I’m riding a Thunderbolt with my sights on a barking mad Triumph. My chin’s on the tank, the smell of octane’s in my nose and I think that’s oil burning my leg. But I can’t look down. There’s a tight bend ahead, and then there’s the cliff. There’s no doubt that riding a motorcycle makes you feel like a kid: I want my mommy.
I’m trying to get a grip on the Café Racer scene in South Africa by riding with some of the latest protagonists.“Café Racer” was a name given to a style of motorcycle in 60’s Britain. Their riders were chiefly members of the “Rocker” subculture, British toughs who listened to American Rock and Roll and styled themselves on Brando and Dean sporting engineer boots, leather jackets and jeans. In salute to WWI fighter pilots they wore white scarves that caught the wind as they raced their bikes between all night cafés. Powerful British Triumph and BSA motorcycles were popular but a standard bike wasn’t enough. Often using their dads tools, they’d customise their bikes for speed. Hard, hump back racing seats replaced padded factory offerings, handlebars were lowered or clipped directly onto the forks and footpegs were set back so the riders hugged the bikes like racers. Reaching “The Ton” (100mph) was the thing and when they weren’t burning up the tarmac they’d hang out in cafés, and that’s where they ran into their antithesis, the “Mods”.
Mods listened to Jamaican Ska and British Beat and rebelled against the dreariness of England by wearing tailored suits, smoking French fags and riding Italian scooters in imitation of the sexy Europeans. Lambrettas and Vespas carried them to cafés where they often clashed with Rockers who they thought of as old fashioned grunts. A cigarette flicked in the wrong direction brought on bike chains and coshes. Then The Beatles changed their tune and peace and love prevailed.But Rocker spirit lives on today as more and more men customise old bikes to emulate Café Racers. Many are Baby Boomers revisiting their youth but Mod spirit is filtering in as Generation X gets in on the act. Here in South Africa, workshops are opening in the hip hubs of Jo’burg and Cape Town where young men customise classic and modern bikes to emulate those of their dad’s era.
“Café Racers are good levelers,” says Joburger, Andries Bekker, 32, of Charlie Kompany workshop. “You get guys from banking interested in them as well as artists.” Andy Stead is an old faithful who caught 60‘s racing fever in then-Rhodesia as a boy. “It was less about fashion and more about the bike for me,” he says, handing me a pic of a BSA Road Rocket with a dubiously attired young Stead aboard. “I bought my first bike for 25 Pounds, a Norton Model 18. When I took it home my Dad made me take it straight back. I was 14 at the time.”Now the garage at his Joburg home houses an eclectic mix of classic bikes in various stages of customisation. One that doesn’t need any work is an original BSA Goldstar DBD 34, a legend among 60‘s Café Racers. “It just oozes sex appeal. There really is nothing like it. When I take it out for a run I feel like a million bucks,” he says. “I’m in my 60’s and I’m still okay to ride. If I want to re-live my youth then building Café Racers is the thing to do using whatever parts I can find to make them look, sound and go like the bikes I used to scratch around on in my teens. You only live once and what’s the use if you don’t feel alive. I’d say there’s a period, before all us Baby Boomers peg off, when Café Racers are going to rule the road again.”“A Café Racer to me is more an ideal,” says 30 something Rob Nicholls, of Fury Custom Bikes in Woodstock, Cape Town. “It was born of a need to create racing bikes built by people in their garage. It’s evolved into a subculture of people who want something original. In this era of mass production, buying something doesn’t carry the same emotion as building something.” A few years ago, Nicholls customised his Honda. When friends asked where they could get one he saw the business potential. Among the bikes in his workshop is an 80′s BMW R100, stripped down to the bare essentials. Cape Town is ripe for the Café Racer cult. Vespas are common but Café Racers are steadily taking their place as the pose potential outside cafés is exploited and the roads’ curves are explored. Screaming along Chapman’s Peak with four shots of espresso can be a life changing experience. Los Muertos Motorcycles in Bo Kaap deals caffeine and octane in equal doses. Owned by Craig Wessels, it’s a slick cafe-cum-workshop where a barista twists the knobs on an espresso machine and bike designers fasten the bolts on beautiful two wheel nut jobs. Biker clothing, accessories and nostalgic posters completes the theme.
Steve Pitt is Los Muertos front man and master of tight bends. He also makes a killer flat white. “Café Racer lifestyle has evolved over the years,” says Pitt. “Nowadays, it’s more about the aesthetics of the machine and the fun involved in riding with your mates. Custom motorcycles are now considered art. It’s also masculine to be associated with the raw beauty of something that can bring you so much pleasure, and also kill you – much like a woman.”It’s seems stupid to follow the man who said that into a tight bend on a mountain. For a Los Muertos Saturday morning run I’ve brought my 1967 BSA Thunderbolt along – a bike my dad would have ridden. Pitt, on a 1969 Triumph Bonneville, leads a pack of BMW’s and Honda’s. In terms of horsepower, Pitt’s and my old bike are at the bottom of the heap, but we are soon far ahead as I stick to Pitt’s tail and he takes corners and filters between cars with confidence. He’s a natural and following his line into that bend is actually the wisest thing to do in the situation. I keep my sights on him and my body and bike follow, tipping into the curve which sweeps gracefully beneath me, hanging onto the arc until it straightens and I’m through. I’m doing something my dad would have done on a machine he would have loved. It’s as if he’s still alive.
Sunday Times, 18 August, 2013