café racers, known worldwide as a motorbike, have become synonymous with the iconic ace cafe, originating from british youth known as ‘rockers’ literally ‘racing from café to café’ in the 50’s & 60’s, delivering an entire genre of café racer motorcycle lifestyle and café racer trends, bringing the spirit, history, and culture of the ton up boys style into café racer fashion
The café racer, once just known as a simply a type of motorcycle, can trace its roots back to the heyday of the Ace Café, Busy Bee, and other English roadside cafes littering the British countryside back in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Defined quite literally as being a bike that British youth used to ‘race from café to café’ - these stripped-down motorbikes were ridden mostly out of necessity – and were of similar makes, models, and power, speed and weight.
The Ace Café, known also as Ace Café London, or simply The Ace, is arguably the main reason the café racer lifestyle and café racer fashion even exists and was embraced in the first place. Described as the most infamous cafe in the world, born in 1938 on the outskirts of London, the Ace Cafe is known as the Mecca of those seeking to gather around the company of motorcycles, cars, & Rock ‘N’ Roll.
Looking back at it now, nobody could have predicted that the little pitstop café next to the petrol station would go on to outlive almost every other café, diner and motorstop in its orbit and become famous as the absolute originator of café racer motorcycle clothing, café racer vintage style and the café racer community. But that is exactly what happened.
Café Racers & the Origins of Style
Cafe racer style in general (including the café racer mens style, and cafe racer womens style), has become one of the most highly sought-after niches in the motorcycle industry. This is for one very important, over-arching reason - the lifestyle companies that have a connection to the historical past, while staying true to the café racer design roots and origins, that exhibit a true passion for the current trends of style and apparel fashion, that also have a vision for the future of clothing - are the key brands that lead the charge and provide a true, real, and authentic link to the pedigree of the Rockers and Ton Up Boys.
Café Racer Fashion & Apparel
V- Twin Brands, the #1 indie casual motorcycle clothing company in the UK, can affirm to a number of those bloodlines, and occupies a fortunate space within the café racer motorcycle clothing industry, providing exceptional quality design and workmanship on their lines of ‘Ton-Up Clothing’ branded cafe racer vintage style clothing and apparel, providing both mens and womens cafe racer t-shirts, cafe racer shirts, cafe racer sweatshirts, café racer hoodies, café racer caps, and an assortment of café racer pins, patches, and café racer accessories.
Fashion and motorcycles just went together, too. If, perhaps, you had a motorcycle, and usually wore Levi’s 501 jeans, a t-shirt and had a leather motorcycle jacket, you were it. You were very cool, and everybody around you knew that. You didn’t even have to try to be cool. You were cool.
Back then, even the Mods knew the Rockers were the cool ones. Mods – then also known as Moderns - were more into fashion than the Rockers. During this era, the Mods wore different clothes altogether, primarily rode scooters instead of motorcycles, and listened to the new, emerging styles of music. Mods knew that the Rockers had the cool café leather motorcycle jackets and they didn’t attempt to try and copy it. The ‘Rumble at Brighton Beach’, when rival youth Mod gangs and Rocker gangs clashed in a big punch-up in May 1964, which happened over the Bank Holiday Weekend, they were fighting more than just each other. They were fighting the institution and the changing landscape of mores and values. More than 900 kids decided to fight over the turf, who got there first, who’s music was better, who’s clothes were cooler, and who’s mode of two-wheeled transportation was superior. Maybe that rumble was over fashion, maybe it was over nothing. No matter the reason, there was big trouble and the rivalry between the Mods & Rockers was born.
The ‘Rockers, also known as the Ton Up Boys in the earlier years, were the leather-clad hoodlums who rode more functional, minimalist motorbikes. They craved speed, danger, fleeing from the law, racing, and basically showing-off, while the rattling jewelry they added to their leather jackets clanged when they walked.
That Spirit of Rebellion and the open road inspires us here at Ton-Up Clothing in the UK, where we’re on a journey to celebrate the spirit, history and culture of the café racer itself – and we’ve added the iconic café racer vintage biker leather jacket to our catalog of Ton-Up Clothing, to go along with our ranges of hand-designed t-shirts, garage shirts, waffles, hats, hoodies and accessories.
As they say, it not the years, it’s the mileage that counts. Nothing counted more and defined being cool more than owning a café racer leather biker jacket, being a rocker, and owning a proper bike. The leather motorcycle jacket was the pick of choice for the teens during the early years, and even today it stands as the signpost of rebellion. The back of your leather motorcycle jacket was the place where you proudly displayed the wounds of your biker years.
At Ton-Up Clothing, nothing makes us happier than to help today’s British bike enthusiasts celebrate their own personal scars with our New, Limited-Edition, Bespoke Custom Café Racer Leather Jacket, built on the Lewis Leathers ‘Star Lightning’ jacket, and adding our own Ton-Up Clothing ‘Starter Girls’ to the back panel design. The artwork is our hand-crafted design, straight from our art department, and is built in the spirit of the Glemseck 101 starting line girls - those ladies that throw down the starting flags to get the races off to a fitting start. These beautiful ladies are a couple of real lookers, centered in the middle of the piston-pumping design with a couple of crossed flags and the old British “Givin’ It 100” rallying-cry centered above, high on the back panel. It’s like the gals are saying, “So, hop on, get going, get up to speed, and get back.”
Nowhere else in the history of motoring can one point to a moment in time, a feeling, a spirit, or group, or yet a culture, that can honestly lay claim to the venerable ‘catching lightning in a bottle’ - as it were - as that of the café racer. In a time before the internet, before cellphones, before streaming, before television, even before automobiles were widely used, one of the few things you could do when you were a teenager in ‘them days’ (as the British youth likes to say) of the 50’s and 60’s, was head to the local Cinema to catch a flick – maybe even Marlon Brando’s ‘The Wild One’ – or head over to a café with your mates for some chips and eggs. On a motorbike. Always on a motorbike. Because anybody with a car in them days was more-than-likely a well-to-do kid driving his father’s sporty two-seater. Nothing wrong with the car ownership, as it was spreading rapidly throughout Europe, but for the many workers on a weekly wage, for the rest of the youth of the family, the only means of transportation and independence meant they had to mend up a two-wheeler - pulled from the family’s garage - that survived a recent depression and a crushing world war and got them where they wanted to go.
Camaraderie between bikers can be difficult to express at times, but for the café racer, they have a style all their own. It is literally of - and for - bikers. The café racer lifestyle is simple. They want to support and express their passion for bikes to, and with, each other. They all want to belong somewhere. And for those that ride, they are a part of a giant worldwide family.
Them Days & What We Rode
In the words of many of the original café racers, speaking on behalf of the Ton-Up Boys and Rockers in general, in interviews conducted at the Ace during a recent ‘Ace Café Reunion Weekend’ at Ace Café London, were as follows as we gathered up a few of them and sat them down to talk over a classic British Breakfast complete with tea and coffee. These now-seasoned veteran Ton Up Boys and Rockers often refer to the days of their youth riding as ‘Them Days’ and with good reason. It just kind of punctuates the stories. And they were more than happy to talk about Them Days. Being asked to recount the glory days of their youth, their best café racer stories, their best mates, motorcycles, what clothing they wore, and their many adventures – and misadventures, was a gift. According to them…”Yeah, back in them days, it was all Gold Stars, Tritons, Nortons, Dominators, BSA’s, Ariels, Matchless, AJS, and big Triumphs. Not many Vincents, though, they were too expensive for most of us. And no kick starts. You had to bump start your bike because you were a proper racer. Mostly, we rode commuter bikes stripped down and mocked up to look like real racing bikes. That’s what we wanted. Then we would add, if we had the means, some clip-on bars in place of the stock bars that were already on our bikes, then we’d find ‘Clubman’ bars to lower the riding position, snap on some rear-sets for the rear-mounted foot controls so we could get our feet propped back and out into more of a prone racer profile. That was important for speed. No wind in your as face as much. And then these ‘Dunstal’ pipes as we called them, pushed back at a swept-back angle. That was mostly it. If you had all that, you had a good bike. But then the Triumph T110 650cc came on the scene, with a Bonny motor and a Norton featherbed frame, and the world just stopped for us. That was the Triton, and that was the bike. That bike dominated and defined the classic café racer motorbike look for years to come. And with no limits, this was back in the 50’s, alongside the Ace on the North Circular (Road), we could easily go over 100 mph, so you know, “Doing the Ton”, and get back to the Ace for nothing more than a coffee, or cuppa tea, and maybe a pop to drink. But we went as fast as we liked in them days. Of course, there were plenty of crashes, too, some guys didn’t come back, sadly. We lost a good few of them back then.”
From Ton Up Boys to Rockers
The mere mention of the Ace Cafe conjures up gritty, weathered, and leathered Ton Up Boys - and later, Rockers - on their café racers, listening to Rock ‘n’ Roll blasting on the jukebox and burning tires in the carpark. To understand the reason that the Ace resonates with so many bikers, one just has to recall that the post-World War II London was coming off of rationing, and for the first time in years, young people had jobs, a little money, and something that they never had before – credit. This combination led these youth to be able to buy and tinker with the great British bikes of the era. And if buying a new bike wasn’t in the cards due to pricing, well, there were plenty of affordable used bikes scattered about. Of course, the bikes would have a single seat, low bars, no mirrors, under-swept pipes, and with no excess details. At the time, these café racer riders weren’t interested in pints of beer, or pubs, or alcohol in general. Meeting at the Ace was more of a social gathering place, with plenty of room to park a bike, and listen to the Rock ‘n’ Roll there in the café, that wasn’t being played on BBC radio. And since the North Circular Road, where the Ace was located, didn’t have speed limits until the mid-1960’s, it was a place where all types of reckless speed maneuvers could be endeavored, from ‘record racing’, to just going flat out amongst your mates, maybe even whilst trying to outrun the local authorities. And that was if you didn’t get pulled over and pinched, maybe just for just not riding in favor of the law, and get your license yanked.
If you could do 100 mph, you had just accomplished a great feat, as you “did the ton”. And from that day forward, you were known as a Ton Up Boy. Where you took it from there, was up to you and your mates.
Record Racing & ‘Lulu’
The reference to ‘record-racing’ and ‘Lulu’ is what was known as ‘doing the ton’, and was often strived for by every café racer. It was normally accomplished by a group of riders, most likely stopped off at the world-famous Ace Café for a cuppa tea or coffee, or a pop. One rider would put on the record by ‘Lulu’ in the Ace’s jukebox, and then have a go at running out to the carpark, mounting his bike and be off down the road having to hit incredible speeds and get back quickly. All this was done but for a good reason! A powerful connection between the motorbike and the new, emerging music called Rock 'n' Roll gave way to the infamous – and highly dangerous – ‘record-racing’, where you’d "drop the coin right into the slot", and go tearing down the road on your café racer motorcycle, round a pre-determined landmark, and have to get back in the Ace’s carpark before the ‘Lulu’ record finished playing.
In order to accomplish this feat, café racers had to run at least 100 mph on your motorcycle to be back at the Ace in the right time. If you worked it out, a typical record was about 3 minutes in length, and knowing the roads and the conditions, it could be done.In those days, the British Motorcycling Industry was hitting its stride, when all of a sudden, waves of American Rock 'n' Roll records washed ashore via returning servicemen and found their way into the British jukeboxes. At that time, Rock ‘n’ Roll was outlawed for British youth, and not played on any radio stations across Britain. The only place rock could be heard was - at one point in 1964 - on ‘Pirate Radio’ (a radio station broadcasting without a license, or in this case, Radio Caroline and / or Radio London, which was broadcasting in international waters on a boat, and hence, not deemed illegal, or bound by BBC licensing. This was led by radio companies determined to feed the growing demand for pop and rock music) - or on the cafe jukeboxes at roadside cafes and coffee bars like the Ace Café and Busy Bee.
So, though those young café racing riders came to listen to the jukebox, many of them also earned becoming a Ton Up Boy!
Speed and agility was the objective in them days, and trying to find the additional horsepower led to tweaking virtually everything on the bike – from changing out the cams, the seat, the handle bars, to balancing the engine – basically anything that would make the biker lighter and faster. They also had to deal with the roads in Britain – wet, slippery, twisty – and needed to find traction and responsiveness on a dime.
The evolution of the Teddy Boys to Ton Up Boys to Rockers would be complete by the time the mid-1960’s rolled around. These young café racer style riders - bikers of all sorts and shapes - would be labeled by the local press as “Coffee Bar Cowboys.” From their routes going from café to café, and their leather look and typical lawless approach (perhaps even due to their copying the attitudes seen in the American Western cowboy films that were coming over from the United States), they were seen as trouble, as hooligans, as ne’er do wells. At the same time, the café racer clothing and look took on a life of its own, and by the time they were labeled as a Ton Up Boy for being able to ‘Do the Ton’ and achieve speeds of over 100 mph, the café racer fashion would include a classic pompadour hairstyle, a studded and sometimes hand-painted leather jacket (covered in pins and patches and studs later in the 60’s), engineer boots or ‘creepers’, Levi’s 501 jeans or leather trousers, t-shirt, knee-high white wool socks turned down and pulled over the top of their boots, a white silk scarf and a jet helmet with aviator goggles (although helmets weren’t required in the early 1950’s, they would become compulsory). This look was nicked from the American movies like ‘The Wild One’ (where a bootlegged copy would eventually turn up), and borrowed from the Royal Air Force pilots of World War II. They took such pride in their individualism, their café racer look and style and their café racer bikes, that in the years that followed, café racer motorcycle style and clothing would itself become its own genre and motorcycling. Fashion-wise, for the café racer style, most every vintage biker and every Rocker have their own pins, their own patches, stories, mishaps, adventures…essentially their own men’s café racer style.
Today it’s much the same. The Ace still exists, now in a half dozen locations across the world, including in the original location in North London, and now also in Orlando, Florida, introducing the American market first-hand to the Ton Up Boy and Rocker culture. Entire new generations of Ton Up Boys have come of age and, bringing the younger generation up behind them, have taken a page out of the history books, and adopted the same spirit and culture of those original Coffee Bar Cowboys.