This is not intended as a complete history, rather a look at the highpoints in the café scene which is timely because in recent years, it seems that the term “Café Racer” can be applied to any old motorcycle that has been spray-painted black and fitted with pipe wrap. However, motorcycle enthusiasts who raced each other from café to café were the true Café Racers in the UK during the 1960s. The most famous of which is the Ace Café, in London, which is still in existence today.
There is also a suggestion that the term Café Racer was created as the riders were only pretending to be racers as, instead of using their modified bikes, they just parked them outside cafes to show off.
It may also be part of motorcycle folklore too, but it is rumored that these riders would apparently select a record on a café’s jukebox and then race each other to a predetermined place, with the objective of getting back before the record finished. This would then prove their bike was capable of hitting 100 mph.
A café racer is a lightweight, lightly powered motorcycle optimized for speed and handling rather than comfort – and for quick rides over short distances. With bodywork and control layout recalling early 1960’s Grand Prix road racing motorcycles, café racers are noted for their visual minimalism, featuring low-mounted handlebars, prominent seat cowling and elongated fuel tank – and frequently knee-grips indented in the fuel tank.
The term developed among British motorcycle enthusiasts of the early 1960s, specifically the Rocker or “Ton-Up Boys” subculture, where the bikes were used for short, quick rides between cafés – in other words, drinking establishments.