Arts & Culture
6:52 am
Mon July 14, 2014

Inside The Retro World Of The Café Racer

When Walt Siegl was growing up in Austria, utilitarian motorcycles were a common fixture on the roads. These workaday machines moved passengers from town to town, sharing pavement with cars and bicycles.

Then, he’s 7 or 8 years old and a neighbor—a chimney sweep—rips through the village on something new.

“And he had a 650 Triumph that had a lot of polished aluminum, a lot of chrome, very deep shiny maroon paint job. It was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Siegl recalls. “Seeing bikes that my grandfathers rode were just part of my daily existence. But seeing a shiny British bike by a totally cool dude, with a very manicured beard, was a life changing experience for me.”

The look of that bike, and the sound of that bike, stuck with Siegl. Nearly five decades later, he’s one of the world’s most respected motorcycle designers and builders. His custom-made bikes are low and loud, tracing their lineage back to England in the 1950s and 60s. 

That’s when a new breed came into being: café racers.

“Just the chassis alone, the silhouette of a café racer is something very different than, say, a Harley Cruiser,” Siegl says.

Siegl with Erik Cooper, who works in the shop.
Siegl with Erik Cooper, who works in the shop.
Credit Todd Bookman / NHPR

“Most Harley Cruisers are built to go down the highway in comfort and they are built for long distances and they are built for two people, sometimes for three people with sidecars and so forth. A café racer comes from the opposite corner of the world."

The term ‘café racer’ was first used by London’s working class youth in the post-war years. These kids would kill time racing between highway coffee shops on the outskirts of the city. They called themselves Rockers or Ton-Up Boys, ‘ton’ being British slang for hitting 100 miles per hour.

Their rides were modified Triumphs, Nortons and BSAs, stripped them down like skeletons.

Most bikes rolling off assembly lines, then and now, can have 50 extra pounds of add-ons: excess chrome, oversized seats or fenders.

Start peeling that stuff off and you get a café racer. Other signature touches are low handlebars and foot controls pushed back so the rider sits small on the bike, almost hunched, to better push through turns.

Siegl’s motorcycles have big gas tanks that curve into short, hand-crafted seats. The shape is muscular, with virtually every part left exposed—every hose and cable a subtle accent.

You wouldn’t attach studded saddlebags with distressed fringe to the back of one of these.

There’s definitely a dividing line between café racers and the mainstream bike scene. 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 this way,” he says with a chuckle.

BLURRING THE LINES

Siegl went to art school in Austria for a few years before dropping out short of graduation. After a crash ended his motorcycle racing, he got into designing bikes. He moved around for a while, including a job with the Austrian Foreign Ministry, before landing in New York in 1985 where he began experimenting with sculpture.

Those ideas began to influence his builds.  

“Until fairly recently, design wasn’t necessarily art, craft wasn’t art. In the meantime, the lines blur, which is a good thing, and so do I want to call it art? No, not necessarily. But it is to a certain extent an artistic endeavor to design something, so, I’ll leave that up to you.”

Credit waltsiegl.com

Some of Siegl’s customers treat the bikes like art, storing them in climate controlled spaces. There’s a rumor floating around that Angelina Jolie bought one for Brad Pitt a few years ago.

He crafts about a dozen a year, working now out of a sun-lit mill building in Harrisville. They run from $30,000 up to $100,000.

Each build starts with an engine: the bike he’s working on now has a supercharged twin Ducati.

“Really truly high tech motors are not necessarily beautiful components,” Siegl says. “So a vintage style engine, with all its polished aluminum and its different surface qualities because of a choice of different materials is visually much more pleasing than an engine that is packed in plastic.”

We step out into the gravel parking lot, where he kicks the engine alive.

“It has a very aggressive bark to it once you come into the meaty power band, if you will. Very, very pleasing,” he says over the hum.

Siegl lives in the very high end of the café racer world. Most people who ride these bikes are more in line with the early Rockers, grabbing a stock bike and wrenching the thing down. Personalizing it.

A SIMPLER MACHINE

Down the road from Siegl’s shop, in Dublin, Alex Vogel is working up a sheen trying to kick-start his 1973 Norton Commando.

Vogel is an auto mechanic, but in the past few years he’s gotten more into bikes, which now ring the bay of his garage.

“It is real backyardy stuff, and it is fun. I mean, you can do it in your kitchen, you can do it in your bathroom, if you want,” Vogel says. “You can bring it into your basement. It isn’t like a car where you have to have a garage and jacks and all that stuff. You can really get into it on a personal level.”

Vogel’s got a couple motorcycles in various states of disarray, including one for his wife. He says there are a lot of bikes from the 1960s and 70s to start on.

“You can go to a yard sale and find a Honda 350 for $600. Chances are, you spend about half an hour on it, and you can get it running. Okay, so you got a running bike for $600. And then you might paint the stuff, which might be, if you do it at home with a roller, might be $25, or if you send it out might be $500.

“Then you got a running bike, maybe it’s got a cool paint job. So now, you are on your way. You can take these little bites out of the project, who knows, at the end of a month, or the end of five years, you’ve got a cool little bike,” Vogel says.

People are breathing new life into old bikes all over the country.  

Houle in his Main Street office in Concord, N.H.
Houle in his Main Street office in Concord, N.H.
Credit Todd Bookman / NHPR

A lot of them read Iron and Air, a vintage motorcycling magazine headquartered in Concord.  

“There is this real cool camaraderie between generations and this sort of resurgence in motorcycling right now, and I think, what we are attempting to do is document that and share that with the world as a special time,” publisher Brett Houle says.

He offers this reason for why café racers are coming back into fashion today.

“The best analogy I have is, if you think about the music scene, the late 80s early 90s, we sort of had this excess of, I guess, excess. You had your hair bands and make-up and pyrotechnics and everything was just sort of overdone. And I think in culture, we all sort of hit a wall. And at some point, somebody says, ‘I’ve had enough of enough.’ And you know, you start to strip the layers off and simplify and get back to a simpler time,” says Houle.

A simpler time, when materials and craftsmanship mattered, when there wasn’t an overabundance of plastic and technology.

When bikes went fast, looked good, and that was enough.