Classic Café Racers

The café racer heyday was only a moment, a blip on the radar, a mere dozen years in a tradition that began in the earliest days of motorcycling and continues today. That’s the tradition of a motorcycle built for speed and a rider bent on achieving it.

The original term café racer was derogatory South London slang for a young motorcyclist who tore up the highways on hot bike and hung out in roadside cafés, rather than risking himself on the racetrack. The term was soon civilized and became a badge of honor among road riders enamored of speed in 1950s-1960s England.

The label also stuck to the motorcycles themselves, which were already part of a 40-year tradition. Bike factories had explicitly catered to the speed of road riders since the 1910s, offering race-tuned—or at least race-associated— bikes for use on public roads. From the book Café Racers: Speed, Style and Ton-Up Culture is a closer look at three classics of the genre.

cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles, 1962 BSA DBD34 Gold Star Clubman

499ccOHV single-cylinder 40 hp Single-leading-shoe 190mm front brake 1 1/2-inch GP carb
Built 1956-1963 Price new £277

The immortal Gold Star motorcycle was introduced as BSA’s Brooklands Replica (with full road equipment) in 1938, after Wal Handley lapped the Brooklands speedbowl at over 100 miles per hour on an Empire Star model. The actual gold star was an enameled pin, worn with pride on a racer’s lapel after a race lap over 100 miles per hour. Wearers of the gold star formed an elite club. Only 141 riders earned the badge between 1922 and 1939, when Brooklands closed for World War II. While Brooklands didn’t revive after the war, the “Goldie” lived on, doing an amazing variety of tasks, including tourer, scrambler, trials bike, and full-blooded racer in the Isle of Man Clubman’s TT, which it dominated between 1947 and 1956. Every Gold Star had an all-aluminum cylinder barrel and head. Every motor was hand-assembled and dynamometer-tested, and the dyno results came with every machine.cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles, The ultimate Gold Star model was the DBD34 500cc, introduced in 1956. This was a very fast and uncompromising machine. It had a notoriously tall first gear due to an all-needleroller, close-ratio gearbox; first gear was good for over 60 miles per hour. The DBD34 was available in three forms: the Catalina scrambler, named after California’s Catalina Island GP off-road race; the Touring, with normal handlebars and footrests; and the Clubman, intended for road racing, with clip-ons, rearsets, and a massive 1.5-inch GP racing carburetor.cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles,

cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles, The Herb Harris 1962 BSA shown at Ton Up! is an immaculate example of the DBD34 Gold Star Clubman. It embodies the magnetic allure of this chrome-and-aluminum street racer. The Gold Star was the real deal, the original café racer, as far more were sold for street use than for track racing. It took a committed rider to use one daily, as kick-starting the 499cc single-cylinder engine took a bit of skill, especially with a full-race GP carb, which had to be tickled for the correct amount of fuel needed to start the beast. After a few healthy kicks, the distinctive muffler (a capped megaphone) barks in response, with a unique mechanical twitter on the overrun. It’s a siren song that lured cash from the pockets of speed-crazed riders by the thousands.

 

cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles, NorVin Comet

 1950 Comet engine  499cc OHV single-cylinder  30 hp @ 5,800 rpm
Circa 1954 Norton Featherbed frame and forks  Manx alloy tanks and seat  Triumph gearbox and conical wheels

The standard Vincent chassis while groundbreaking and radical for 1946, was immediately outdated when Norton introduced the Featherbed frame in 1951. While the single-cylinder Vincent Comet and Meteor models were better handlers with their original Vincent chassis, being much lighter than the big-twin Rapide and Black Shadow models, an easy solution for even better Vincent handling was to shoehorn a Vincent engine into a Norton Featherbed frame. This was a tight fit for the twin, but the Comet’s single-cylinder engine and separate gearbox was an easier union.cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles,

cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles, As Norton Featherbed frames were considered fair game for chassis poaching, the NorVin became a much-admired beast, especially when a Black Shadow engine was used, and for a time NorVin twins were the kings of café racers. Less common are single-cylinder Vincent engines in Norton frames; as the Comet engine has a separate gearbox, it was a far easier proposition to make a set of engine plates for the single. A Comet NorVin, being lighter, makes a much better-balanced whole within the Norton frame, which was designed for the Manx single. And the Comet can be turned fairly easily to racing Grey Flash spec, making a very tasty—and rare—café racer.

 

cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles, 1965 Dunstall Dominator Norton Atlas

1965 Norton Atlas 750cc 2-cylinder OHV  Tuned to 60 hp
Dunstall bodywork, controls, exhausts, and speed tuning parts 130 mph top speed

cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles, Paul Dunstall was a young racer of some ability in England in the 1950s. Dunstall tuned his own racing Norton. Recognizing a business opportunity in the difficulty of finding racing parts and bodywork, he began manufacturing his own parts in 1961 and offering them in a mail-order catalog, selling BSA Gold Star–pattern mufflers and Norton Manx look-alike fiberglass or alloy fuel and oil tanks. Some of these parts were used on racetracks, but Dunstall was really supplying the exploding café racer scene in early 1960s England. Suddenly, it was possible to clad your Triumph, BSA, or Norton with racerlike bodywork, even if it was perfectly ordinary underneath all the race gear.cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles, By 1966, Dunstall was recognized in England as a full-fledged motorcycle manufacturer. He offered Dunstall Dominators like this Atlas in complete and road-ready form. Dunstalls were highly tuned and very fast. In 1967 a Dunstall Norton 750cc Atlas was the fastest road-legal motorcycle you could buy in England, topping 130 miles per hour.

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cafe racers, cafe motorcycles, cafe racer motorcycles, the cafe motorcycle culture, the cafe motorcycle craze, cafe racers speed style and ton-up cultures, michael lichter, paul d’orleans, 1950s english motorcycles, 1960s english motorcycles, Triumph motorcycles, BSA motorcycles, Norton motorcycles, Velocette motorcycles, Vincent motorcycles, Rickman motorcycles, Ducatti, Honda, Harley-Davidson, Yamaha motorcycles, BMW motorcycles, Victory motorcycles,

A photographic chronology of some of the fastest, most stylish, and most individualized bikes in motorcycling history.

Originally used as a slur against riders who used hopped-up motorcycles to travel from one transport café to another, café racer describes a bike genre that first became popular in 1960s British rocker subculture – although the motorcycles were also common in Italy, France, and other European countries. The rebellious rock-and-roll counterculture is what first inspired these fast, personalized, and distinctive bikes, with their owners often racing down public roads in excess of 100 miles per hour (“ton up” in British slang), leading to their public branding as “ton-up boys.” Café Racers traces café racer motorcycles from their origins in the mid-twentieth century all the way into modern times, where the style has made a recent comeback in North America and Europe alike, through the museum-quality portraiture of top motorcycle photographer Michael Lichter and the text of motorcycle culture expert Paul d’Orléans. Chronologically illustrated with fascinating historical photography, the book travels through the numerous ever-morphing and unique eras of these nimble, lean, light, and head-turning machines. Café Racers visually celebrates a motorcycle riding culture as complex as the vast array of bikes within it.