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    News — culture

    The café racer movement: freedom and individuality

    The café racer movement: freedom and individuality

    In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of the café racer motorcycle style, which features a stripped down appearance and a predilection for performance. Similar motorcycles roared down the winding roads of England during the 1960s during the halcyon of the café racer movement. In order to examine this movement in full, we have to take a step back to England after the conclusion of World War 1.

    Early origins

    After 4 years of brutal conflict, WW1 ended in 1918 and England’s economy finally began to return to normality. As transportation technologies improved, motorcars and motorcycles were now a part of everyday life (instead of novelties) and the antiquated English road systems needed to evolve in order to fulfill these new traffic demands.

    Transportation and road haulage industries began to boom, and with this, roadside stops and cafés cropped up to cater to the new horde of weary travelers. Several decades later, these same establishments would be used as recreational sites where motorcycle enthusiasts would frequent before racing each other to the next café.

    While the new motorways in England had certainly evolved from the past, they are nothing like the modern motorways we see in the country today. They were still difficult to navigate, with plenty of tight turns and narrow passages which would give motorists headaches. The young men returning from the war now found themselves with a bit of extra cash, and were able to get hold of motorcycles which they used to ride up and down the country for recreational purposes. While recreational riding diminished after the advent of World War 2, it would come back in a more potent at the war’s conclusion.

    Post-WW2 England & the Rockers subculture

    During the 1950s, young men came back from the war and with some extra financial resources, rediscovered their love for riding. Combine this with a rise in youth culture, with rebellious heroes in leather jackets such as Marlon Brando inspiring many, and the café racer movement was born.

    The café racer movement was inextricably linked with the rise of rock and roll music in the 1960s. Rocker culture was completely unfamiliar (and generally abhorrent) to older generations, which only made it more compelling for those looking to distance themselves from the uninteresting ways of their elders. Young Rockers with their leather jackets, slick hairstyles and customized motorcycles would meet at roadside cafés to socialize, listen to musicians like Elvis Presley and enjoy their freedom. The most famous café of this period is London’s Ace Café, which still exists to this day! Their website reads: “At Ace Cafe London we welcome all who share our passion, based upon the traditions of motorcycles, cars and rock n' roll.”

    In environments such as these, bravado was widespread and impressing girls (and each other) was extremely important. One of the ways you could convey your masculinity was by passing the 100 miles per hour mark on your motorcycle, a feat known as the “ton”. Although this doesn’t sound like a lot by modern standards, 100 miles per hour was a lot in an era when most people were riding 350cc motorcycles! In order to achieve feats like this, motorcycles were customized for speed (and coolness) - comfort was largely ignored.

    Bike specifications

    Owning a customized café racer was a way to showcase one’s identity, hence no café racer was the same. However, there were common attributes which helped to define the café racer as a style. Typically, the motorcycles would feature an elongated fuel tank with dents to allow the rider to grip the tank with his knees - this was reminiscent of the Grand Prix racers of the 1960s. Clip-on bars, low hanging racing handlebars, large carburetors, fiberglass (or aluminum) gas tanks and swept back pipes were also commonplace. As an ergonomic consideration, rear-set footrests and foot controls were also typical, as were race style fairings.

    Interestingly, some of the most popular motorcycles in this genre were hybrids of two separate types. For instance, the “Triton” utilized a Norton Featherbed frame and a Triumph Bonneville engine. This combination resulted in excellent performance characteristics, perfect for doing the “ton” and impressing the opposite sex!

    For those with a more modest budget, the Triumph engine could be used with a BSA frame. This type of vehicle was known as the “Tribsa”. Alternatively, a Vincent engine with a Norton frame was known as a “Norvin”. Racing frames by other manufacturers such as Rickman and Seeley were also used to create unique café racer motorcycles.

    Similar to the chopper movement in America, café racers were formed by taking factory motorcycles and removing the unnecessary, plus adding a few things in to make them look more unique! Unlike the American choppers which could be ridden on long, straight roads, the café racers were more suited for maximum handleability, in order to cope with the treacherous winding roads in England at the time.

    Modern day

    In the 1970s, Japanese manufacturers began to dominate the British manufacturers in the marketplace, and style demands changed. Leading European motorcycle manufacturers such as Benelli, BMW and Bultaco started producing factory variants of the café style which customers could purchase, essentially destroying the personalization aspect which was endemic to the subculture. As technologies evolved, the café racer modifications were no longer improving performances, they were simply making the rides less comfortable, hence they started to die out.

    Unlike other youth motorcycle subcultures which were considered as hostile irritations, such as the Bosozoku gangs of Japan, the café racer movement is often looked back upon with a romantic lense. The iconic café racer represents an era when the youth of England sculpted their own identity and developed a sense of freedom, as they daringly raced each other across the nation, through winding roads and dangerous turns, all to rejoice at the next roadside stop!

    Bōsōzoku: biker gangs of Japan

    Bōsōzoku: biker gangs of Japan

    Japan is a country known for its reserved and respectful culture. This makes the appearance of bosozoku gangs an outlandish anomaly. In their heyday, they could be seen riding their flamboyant motorcycles up and down metropolitan streets, honking their horns and generally causing chaos. These groups used to ride without motorcycle helmets, in kamikaze jackets and with outrageous custom motorbikes. It was common to remove the mufflers from their rides in order to create as much noise as possible.

    Bosozoku gangs in 1980s Japan were primarily comprised of malcontented teenagers, but the bosozoku phenomenon actually traces back to the chaotic 1950s. To determine the origins of this peculiar subculture, we need to examine what life was like in Japan during the post-WW2 allied occupation.

    Unsavory origins

    The socioeconomic situation in Japan during the 1950s was dire, to say the least. Unemployment was widespread, infrastructure was damaged and resources were dwindling. Out of the chaos of this period spawned a subculture called kaminari zoku, otherwise known as “thunder tribe”.

    The majority of these kaminari zoku were from lower income families and felt forgotten by society. The movement represented the youth’s disaffection for the Japanese government and the country in general. In a society where they felt like outcasts, joining the thunder tribe gave these individuals a sense of purpose and more importantly, a feeling of belonging which was hard to acquire during this uncertain period. Many participants had served in the Imperial Japanese Army and felt disillusioned with the current state of society.

    Despite this rough economic time, the Japanese automobile industry started to generate serious growth during the 1950s and motorcycles became more popular in the country. With American films such as the 1955 smash, Rebel Without a Cause, gaining international attention, this influenced the disaffected youth in Japan and the motorcycle gang was born!

    Criminality and notoriety

    During the 1970s, the term bosozoku was created after motorcycle gangs got into several skirmishes with local police forces. The approximate English translation of bosozoku is: “violent running gang”!

    During the 1980s and 90s, the bosozoku movement had reached critical mass. Participation in the gangs was estimated at around 42,510 in 1982 - still a distinct minority in a country of 118 million people, but one that was creating disproportionate disturbances. Gangs would cruise en masse through metropolitan areas riding custom motorcycles, waving Imperial Japanese flags and generally causing chaos. New Years Eve was a popular date in the bosozoku diary for mass rides and pandemonium.

    The gangs would often attack one another with weapons and would sometimes go to war with random bystanders who expressed any condemnation towards them. Minor criminality such as speeding through highway tollbooths and drug use was also commonplace.

    The yakuza connection

    Herbert Covey, in his book Street Gangs Throughout the World, argues that bosozoku gang participation increased during the mid 1990s primarily due to their connection with the famous Yakuza (Japanese organized crime syndicates). Bosozoku and yakuza criminal partnerships were said to be commonplace, and in more recent years, the cash-strapped yakuza were said to have extorted the bosozoku in exchange for protection.

    Custom rides

    As with the custom bikes which became popular in contemporary America (such as the chopper), the bosozoku sought to make their rides as outrageous as possible, usually to the detriment of the vehicle’s handleability. Many rides had custom fairings, new exhaust pipes, no mufflers to increase noise production, high tail seats, lights and of course, horns for creating gigantic disturbances.

    Although the types of modifications varied from region to region, and from gang to gang, the more outrageous you could make your ride look, the better! Loud paint schemes, often with traditional Japanese cultural inspirations, were commonplace. Bright, oversized fairings stacked on top of one another were also prevalent, as bosozoku members tried to outdo one another in terms of who could be the most obnoxious.

    For those looking for a truly unique ride, the bosozoku motorcycle style has actually gained some traction in the west. Custom motorcycle shops occasionally receive requests from bosozoku enthusiasts for oversized fairings and traditional Japanese paintwork in order to differentiate their rides from everyone else’s. However, many of the typical modifications are illegal in the west, so we’re unlikely to see a revival of the bosozoku any time soon!

    Cultural themes

    In terms of identity and fashion, many bosozoku gangs took inspiration from traditional Japanese ideals. Revered creatures such as tigers and sharks were a strong source of inspiration for these gang members, and samurai themes were also recurring in their fashion. Perhaps these disaffected teenagers were trying to affirm their identities as ancient warriors in a rapidly modernizing world which felt alien to them! Imperial Japanese flags were often seen waving in the wind on the back of motorcycles as their riders caused mayhem on modern streets!

    The attire worn by these bosozoku members was also very unique. The special attack uniforms (also known as tokko-fuku) worn by kamikaze pilots during WW2 were reappropriated and adorned with colorful writing and gang insignias. Dyed hair and baggy pants were also associated with bosozoku membership!

    The last of a dying breed

    As a result of a change in legislature in 2004, arrests and prosecutions increased which caused a rapid decline on bosozoku participation. Although the bosozoku phenomenon has mostly disappeared, smaller groups can still be found riding their motorcycles through certain areas in Japan such as Tokyo and Aichi prefecture. Of course, aging bosozoku members still find themselves in trouble with the law here and there, even in 2016!

    This cultural relic in Japan’s colorful history is depicted in full in Vice’s excellent documentary: Revisiting the Glory Days With One of Japan’s Most Violent Biker Gangs. This is highly recommended if you want to learn about the wild hairstyles, insane fashion, customized bikes and violent acts committed by these notorious gangs.