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Highway stars

These bikes are fast, crude, DIY-styled and often beautiful. It's no wonder they're getting huge.

MT photos: Doug Coombe
Takin' it to the street: Ypsi’s Café Racer crew meets Detroit's Curly Lumpkins.
Redford's Marcel Nestor on his custom Café Racer.
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WDET interviews Travis R. Wright about this story (MP3)
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Published 7/29/2009

Bikers. To some that's still a dirty word. Do you picture a grizzled, unrepentant badass in black on his ferocious Harley, some sort of sleazy-rider Peter Fonda, one etched in prison tats and concealing bathtub meth in his gas tank instead of weed? Do you hear the subsonic growl of his hog? 

Or maybe you're thinking of the cocky crotch-rocketeer on his maddening mosquito machine, cutting lines through freeway traffic at 100 mph. They have a name for these guys in the emergency room: organ donors. And it's not so hard to imagine the frosted-tip Ed Hardy crew at some suburban Main Street bike night, posing next to fiberglass speed machines when they should be riding them. The colors and patterns of their jackets match their bikes. These guys try too hard, like those lawyerly weekend warriors on $25,000 chrome dreams. It's not about riding, it's about being seen

Do you see Prince in Purple Rain? Evel Knievel? TV's hefty Teutul clan of patriotic choppers? 

What about the so-called café racer — that low-profile vintage motorcycle rider who looks as if he just rode away from the Marquee Club circa '62? His motorcycle is minimal and slim-lined, unlike the mainstream Harleys and those angular sport bikes you're used to seeing on the road. More, he's wearing an open-faced helmet with a white scarf pulled over his nose and mouth. Flight goggles cover his eyes. He looks as likely to climb into a vintage prop plane as he is a motorcycle. In tight black Levis and a crop-neck leather jacket, he's "the Rocker," as opposed to the skinny-tie Vespa scooting "Mod."

You may have seen them motoring about on '60s and '70s Brit bikes or manning visually similar (yet more mechanically sound) Japanese counterparts. If not, you will. Since the early '60s, Americans have admired these bikes. That admiration has moved inwards from the big coastal cities. And Michigan, long motivated to buy solely American vehicles, even those on two wheels, is just coming around to the resurgence of café-style bikes. 

See, there's a revivalist movement of these bikes, both here, around the country and the world. It's becoming a trend. And it's popping up in the media: Last year saw the release Brittown, a movie that tracked the booming California café racer scene, as well as a compendium by Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Mike Seate titled Café Racer: The Motorcycle. Seate also edits Café Racer magazine and his documentary, Café Society, will be released this fall. There are myriad blogs and online zines — such as superbikeplanet.com and motorcycleusa.com — dedicated to detailing the rising café racer culture. 

Café biker meet-ups are swelling in number too. Milwaukee's Rocker Box fest began on a shoestring in 2003, with about 1,000 riders. Last year it drew more than 15,000 enthusiasts, and Seate says this year (on Aug. 8), it'll be closer to 20,000. Lexington, Ohio, hosts one of the largest and oldest meets in the country. The Vintage Motorcycle Days celebrated its 15th year last weekend, 70,000 strong, with many riders getting down café style.

In Michigan, hundreds of enthusiasts ride vintage British and Japanese bikes (with the odd Harley café bikes too). 

Many are organized: The Metro Triumph Riders number in the hundreds and well represent the Michigan English contingent yearly at the Battle of the Brits festival. (This year it's Sept. 13, on the campus of Orchard Lake St. Mary's schools). The less-organized Massachusetts-based Vintage Japanese Motorcycle Club has a polite Mitten presence with the Michigan CenterStands chapter. Both groups are mostly composed of nostalgic baby boomers who've kept Michigan's subcultural sect of bikers on life support for years, but new generations of two-wheel-crazed aesthetes are taking the handlebars … and accelerating. 

Add in the handful of café-racer "gangs" — such as Gilmore's Curly Lumpkins and the newly formed Sin-A-Munz — around crazy-for-vintage Detroit, and you have the genesis of an electrifying cultural movement. 

A trend that transcends both masculine and feminine borders; it's not just about riding motorcycles, it's also about returning to the garage; it's about personally reinvesting in mechanical know-how. 

Still, even if you have the right bike, finding those who can work on them is a different story. Dealerships that specialize in modern Japanese motorcycles don't know how to work on bikes more than 10 years old. So you're not going to find café racer mechanics in the yellow pages; instead, you'll find a guy like B.C. Gilmore wrenching away in their garages. 

At 31, Ferndale's B.C. Gilmore is a self-proclaimed café racer vet. He's been working on engines of all sorts since his early teens, and his devotion to '70s Japanese motorcycles borders the romantic. 

"When I was a kid, I'd have chapped lips every autumn from making motorcycle noises while I rode my bike," Gilmore says. "If you're trying to tell me something about these bikes, I'm not going to listen to you unless you're, like, 70 years old." 

He's one of the few trying to fill this mechanical void in a state where there are so few mechanics to handle the rising number of local enthusiasts with 1970s Japanese bikes. 

Gilmore works in his home garage while holding down a full-time bartending gig. He has to — for now. The mechanic says that if the trend in '60s and '70s café bikes continues to grow, he'll be slinging grease behind the counter of his own bike shop soon. 

If the hundreds of vintage café-style bikes we're seeing on the road (and on Craigslist and in Gilmore's garage) weren't enough of a sign that this is a real movement — akin to the renaissance of the Vespa in recent years — then the opening of a full-service shop and coffee house, aptly called Café Racer, in Ypsilanti's historic Depot Town, might be. 


Soldiers returning
home from World War II brought with them several newfound skills, such as proficient motorcycle riding and mechanical prowess. Young British and American men had been inundated by action, adrenaline and speed. For the returning fighter pilot, what thrill could compare? 

As they had done during the war, Americans once again turned to Harley-Davidson. In response to the German army's vast fleet of BMW motorcycles, they looked to Harley to manufacture heavy-duty cycles that could withstand warfare on diverse terrain. American soldiers were also exposed to the British Triumph motorcycle, which was slimmer and faster. They really dug those bikes. 

This rising tide of American bikers chopped all extraneous and sluggish parts off the bike, including the front fender, and they cut the rear fender in half to mimic the minimalism they liked on the European bikes. These bikers hit their garages armed with industrial saws and welding tools, and started to customize their bikes any way they could; individual expression was (and remains) a key element. This DIY spirit and inventiveness gave the bikes intrinsic value and character — gave the machines soul. 

Then they organized. 

Throw in a bounty of booze and a vigorous proclivity for rebellion, and the American biker gang was born. 

British soldiers returning to London were searching for ways to satisfy their speed needs, so they too began re-imagining their bikes, this time with an inventive hunger for quick travel. 

"From the very beginning, the idea for café racing was about pure speed," says Patrick Somers, 29, one of Café Racer's co-owners. "They got rid of everything that didn't need to be there to make the bike faster and handle better, which took away the comfort, but also made the bike look almost too cool." 

First, they'd ditch the big stock seat for a single, slimmer one, now referred to as a "café style" seat. Then they'd remove the chest-level handlebars and replace them with dropped bars (called clip-ons) that'd force the rider to lean into the bike aerodynamically. After that, they'd put on bigger and better carburetors and replace the exhaust system so that they were faster and louder. The list goes on. Basically, after the bike was fully customized, it was not only ready to race but completely distinctive, retrofitted to the owner's individual specifications. 

The original customizations in London saw bikers extracting the high-performance Triton engines from Triumph Bonnevilles and installing them in the lighter Norton Featherbed frames. These bikes became beautifully crafted demonic extensions for British bikers, who (at the time) were just as rowdy as their American bobber-chopper counterparts. Rock 'n' roll, tattoos and pinup vixens played right into both scenes, but where the American greasers had California's vast highways to cruise on (remember, the American West was still expanding then) and McCarthyism to rebel against, the Brits had narrow London streets (and the blunt ends of billy clubs) to consider. Many of these defiant bikers were kids from Manchester slums; many were "teddy boys" who refused to bow to English class status. Like the rockers, they were influential in birthing the spirit (and fashion) of punk. 

Both were a wild bunch and shared a sense of youth-fueled alienation, but the American propensity for whiskey-fueled mayhem was matched by the Brit's addiction to speed — as in miles per hour, not amphetamines. Thus, the café moniker. An original London café racer club (still operating in Sweden, Canada and eight American states) is the Ton-Up Club. Their headquarters, as well as that for any rocker, was the 24-hour Ace Café in London. Surely not a group who'd turn away a pint at the pub at the end of the day, these bikers were keen on speed and handling, which, unless they were hell-bent on death too, didn't (still doesn't) leave room for drunkenness. Instead, it was black tea or strong coffee. The "ton" in Ton Up, refers to getting the bike up to 100 mph during a race, and the tracks they raced on were England's highways (which had traffic lights waiting to be ignored) and the busy London streets. 

The jukebox played an integral role. In what became known as "record racing" — remember, this was when Eddie Cochran was all the rage and most songs were but two minutes long — a biker would drop his coin into the juke, jump on his bike and race to a predetermined point, hopeful to hit the 100 mph mark, and then try to make it back inside the café before their song was over. "The Ace Café is as authentic as is gets," says the retrograde roots-rocker Somers. "It's definitely the biggest influence on our shop; it's as important to give people who are into bikes a place to hang out as it is a place for them to come and get 'em fixed up." 


In 1953, Marlon Brando
starred alongside a leather jacket and a Triumph Thunderbird as Johnny Strabler in The Wild One, the first film about America's outlaw biker gangs. Two years later, James Dean, as the fiercely tragic Jim Stark, rode a Triumph Bonneville, and in 1963 Steve McQueen did same in The Great Escape. Other Brit bikes, such as Norton and BSA, garnered international attention, but in 1963 Triumph was the bike to beat and had been for a good decade. A year later, that all changed. In 1964, Elvis mounted a Honda Superhawk CB-77 in Roustabout. That same year, unknown writer Robert M. Pirsig would venture across the United States in 17 days with his teenage son sitting on the back his Honda CB-77. By the time his book — the now essential for all philosophers and gearheads alike — Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was published, Honda ruled the café racer world. It almost happened overnight. The Brits, Germans, Italians and Americans ate their dust in every way imaginable. Harley, BMW and Italian manufacturer Benelli featured stock café racers in their showrooms, complete with clip-on handles and race-ready fairings, but to no avail. What was the fun if all the work was done for you? Nobody could figure out a way to compete with the one-two punch of affordability and mechanic pragmatism that not only Honda but Yamaha and Kawasaki offered. 

Still one of the most sought-after bikes among '70s cycle lovers, café racers and motorcycle enthusiasts in general is the Honda CB750. That bike changed the game forever. Cycle World claimed it as a "masterpiece" and the experts at the Discovery Channel ranked it as the third greatest motorcycle of all time.

Forgive the shoptalk, but it was the first readily available consumer motorcycle to offer front disc brakes and a straight-four cylinder engine with an overhead camshaft, which made the CB750 a bike that balanced the power of a Harley-Davidson with the speed and maneuverability of a café racer. It was deemed the first "superbike." In the late '60s and early '70s, features like blinking turn signals and an electric start were considered innovative bells and whistles, but what really set the bike apart was that anyone with a basic mechanical understanding could work on it. It was a proletarian commuter vehicle, and had the price tag to match.

"Starting with the CB750 and going forward from there, Japanese bikes simply perform better than anything else," Gilmore says. "Function equals fashion every fucking time."

Gilmore explains that, when he can't immediately diagnose a problematic Honda, he'll just crack a beer, put on some punk rock, open her up and then take a minute to stand in amazement at the craftsmanship in front of him. "See, the thing with these old Hondas is that all the answers are right there in front of you," he says. "You just have to focus for a while to see what move the engineer wants the mechanic to make." When it comes to café racers, Brit bikes are still very cool, and some purists (a society within an already small civilization) will ride only them, but they're also very expensive, and it's harder and much more difficult to find parts for them. They have a reputation for requiring constant work — that is, if you know how to work on them. If not, there are guys out there who can and will … for a price. 

"The coolest thing about these Japanese bikes is the minimalism," Gilmore says. "These bikes are fun, cheap and interesting; they're the bikes you want to lean on and learn about." That sentiment is shared by the Café Racer guys, as well as Anthony Garth, a video director who co-founded Royal Oak's newly formed Sin-A-Munz café racer club. 

"If you're getting into it for the first time, I recommend people look at something old and Japanese, maybe 400 to 600 cubic centimeters (CCs) — that's the size of the engine," Garth says. "Why spend $25,000 to ride a bike you think is cool when you can spend $800 on a vintage Japanese bike, pimp it out for another $500, and own a bike you can be proud of because you had a part in its completely unique look and feel?" 

Search eBay and Craigslist and you'll find that $1,000 can get you a very cool, very capable 1970s Japanese café style-ready motorcycle, a minor investment as far as any vehicle comes. If, after you bought it, you decide that motorcycles aren't your bag, at least you're didn't take a machete to your bank account. And let's face it: It's not as big of a deal if you were to drop your 1972 Honda as it would be if you did a Triumph or BSA of the same year and condition; those bikes can run between $3,000 and $10,000. 

Asked for advice on a buyer's potential first motorcycle, Somers recommends Hondas and Yamahas from the 1970s, not only because of the killer gas mileage and easy-to-get parts, but because they can provide you with an education. 

"Just don't buy something that seems too good to be true," he says. "And don't get that super rare model that was made for just a year or two — chances are you won't be able to find parts for it, and it'll need a lot of work, and by work I mean money, to get it road-ready." 


Garth, Gilmore
and Somers all say that one reason they're drawn to café racers is because it's not just another bike. Besides, the people who ride them are looking for something more than just two wheels and a motor. 

"The café racer scene is not really laid out there for you," Gilmore says. "You have to dig a bit, you have to seek out the right people, you have to ask the right questions. Once you get into it, you're in it. After that, depending on how much time you're willing to put into it, riding can be your hobby or your lifestyle. For me, it's all I fucking think about."

Just about everyone interviewed for this story says they're a fan of almost any motorcycle, no matter what make or model or style, but that there's something about the older café-style bikes that speaks to them on a more visceral level. 

For Garth, it's the uniqueness of these bikes and the ways in which they blend with his character. "The bike becomes what you make of it," he says. "After 16 years with the same bike, it's part of who I am. I like indie films, indie music, non-corporate restaurants and motorcycles that don't look like they came off an assembly line. I like when things are made from passion and not production." 

Is it a stretch to suggest that the growing trend toward this kind of personal autonomy and on-the-road freedom might help explain the regional and national popularity with café racers? Especially coupled with a certain DIY spirit among environmentally friendly folks (many bikes can get between 40 and 60 miles per gallon) who really want to get their hands dirty? It's complicated.

"We're seeing a trend around Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor in that the local kids are turning to these motorcycles as an alternative to cars," says John Craddock, one of Café Racer's co-owners and chief mechanics. 

"Cost may be a motivator, but I think style is equally important to some of them." And Craddock says that the environmental movement goes hand-in-hand with what his shop and the movement is all about. 

"Embracing and growing the community is something we take seriously, so we're all about efficiently using and re-using what's around us. Let's be honest, there's so much new shit made everyday in this world that we really shouldn't have to make any more. We can self-sustain now." OK, that's a stretch — really, who's going to make clutch cables? But still, the idea is right-on. With these older bikes, most if not all of the parts are out there somewhere, and digging through a junkyard has to be more fulfilling than scouring the Internet.

Gilmore says he first noticed the popularity in café racers begin to swell in Michigan about the time the market crashed in the mid-'90s. That surge quelled, but as the economy plummeted in the last four years he's noticed a real rise. The popularity aligns with economic downturns.

"It's just started to get big around here," Gilmore says, "especially in Detroit, in the last two years, Right now, it's like everybody wants to get into it. That makes sense, it's maybe the most affordable way to go about motorcycling, and these bikes are undeniably fucking cool."

Travis R. Wright is arts and culture editor of Metro Times. Send comments to twright@metrotimes.com.

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