A café racer is a lightweight, powerful motorcycle optimized for speed and handling rather than comfort – and for quick rides over short distances. With bodywork and control layout recalling early-1960s Grand Prix road racing motorcycles, café racers are noted for their visual minimalism, featuring low-mounted handlebars, prominent seat cowling and elongated fuel tank – and frequently knee-grips indented in the fuel tank.
The term originated among British motorcycle enthusiasts of the early 1960s in London, specifically within the Rockers or "Ton-Up Boys" subculture, where the bikes were used for short, quick rides between popular cafés, in Watford at the Busy Bee café, and the Ace Café in Stonebridge, London. In post-war Britain, car ownership was still uncommon, but by the late 1950s the average Briton could afford a car, so by the early 1960s the café racer's significance was that a bike had come to represent speed, status and rebellion, rather than mere inability to afford a car.
Rockers were a young and rebellious rock and roll subculture who wanted a fast, personalized and distinctive bike to travel between transport cafés along the newly built arterial motorways in and around British towns and cities. Biker lore has it that the goal of many was to be able to reach 100 miles per hour (160 km/h) – called simply "the ton" – along such a route where the rider would leave from a café, race to a predetermined point and back to the café before a single song could play on the jukebox, called record-racing. Café racers are remembered as being especially fond of rockabilly music and their image is now embedded in today's rockabilly culture.
In addition to light weight, a tuned engine and minimalist bodywork, the café racer typically features distinctive ergonomics. Dropped bars that are low, narrow handlebars (called "clip-ons") – enabled the rider to "tuck in", reducing wind resistance and improving control. Along with the rearward located seat, the posture often required rear sets, or rear-set footrests and foot controls, typical of racing motorcycles of the era. Distinctive half or full race-style fairings were sometimes mounted to the forks or frame.
The bikes featured minimalist styling, engines tuned for speed and responsive handling. A typical example was the "Triton", a homemade combination of a Triumph Bonneville engine in a Norton Featherbed frame. A less common hybrid was the "Tribsa" which had a Triumph engine in a BSA duplex frame. Other hybrids café racers included the "NorVin" (a Vincent V-Twin engine in a Featherbed frame), and bikes with racing frames by Rickman or Seeley.
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