who used to design and build constructions for car photography. He specialises in creating sublime‑looking, minimalist street bikes based on late‑20th-century Moto Guzzis (from €25,000). His firm can also supply key components to anyone making these bikes at home.

Copenhagen-based Wrenchmonkees, meanwhile, has come to be regarded as one of the top builders in the world, assembling café racers from Japanese, European and American motorcycles with both large- and small-capacity engines. Established in 2008 by commercial photographer Nicholas Bech and his business partner, Per Nielsen, a long-standing creator of custom bikes, Wrenchmonkees will transform any “donor” machine into something truly special for a fee of €15,000 upwards – and have now built and sold more than 60.

“The café-racer scene began to boom because people wanted something that wasn’t a classic chopper, a conventional, modern road bike or an ultra-high-performance sports machine,” says Bech. “We have made motorcycles for everyone from students to high-end businessmen, doctors, lawyers and artists – some of whom had never owned a bike before, but were drawn to the idea after seeing pictures of café racers on the web.”

Indeed, the market is booming to such an extent that even major manufacturers are now approaching niche builders with requests to create café racers based on bikes in their current range. Yamaha, for example, recently commissioned Wrenchmonkees to produce a €35,000 customised version of its XJR1300 street bike, and BMW has collaborated with the celebrated California motorcycle builder Roland Sands to make the café racer-style RSD BMW Concept 90. The latter marks this year’s 90th anniversary of BMW motorcycle production and the 40th anniversary of one of its most famous models, the R90S.

“The big names can see that the café-racer movement is getting huge and, understandably, they want to be part of it,” says Bech. “The irony is that the only way they can really become part of it is through underground builders like us.”


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