Sixth Street Specials In New York - Rock This Town - Cafe Nation

With Neighbors Like Sixth Street Specials, It's No Wonder New York Is The City That Never Sleeps .This Town

When Hugh Mackie left his native Scotland for a new life in New York City, the British motorcycle industry had just been declared dead. "In the middle 1980s, about the last thing anybody wanted was an old Triumph, Norton or BSA. People thought the Japanese bikes were faster, cooler and more reliable, so you really didn't see too many of the old Britbikes on the roads," he said, his brogue still thicker than 40-weight on a cold winter morning. Mackie, a graduate of the Glasgow Art School, was fresh from a gig building movie sets in France when he arrived in New York's gritty Lower East Side. A lifelong motorcycle fanatic, he soon found himself missing the boom and rattle of the beloved British parallel-twins he'd seen zooming through the Scottish countryside in his youth. A few classified ads later, he was deluged with phone calls from riders who'd tucked away old Triumph Bonnevilles and BSA Gold Stars in garages and forgotten about them. "There was nobody around fixing up these old bikes, and after I restored a few into running condition, riders started coming by asking if I'd build one for them," he said. "I always knew the classic British bikes had a following in New York. They just needed someone to help keep them alive."

The name Mackie chose for his shop back in 1986 proved auspicious as it developed near-legendary status among Big Apple bikers. Located in a tough immigrant neighborhood known as Alphabet City, Sixth Street Specials is part general store, part scene-maker's hangout and part communal garage for the city's growing crowd of retro-caf racers. In a tragically hip town where a mane of purple dreadlocks might not get you noticed, Mackie's shop has become a magnet for a visually striking crew that could have worked as extras on the 1964 cult flick The Leather Boys. Greased-back pompadours and black leather are de rigueur, along with pudding-basin helmets and pin-up girl tattoos. Though the reigning aesthetic is pure Mods vs. Rockers era, these guys are as eclectic as the machines they ride. Some are students and computer software designers, while Triumph Bonneville rider Mike Kramer works across town as a director at MTV. "I use my bike for commuting around the city, which I think most of the crew here does. These bikes make just enough noise to let the kamikaze taxi drivers hear us coming, and my bike isn't exactly a concourse showpiece, so I'm OK with it living in New York," Kramer said of his 25-year-old treasure.

During the early '90s, a visit to Sixth Street Specials meant immersion in a wild, bohemian motorcycling subculture. Mackie's then-partner was a mad Russian stunt rider by the name of Dimitri Turin, who loved to wow visitors by riding wheelies on an old Norton Atlas with a hollowed-out pumpkin perched atop his head. The workshop was then located in a cramped, subterranean garage beneath the turn-of-the-century brick building, and the access ramp was so steep, bikes had to be launched out onto the street at valve-floating speeds. "It was crazy back then, for sure. We'd have bikes getting stolen right out front while we were working inside, and the neighborhood was full of junkies and homeless people," Mackie recalled with a shudder. Since then, the vacant apartments full of squatting punk rockers have slowly been replaced by office towers and upscale condos. And instead of launching customers' bikes from the basement ramp, Mackie's mechanics now roll machines to the sidewalk via a wooden plank and a rope stretched down the stairs from the first-floor workshop. Mackie laughs that where Sixth Street Specials was once the block's bright spot, it's now the last piece of ungentrified real estate in the area. "If anybody complains about noise now, it's because of our motorcycles," he said.

Because so many of the estimated 350 vintage Britbikes Mackie has uncovered were sacrificed to the back-alley chopper craze of the '70s, he's had to develop an anything-goes approach to restoration. Frames are welded and gusseted for strength, and modern steering dampers are installed to cope with New York's famously uneven street surfaces. "Any of the bells and whistles that can break when the bike is knocked over have got to go," he said. Back in the day, a stock Triumph or BSA 650cc twin put out 50 to 55 horsepower, which was good enough to make sport of Harley-Davidson's then class-leading Sportster. But because today's street riders face a far more demanding set of conditions, Mackie has created a cottage industry performing expensive re-bore jobs on the old two-valve engines, porting and gas-flowing the heads so the bikes have enough horsepower to outrun the most determined city bus. He's even perfected the odd Triton, the classic 1960s ton-up caf racer that combined a tuned Triumph motor with a sharp-handling Norton Featherbed frame. Sleek and adorned in yards of hand-pounded aluminum bodywork, the vintage street racer is good for a solid 100 mph on those rare stretches of New York City pavement long enough for ton-up runs.

While the majority of riders thrapping their reverse megaphones outside Mackie's shop are American-born and too young to have experienced Great Britain's motorcycle heyday, there are a few genuine caf racers parked at the oil-stained curb. James Gale rode a BSA Lightning in the U.K. as a far younger man and found himself unexpectedly reliving his youth after happening across Sixth Street Specials during a walk. "I didn't think I'd ever see these kinds of motorbikes again, especially after moving to the States. But there she was, all battered and beautiful, and I knew I had to have her," he said of his 1968 BSA 650 Lightning. After a careful, period-perfect restoration, Gale clocked only a few city blocks in the saddle before the bike was stolen from its curbside parking space, prompting a Five Burroughs hunt to track down his beloved machine. "I found a young lad in a public housing project in Brooklyn riding wheelies on it and tearing across basketball courts and down stairs," he said. "I managed to get the motorcycle back, and it had suffered some considerable damage. But I'm still riding it, which proves how tough these old bikes are."

"You really have to adapt to the times if you're going to remain viable in any trade, and that's my approach to these motorbikes," said Mackie, who spends his weekends racing his vintage BSA dirt-tracker in Upstate New York. "They were originally built to be tough bastards, bikes that you can park outside on the streets of New York in the weather and still kick right over in the morning. I've seen some get hit by taxis or garbage trucks, and the owners ride them in to have them fixed. I always tell them, 'It's still running, so maybe it doesn't need to be fixed.'" MC

Beer City BrouhahaMilwaukee's Other Motorcycle AddictionOK, so maybe you can't drain a mug of beer in Milwaukee without your thoughts being interrupted by the potato-potato rumble of a Harley. Milwaukee also boasts a healthy crowd of youthful motorcycle enthusiasts who are more likely to hit the road on handmade caf racers than American-made V-Twins.

The city's caf racer scene centers around two places: First is the Fuel Caf coffee shop, run by vintage-racing youngster and hipster restaurant mogul Scott Johnson. The "brains" behind the Frozen Snot Ride-a notorious annual frigid-weather endurance run-Johnson and his friends have a taste for old Honda CB350 twins and CB400F Supersports, which they've campaigned in the AHRMA series since the 1990s. Those machines, with their flawless Mike Hailwood-era stylings and surprisingly competitive performance, can all be traced back to Milwaukee's other caf racer icon, a cooler-than-thou little joint known locally as The Shop.

Opened in 1997 by Tim Schneider, a former industrial engineer for a Fortune 500 firm, The Shop is to caf racers what West Coast Choppers is to folks who dread corners. On a typical day in his clean, well-sorted garage, Tim and chief mechanic Greg Klassen apply the finishing touches to a rebuilt Kawasaki Z-1, replete with Mad Max bikini fairing and vintage Kerker megaphone. Sidecar racing rigs hang from the ceiling on wires, alternative tracks blare from the sound system and weird, abstract sculptures made from discarded camshafts line the shelves. While some of the dream bikes are owned by baby boomers who couldn't afford a high-performance machine back in the day, Schneider, 37, says his typical customer is much younger.

"I don't know what it is that makes people my age click with these old bikes," he said. "Maybe it's because their mystery is right out in the open-they're beautiful because they're so accessible and easy to work on. And when you can make a bike like this look cool and go fast, I don't know why anybody would want a new one." MC