CafeBiker.com - a café racer website

rise of the Cafe Racer

Just how did the cafes of England's highways and biways become the centers of a whole motorcycle subculture? Why did these quiet little diners and resturants go from serving a lite snack to motorists to be the gathering place of Rockers and their girlfriends. Where did the name Caferacer come from? And just what is a Rocker. To answer all this, two seperate things must be explained, the British road system(for those who've never been to England) and the rise of youth culture.

Before Cafe Racers

First you have to look back to the years following WWI. England had come through the war and things were returning to normal. By now the motorways of England were more trafficed with automobiles and motorcycles. No longer were "horseless carriages" or "motorized bicycles" thought of as novelties or fads. They had taken their place amongst the populace as essential additions to the workforce and recreation in general. With this rise in traffic came the creation of a new road system in England. The quaint, old turnpikes and coach roads of yesteryear simply were not able to handle the increase in motorcars and motorcycles on the nation's roads. They were upgraded and augmented by new roads such as the Cambridge and Southend arterial roads, North Circular Road and South Circular road leading out from the center of metropolitan London.

With the nation's industries back to normal, the business of road-haulage and transportaion grew rapidly on the new motorways. Still no where near the modern highways of today, the new roads allowed for the easy shipment of goods from one part of the country to another. And with this new industry, came the many cafe's, petrol stations, and roadside stops that a weary trucker or motorist might want to visit and rest for a while. Nearly overnight a whole new industry sprung up around the motorways, and catering soley to its travellers.

The new motorways had men hauling goods on the "A" roads out and across England to towns like (Manchester, and Birmingham in the North). Now remember, even though these roads were called motorways, they were hardly up to the standard of today's highways, in England or the United States. They were still small and tight. Some were nothing more than the old dirtroads or tracks paved over and fitted with signs. Sharp turns, narrow lanes, and the occasional farmer's herd making a unannounced crossing, all made traffic along these routes slow going at best. Not only that, but the vehicles themselves were rather primitive compared to today's modern hauling vehicles. Some small lorries(trucks) reached speeds no greater than 30mph. So it was common for these haulers to stop every so often along the way. There were usually pullovers every couple of miles along these routes. Often times the pullover were junctions into the smaller villages and towns along the way. At each of these pullovers a cafe would often be found.

For years these cafe's and resturants were only open during the daylight working hours. They catered to and served the weary travellers of the roads with a warm meal and hot cup of tea. Some of the cafe owners, especially the ones that lived on or near the premises, would leave the door open an hour or two later in order to catch a few more customers, but they were by no means social centers or gathering places. They were simple reststops along the new highway system of England.

The second essential factor to this rise of the Caferacer and Rocker was the rise of youth culture, although before WWII, this is a very loose definition. By the early thirties, England had come out of the great depression and young men who were now back at work. With decent jobs, they found themselves with some extra money. Add to this, the sufficient supply of affordable old motorcycles about, and the the result is obvious. Soon scores of young men were taking to the roads. Some to enjoy a nice Sunday afternoon in the country with their sweetheart, others out for a joyride on their new single. Believe it or not, the rockers and the mods weren't the first to drive their bikes or scooters down to Brighton to show off. During the 20's and 30's, "Promenade percys", a title given the young men who swarmed English seaside resorts, would ride up and down the promenade on their motorcycles, showing off.

As England was retooling after the war, literally dozens of different companies offered a wide variety of parts and bikes. Racing had again became a popular pastime and with it came the enthusiasts. Not content with having a standard bike they would often replace stock parts with more elaborate ones they may have seen at Brooklands and other racing events of the time, or they would build a homemade "Special" out of parts from the many bike manufacturing companies that were around.

This all came to an abrupt halt though and at the end of the thirties, these same young men would have to shed their leather jackets for Army uniforms as England once again found itself at war with Germany. During WWII the English government took control over the bike industry for the war effort. With the end of bike production, so came the slow decline of racing and motor cycle enthusiasts. When the war came to an end, it was still seven or eight years before the English could throw away the ration books and resume life as normal, but when it did things would never be the same....

Several things happened at the early part of the fifties that all combined to bring about the rebirth of the cafe racer scene. Again, young men all over the country returned to work and soon found themselves with a bit of spare cash. The English bike industry was at an all time high producing such bikes as the featherbed framed Norton Dominator, the BSA Gold Star, the Triumph Tiger 110, and the Velocette Venom. Not only could you see these great bikes at the many races scattered up and down the country, you could also buy them down at the local dealer! And if you couldn't afford the exact model you wanted, well just throw off those tanks and mudguards and replace and restyled them with all the equipment you had just seen at The Isle of Man TT or Silverstone. With the War ended, young men and motorcycles found themselves together again.

Probably the most important factor in what shaped the Caferacer or Rocker culture was the 50's explosion of what is normally called Youth Culture and its new 'anti-heros'. The sounds of Eddie Cochran, Elvis Presley, and Gene Vincent was heard on the radio. Rock-n-roll had become society's new menace. Marlon Brando and other rebels graced the silver screen in their leather jackets. All of this soon made the motorcycle and its inherent lifestyle the epitome of 'cool' and, understandably, sales soared. Soon such items as clipons, glass fiber tanks, rearsets, and swept back exhaust pipes became standard equipment for any rider and, for the suppliers of the equipment, big business.

Even with the explosion of Youth culture, there wasn't any real places for them to gather or call their own. But when this new breed of bike riders took to the streets and roads, the rediscovery of the Cafe's was inevitable. Soon certain cafe's up and down the North and South Circular road would stay open later and later to accomadate the motorcyclists and their girlfriends. They became the social centers of this new culture. Groups would frequent a local cafe making it theirs. Often times they would race each other from cafe to cafe at speeds of over one hundred miles an hour (hence the term 'ton up'). This, the late nights, and the ominous leather jackets look earned them a bad reputation in the British Press, the police, and even ,funny enough, the British bike industry and from it all a new youth culture was born: The Rocker.