Not Art: Considering the Café Racer Craze

Motorcycle Musings from Chicago IMS

There’s a small, circular sticker on the gas tank of my 1972 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport, right in the center where I can always see it, that reads: “NOT ART.” I ordered it out of the Aerostich catalog many, many years ago. At the time, it was an adhesive-backed response to the seminal “Art of the Motorcycle” exhibit that ran at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City during the summer of 1998. For better or worse, that exhibition elevated motorcycles from joyful transportation to the realm of “fine art,” with all the attendant baggage accompanying that classification. Nowadays, that small, circular sticker serves as a subtle reminder that, no matter how rare, valuable, or collectible I might think my V7 Sport is, it’s still just a motorcycle. Lino Tonti didn’t design that mechanical animal for static display; its gallery is the open road, where it’s meant to be ridden hard, fast, and as often as possible.

I've been thinking about that sticker a lot lately, ever since attending the Chicago International Motorcycle Show this past weekend. After I finished covering the launch of Honda's new CTX family of motorcycles—function-first commuters so utilitarian the NOT ART slogan might as well replace the Honda logo on the flank—I took a few minutes to admire the 50-odd custom bikes assembled for display. There, scattered among the usual array of blinged-out baggers, stretched-and-slammed Hayabusas, and candy-colored choppers, were a plethora of modern café racers—the next custom bike frontier.

Air-cooled Honda Fours, pre-unit Triumph twins, Yamaha SR500 singles, and lots of oddball outliers—Honda CX500s, GL1100s, Yamaha Viragos, other bikes connoisseurs wouldn’t consider worth a second-look—were all fussed over with the same obsessive attention to detail and cubic-hours of hand-fabrication as any chopper or stretched sportbike. Resplendent with contrast-colored frames and so many clear-coated, bare-metal tanks, each one tried to out-authentic the next with precious period details like Morris magnetos, Ceriani forks, finned exhaust header collars, even repurposed brass-era hardware—each polished to a blinding, post-millennial shine and then lined up like so many porcelain dolls under Rosemont Convention Center’s fluorescent yellow lights. Café style had clearly arrived. The only question is, where?

I (mostly) love the modern café racer revival and everything that it represents—especially how it has made motorcycling sexy, exciting, and accessible to a new and younger generation of riders. But to see café racers cross that threshold from streetbike to showbike does create some dissonance for me. Café racers, traditionally motorcycles that have been stripped down to be lighter, faster, and better, have always represented a triumph of function over form. Their elegant, elemental beauty is an expression of that essential truth. To see a café racer treated as another two-wheeled fashion statement—clubman bars substituting for ape hangers, vintage Firestones in place of a 330mm Metzeler, just some metal trellis on which to display your latest obscure, swapmeet-sourced vintage bauble—confuses my sensibilities, to say the least.

I’m not going to rant. This doesn’t make me sad—or angry, like so many more-fundamentalist vintage-bike purists I know. It just makes me appreciate my own rusty, leaky, faded, road-worn V7 Sport more than ever. And it made me wish I had a stack of “NOT ART” stickers in my pocket in Chicago the other day. I would have gone guerilla and stuck a few on the fuel tanks of those exquisitely detailed, artisanal-grade, never-been-started café racers. I want to remind those guys to enjoy the ride, too.

Motorcycle Art? A custom Honda Gold Wing spotted on the show floor at the Chicago IMS.