zaterdag 10 augustus 2013

Birth of the Caferacer


The café-racer is a typical English invention. Just after the Second World War two motorbikes appeared on the scene, which were of crucial importance for the development of the café-racer. To phrase it differently: without these two motorbikes there would probably never have been any café-racers at all.
In 1937 on the Earles Court motorcycle show a new model was introduced: the Triumph Speed Twin. The novelty of this machine was the vertical twin cylinder engine with overhead valves. Remember that this was the period in which most machines were equipped with single cylinder engines or side valve V twins. The Speed Twin was only slightly heavier or wider than a single, but was much smoother and had more power.

In that same year BSA achieved a sound victory on the circuit of Brooklands. Then a speed oval where many record breaking attempts were held. Wal Handley managed to lap at an average speed of over 100 miles per hour, he even managed a top speed of 107,5 miles per hour. On a bumpy surface, riding a bike with no rear suspension, narrow tires and a Webb girder fork this was quite a performance. This exploit won him the much-coveted "gold star", a small dark blue pin in the form of a star with the number 100 in red in the centre.
When BSA marketed a new sports model the following year it was naturally called Gold Star.

After the second world war nearly all British bike manufacturers followed the example set by Triumph and offered vertical twin cylinder engines.
In 1947 the first Clubman’s races were held on the Isle of Man. These races were open to production models that had to be equipped with lights and a kick-starter. Real racing bikes, as the Norton Manx and the Velocette KTT were thus not allowed to enter. Two years later the first Gold Stars appeared and this resulted in a first place for BSA. Till the last Clubman’s TT in 1956 the Gold Stars ruled the 350cc class and during this last race there were only two non-BSA riders.
In the 500 cc class the BSA's found more opposition against the Triumph twins and the Norton Internationals but in the last three years the BSA’s were also invincible in the senior class.

These and the many other race successes had great influence on mainly the younger motorcyclists. In England, riding a motorbike has always been much more popular than in the Netherlands and nearly every youngster in the fifties saved hard in order to be able to own a ‘bike. The choice was rather limited, though. Harley's and BMW's were much too expensive, the Italians only built lightweight single cylinder machines and the Japanese motorcycle industry did not yet exist. So it was obvious that everybody bought an English twin or single. Of course your bike had to be faster than the ones of your friends and it should also resemble the machine of your own racing hero. To "crack the ton" was everybody’s goal: to exceed 100 miles per hour. Thereto the engines were tuned and the bikes were converted to street racers. A café-racer had to look fast, dangerous and mean. Tons of metal in the form of petrol tanks, mudguards, tool carriers and other excessive weight were carried of to the scrap yard and were replaced by parts made from polyester or aluminium, which were intended to give the bike a “racy” look and to save weight. Clip-ons, rear mounted footrests, appropriate brake- and gear change levers, sporty exhaust pipes all became enormously popular and a large number of specialised firms arose to fabricate and supply these parts.

A fast engine is one thing but good road holding is at least as important.
When Triumph brought out the Tiger 110 in 1953 it was supposed to be a machine that was capable of 110 miles per hour as top speed. But the frame was of the single tube type and the handling of the T110 was often considered to be “as wet newspapers”.

Good handling bikes listened to the name Norton. In 1949 Rex McCandless developed the famous featherbed frame for the Norton Manx racers and in the '50-ies nearly all road going bikes of Norton were equipped with this frame. So the Nortons steering was impeccable but they were not very fast and not really a match for the Triumphs and the BSA twins. The solution was obvious: fit the fastest engine in the best frame and you are king. That is how the Triton came into being: a TRIumph engine in a norTON frame. Other so-called bitza’s were also built such as the Tribsa (a Triumph-engine in a BSA-frame), the Norbsa (a BSA engine in a Norton frame), the Norvin (a Vincent engine in a Norton frame) and many other combinations.

In the sixties the café-racer cult reached it’s peak. As successor to the Tiger Triumph introduced the Bonneville (with type-number T120) as the new top model, Dave Degens was building Tritons to order, Paul Dunstall was tuning Nortons and producing special exhaust pipes, tanks and all sorts of other “goodies”, Colin Seeley was making race- en street-specials using the fast AJS en Matchless single cylinder engines and the brothers Rickman were producing beautiful frames for Triumph, Norton en Matchless-engines. The special feature of these frames was that the tubes were actually used as the oil reservoir for the engine.

However, in 1969 a new era arrived which suddenly reduced all café-racers to the level of the push bicycle. In the beginning of that year BSA and Triumph presented their three-cylinders Rocket and Trident models that were built for cruising at 100 miles per hour. But the big blow fell when Honda came with the four cylinder CB750.
A new norm was set and "to crack the ton” had become a piece of cake. A few years later Kawasaki presented the superlative Z1. The British twin had become a dinosaur.