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Tue, 20 Apr 2021
The Café Racer Revolution
In an attempt to stand out from the post war boom in personal mobility a new breed of biker was born, one who sought to modify their machine from a simple means of transportation to a statement of individuality. Motorcycles were not just a mode of transport; they were emerging as an extension of your personality. Meeting at transport cafes and coffee bars, this rebellious rock’n’roll generation took inspiration from the GP and TT race bikes of the day to create what is still considered the coolest custom genre on the block, the cafe racer – which is still loved today from the UK to Japan.
As the swinging sixties kicked into gear, these stripped down, tuned up and tricked out creations began appearing at roadside hangouts across the land, each built with the sole intention of looking good and going as fast they could be made to. With their black leather jackets and slick backed hair, the rockers who rode them quickly earned the title of Ton Up Boys, so called for their quest to push the needle on their speedo beyond the magic 100mph mark. Back then, indicating 100mph on the analog speedo was only for the brave.
London’s world-renowned Ace Cafe is often considered the birthplace of the cafe racer, where riders would toss a coin in the jukebox and aim to complete a pre-determined circuit to Hanger Lane and back before their chosen track had played out. Up and down the country riders found their own routes, sprinting from cafe to cafe and poring over each other’s machines to see who had done what to gain that few extra mph. From Brighton to Glasgow the café scene grew, before any social media and internet, everyone followed a similar path in search of speed.
British bikes were available in abundance and thus consequentially the weapon of choice, but as the decade wore on people began to look to the solid reputation that Honda was building in the world of racing. With a string of successes on the Isle of Man which would ultimately lead to Honda becoming the most successful team in TT history, and countless wins at Grand Prix circuits around the world in both the 125cc and 250cc classes, those back street builders really started to take note.
In 1969 Honda released the legendary CB750 Four, a revolutionary motorcycle at the time packed with race derived precision engineering that provided a level of reliability and performance that would leave its aging competitors for dust. And for the Ton Up Boys, that changed everything. Now they had reliability and race proven speed.
“WHILE BRITISH MANUFACTURERS WERE STRUGGLING TO STAY AFLOAT IN THE ’60S, HONDA WAS MAKING HISTORY,” SAYS GEOFF BALDWIN, FOUNDER OF THE ‘RETURN TO THE CAFE RACERS’ WEBSITE. “SUCCESS IN THE ISLE OF MAN TT AND WORLD GP SERIES HAD WANNABE RACERS CHAMPING AT THE BIT FOR A SIMILAR BIKE, AND MODELS LIKE THE LEGENDARY CB750 WERE PRIME CANDIDATES FOR A CAFÉ RACER BUILD.”
Modifications emulated those seen on the factory race bikes that dominated the 1969 Suzuka 10-hour endurance and 1970 AMA Daytona 200 mile races, which included traditional cafe racer hallmarks such as dropped handlebars, swept-back pipes, rearward located seats and the dispensing of all unnecessary weight. The old trick of bashing dents into the fuel tank to allow ‘tucking in’ for aerodynamic advantage was also a popular ‘go faster’ mod.
It takes a brave biker to attack his machine with a hammer and hacksaw, a fact that’s as true today as it was back then, but half a century on Honda’s Neo Sports Cafe range come ready to ride to your preferred hangout, oozing contemporary cool and ingrained with the pioneering spirit that made those one-off builds so special. Minimalistic styling, textured metal finishes and a fresh take on the classic look provides more than a hint to those halcyon days when rock’n’roll ruled and the Ton Up Boy was King of the Road.
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