Go, Café Racer!

Feature

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Rivera Ducati SS 2011 motorcycle A Rivera Ducati SS 2011 motorcycle (Photo by Jason Brownrigg/Courtesy of Walt Siegl Motorcycles)

There’s a movement taking place in the motorcycle world right now: bikes are shedding parts, shedding frills, and returning to a more stripped-down look. It’s like the punk or grunge movement, to mainstream biking’s classic rock. 

The aesthetic harkens back to the café racer, a style that became popular in England in the 1950s and 1960s. The name comes from young rockers who would race between highway coffee shops on the outskirts of London. Their bikes were modified Triumphs, Nortons, and BSAs, stripped of all the excess pounds that motorcycles (then and now) carry when they roll off the assembly line. Café racers typically have low handlebars, and foot controls pushed back to help the rider make tight turns.

It was one of those motorcycles that a boy named Walt Siegl saw one day in a small town in Austria. His grandfather and neighbors rode functional, workaday motorcycles. “But seeing a shiny British bike by a totally cool dude was a life-changing experience for me.”

After a stint in art school and a motorcycle accident that ended his racing career, Siegl has become one of the world’s most respected motorcycle designers and builders, making about a dozen a year from a workshop in New Hampshire. Virtually all the metal is left exposed, and every hose and cable adds a subtle accent. Siegl’s bikes feature big gas tanks that curve into short, hand-crafted seats. 

Siegl is the high end of café racer design — some of his clients store them in climate-controlled spaces. (There’s a rumor that Angelina bought one for Brad.) But tinkerers all over the country are getting into customizing old bikes. “It is real backyardy stuff,” says Alex Vogel, an auto mechanic who works on bikes as a sideline. “It isn’t like a car where you have to have a garage and jacks.” He finds almost-working bikes at yard sales on the cheap. “You can take these little bites out of the project, at the end of a month or the end of five years, you’ve got a cool little bike.”

Café racers seem to live in a different world from the mainstream of motorcycles — the foreign bikes encased in brightly colored plastic, and the big Harley cruisers built for comfort. Siegl is diplomatic about it. “I don’t want to call it tension. It’s just ... we don’t tend to hang out with each other, let’s put it that way.”

Slideshow: Walt Siegl's Motorcyles

WS Sports Classic 2010 (Walt Siegl Motorcycles)
Photo by Erik Ahlquist/Courtesy of Walt Siegl Motorcycles

WS Sports Classic 2010

Leggero Nbr. 3/12 Racer (Walt Siegl Motorcycles)
Photo by Dino Petrocelli/Courtesy of Walt Siegl Motorcycles

Leggero Nbr. 3/12 Racer

Leggero 2012
Photo by Michael Rubenstein/Courtesy of Walt Siegl Motorcycles

Leggero 2012

Leggero 2012 (Walt Siegl Motorcycles)
Photo by Dino Petrocelli/Courtesy of Walt Siegl Motorcycles

Leggero Nbr. 5/12 Grey “Zia” (Walt Siegl Motrocycles)

    Music Playlist
  1. Comanche (Demo)
    Artist: Link Wray
    Album: Link Wray: Slinky! The Epic Sessions: 1958-1960
    Label: SMSP
    Purchase: Amazon
  2. Instrumental Blues
    Artist: Eddie Cochran
    Album: Twenty Flight Rock
    Label: Discos Cada
    Purchase: Amazon
  3. Don't Care 'Bout Nothin'
    Artist: Shotgun Messiah
    Album: Shotgun Messiah
    Label: Relativity
  4. About a Gril
    Artist: Nirvana
    Album: Bleach
    Label: Sub Pop Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  5. 1952 Vincent Black Lightning
    Artist: Richard Thompson
    Album: Action Packed:The Best Of The Capitol Years
    Label: Capitol Records
    Purchase: Amazon
  6. Ton Up
    Artist: Psycho-DeVilles
    Album: Rockabilly Rodeo
    Label: Psycho-DeVilles
    Purchase: Amazon

Contributors:

Todd Bookman

Comments [3]

Sent from my iPhone

Cool segment, Todd! Thanks!

Jul. 13 2014 11:54 AM
Bill Cramer from Cleveland Ohio

I normally enjoy your show, but if you are spending air time on motorcycles, please talk to those who know about the topic.There is nothing wrong with the current fad of retro cafe racers,but please talk with real moto-writers for real information. Cafe racers,as you described, came from making street bikes race bikes,then OEMs built race bikes with lites and cafe racers fell out of favor. Now, it is a style,like the cruiser fad that is still with us,all show but little go.

Jul. 13 2014 11:38 AM
Scurvy Wafers from the gutter

yawn.................ok, some moderately creative hipster cranks out a few tamely modified Ducati's for the trustafarian class and now we must bow to his artistic ability? These so called 'bikers' are in it for the short term, the minute they have a serious accident that lands them in the hospital for a week they will eschew this real form of wrecklessness; nice try at bringing rebellion into the mainstream; its just like the tattoo craze; all of a sudden all these suburban douche bags are setting appointments for full sleeves never having done any research or spent any time with the old heads; but you just go on glossing over the very real world I chose to make as my home for the past 25 years. you see, I have nearly 250,000 miles under my seat, the steel in my arm with 9 screws to prove it and I've been coast to coast 3 times on 2 wheels. The people you are trying to reach are the soft uberclass who are more concerned with status and ego than actual riding. They will never have the guts to take a $30,000 bike and push it to its limits, theyre either afraid of what will happen to them or the investment. Stick to lukewarm topics, pal, and leave the visceral alone; you don't understand it, and this pathetic article confirms it.

Jul. 12 2014 07:52 AM

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