#313 Dark Knights

Despite the prevailing opinion in some quarters, there’s nothing new about the café racer genre.

The café racer has a long and important history in motorcycling, dating back more than 60 years. In fact, the café racer was essentially the first custom motorcycle. But based on a piece I read recently on one of those online bike blogs, you’d think café racers were invented a couple of years ago by hipster customizers stripping surplus tinware off an old Honda four, fitting it with a wood plank for a seat and clip-on handlebars.
Well, not quite. The café racer originated in Europe in the 1950s as the direct result of sociological changes that identified a new stratum in the development of 20th Century homo sapiens—a separate stage between puberty and adulthood: the teenager. For the first time in history, adolescents weren’t tied to the farm or the mill. They weren’t just adults-in-waiting, but an important new marketing demographic. They had time, money, relatively few responsibilities—and they weren’t being sent to war. They wanted to express their freedom, and they did so by riding motorcycles. It helped that there was plenty of work, and that credit rules became more relaxed, so motorcycles were easier to buy.
At the time, a street motorcycle was just that. There were no market niches with adventure bikes or cruisers; just a uniform combination of engine, chassis, wheels and brakes optimized to provide street transportation (or to haul a sidecar). The only real variable was size, and therefore price. Sports models existed—like Triumph’s Tiger 110 and BSA’s Super Rocket—but they retained the standard look. However, there was one exception: the BSA Gold Star.
The distinctive characteristic of all Gold Stars from 1948 to 1963 (when the model was dropped) was its all-alloy single-cylinder 350 or 500cc engine. The definitive Goldie was the 1956 DBD34 Clubmans with clip-on handlebars, swept back exhaust, racing carburetor with velocity stack, and paired tachometer and speedometer. With the optional RRT2 racing gearbox, it would pull 60 mph in first gear and run on to 110 mph. It looked like a race bike—and it pretty much was. The DBD34 dominated the Isle of Man Clubman’s TT in 1956, remaining competitive until well into the 1960s; and became the pattern that all subsequent café racers were modeled on. It was the first “factory custom” if you like.
But what if you couldn’t afford a Goldie? BSA, Triumph and Norton twins were among the fastest bikes on the road (especially after the demise of Vincent in 1955), but didn’t have the Goldie’s race credentials. The Triumph 650 twins were reckoned to be the best engines of the bunch, mainly because they were plentiful and easy to tune. Norton had the best handling frame—the legendary Featherbed—but the largest Norton engine available (until 1962) was the 600cc Dominator 99. That meant leaving 50cc on the table. What to do?
Who it was that first tried to fit a Triumph engine in a Norton frame is lost to history: but one of the pioneers was certainly Dave Degens. It was at age 16 in 1955 that Degens first came across the “Triton” (Triumph-Norton) concept: an older friend had managed to fit an ironhead 650cc Triumph Tiger 110 engine into an early Manx Norton frame. The owner was kind enough to give Degens a tow home after he’d blown up the engine of his ex-military Matchless 350 in a race at the Thruxton circuit.
The iron Tiger engine was good for roughly 42 hp—about the same as a DBD34—but with a broader spread of useful torque. What Degens saw was the potential of a bike with similar performance to the Goldie but with better handling and considerable tuning potential.
Degens switched to racing a Goldie (bought with money loaned by his dad), then moved on to a works ride with BMW. At the time, he was reckoned to be as quick as the two leading British riders of the day, Mike Hailwood and Bill Ivy: but a compulsory spell in Britain’s National Service interrupted his racing career. On his return to the track, Degens revived his plan to build a Triton
Dave built his first Triton for racer Geoff Monty in 1963. Then riding his own Triton, Degens won the Thruxton 500 mile race in both 1964 and 1965. Though Triumph had by then switched to unit construction for its 650cc engines, Degens used a pre-unit Bonneville engine as a starting point, fitted into a modified Featherbed frame from a Manx Norton. Drive was by duplex primary chain (Degens had noted how many Triumph racers retired with primary chain problems) to a Triumph gearbox.
The rest of the components would become cornerstones of the café racer lexicon: clip-on handlebars, swept-back header pipes, alloy spoke wheels, velocity stacks on the paired Amal Monobloc carbs, and a tachometer mounted high above the handlebars. The whole was wrapped in a stylish, wind-efficient fairing.
It was a similar bike, fitted with a modified electrical system driving powerful Cibie headlights, that Degens and co-rider Rex Butcher entered in the 24 Hours of Barcelona at Montjuic Park in 1965. Against a formidable lineup of works teams and riders, Degens and Butcher brought the “Dresda” (Degens’s brand) Triton home in first place. Degens returned to Barcelona in 1970 with a Dresda using a unit 650cc Triumph engine in a specially constructed frame of his own design and was first home again.
Degens was also among the first to fully exploit the considerable engine power of the larger capacity Japanese bikes (often with woeful handling) that appeared in the 1970s, by fitting Japanese drivetrains into his own frames.
Not surprisingly, Degens’s bikes defined both the Triton and the style of the café racer motorcycle. And while the café look got lost for a couple of decades during the cruiser and chopper years, it’s back with a vengeance. If your pocketbook stretches that far, you can still buy an original Dresda Triton from the man who made them famous at www.dresda.co.uk.