There was a time when cafe racers were more than paint, jacket and internet shoes. Motorcycles were modified in order to work properly. Shocks were swapped for shocks that damped the spring action. Forks were worked, holes were drilled, springs and fluids were experimented with and rejected until something worked better. Brakes were fiddled. Mysteries were solved. Suspensions were crude devices back in the day. But then so were our tires. At least we didn’t have a lot of horsepower to make all that clearer.
We wore jeans not because they were cool, though they were, but because a pair of shrink to fit button-fly 501’s cost $4.50. And wore like iron. Abrasion tests be damned.
Horsehide roper work gloves seemed to work as well. And we had access to these from our garden sheds or garages. Our helmets were open faced because that was what there was. They kept our ears warm and relatively dry.
Some of us lived through the crazy rides, the canyons, winter sand in the corners and sports cars in our lane. Some of us didn’t.
We remember how bad a K1 Honda handled. And how much that CB450 vibrated at highway speeds. Buzzed really. Norton’s vibrated Hondas buzzed.
We remember that the absolute state of the art at the time was something quite different from the bikes popular with the hipster boobs today.
Those of us old enough to remember all that don’t think of some rusty old skinny tired sack of wobbling crap when the snow thaws and the sun actually warms our souls as we sit at coffee poking away at our smartphones.
We dream of Ducati, MV Agusta.
We dream the dreams we dreamed when we were young but the bikes are the bikes of now.
Those are the dreams of old motorcyclists in the Spring.
Now, when we are out in the world and one of those old nails trundle past; we are thrust back through the years to our youth. Some of us pull out our smart phones at the coffee shop and wander across the net in casual search of one of those example bikes from our fading memory. A few of us pull up an old scanned photo of our own period example from back in the day. A lucky few of us merely glance out to the parking lot where our own time machine sits quietly ticking as those big air cooled fins cool along with our coffee.
My take has always been low bars rather than clip-ons. Stock pegs over rearsets. These choices were refined as I rode and used my motorcycles. I was influenced by magazines of course. Cycle Magazine had a project they called “The Gentlemen’s Express” where they cafe’d a CB550 Honda. In 1975 Gordon Jennings and crew took to creating a comfortable sporting motorcycle based on the CB550.
At the time I was a machinist working in the aerospace industry so had both time and money to consider such things as possible. I had a bike too.
My 1974 Norton 850 Interstate MKIV came equipped with european low bars as we called them, a nice comfy all day saddle and a huge 7.2 gallon hand pinstriped tank.
This configuration would change based on season. Winter requiring more protection from freezing winds than summer, and summer long haul travel benefiting from that winter protection as well.
There was a bit of a turn to the big touring bike travel here for a while. A pile of miles and Southern California canyons beconned so the cafe racer returned.
The big fairing and bags gave way to shorter motorcycle travel with tankbag and duffle. Less 2-up capable but still fun.
The little R65S lasted a few months, but only 6,000 miles before we moved on. It was sold and I was off and hunting down an acceptable BMW R100RS, having now transitioned into sports touring mode along with the times.
I found an RS that had begun life as a Phoenix Gold RT. European red RS uppers and fender had been added. The mudflaps just ticked my anglophile box nicely. And they worked. That RS is one of my all time favorite bikes. It simply worked so well as a sport and touring mount.
The RS was sold to make room for our first daughter and a station wagon, soon to become a minivan to haul baby and kid stuff around the country. My bikelessness lasted almost ten months when I spied a 1979 CB650 for sale far too cheaply with 180 miles on the clock.
Yes, I bought it. A winter purchase in Denver that required I ride across Denver in about six inches to a foot of snow on the side streets. I was working as a BMW motorcycle mechanic and the parts manager Vern followed me trying the whole way to let me know I’d left the side stand down.
Nobody died, I didn’t fall and bike and rider made it safely not only back to the shop, but on to my home later that evening.
Now, I had the basis for my own “Gentlemen’s Express” project. I Was focused more on function, economy, comfort and handling than I was on racer performance.
The first thing I did was pull the carburetors out and unplugged the idle mixture screws so I could fiddle them. Then I mechanically synchronised the linkage on the bench, (actually the kitchen counter since it was winter in Denver.). Once back on the bike I did a final sync with mercury sticks and fiddled the idle mixture screws so the throttle response was nice and smooth. A new set of plug wires and caps may or may not of helped anything. But, the old wires were stiff with age from sitting so, new it was. I had to replace the battery since it was both winter and that bike had sat for far too long with that old school battery never having been truly serviced or maintained.
Next up the sixteen tooth countershaft sprocket was swapped for one tooth larger. Now I could get 65 mpg on the freeway. I would at times hit more than 70 mpg. These were the years of the 55 mph speed limit and that was a source of revenue around the state as far as any of us motorheads could tell.
Then came a pair of S&W shocks, and reworking of the forks. I added some Honda OEM air caps along with stiffer springs. I changed the fork oil to 5wt and increased the volume. This resulted in a very well behaved suspension for the power and grip I had.
Then came R90S bend bars, but in the diameter to fit the Honda. I changed mirrors to larger rectangular black plastic mirrors that were rock steady at 75 mph in the wind. The rubber brake lines were swapped out for stainless steel overbraided lines with nicer pads to get more linear bite when braking. The last change to the bikes running gear were a pair of Continental tires. Better wear and grip than the OEM Bridgestones. I still don’t like Bridgestone tires.
Then came travel and comfort accommodations along with some safety bits. First I added a pair of BMW hard bags with the rondels replaced with reflectors and mounted to Krauser modular racks. My trusty old Eclipse tank bag mounted up nicely. I could swap the tiny R80S/T fairing I’d salvaged from a wreck for the large plexiglass fairing when temperatures dictated.
The little bikini fairing I salvaged had ground along the pavement at one upper corner. I body putty filled the scars, sanded, then wet sanded, then rattle can painted it in my garage using a makeshift paint booth constructed of plastic drop cloths, heated with an electric oil radiator and lit with two four foot shop lights. I wet down the insides of the booth to raise the humidity, warmed the paint can in the kitchen sink and painted first a primer then a few layers of black. I baked this in the oven, then hung it up to outgas in the garage for a few days, then once it was good and hard, a final wet sand, spray and bake.
Then I polished and waxed and mounted it up. I’d constructed brackets from 5052 aluminum I bought from the metal salvage yard down the street from the shop.
That was a fun little bike and nothing on it ever failed in the few miles I rode it between the pre-owned shop bikes and putting miles on demonstrators. I managed a bit more than 30,000 miles before I sold the bike.
In winter trim the bike was a very capable traveler. My commute was only twelve miles or 30 into Denver proper when I went to class so I never really needed any heated grips. I had added an accessory BMW power outlet to plug my electric vest and chaps into.
The little Honda was sold after it sat for the better part of a year at back of the shop as I was too busy with shop bikes to ride my own. I’d also gotten the bug to build another project.
This project began as two motorcycles. Eventually added a third.
We had built three bikes based on the 1985 chassis as hotrods for customers after the “shop race bike.” Mine began life as two motorcycles from salvage. The chassis came from a 1985 R80RT. The motor and transmission from a 1982 R100. Of course we added some bits.
The motor got a pair of factory high compression pistons. Eventually high flow valves and light springs and keepers. Stock R100 cam. I wanted to keep the torque down in the middle. The chassis first got a Performance shock which became a Fox custom. The front brakes became Braking full floating iron with an R100G/S master cylinder and twin stainless steel over braid lines. The cylinder heads got twin sparks. The final drive was changed from the 3.36 to 3.0 to better deal with the higher freeway speeds in Southern California.
Yep, we moved from Colorado to Orange County California. Mecca for a motorcycle motorhead. the valve covers came off an R90/6. Polished by a friend. /6 valve covers offer more lean angle than /7. That mattered at the track.
The OEM cans got swapped out for Luftmeister. The big bubble fly screen was traded out for stock. The stock saddle became a custom Sargent. Ride to the track. Ride the trackday, then ride home. A hundred thousand miles and it was over. Off to the next adventure. For a brief moment the next project was resurrecting an old 1983 Kawasaki GPz550. It was fun and frustrating and finally sold.
The little Kawasaki was a beast. Never loved by any previous owner. Only abused. I acquired it for free, but spent a good couple tons of cash on parts and several hours beating it back into safe shape. Overbraid brake lines, new chassis bearings, rebuilt forks, carburetors, all new control cables, mirrors, turn signals and deep cleaning. In the end I had a bike that looked OK, but burned oil a bit more than it should. Once that was discovered, I decided to cut my losses and sold it. The custom suspension was not enough to tame the noodle of a chassis.
But, it looked pretty good when it was done.
And that was the end of the cafe’ racers. The next bike was a superbike racer replica, then I made the jump to adventure bikes. I look back at cafe’ bikes while I sip my coffee in the shade and I think of these bikes one after another. I consider what I would build today based on what is around today. I think of the Triumph Thruxton. Maybe. We’ll see what the future brings. Now, i have another project to finish.