We know a cafe racer is a stripped down motorcycle with low handle bars to put the rider in an extreme forward leaning position. There seems to be some confusion over how the term “cafe racer” came to be and why riders of these bikes prefer the forward riding position. I’m here to help.
Some say these bikes came to be called cafe racers because they were used by their owners to race from cafe to cafe, or make that “bar to bar.” No, it has nothing to do with bar hopping. It has everything to do with the Ace Cafe, a Northwest London truck stop in 1960’s England. British bikers, also called rockers, wanted bikes that could be made to go fast on their tight budgets. They bought the used bikes they could afford and stripped off as much equipment as they could to make the bike as light weight as possible. That why a cafe racer is a stripped down motorcycle with low handle bars. Engine, frame, lights and essential controls are typically all that was left when they were done.
A very light weight bike could make as much use as possible of available horsepower, and go really fast. These bikes made massive thrust from the starting line. So much so that the front wheel would jump off the ground if the rider gunned it from a standing start. This is where the forward leaning riding position comes from, an attempt to stop the bike from doing a wheelie when what was wanted was a straight away fast take off.
Since these bikes were being modified by kids with little money the easiest way to guarantee a forward leaning riding position that would transfer weight to the front wheel was to take the standard handlebars and turn them upside down.
These bikers called themselves the “ton up” boys. The “ton” was 100mph. If you’d created a bike that could do 100mph, it was called a ton and you were a ton up boy with a shoulder patch to go with it.
There was a special drill that you had to run to earn your ton up patch. First, you started a song on the juke box in the Ace Cafe. Then you hopped on your bike and took off on a prescribed route around the area that started and ended at the Ace Cafe. If you made it back before the song you’d put on the juke box ended, you earned your patch. Here’s why it’s called “ton up.” If you followed the course and didn’t cheat by taking a short cut [they monitored that to prevent cheating] you would necessarily have had to reach 100 mph on a certain stretch of the route.
So why the name, “cafe racer?” First we must remember that Isle of Man TT racing has always been a big sport in England. The Ace Cafe was a truck stop, and truckers were TT Racing fans. They took umbrage at these silly “kids” on motor bikes thinking themselves authentic “racers.” One day one of the truckers meant to put them in their place by saying, “You blokes ain’t real racers, you’re just cafe racers.”
Thus, the Cafe Racer name was born.
It’s very popular at this moment and even an ancient-aged biker like me has a lovely one. Mine’s a factory model. The motorcycle industry is responding to the current demand for retro bikes.