The café racer got its start in Europe in the early 1960s, making its way across the pond later in that decade, and eventually catching on with a few factories in the U.S. Even Harley-Davidson gave it a shot in 1977 with the XLCR. But the AMF-built bike was pretty much ignored in showrooms and quickly vanished from the H-D lineup. Unlike the Beatles and Stones, the café racer trend in America was short-lived.
Then a new craze smacked America upside the head in the late ’80s and early ’90s with bikers morphing their motorcycles into grossly overpriced machines where functionality took a back seat to the largest back tire you could jam under the bike, super long front ends and zillion-dollar paint jobs. Most of these bikes were barley rideable,but for the egomaniacs who owned these rides, it was much more about status and excess than speed or performance.
The idea behind the café racer was the polar opposite of the chopper monstrosities you see on reality TV shows these days. One thing these European café racers had in common with our early-day bobbers and choppers was the habit of removing any parts deemed unnecessary or bulky. Anything that was attached to the bike that didn’t improve speed was taken off or “chopped.” We did it to Harleys; the British did the same with their 100-mph coffee bar hoppers (ergo, the café label.)
The British builders were tearing off factory parts and fabricating only what they needed, while at the same time building their own flare and personality into the bike. The biggest difference between the chops and the café bikes was that the café bikes were built to retain as much functionality with as few parts as possible to attain the maximum speed. The cafés were stripped to the bare essentials and put back together with performance in mind. Clip-on handlebars were bolted up front with small (café) fairings while one-piece tail sections shed unnecessary weight in the back. Add some nice suspension, a performance pipe and a carb kit, and guys were blasting through corners in no time.
Now fast-forward to the current economic downturn. Bikes are being built in small shops and in attached two-car garages with the focus once again on getting your bike down the road. Gone is the idea of building a bike around some ridiculous “theme.” Once again, the café racer is rearing its speedy head as people pull CB750s, XS650s, and Ironhead Sportsters out of barns and garages across the country and start spinning wrenches in their own garage.
J&P Cycles even built its own café racer, which was featured in a recent American Iron Garage mag. So if you’re looking for an inexpensive way to get a great bike underneath you, and you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, start combing the Internet classifieds, cruising the garage sales and rummaging through your neighbor’s barn. There are a ton of old bikes out there just begging for somebody to rescue them.