The Cafe Racer Versus The Bobber

cafe racerWhile the bobber scene, and later the chopper scene, were gathering momentum in the United States in the 1950’s there was another motorcycle scene brewing in Britain…

The cafe racer scene! This scene finally took off in the early sixties and maintains a loyal and passionate following today both in Britain and the United States.

The one common trait among bobbers and cafe racers is the fact that the goal of each rider was to create a bike that was faster by stripping the bike down of all parts that were not absolutely necessary.

Secondly, bobber and cafe racer owners did not want to own a mass produced motorcycle. They wanted their own creation…

The cafe racer is a type of motorcycle that was originally called a “cafe racer” because it was used as a quick means of getting from one cafe to another in Europe. As you know the streets in Europe (Britain) can be quite narrow and riddled with cobblestones at times. And each town could be a short distance away or a long distance away. But either way it was a windy road 90% of the time…

As a result, it required a nimble smaller bike to get the rider from point A to point B quickly:
cb350 cafe racerHonda CB350 Cafe Racer. Photo courtesy of Mike Schroeder.

Conversely, the motorcycles during this era in the United States didn’t need to be small and nimble and as a result the organic transformation of a stock bike to a bobber or chopper wasn’t necessarily a smaller bike. They wanted speed but didn’t need the bike to be small and nimble. Just fast.

Like the bobbers and choppers in America, the history of the Cafe racer scene lends itself to post World War II when veterans came home and wanted to make their motorcycles more personal to them and faster in performance.

The scene that was launched saw cafe racer motorcyclists take the big and bulky British bikes (in British standards) of the time and literally tear away all non performance items on their motorcycles so they were stripped bare (just like we did in the USA). What was left was a nimble and interesting looking machine that captured the imagination of rock and roll Britain.

While the bobbers and choppers of the United States saw motorcycles with low riding positions, pretty much easy rider in style, the British and their European compatriots went for a higher riding stance. This decision was based on the fact that they wanted more maneuverability on the tight winding roads found in the European nations.

Perhaps the most well known of all cafe racers were those bikes that had a Norton frame (the feather-bed slim line), and custom fitted with a Triumph Bonneville engine. Apparently these cafe racers were the most sought after and the most revered at the time because, at the time, the Featherbed frame and the Bonneville engine were the best of both worlds.

triton cafe racerTriton photo courtesy of h080.

All cafe racers found in Britain were built using old British bikes, and as mentioned it was the Norton and Triumph brand of motorcycles that were used most.

What Is ‘Cafe Racer Style’?

As described above, stock British motorcycles were stripped down to be light and nimble. But the engines were tuned and tweaked to make the bikes go faster. Generally speaking, British bikes usually did not have big engines to begin with, so not only were the bikes stripped down to be lighter but the engines were smaller and less powerful than most bikes in the States, generally speaking. So overall, the cafe racer was a light, nimble, and quick motorcycle.

The cafe racer had a distinctive ‘style’ that was modeled after the racing motorcycles of the time.

Distinctive Features Of A Cafe Racer:

cafe racer guideThis picture is here courtesy of Ron Saunders.

  • A: Stretched gas tank with small dents. This is a signature feature. The dents provide a place for your knees to fit snugly against the bike for that tucked in position.
  • B: Clip on handle bars or short handle bars. Each of these types of handle bars should drop forward which helps the rider get low and tucked in so as to reduce wind resistance, provides better handling, and you can go faster.
  • C: Bump stop seat. This type of seat is one of the signature ‘styles’ that the cafe racer embraced. It was designed to keep your butt from sliding back and forth which effects your performance on the roads.
  • D: As a result of being low and tucked into the bike, the natural position of your feet changes and therefore you need racing style rear sets (foot rests and controls) which are set back a bit on the bike.
  • Not Pictured: Common in the cafe racing scene were racing style fairings. A fairing provides more arrow dynamics, reduces wind resistance, and provides minimal protection from the elements. However, a cafe racer fairing is small and is mounted on the handlebars unlike stock motorcycle fairings or regular fairings.
  • E: Swept back exhaust with Megaphone mufflers (reverse cone). Or, they would use the stock exhaust but remove the baffles which were not necessary, reduced the weight of the bike (very slightly), increased the flow of the exhaust (and emissions), and made them LOUD.

fairingCafe Racer Fairing Example. Photo courtesy of Mike Schroeder.

While the Americans had money to create their bobbers and choppers, the Europeans were suffering in a post war era of poverty so the cafe racer was literally an amalgamation of old bikes without any new fangled technology to back them up.

The cafe racer style of bikes caught on so well that many of the major European motorcycle manufacturers ended up building cafe racer variations of their motorcycle lines in the late 1950’s to sell to the rockers of the time.

triumph cafe racerThe Bonnevill above is an example of the evolution and style that the cafe racers of the early 1960’s had on the custom bike building culture. This motorcycle was a Triumph Bonneville fully customized with some of the cafe racer styling.

A Way Of Life.

To many a cafe racer wasn’t simply a motorcycle, it was a way of life. Many would say they were a cafe racer, rather than saying they owned a cafe racer. In the UK there were many large cafe racer conventions such as Cafe UK.

While bobbers and choppers have continued to capture the imagination because of their unique style, many have overlooked the cafe racer and it’s high time that this European style of motorcycle is brought back to life.

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