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Cashing In On The Cafe Racer, Vintage Bike Revival

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The Rockers who rode on the racy-looking machines sculpted after grand prix motorcycles gained the nickname “cafe racers” because they were often seen parked outside a coffee shop and were considered wannabe racers.

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The name was originally intended to be an insult but later turned out to be a proud moniker. A right of passage for members of this group was to run their bikes up to 100 mph in what was called “ton-up” racing.

Their famous clashes with the mods landed the rockers a bad reputation in some media outlets, yet many were actually members of Club 59, which was a youth organization run by a Catholic priest, and was essentially an outreach program for troubled youth on the east end of London.

That was then, but fast forward 50 years and you have the second coming of the cafe racer movement. Things are a little different from the original group of kids who ran around the east end of London on their Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs.

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Today, more often than not, the smaller displacement Japanese bikes have taken the subculture by storm. And it can hardly be considered a subculture when you have so many bike enthusiasts building cafe racers. Most of these machines today are parked in some garage or barn or backyard across America and destined to be chopped and customized into a revered art-form.

The Bikes

The British may have invented the cafe racer but they certainly don’t own it: the bikes that are built to this style cover anything and everything. To be sure, there are lots of British bikes such as Triumph Bonnevilles and Thruxtons. Then there are the Norton Commandos, which is a brand set to relaunch in the US – however companies such as Colorado Norton Works completely rebuild each Commando by hand. BSAs also have a measure of popularity, but not as much as the others, according to experts.

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Traditional cafe racer bikes range from those originally built in the mid- ’50s to the early ’80s. Most are less than 1,000 cc displacement but the engines can vary in configuration. There are V-Twins, inline-2s and 4s, and single cylinder thumpers. Most of the vintage engines are air-cooled, unlike the modern cafe bikes. And there is a movement to make modern bikes in the cafe racer mold.

Dana Johnson, owner of Import Machine Service in Framingham, MA, says that vintage bikes are more similar to the automotive market and can be just as lucrative for engine builders who work on them. While Import Machine Service mostly works on European imports (Johnson says today he does more air-cooled VWs than anything else), he says vintage bikes have been a healthy percentage of his business in the past.

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The vintage bike market can be pretty “automotive-friendly” as far as experience goes, according to Johnson. He says it’s an easier crossover into these bikes than into the modern Japanese brands, and the tooling requirements are not as demanding for vintage stuff as for the modern machines with very small valve stems and tolerances.

Kevin Butler, operations manager for Northern Ohio Ducati Triumph today has built one of the most unique cafe racers in the country. It’s a modern take on the vintage cafe racer theme, and it is just as acceptable to the purists as a vintage version. His bike is a Ducati Monster with many custom features including a full-tilt big-bore engine build with forged pistons and a knife edged crank (read more about his engine build in the Oct. 2011 issue).

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British Invasion

Noted British bike expert John Healy, owner of Coventry Spares in Middleboro, MA, agrees that the vintage bike market has exploded over the last couple of years. Part of this resurgence is due to the cafe racer market, but also a lot of bikes went on the market at more affordable prices during the economic downturn and the “haves” bought up the inventory of the “have nots.”

Healy, whose parts business caters to British bikes, says that there are more aftermarket parts for these bikes now than ever. “You could build a complete bike out of them if you wanted to,” he says.

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“There’s more parts available for these motorcycles now than when they were originally made,”  Healy explains. “Triumph, BSA, Norton and Vincent – they’re all big, but I can build a complete Vincent out of stock. There are three or four guys making crankcases for them. You see, the value of these is such that there’s enough interest in making parts for them. Take Triumph, for example: I can get all of the wear parts and most of the trim parts such as fenders and seats I need.”

While Triumph is the biggest brand in the vintage market, a leader as far as activity is probably Vincent, says Healy. “They only made 10,000 of them but there’s more parts being made for them than any of the other British bikes, most likely due to their value,” Healy says. “It’s just a cult thing, really. Guys that get into it actually ride them also. There’s a big annual rally out in Colorado that includes around 300 Vincents, and very few are trailer queens. Most all are ridden in some form or another.”

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While as a percentage of bikes made there’s a lot of activity with Vincent, Norton gets a lot of attention as well, and Triumph would be next, followed by BSA.

“The thing is with this business, the next month has been bigger than the previous and it keeps on growing. The vintage market right now is stupid,” says Healy. “There are a lot of young guys getting into the bikes making Bobbers and Cafe Racers out of them.”

Healy says that, overall, reports from his dealers indicate this is a solid business right now. “Let’s just say we have very few people whining about the economy. But there’s a reason for it. While they may have dumped a lot of money into the economy, the trouble is you have to look up to find it. If you look at the auctions you can see where a lot of the money is. A motorcycle sold recently at auction for over $1 million. It was Rollie Free’s bike that he set a land speed record at Bonneville with in 1948.”

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Healy says that Vincent Black Shadows are going for $80,000 to $120,000. A basket case Shadow is worth $30,000 – $40,000. He warns, however, that while there are more Vincents now than there were because you can build one out of stock, you can’t get the frames.

Land of The Rising Sun

When the Honda CB 750 was introduced in 1969, it was at that moment that Japanese bikes landed solidly on the map of being considered a performance bike. The CB 750, considered groundbreaking by many in the industry, was dubbed the first superbike. Honda made thousands of these motorcycles in SOHC configuration from 1969-1978, and today they are considered one of the prime donor bikes for a cafe racer’s project.

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Much like the ’32 Deuce Coupe did for the hot rod movement of the ’40s and ’50s, the CB 750 is plentiful and cheap for today’s crop of cafe bike builders. There are tons of aftermarket engine parts and performance goodies available from a variety of companies, and used parts are a dime a dozen on eBay.

Honda, with all of its early models, dominates the cafe racer market. CBs from 750 to 350s and even smaller are commonly built from a non-running heap in someone’s garage or backyard. While the younger generation may not be able to afford expensive cars or bikes, they can often shell out a few hundred to a thousand on a project bike.

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Several companies have sprung up to serve this burgeoning market from builders who do everything from soup to nuts, from the engine build to the paint scheme. Some also design their own components such as seats or handlebars and exhausts.

Kevin Flasco and Chris Weitzel-Janca, owners of Rubber City Vintage Cycle, say that the parts end of the cafe market is very busy, too. The owners recently left their full-time jobs to run their eBay store full-time. And over the short year and a half that they’ve been open, they’ve continued to grow at a steady pace. They’ve added staff and thousands of parts to their online store at stores.ebay.com/Rubber-City-Vintage-Cycle.

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Kevin and Chris have bought up hundreds of old bikes from anywhere they can get them in hopes of turning one man’s trash into two other men’s treasure. And treasure it is for customers who need an engine core or hard to find part from an old Japanese bike. Though they do have a few British bikes the entrepreneurs stock mostly old Japanese parts that they clean up to sell.

The two owners started fixing up bikes on their own 20 years ago and from there they started selling odd bits from Chris’ basement until the recession hit. Then things got more serious as the cafe racer scene started picking up. They say they get calls and emails every day from customers building a new cafe racer project who need parts that they can’t find anywhere else.

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While they do some restorations of their bikes, especially the more salvageable or more collectible ones, most bikes are destined to be parted out and shipped off to project bike builders.

A couple of the bikes that they rolled out were on the list to be restored. One of their most prized bikes according to the two co-owners was a 1970 early edition CB750. The bike was pretty rare and in good enough shape to be rebuilt. It featured a little different exhaust as well as some other unique components.

For engine builders who are looking for new opportunities and like the motorcycle market, Coventry Spares’ John Healy says you need to have a foot in the old world as well as today’s world with the machining equipment and understanding of the vintage techniques for building these engines.

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Healy says about building vintage motorcycle engines: “I live in a two-thousandths world, while most engine builders today live in a two ten-thousandths world…and many of the things in the modern world just won’t work with vintage engines. If an engine builder has experience with old flat heads and engines from the ’70s and so forth, they understand stuff like the fact that a thousandths taper in the bore wasn’t something you wanted but wouldn’t cause the engine light to come on. If engine builders are used to this, then usually they have no trouble adapting to the older vintage bike engines. If their whole experience has been working on vehicles with a ‘check engine light,’ it means they are used to working in tolerances that are unheard of on these old bikes.”

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Healy cautions builders not to use too fine a grit stone when honing a cylinder on a vintage bike because if you use the stock cast rings, the engine will smoke and miss because the rings won’t seat properly. He says you need a coarser stone on the cylinder walls that will work together with the old cast piston rings to create a plateau finish to seat the rings. Modern equipment allows machine shops to do many things including creating ultra fine finishes, but with vintage components and materials, these finishes are not as necessary.

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