I’ve been hearing lately, mainly from younger riders, that the true successor to the choppers of the 70’s, are not the hardcore chops one might find on the pages of The Horse, but in fact are the sportbikes known as “streetfighters”!
Their reasoning being, the original ‘Bobjobs’ of the fifties and early sixties were created by racers, hacking off unnecessary parts and weight from their bikes in order to squeeze more speed from them. These bobjobs evolved into the choppers of the seventies, moving away from the totally performance-oriented world of racing and concentrating on aesthetics and ‘coolness’, rather than all-out speed. Therefore (they say) the Streetfighters are the rightful heirs to the chopper throne.
In case you are not familiar with these bikes, they are generally assembled from parts taken from Japanese sportbikes, usually using the best components from the different manufacturers to piece together a ‘naked’ (no fairing) sportbike, usually with a raised rear end (monoshock, of course), twin headlights and a bad attitude. There are companies such as Spondon Engineering in England, making specialty frames for these bikes and no doubt there is a whole underground aftermarket springing up.
What they are forgetting (in my view of course), is that the great tradition of taking the best parts to make the fastest bikes evolved at the same time as the bobjobs were taking shape, only in England this practice resulted in a Café Racer!
Originally, the term Café Racer was a derogatory reference to bikes that were only styled to look like racers. Rearsets and clip-on handlebars did not a racer make, and it was thought these bikes were only good for racing from one transport café to another.
For those of you not familiar with the British Transport café, it was a generic term applied to varying sizes or Brit-style truck stops. Nothing like they have in the U.S of course, but could vary between the likes of the famous “Ace” café in London, to the roadside tea stand, about the size of a hot dog vendor at a carnival.
Before long, however, the genre took on a life of it’s own. The very best components of British bikes were robbed from donor bikes and assembled as lean, mean shiny balls-to-the-wall lane scratchers.
The most popular frame for the Café Racer was by far the Norton Featherbed. Norton used this frame on just about every bike they produced in the sixties, with subtle differences, notably the ‘Wideline’ and ‘Slimline’ variants. It was soon discovered that just about any British bike engine could be shoehorned into this excellent-handling frame in place of the underpowered and shaky 750 Atlas twin or 350 single.
The most famous variant being, of course, the Triton! (TRIumph-norTON…get it??) Triumph’s excellent 650 twin was a good fit in the featherbed frame, coupled with an aluminum tank and Norton’s roadholder front end made for a potent package. Many other versions appeared, the most exotic (and expensive) was probably the Norvin, a Vincent 1000 V-Twin squeezed into the stretched-to-the-limit Featherbed.
As with today’s streetfighters, companies stepped up and offered frames and bolt-on parts to help in the completion of these projects. Rickman and Egli, being two that spring to mind. The Egli-framed Vincents are some of the nicest examples of sixties racer-style.
The tradition of using the best available components to build the ‘best’ motorcycle can be traced to the dawn of motorcycling as we know it. One of the most famous British bikes ever was the Brough Superior SS100, a 1000cc V-Twin that was guaranteed by the maker to be capable of 100 mph or your money back! As impressive as this was, the SS100 (as were the variants before it) was mostly just a bike assembled from the parts available from the various manufacturers of the day. The engines being made either by JAP (J.A.Prestwich) or AMC (No, not the ‘Gremlin’ people, this was the parent company of Matchless/AJS).
This is much the same practice being followed today by the ‘clone’ bike builders with S&S taking the place of JAP.
Fortunately, there is enough interest in Café Racers to keep the aftermarket interested in supplying parts to build ‘specials’ today. Companies such as Dresda make some very nice Triton parts, websites such as Acecafe.com and caferacer.com are keeping the memories alive.
In my view, a well-sorted Café Racer (and there are some very bad ones out there), especially a nice Triton (pre-unit) is one of the coolest bikes to see out on the road, whereas I’m afraid that the latest techno-flash streetfighter does nothing more for me than raise my eyebrows (although I can appreciate all the work that has gone into it).
Clearly, then, the Streetfighter is merely the modern incarnation of the Café Racer.
Which leaves the choppers of today as being the direct descendants of their sixties and seventies roots. Of course the excesses of that period are largely gone (the 90-foot over front ends…square tube front ends etc.) but the original Koolness prevails.