How Honda redefined the café racer revolution of the swinging sixties
Dust off that leather jacket, get your hair gel at the ready, and join us as we cruise into the weird and wonderful world of café racers, beginning in swinging sixties London and culminating with this year’s release of not one, but three new Honda Neo Sports Café motorcycles: the CB1000R, CB300R and the CB125R.
1. A lightweight, lightly powered motorcycle optimised for speed and handling rather than comfort – and for quick rides over short distances. Developed among British motorcycle enthusiasts of the early 1960s from Watford and London, specifically the Rocker or "Ton-Up Boys" subculture, where the bikes were used for short, quick rides between cafés.
In the 1960s, café racers were some of the sexiest, nimblest and downright coolest motorcycles to hit the streets since, well, motorcycles. But in the years following, café racing ground to a halt. This year, however, café racing is back, sexier, nimbler and hipper than ever thanks to the release of three new Honda motorcycles, each inspired by the ‘true’ café racers of the 1960s.
Rockers and racers
Café racing can be traced back to 1960s London. Its birthplace: a small roadside pit-stop in London known as the Ace Café. Apart from offering the latest rock ’n’ roll around-the-clock from the likes of Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, the café had another, more ‘unique’ function: serving as the de-facto HQ for badass bikers.
Ace Café’s current owner, Mark Wilsmore, recalls watching these leather-clad bikers arrive by the hundreds, each sporting his own custom café racer: A tricked-out, stripped-back bike built for speed.
According to Geoff Baldwin, founder of the ‘Return of the Café Racers’ website, a café racer was a custom creation devoid of excess – that is, a bike stripped of its ‘non-essential’ components: rims, frames and exhausts. Why? One word: speed.
Dropped handlebars, swept-back pipes and rearward located seats were regular fixtures, but the dream was to reach that magic 100mph mark – otherwise known as ‘Ton Up’. To increase their chances, many racers went so far as to bash dents in their fuel tanks to enable ‘tucking in’ for enhanced aerodynamics. Fast-forward fifty years and Honda’s new lineup of café racers all feature minimalist styling and textured metal finishes. No bashing required. Thankfully.
Although they’d dominated at the start of the decade, the obsession with British-made motors began to wane in the late ’60s: “Fast engines, like Honda’s, had come along,” Wilsmore says. “And that changed everything.”
Indeed, Honda, the most successful team in Isle of Man TT history, started the ’50s as underdogs. But they closed out the decade in first, second, third and fifth position in both the 125cc and 250cc classes. Read all about it here.
“While British manufacturers were struggling to stay afloat in the ’60s, Honda was making history,” says Baldwin. “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.”
The four-cylinder, four-muffler engine structure was a Grand Prix staple. And the bike’s reputation stepped up a gear or two after a one-two domination in the Suzuka 10-hour Endurance Race, followed by a victory in the 1970 AMA Daytona 200-Mile Race. The new Hondas packed a punch, and it wasn’t long before British bike builders wanted a taste of the action.
When it comes to café racers, no one knows more than the ‘unwritten godfather of the café racer’, Dave Degens. The engineering prodigy was a regular at the Ace Café, and, like many in his position, transitioned into Japanese machines once Honda hit the heights. One bike he developed with Honda actually clocked 184mph – or close to two tonnes, for you rockers.
Likewise, Rickman Motorcycles, run by brothers Don and Derek, Dunstall Motorcycles and Harris performance made the move to Honda engines. You couldn’t be considered a true café racer without dipping into the aftermarket parts market. Feather-light body kits, chunky exhausts and the latest brakes were big business. In only a few short years, the scene’s early pace setters were forgotten – and Honda ruled the streets once again.
“Honda’s racing success proved their motorcycles could offer superior handling and power,” says Baldwin, and though it would take a decade or more, demand for frames and custom petrol tanks would also fade in the wake of a new breed of bike.
Café racers today
But what started out as a thriving underground movement soon reached saturation point, and café racing came grinding to a halt in the 1980s.
“Originally, café racers were made by transplanting powerful engines into superior frames, thus allowing people to create machines that were faster than those sold by the manufacturers,” says Baldwin. “But as frame design, suspension and brakes improved, the need to replace these items lessened.”
Which brings us to 2018, and Honda is getting ready to kick-start a new café racing revolution with the release of three new motorcycles: the CB1000R, CB300R and CB125R. The biggest, and by all accounts, baddest, is the Honda CB1000R Neo Sports Café. Its exposed innards, four-cylinder engine and featherweight frame all serve as a gushing homage to ’60s and ’70s café racing. But don’t be fooled by the neo-retro styling; this bike is a beast to behold – a 998cc DOHC four-cylinder engine, 143.5bhp @ 10,500rpm and 104Nm @ 8,250rpm.
“[The CB1000R] is no different to what custom builders were doing when they transplanted modern forks onto their old CB750s,” says Baldwin. “The result is a sincerer motorcycle that embraces what it is, rather than attempting to disguise it.”
Times have changed, rock ’n’ roll has changed, but thanks to Honda’s new lineup, café racing lives on.