‘Dixon of Dock Green’ wasn’t exactly ‘The Wire’. But, back in the fifties, a big percentage of Britain’s population would tune in each week to see wrongs righted and bad ‘uns brought to justice. One episode concerned itself with the menace of tearaway teens taking to the newly-built bypasses on powerful motorcycles and treating them like their own private racetrack. These delinquent youths – clad in the rebel uniform of blue jeans, boots and black leather jacket – would gather at transport cafes where the neon lights never went out and a truck driver headed north could fill his fuel tank and his belly – and perhaps satisfy less salubrious desires – any hour of the day or night. As well as a relaxed attitude towards the age and attire of their clientele and their geographic location – most often out-of-town at the end of invitingly fast and open arterial roads – one other fixture made the 24 transport caffs the spiritual home of the café racers. The jukebox in the corner blaring non-stop raucous rock n roll. And it was the jukebox that formed an essential part of the plot for this pot-boiler. Someone would stick a sixpence in the slot and the second the hiss of needle on vinyl came out the speaker boots would scuffle on linoleum in a mad scramble for the door. The bikes would be quickly kicked into life and roar off into the night headed for a prearranged turning point – a market square statue, a bridge, a boozer – then it was the speed thrill of a flat-to-the-tank, hell-for-leather tilt to get back to the caff before the music died .
The programme illustrated – with perhaps more melodrama than was necessary – the inevitable consequences of such reckless bravado acted out within the confines of the Queen’s Highway. Broken bones, mangled motorcycles, a young life snuffed out too soon and a heart-felt homily from the silver-haired Sergeant on the foolhardiness of youth. The thing about record racing was that no-one could actually remember it actually happening before that broadcast. Because of course it was an invention of the scriptwriters.
There may have been no account of it before but there was certainly plenty of it afterwards. Life imitated art and the consequences were, quite often, death. ‘Suicide Club!’ screamed ‘The Daily Mirror’ on its front page and accompanied it with a fantastic photograph of one of these ‘Coffee Bar Cowboys’. He’s cornering hard on a big, British twin-cylinder motorcycle, urging it on to 100mph – the mythical ‘ton’ – and looking very cool indeed in a road racer’s crash helmet, skin-tight black leathers and a white silk scarf fluttering like a pirate flag in his wake.
The fastest and best-looking bikes had always been British bikes. Methanol-burning Matchless V-twin racers had thrilled and terrified Edwardian audiences. Between the wars and for a decade after the second great conflict the peerless Brough Superior and then the invincible Vincent had ruled the roads. But these were thoroughbred motorcycles intended for adventurous chaps of independent means. An ordinary working man might as well have aspired to an invite for cocktails at the Savoy with Noel Coward. Anyway it wasn’t just that the purchase price was beyond the means of those who had to actually work for a living. There was also the small matter of coming up with the full amount upon delivery. Hire Purchase had been around since before the war but it was Harold Macmillan’s Tory govt. that really encouraged it in the late fifties. ‘You never had it so good’ said Macmillan. The truth for most ordinary working people was that they’d never had it all. Never mind so good. Britain embraced ‘Buy Now Pay Later’ with gusto. Now Dad could have the Ford Anglia he’d lusted after (yes, people really did lust after Ford Anglias) Mum could trade her Eubank for a Hoover. And, if he was in work and could persuade his parents to sign the papers, then perhaps their teenage son could get himself a Triumph Bonneville or a BSA Gold Star. Both had been designed to separate cash-rich North American buyers from their lovely dollars. So lashings of chrome plating, two-tone paintwork and hand-painted pinstripes replaced the staid livery that most British-built motorcycles had been previously offered in. But that wasn’t enough for the Café Racers. They modified their machines so that they would take on the long-and-low look the race bikes they saw parked up still steaming in the paddock after a thrash around Brands Hatch.
Race bikes were built with a single purpose - speed. Riders were laid out along the bike to spread their weight and present as a low a profile as possible in order to cut through the on-rushing air. To achieve this racing stance foot pegs were shifted right back along the bike and the handlebars were either lowered or dispensed with altogether in favour of light-weight ‘clip-ons’ that attached directly to the front forks. A tiny fairing might be fitted for the rider to tuck in behind on what accounted for a straight on traditionally twisty circuits. Anything designed with comfort or weather protection in mind was either got rid of or cut back to a bare minimum. Essential items like frames or foot pegs were drilled full of holes to reduce weight (It also looked good) and big comfy saddles were replaced by Spartan racing perches which had the added advantage of enforcing intimacy with any female brave enough to ask for a lift home from the caff. Light-weight alloys replaced heavyweight steel where possible. Although a long-range endurance racing fuel tank would often actually weigh quite a bit more than the item fitted at the factory but – with a its quick realese strap fixing and pop- off fuel cap – it didn’t ‘arf look fast. Before the war German race car engineers had scraped the paint from their cars to reduce weight. Or so the story went. Shame it’s not true. But keen to incorporate any performance-enhancing modification in their machines café racers stripped away the paint and polished parts to within an inch of their existence... It may not have made their bikes go faster. But….yes, that’s right, you’ve got it, it made them look faster.
The ultimate Café Racer was the Triton. It was a hybrid, but not in the modern sense. Those who built and owned Tritons were more interested in ruling the road than saving the planet. So they took the rather underpowered and unreliable engines out of Norton motorcycles – famed for their road holding and handling courtesy of a highly-rigid chassis nicknamed ‘The Featherbed’ for reasons that have never really made much sense – and inserted the twin-cylinder and twin carburettor motor from a Triumph Bonneville. Norton’s had a habit of reducing their original engine to scrap metal. Best not to ask where so many Triumphs willing to donate their engines came from.
The idea that Rockers were scruffy and didn’t care about how they looked is quite ridiculous and has of course been put about by the Mods who infest the media. Yes, you Gary Crowley, Tim Lovejoy, Dave Berry (it’s a very ‘Mod’ profession ‘The Media’ there’s no heavy lifting and you’re allowed to wear a powder blue cardigan without being ridiculed by your co-workers) Anyone who ever owned a copy of Johnny Stuarts ‘Rockers!’ - Which boasted on the cover that it was the most shop-lifted book in London – could see for themselves. ‘The Look’ was Ashman Gold Top racing boots with white fisherman’s socks tucked in over the top, leather trousers and a black leather jacket - the best quality and also the best looking had the distinctive red satin quilted lining synonymous with Lewis Leathers of London. A white silk scarf has always looked rakish. And, if you could afford it, you’d top it off with a crash helmet and goggles. And when I say crash helmet I don’t mean the ridiculous ‘Corkers’ worn by scooter-types. Proper ‘Jet’ style helmets as worn by the six-time world champion Geoff Duke. The truth was that Ton up Boys and Café Racers cared about the way they looked as much as any mod. Well, maybe not as much. But then they looked better anyway.
No modern bike will ever look as good as the Café Racers of the late fifties and early sixties for the same reason that no modern train will ever look as good as Mallard, no plane will ever look as good as Concorde and no car will ever look as good as a ‘55 Mercedes SL, a‘61 E-Type or a ’67 Mustang. The difference between everything else I’ve mentioned there is that almost all of us could aspire to a Café Racer. There are modern motorcycles – from the likes of Ducati, Triumph and Moto Guzzi – trying to pass themselves off as café racers. But why not go for the genuine article instead? A Gold Star or Bonneville can be had for five grand and I just say an immaculate Triton sell at auction for eight thousand including commission. Go on, you’ve got the leather jacket- now get the bike to go with it.
Ex Top Gear head Steve Berry is working on a feature length documentary on all things Caff culture www.tonupthefilm.com
Look out for Horst Friedrich's forthcoming book ''Or Glory: 21st Century Rockers' Published by Prestel Publishing