A little history
According to Wikipedia's definition, a café racer is a lightweight motorcycle that is optimized for speed and handling rather than comfort. The definition stands correct. These little bikes have a lot of history behind them, especially their name. The original term started to develop around the 60s among British riders, who would strip their motorcycles off extra parts and race between cafés. These quick rides served as races between young riders and hence the term was born; café racer.
Anatomy of a Café Racer
Café Racers are essential motorcycles in their true core. The engines receive tuning and modification to further improve the performance of the motorcycle. All along the motorcycle you can notice a low-riding position, with indentations in the fuel tank to allow for knee-grips. Due to the riding position, rear-set footrests and foot controls. This is the heritage of the racing motorcycles of the 1950s. The handlebars upfront are usually clipped on and pointing downwards. Most of the custom café racers we see today have a flat seat that flows along nicely with the gas tank. Some café racers have fairings mounted up front to improve aerodynamics and to getting blasted in the face from the wind going 200 km/h.
Café Racers and Popular Culture
In their beginning, café racers were connected to the rebellious nature of the young riders that created and raced them through the British streets. Born out of necessity, these motorcycles were the choice for the young British riders who could not yet afford a car. A decade after their conception however, the average British person could now afford a car. Café Racers then turned into the popular motorcycles we see today, a symbol of rebellion. Stripped out of the unnecessary parts, these bikes screamed out virility and style as they rocketed past their favorites cafés.
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Modern Day Café Racers
During the course of time, café racers were widely appreciated for their quick character and customized look. People grew attached to these bikes and would start to appreciate them even more as time passed. What once was simple strip and race, would turn into a sophisticated art of motorcycle building. The shape of motorcycles took a huge turn in the 70s when fiberglass panels were introduced in the motorcycle racing world. What once was a rounded tank sitting on top of a lightweight frame turned into a fiberglass panel body that wrapped around the now invisible frame sitting beneath. People started to mix flexible frames like Norton Featherbeds to popular racing engines such as Triumph Bonneville. These motorcycles would be called "Triton" or other names created by blending the names of the frames and engines (i.e Tribsa, Norvin etc.)
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Then more and more garages started to learn how to create beautiful café racers. They learned how to sculpt the naked bodies of the motorcycles and create custom tanks that flow beautifully along the seat lines. The world of modern café racers was then created. Today, over thousands of workshops all over the world work on their personal cafe racer projects. From Apocalypse-Ready builds to race oriented ones. The number of different café racers is impossible to mention, but rest assured; out there a garage is building a café racer just the way you want it. And if not, you can always build your own.
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Factory Model Café Racers
Recently, motorcycle manufacturers started to notice an ever-growing interest in café racers. From social media, to huge international meetings and festivals around these motorcycles. This popular motorcycling culture could not be ignored. A lot of them decided to tailor the needs of this specific motorcycling niche. BMW offers the R nine T racer, Ducati the Scrambler Café Racer, Yamaha offers its XSR900 Abarth and Harley-Davidson has a XL12000CX Roadster while the Indian manufacturer Royal Enfield has the Continental GT.
This saves a lot of time for the enthusiast who simply doesn't have the space, time, knowledge and money to build his own motorycle. This option not only offers the café racer look, it also comes with the reliability of a major motorcycling manufacturer. However, a café racer that you build yourself is always going to be yours. A café racer built in a garage will always have a character, because it received special attention and a one-off treatment. No motorcycle will ever be built like that.
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TheArsenale will soon publish a definitive dictionary to the different styles of custom motorcycles today, so stay tuned.