(This Retrospective article was published in the December 2008 issue of Rider.)
Story and photography by Clement Salvadori
Café racers are essentially styling exercises, often with more emphasis placed on the look than on the performance.
The racy look is exaggerated, with low handlebars, rear-set footpegs and preferably a noisy exhaust…and this Honda is a fine example.
The long gas tank, solo saddle, all-black header pipes and “muffler,” twin brake discs on the front wheel…all signs to other motorcyclists that the rider was one to be reckoned with. Chrome is at a minimum here, with black powdercoated wheels giving it a threatening appearance.
However, the look of the bike and the competence of the rider were not necessarily in line with each other. And, once the bike and rider got a rep, it was a bit like being known as “the fastest gun in Dodge City” 130 years ago…there was always someone trying to take the title away from you.
The café racer was a British invention, all the rage among the young Anglian bloods in the ’60s and ’70s, coming about in the Old Sod at the same time that their cousins on the west side of the Atlantic Ocean were getting into choppers. The beginnings were really in the late 1950s, when increasing affluence in both countries allowed people to demonstrate their personal artistic flairs. While the Harley guys were customizing their Big Twins with ape-hanger handlebars, extended front ends and fancy paint jobs, the Brits were taking their vertical twins and café-ing them, aiming for that go-fast look with narrow bars and rear-set footpegs that required a considerable bend in the knees. The more-monied set was able to buy expensive additions like gas tanks and trick exhausts.
The uniform these café racers wore—denims, boots and black leather jackets —was of considerable importance. They liked to listen to rock and roll, which, some etymologists say, is the origin of the term “rocker,” as these types became known. At the other end of the two-wheeled spectrum were the scooter-riding “mods,” with velvet jackets and fancy hair-dos, who sometimes came to scuffle with the rockers.
Small companies blossomed in order to accommodate this new crowd of enthusiasts, and by the late 1960s just about any bolt-on thing a rocker could dream of was available. Like a gas tank from Dunstall, or swept-back header pipes from Pride & Clarke, or clubman-style dropped bars from Rivett’s.
A minor styling split existed in the C.R. world—to fair or not to fair. A lot of blokes liked the look of a quarter or half fairing, while others voted for the nekkid bike. Today you can see in Triumph’s Street or Speed (see page 36) Triples a modern-day rendition of the café racer concept, aggressively naked.
After 1969 the repli-racer scene began to change as big-bore Japanese bikes, like this Honda, became acceptable. And the café aftermarket immediately took note of this.
It should be explained here that this was a sober sport, as the British café sold coffee and tea, often 24 hours a day; beer was purveyed by publicans in the public houses which had very strict hours. The name came from the fact that these café racer types liked to congregate at a café, then move on to another café, and so on. Though at times the action took place around a single café, the two most famous being the Ace and the Busy Bee, both on big roads on the outskirts of London. These were designed as truck stops, with big parking lots and well-lit interiors, the fare of choice usually being bangers and mashed or fish and chips.
The Rockers would show up informally, often on a chosen night of the week, and friendly and unfriendly competitions would begin. One could do a solo race against the jukebox, with somebody putting in sixpence to play a song of known length, and the racer type screeching out on his machine, following a known route up the road, around a rotary, and back—hopefully arriving before the song ended. Or an Ace habitue could show up at the Busy Bee and challenge the “fastest gun,” with money adding incentive to the action.
This CB750 “C.R.” was an E-bay buy, so the present owner knows little of its origins. He was smitten by the picture, rather like taking a mail-order bride. He made the successful bid, and some days later a truck delivered the bike. It needed a little sorting out, a bit of fine tuning, but it was all there.
Here is the old-fashioned aggressive look, with the blacked-out wheels, a skinny fiberglass front fender, and that second disc bolted onto the fork. That last required minimal effort and expense, as Honda had conveniently set up the right bottom stanchion for a simple bolt-on. The headlight has a heavy wire covering to protect it from the stones thrown up by the leading bike with its abbreviated rear fender…just before it gets overtaken, of course. Standard instruments keep the rider aware of speed and revs. The exhaust system seems to have been cobbled together as a one-of-a-kind four-into-one, giving good cornering clearance.
The engine is stock, but the ugly airbox has been discarded and the Keihin carbs breathe unfiltered air through mesh-covered openings in the new bell-mouthed velocity stacks. We might presume that a little jetting work accompanied this effort. The chain-guard has been dispensed with. The homemade rear-set pegs have been welded on to the triangulated set-up that once secured the passenger pegs and the mufflers; as you can see, this CR has no accommodation for a passenger, as the café scene was mainly solo male riders.
The exotica, if we can use that word, is really in the alloy gas tank and solo saddle, which come from a British company called Mead Speed, to be found on the web (www.meadspeed.com). Since 1975 they have been fabricating all manner of items for the café racer crowd, whose numbers are proliferating. London’s Ace Café got reborn a few years ago (www.ace-cafe-london.com), and is definitely an attraction. Out of idle curiosity I ran up caferacer.com and got a domain name for sale…if anybody is interested.
But the long and the short of it is that here is a cool-looking bike, fun to ride (for short, brisk distances) and part of an ever-growing yearn for nostalgia. A mildly trashed UJM from the ’70s is cheap, and this is what can be done with it.