A look back at how one iconic movie combined with music from half a world away to give birth to one of the most iconic bike genres of all time – the cafe racer
September 2013, London, Ace Cafe. The sound of thunder filled the air on a nippy morning as nearly 50 motorbikes sped out on to the North Circular Road, en route to Brighton Pier. In many senses it was routine, at the same time in many senses it was a historic moment. The event was the global launch of Royal Enfield’s Continental GT. The bike was Royal Enfield’s modern interpretation of their 1965 Continental GT, one of the few factory built cafe racers from a time when cafe racing was the fashion of the day and not a nostalgia soaked activity.
The birth of cafe racing, and therefore everything else associated with that culture, could be attributed to a movie and music prevalent at the time. The movie I speak of is 1953 Hollywood production The Wild One, starring the late great Marlon Brando as Johnny – the brooding rebel without a cause. The fact that Johnny led a gang of bikers and himself rode a Triumph, turned him into an icon for British teens growing up in the mid-1950s.
And in a post WW II Britain, this new generation found their adrenaline rush in the foot tapping rock n roll music that was already popular across the Atlantic. Chubby Checker, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Johny Cash and Elvis Presley were the sought after artists of the day with Let’s Twist Again, Shake Rattle and Roll, Folsom Prison Blues and Jailhouse Rock being the anthems of these rebels who called themselves the Rockers.
The movie and the music however fuelled the Rockers’ passion for something far more thrilling – motorcycles. More specifically, British motorcycles (which, I suspect was partly, or perhaps, wholly on account of the fact that Johny’s chosen set of wheels was a Triumph) with twin cylinder engines. Triumph, Norton, Ariel, AJS, Vincent and Royal Enfield. These were the bikes the teens of Britain in the Swinging Sixties aspired to own and ride.
And their chosen venue for a ride out was inevitably a transport cafe. Where else could you have access to a jukebox full of rock n roll vinyl records, coffee (the chosen nectar of the adrenaline rush seeking Rockers) and a road where you could race your motorbike, which would often be stripped down and souped up in a bid for speed.
Drop the handlebars in a rudimentary mimicry of the race bikes ridden at the Isle of Man TT back in them days, get rid of the metal that was of no consequence to your search for higher velocities and voila! You had a bike to race from cafe to cafe with your mates on the daily after dinner burn ups (Rocker speak for a ride out). Thus was born the cafe racer, the bike and subsequently, the iconic genre of motorcycles that Royal Enfield had been looking to revive at the Ace Cafe in the fall of 2013.
What’s the point in all this? Just that the power of visuals and music can never be underestimated in their ability to give rise to a new motorbike pop culture. Hmm. Will we see some sort of biking culture inspired by electronic dance music that seems to be the rage today? Who knows…