Thursday, August 22, 2013


When photographer Michael Lichter invited me to co-curate a show of Café Racers for Sturgis Bike Week, I immediately said yes.  I'd met Michael while he was the official photographer of the Motorcycle Cannonball last September, and have been constantly impressed by his good nature, the his amazing photography, and his renown in the motorcycling world.
Riding around Sturgis; Bear Butte state park - South Dakota's Black Hills are amazing
I had no idea he'd been putting on exhibits at Sturgis for 12 years, as I'd never been to Bike Week, and didn't follow the press surrounding the's safe to say I'm a fish out of water among 250,000 Harley touring rigs.  But Café Racers are very much the waters I swim, and I've long wanted to mount exhibits of motorcycles and related art...and almost as soon as he brought me on board as co-curator, he'd secured a deal with Motorbooks to produce a coffee-table book (called, naturally, 'Ton Up!') documenting the exhibit, with my writing on the genre and its 50 year development.  My dedication to the project was secured.
Willie G's 1975 blueprint (with talking points) of his 'XL- Café Racer'
Michael's reputation in the Industry meant word leaked quickly of our subject matter, and Custom builders clamored to have their machines included,  among whom were Willie G. Davidson himself, who brought his 'Serial #1' XLCR, and his successor at H-D, Ray Drea, who built an updated version of Willie's machine - his 2013 'XR Café' - just for 'Ton Up!'  Also, BMW promised 'Ton Up!' would be the US début of their 'Concept 90', built in conjunction with Roland Sands.

I used my contact list for the historic bikes - the BSA Gold Star, Velocette Thruxton, Egli Vincent, Triton, and other seminal machines, to lay the foundation for our historic survey.  While the name Café Racer conjures repeated images of English riders from the 1950s/60s - the 'Ace Cafe/59 Club' era - the style didn't freeze in 1969. We love those Gold Stars and Tritons, but riders have carried on modifying all sorts of motorcycles with Café Racer cues for 50 years now.
The '21 Helmets' display, which grew to 27 helmets!
Sorting through the dozens of bikes offered to us, we had to set down 'The Rules' - what makes a Café Racer.  We boiled it down to the look of a 'racer on the road', with clip-on 'bars, rearset foot controls, a humped racing seat, and performance modifications.  Every Café Racer has most if not all those boxes ticked.
Mark Mederski's low-mile, original-paint '62 Norton Manx, included as the benchmark against which all Café Racers were measured...
The point of 'Ton Up!' was never 'how to make a proper Café bike' - we showed examples from 50 years of Café Racing, 1962 - 2013, to showcased the development, changes, and growth of the genre over several generations of rider/builders. A few of the machines were factory-built Cafés (BSA Gold Star, Velocette Thruxton, and Harley XLCR), but most were modified to achieve 'the look'. The 35 bikes we eventually displayed came from England, Germany, Italy, the US, and Japan, and ranged from 1950s Triumph motors in Tritons, to 2013 Triumph, Victory, and Harley-based customs.
Kevin Dunworth of Loaded Gun Customs with his 'Bucephalus' with unique alloy-plate chassis
As I installed the exhibit, with help from the Buffalo Chip's excellent crew, I heard nary a peep of criticism for bringing an 'it ain't a Harley' collection to Sturgis for Bike Week, and when the show was up, even the most inebriated accidental viewer was agog at the display of beautiful bikes.  While 35 motorcycles and a dozen artists sounds tiny in the context of the hundreds of thousands of bikes outside, the show was too much to take in a single visit.  Each of our motorcycles deserved close study; the ideas explored were sometimes radical, and generally quite beautiful.  The exhibit was an oasis of calm in the midst of Sturgis, a pleasant spot to hang out, and thousands did just that.
Mars Webster's Godet-Egli-Vincent
Here's a gallery of the bikes exhibited, followed by a bunch of random photos from my Sturgis expedition:
- Alain Bernard (Santiago Chopper)' 1996 Moto Guzzi 1100 'Patton Café'
- Arlen Ness; 1987 HD-XR 'Ness Café'
- Brad Richards (Ford Motor Co); 1999 HD 'Sporty TT'
- Brandon Holstein (Brawny Built); 2003 HD 'Brawny Sportster'
- Brian Klock (Klock Werks); 2013 Triumph T'Bird 'Café Storm'
- Bryan Fuller (Fuller Hot Rods); 1974 Ducati 750GT 'Full Sport'
- Chris Fletchner (Speed Shop Design); 1965 BSA 'Beezerker'
- David Edwards (Bike Craft editor, former Cycle World editor); 1975 Triumph T140V
                    'Trackmaster Café' (built by Danny Erickson)
- David Zemla; 2003 HD 883 'DZ Sportster'
- Deus ex Machina; 1978 BMW R100S 
- Dustin Kott (Kott Motorcycles); 1969 Honda CB450 'The 69'
- Gordon McCall (McCall Motorworks); 1965 Dunstall Norton Atlas
- Greg Hageman (Doc's Chops); 1982 Virago SV920
- Herb Harris (Harris Vincent Gallery); 1962 BSA DBD34 Gold Star
- Jason Paul Michaels (Dime City Cycles); 1968 Honda CB450 'Brass Cafe'
- Jay Hart; 1972 HD XL 'XLMPH'
- Jay LaRossa (Lossa Engineering); 1967 Honda CB77 'Lossa CB77'
- Jonnie Green (Ton Up Classics); 1965/7 Triton
- Kevin Dunworth (Loaded Gun Customs); 1967 Triumph 'Bucephalus'
- Kim Boyle (Boyle Custom Moto); 1971 Norton Commando 'Ed Norton'
- Mark Mederski (National M/C Museum); 1962 Norton Manx, 1970 Velocette Thruxton
- Mars Webster; 1950 NorVin Comet, 2002 Godet-Egli-Vincent
- Ray Drea (H-D head of design); 1984 HD XR1000 'XR Café'
- Richard Varner (Champions Moto); 2004 Triumph Bonneville 'Brighton'
- Roland Sands/BMW (RSD); 2013 BMW prototype 'Concept 90'
- Shinya Kimura (Chabott Engineering); 1974 Ducati 750GT 'Flash'
- Skeeter Todd (OCC); 1979 HD XR1000 'American Café'
- Steve 'Carpy' Carpenter; 1969 Honda CB750KO 'Tenacious Ton'
- Steve 'Brewdude' Garn (Brew Racing Frames); 1974 Yamaha RD350 'Streak'
- Thor Drake (SeeSee Motorcycles); 1985 Yamaha RZ350 'BH347'
- Willie G Davidson (retired head of H-D design); 1977 HD XLCR Serial #1
- Yoshi Kosaka (the Garage Co); 1967 Triumph-Rickman Metisse
 - Zach Ness; 2013 Victory Judge 'NessCafé Victory'

I'd like to thank the Buffalo Chip for opening their wallet big-time to ship over 30 bikes from around the US, and paying a crew to help me push 35 bikes and plinths around a 7000 square foot hall.  It was exhausting even with the help of four strong men!  I also need to thank Keyboard Motorcycle Shipping for their amazing flexibility in picking up all the non-Cali bikes from their owners, and bringing them all in perfect condition.

Zach Ness' 'Victory NessCafé', Shinya's 'Flash' Ducati, and the SeeSee '21 Helmet' display
Gordon McCall's '66 Norton Dunstall with the BMW/Roland Sands 'Concept 90'
Wild variations of feminine dress - and occasional undress - at Sturgis
Brad Andrews' 'SportyTT' faces off with Mark Mederski's Norton Manx
Closeup of SpeedShopDesign's 'Beezerker' - jewel-like precision
The full shot of the 'Beezerker' by Chris Fletchner, the only Anglo bike customizer currently working in Japan!
'Bikini Bike Wash' was among the most tame entertainments in town...$20 for a wash, which seemed a bargain to me - they were doing a great job!
My '65 Triumph Bonneville; not part of the show, just a helper for an easy commute thru Sturgis traffic
If you want to go around the incredible congestion at the heart of Sturgis, there are plenty of roads through the fields and parklands, all dirt.  The Triumph didn't mind, and the Black Hills are full of wildflowers
Portable art-hanging table, a job Edward Turner never envisioned. 'It's easy on a Triumph!'
Herb Harris' BSA DBD34 Gold Star and Dustin Kott's CB450 Honda
Loaded Gun Custom's 'Bucephalus' being un-loaded, from Keyboard Motorcycle Shipping, who did a terrific job hauling 35 bikes from around the country
One of the most popular machines in the show, judging by the reactions I gauged: the 'Tenacious Ton' by Steve 'Carpy' Carpenter, a very early Honda CB750 'KO', but not a 'sandcast'
Silkscreens from Conrad Leach, courtesy Subvecta Motus Gallery
A few of the 1280 people Michael Lichter and I addressed at the show's opening; kinda cool discussing Cafe Racers with Willie G Davidson in the audience!
The temporary HQ of The Vintagent while installing 'Ton Up!', keeping all the shipping boxes straight with the art we unpacked, where the bikes needed to go, press releases, etc.  Not a bad office.
David Zemla's 'DZ Sportster' in Michael Lichter's photo studio
One of my Tintypes on exhibit, of Shinya Kimura's 'FireBall' HD-based special, which now lives in England, so couldn't make 'Ton Up!'
Jonnie Green's Triton, a lovely machine, and excellent example of the species
Like schools of fish they stood, waiting for their final placement, being herded from this side of the hall to the other as plinths were shifted to and fro, finalizing the layout for the show
Such variety!  Arlen Ness' 'NessCafé', Mars Webster's NorVin, Mark Mederski's Manx, Webster's Godet-Egli Shadow
More variety; David Edwards' 'Trackmaster Café', Champions Moto 'Brighton', Boyle Custom Moto 'Ed Norton', Skeeter Todd's 'American Café', Carpy's 'Tenacious Ton'
Bryan Fuller's Honda CB550 with amazing Ukiyo-E engraved bodywork and chassis
Herb Harris' Gold Star with Jay Hart's XLMPH and Brawny Built 'Brawny Sportster' in back, with a Triumph tank on a Sporty - a combo I've never seen before...
The fantastic Buffalo Chip crew who helped install the show; Everett, Kevin, Kevin, and Dave
Jason Paul Michaels (Dime City Cycles) chats with Steve 'Brewdude' turned out 'Ton Up!' was a good place to introduce builders for the first time
Lovely Michael Lichter shot of filmmaker Karen Porter in front of the Ace Café, part of his display of photography, which I hung next to David Uhl's fantasy painting of a Triumph-riding woman in the very same spot. 
Michael Lichter with Mars Webster's Godet-Egli-Vincent in his temporary studio
Michael Lichter in action with Shinya Kimura's 'Flash' Ducati 750 round-case
Cyril Huze stopped in to say his and discuss the show; here with Michael and the 'Beezerker'
Michael, Willie G Davidson, Nancy Davidson, the Vintagent.
Mars Webster's NorVin Comet and Bryan Fuller's 'Full Sport' Ducati 750 round-case
Wetplate shot of Ola Stenegard, BMW chief of motorcycle design, taken in Strugis: I brought my mobile darkroom hoping to shoot a few images for my 'MotoLand' project for
Roland Sands and Ola Stenegard, in town to premier their 'Concept 90' BMW at 'Ton Up!'
Hilarious reminder of the 'redline' on Mark Mederski's Velocette Thruxton.
My Wet Plate shot of Ray Drea and his 'XR Café' outside the exhibit hall at the Buffalo Chip: thanks for being so patient Ray!
Ray Drea, the Vintagent, and Willie G: present and past Directors of Styling at Harley Davidson
Ray Drea and Willie G discuss 'Ton Up!' as they exit the opening party
Wet Plate shot of Roland Sands in Sturgis, part of the 'MotoLand' series for
Bright spot in a tough work week; Sarah Brunner of the Buffalo Chip on her 'Ton Up!' favorite, the Champions Moto 'Brighton'
The 'SeeSee' Portland sisters team checking out the 'Beezerker', which plenty of other people checked out too!  It was the most radical expression of a Cafe Racer we exhibited in 'Ton Up!'
Shinya Kimura's 'Flash' Ducati in Michael Lichter's studio
Brad Richards' 'Sporty TT' in the studio; a truly professional job, and no wonder, since he designs Ford trucks by day
The Buffalo Chip crew in action, giving a sense of how easy it is to completely fill up a 7000sq' exhibit hall...we were tucking bikes everywhere while sorting out the display order
1280 visitors for the exhibition opening, August 5th, 2013
Willie G Davidson with his 1975 concept for a Harley Café Racer: universally agreed as a design ahead of its time, and ahead of the capabilities of the machinery inside all that excellent styling.  His concept was right on, though: 3000 examples were sold in 1977/8, a sales 'failure' in HD terms, but any European factory in '78 would have been thrilled with such numbers...
My Wet Plate shot of Willie's 'Serial #1' HD XLCR, taken outside the exhibit hall, on the exit road to Sturgis, for the 'MotoLand' series
Click here for Michael Lichter's gallery of the ART displayed in 'Ton Up!'

Click here for Micheal Lichter's gallery of the MOTORCYCLES included in 'Ton Up!'

Click here for  Michael Lichter's gallery of the 'Ton Up!' Exhibit INSTALLATION

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Anonymous said...

Hi Paul,

Your blue print jpg depicts the original one off XLCR prototype that Willie G. and Jim Haubert did together at Jim's dad's premises in down town Milwaukee. It was destroyed instantly when parted up to various departments in H-D to evaluate and built 6 new prototypes, 4 mock ups and 2 with running gear.
One of these 2 survives to this day, ask me on pm if you're interested to know.

The XLCR that Willie G. displayed is one of the pre-production units,100 or so assembled early in 76 to evaluate the new assembly line procedures.

The French Owl

The Vintagent said...

French Owl,
that's fantastic information: I'd asked Willie G where the prototype had gone, and he told me it was destroyed, as is their policy. Very interesting to think one has survived.
Let's follow this up!

KT Did said...

I just love coming over here and this post is amazing with all the photos. Its all eye candy to me and certainly enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

Quite fun I imagine.. and what a cast !!

- Chris Captain Combat

Anonymous said...

Nice job! Looks like a tasty show. If ever there was a year I'd consider going to Sturgis, this would have been it.

- Randy Neil Stratton

Don OReilly said...

Hey Paul,
another awesome post, with great photos.... I'm soon to inherit an ironhead sportster (are all ironheads sportys?) which I obviously know little about, nor considered riding. But here I can see they make decent cafe bikes; things that make you go hmmm

The Vintagent said...

Don, iron Sportys can be made into nice bikes: you can either ride them easy, or do a lot of engine work to ride them hard, but the common wisdom is not to push them unless they've been sorted out. Still, they're pretty durable, and inexpensive; a lot of bike for the money in these days of six-figure motorcycles.

Don OReilly said...

hehe... yes, they must be durable, this one's from the early 70's. but the basic layout; pull back bars, peanut tank, cobra seat, etc., gives me the heebeegeeebees. Its gonna take A LOT, maybe I should start with a stars and stripes helmet!

I really like that Zemla build, beautiful inspiration.

Jon Dudley said...

Hi Paul! Great report and so good to see the café culture being warmly embraced Stateside.

Pedants Corner here - I'm a little confused at some of the nomenclature though - there must be a whole lexicon of names out there without resorting to some well-used titles - why a Brough called 'Black Knight' when the name has been well and truly appropriated by Vincent? Or 'Bucephalus' a great name after Alexander the Great's horse but again bagged by John Renwick for one of his uber-trick Vincents? And most confusing of all, the name 'Comet' applied to the super Egli Godet which appears to have a twin cylinder engine.

Seriously though, a very interesting piece. Did you get time to cover any of the other 'sites' of Sturgis?


Stevie Chas Roberts said...

John Dudley wrote above: "Great report and so good to see the café culture being warmly embraced Stateside"

How does that work? It started in America in the 1960s and never left!

Paul, do you have any historic sources to indicate otherwise?

The Vintagent said...

Steve, the classic Cade Racer moment began in the mid-1950s in England, as Clubman racing spread to the streets. Clubman racing bikes had been ridden on the road since the Teens actually, but the look we now call Cafe Racer emerged postwar with telescopic forks. People have always ridden racers on the road, but in America, racing was on dirt, so the bikes looked different. It wasn't until Harley bought Aermacchi and started road racing in the 60s that Americans started building Cafe Racers too!