A Brief History of European Cafe Racer Motorcycles
Article by Ross Briggs
In the late 1950′s a new trend started springing up throughout England. Young men around the country were listening to rock n’ roll music, wearing leather jackets, and modifying their European motorcycles to be lightweight and ultra fast. These young men were notorious for their behavior and rowdiness while hanging out in the cafes around London and surrounding cities.
While passing time at their favorite cafe, some particularly daring individuals were known to select a record on the jukebox; hop on their modified bike; and complete a pre-determined loop through town. If the riders were able to complete the loop; and return to the cafe before the record was finished playing; it would prove that their bike was capable of reaching 100mph, a benchmark known at the time as ‘The Ton’.
To reach The Ton, or even get close, riders had to perform significant modifications to their stock motorcycles. A common list of modifications for a cafe racer would include; upgraded engine, inverted handlebars; improved shocks, tires, and exhaust; rear-set foot pegs, and an alloy gas tank. By their very nature each cafe racer was unique, some were professionally built, others just amateur weekend experiments.
But which European motorcycles provided the best starting point back then? Which bikes will make the best platforms to customize your own cafe racer today? We’ll fill you in on the motorcycles that started it all, and then show you the hottest new cafe racers currently on the market.
Top 5 European Cafe Racers
1. The Triton
This is the bike that truly started it all. “But I’ve never even heard of a company called Triton“, you might say. And actually, you would be correct. Triton is a contraction of the two brands Triumph and Norton. The Triton uses the legendary Norton Featherbed frame, combined with the powerful Triumph Bonneville engine. The Norton frame was known for tremendous handling and a low overall weight. And the Bonneville was considered the best engine on the market. Interestingly enough, the Norton’s stock engine actually produced more horsepower than the Triumph which was used to replace it, however, the Triumph motor offered superior reliability and durability when run at high speeds, and modified for maximum performance.
2. Norton Commando
By 1967, European motorcycle companies were taking notice of the new cafe racer trends popping up in England and beyond. To answer call for more high performance motorcycles, Norton released a new model called the Commando.
The Commando was designed to combine Norton’s reputation for exceptional handling with a more robust engine capable of handling the higher RPMs, and greater top speeds that modern riders demanded. The Commando featured a powerful 750cc engine which easily propelled the bike over 100mph with no modifications needed. To complete their pursuit of greatness, Norton even scrapped the legendary Featherbed frame. By that time, traditional frame designs were having trouble accommodating the increased vibration caused by the ever swelling engine sizes. Instead, Norton hired Rolls-Royce engineer, Stefan Bauer, to design a new frame from the ground up. Bauer’s solution was to separate the engine from the frame using specialized rubber bushings to dampen vibration. The innovation would eventually prove highly successful, and the frame design went on to win numerous awards.
3. Moto Guzzi V7 Racer
The Moto Guzzi V7 Racer is a cafe racer with the benefit of 50 extra years of European motorcycle technology. It incorporates all the progress we’ve made since the original cafe racers, married with 90+ years of Moto Guzzi heritage. These days, the cafe racer upgrades are more about appearance than performance; but you have to admit, this is one gorgeous motorcycle. The V7 Racer will run you about $10k, but a dressed down version, the V7 Stone, can be had for as little as $8,500 brand new.
While the V7 may not be the fastest bike on the road today, it could easily run circles around cafe racers from the 60′s and 70′s. Modern components, coupled with classic styling, and unique details like the auburn suede seat, make the V7 Racer a one of a kind motorcycle that turns heads, and keeps a smile on your face.
4. Norton Commando 961
The classic Norton cafe racer has recently been revived, and it’s looking and performing better than ever. The company is now offering the new 961 model in several variations each for around $15k; however, popularity has far outstripped supply, which means there is currently a substantial waiting list for the models.
The new Norton 961 is a gorgeous European motorcycle from top to bottom, it combines the timeless styling and heritage of a 1960′s cafe racer, with the best technologies and performance components from today’s leading supersport motorcycles. With Ohlins shocks and Brembo brakes, the 961 would feel right at home beside any modern sportbike, and can easily hold it’s own on the track. The 961cc parallel twin is not going to set any speed records, but its more than adequate to propel the bike over 130mph without much effort.
5. Honda CB750
I know, I know, this is supposed to be a European Motorcycle Blog, and I assure you that Europe will remain the #1 focus of this site. But there was no way I could write an article about cafe racers and not mention the Honda CB. There is just something about a Honda- the stripped-down simplicity of the design, the famous reliability and durability of the engine, and not least, the modest, unassuming personality of the brand. While European manufacturers were trying to cram as much technology and innovation as they could into each new bike, Honda bravely decided to keep chugging along with the tried and true formulas.
There is no question that the passionate thirst for innovation and improvement in Europe became the driving force behind most of the motorcycle technology we enjoy today. Without the Italians and Germans, we might still be stuck riding underpowered motorcycles with squishy handling and inadequate brakes. But there is a tradeoff, because the rapid innovation taking place during this time meant that many European bikes from the 70′s, 80′s and 90′s had a nasty reputation for being unreliable and difficult to maintain.
Honda’s were bullet proof then, and they continue to enjoy that reputation today. Honda has released many variants of the CB through the years, but the all time favorite among today’s cafe customizers is “the fast one,” the 750. Honda CB cafe racers are gorgeous in appearance, completely reliable mechanically, and relatively quick performance wise. That combination of greatness, combined with an affordable price and wide availability is what makes the CB an outstanding platform for a cafe racer. The classic styling of the CB platform makes it fit in nicely among it’s European motorcycle brethren.