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Motorbike makers turn to 1960s in 'cafe racer' revival

Motorbike manufacturers are riding a wave of swinging 60s nostalgia with new models seeking to capture revived interest in the classic looks of the period -- with demand helped by fashionista-in-chief David Beckham.

autos Updated: Dec 30, 2013 13:32 IST
Royal Enfield,Continental GT,Motorbike makers turn to 1960s in 'cafe racer' revival

Motorbike manufacturers are riding a wave of swinging 60s nostalgia with new models seeking to capture revived interest in the classic looks of the period -- with demand helped by fashionista-in-chief David Beckham.

Royal Enfield, an Indian-owned manufacturer of British heritage, is the latest to try its luck with a new bike inspired by the "cafe racers" seen around London in the late 1950s and 60s.

These single-seater two-wheelers were some of the quickest of their day, modified and driven at the highest speeds possible by their young male riders dressed in the "rocker" fashion of the era.

After a trip in search of the mythical "ton" -- 100 miles per hour -- they would retire to the Ace Cafe in northwest London for cups of tea, making it a famous meeting point for bikers which remains to this day.

"We believe that cafe racing was around in the most beautiful and the best time of motorcycling," Enfield chief executive Siddhartha Lal said at a launch event for the bike in India last month.

The looks were very specific and have been reproduced faithfully in the new versions: striped back, dropped handle bars, long fuel tank and a single seat. Leather jackets and open-face helmets come as optional accessories.

Royal Enfield, whose sales have quadrupled in the last four years thanks to booming demand for its classic "Bullet" model in its home Indian market, is following in the footsteps of other famous British names.

Triumph sells a "Thruxton" cafe racer, a beefed up and modified version of its classic "Bonneville" model, while Norton has a waiting list for its equivalent, the "Commando 961".

With new launches and fashion on their side, both companies are putting past bankruptcies behind them.

For Enfield, owned by heavy vehicle and bus maker Eicher, net profit totalled 2.1 billion rupees (34 million dollars) in the nine months to September, up 91 percent on the same period in 2012.

Other companies looking to bygone years for inspiration for their latest models include Moto Guzzi and its "V7 Racer" and BMW with its recently unveiled "NineT".

Triumph's sales and marketing director Paul Stroud referred to a "resurgence in classic motorbiking" at a recent company event.

Niche becomes mainstream

The new branded bikes are themselves production-line versions of one-off retro models that have been made by niche customisers in Europe, Australia, the United States and Japan for decades.

Known variously as cafe racers, brat-style or bobbers, these bikes are ridden by enthusiasts or hipsters seeking to ape the looks of legendary silver screen bikers of the mid-20th century like Steve McQueen or Marlon Brando.

Their ranks were joined recently by former England football captain and model David Beckham who has been pictured riding a bobber, a fully customised model based on a modified Harley-Davidson.

The editor of Bike, Britain's biggest-selling monthly motorbiking magazine, told AFP that Harley Davidson had been the most successful over the years in selling the heritage of their brand.

"What's been building for a while is people like Triumph and Enfield delivering a cafe racer version of that," editor Hugo Wilson told AFP.

He says the popularity of classic-looking bikes can be attributed to two factors, firstly that "modern bikes are getting to the point that are way beyond the capability of most people."

"But there are also retro design themes in so many things now. People are looking for established brands to deliver them a retro package," he explained.

Nick Clements, from the vintage fashion magazine Men's File, says that the interest in retro bikes that can be customised is linked to developments in the fashion industry.

"Very, very expensive menswear has turned into hand-made artisanal objects that come out of tiny workshops which look like they're from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s" he explained.

"It's almost completely sidelined the high fashion of the Pradas and the Guccis and all that.

"And people that wear that want transport to go with it," he said.

First Published: Dec 27, 2013 13:40 IST