History of the Café Racer, a Classic 1960s Motorcycle

1977 Harley-Davidson XLCR Cafe Racer
The 1977 Harley-Davidson XLCR Cafe Racer. Photo © Harley-Davidson

Fast and agile, the café racer was developed by English motorcyclists in the 1960s for the purpose of short-distance racing from one hangout (usually a café) to another. The most famous of these cafés was the Ace Café in London (which likely accounts for the alternate pronunciation, kaff racer, which is British slang for café). Legend has it that motorcycle riders would race from the café, after selecting a certain record on the jukebox, and attempt to return before the record ended.

This feat often necessitated achieving a speed known as “the ton,” or 100 mph.

The Typical Café Racer

In England during the 1960s, affordable motorcycles that could reach “the ton” were few and far between. For the average worker and motorcycle owner, the only way to achieve the desired performance was to tune the bike with various racing options. Readily available tuning parts made the task easier. Riders would add more parts as their budgets allowed. As riders added more and more parts, a standard look began to materialize.

Some features of early café racers included:

  • Swept-back pipes
  • Clip-ons or “Ace” bars
  • Reverse-cone megaphone mufflers (very much a misnomer—later bikes used Dunstall mufflers, which were silencers produced by tuning legend Paul Dunstall)
  • TT 100 Dunlop tires
  • Larger carburetors
  • Rear sets

Evolution of the Racer

For many riders, having the café racer look was enough. But when the market for tuning parts really began to take off in the mid-'60s, the list of available and desirable parts grew.

Besides engine tuning parts, a number of companies began to produce replacement seats and tanks. These replacements resembled the current trends in motorcycle racing: seats with humps, and fiberglass tanks with indentations to clear clip-ons and the rider's knees. More expensive aluminum versions were also available.

To add more of a racing look, café racer owners began to fit a small handlebar-mounted fairing (as seen on the Manx Norton racers). Full fairings were shunned, as these would cover up the polished aluminum engine cases and swept-back chrome pipes.

A Legendary Hybrid

Although many riders fitted different rear shocks to improve the handling of their machines, the defining moment of café racer development came when a Triumph Bonneville engine was fitted to a Norton Featherbed chassis. Affectionately called the Triton, this hybrid set new standards. By combining the best of the British engines and the best chassis, an urban legend was created.

Further Reading

  • Walker, Mick. “Café Racers of the 1960s: Machines, Riders and Lifestyle, a Pictorial Review.” The Crowood Press, 2007.