Years ago I wrote a book called The Cafe Racer Phenomenon and as part of my research I went to see Dave `Crasher’ Croxford, a true character and a guy who famously crashed his racing bikes hundreds of times and never broke a decent sized bone in his body.
I was backing up old files onto a USB stick, and found the raw notes that jotted down back in 2007, right after speaking to Dave. Here are some extracts, which capture the feel of the 50s and 60s Cafe Racer scene – and UK road racing – perfectly.
“I got into sidecar racing when I was young. I was an apprentice toolmaker then, they were great days in the 50s for me, I made loads of bits in aluminium dural, which I nicked from the workshop, then sold the bits to mates. The Ace Cafe was a good place to go, there were a few bikes that were fast, and lads who raced. There was some bullshit though, people used to say they’d taken Neasden bridge at 90mph – impossible, too bumpy. Stories about racing some place whilst a record was on the jukebox happened, but not that often…there’s a lot of myths about now. The thing that stands out is how good we were back then, lads didn’t carry guns and knives about with them, the trouble wasn’t anything like as bad as it is now. You couldn’t even score a hookey packet of fags at the Ace, never mind stuff falling off the back of a lorry…it was a clean-cut era really.”
“The Busy Bee had two doors in it, no steep steps, so you could ride a bike straight through…which some guys did on a Friday night, but you were being a bit of rebel if you pulled tricks like that, most guys were surprisingly well behaved. The only other place I went was the Chelsea Bridge, maybe a local pub…but the Ace was the place to go in North London. If you were travelling to Brands Hatch there were a couple of places, Bill Ivy started his racing at the Hill Top cafe I think…”
“I had a big Healey sports car, and I owned a Gold Star on HP. But I lost my licence, bit of a stitch-up with the law really, but there y’go…the Goldie was re-possessed. So while I was banned I built a Manx Norton cafe racer, used the engine from the sidecar race outfit. It was a quick bike – I had racing leathers on at the Ace, so I thought I was the bee’s knees! Hardly anyone wore leathers in those days…but I crashed it at a roundabout, hit a concrete barrier…but didn’t damage myself too badly, really lucky. That was what prompted me to go solo racing, and finish with posing about down the Ace..”
“As regards bikes, I had a Triumph Tiger 100, that never really ran right, but then I didn’t know how to set the timing properly…everything was back of a fag packet then, unless you were a real engineer like say Peter Williams. Very clever bloke Peter, brilliant at setting up bikes. I liked the Norton 88 and 99 model Dommies, they were good machines, so I ended up racing quite a few Nortons. When I started riding in the mid ’50s the Manx Norton was considered a really lovely bike, the best thing to have if you could find one.”
“The Gold Star and Road Rocket were the most popular BSA choices and the Triumph Bonneville arrived in the early 60s, became the top bike, at least in terms of speed…I liked the Goldie, you could make `em go quick, might break your leg when trying to start it. One thing I recall is that the brakes on nearly every bike then were absolute crap.”
“If you were building a Triton – or any mix of one make’s chassis and another bike’s engine – you needed to make your own engine plates. It was usual to make a cardboard cut-out first, because everything was trial and error and that’s why people like Degens and others figured out some basic problems and could sell plates, footrests, oil tanks etc as a kit, or build something for you.”
“In terms of bike development things were simple then, in the 60s I fitted hotter cams, race pipes, junk the kick-starter to save weight…set the timing with a small light, got some Ferodo brake linings, Manx close-ratio gearbox…that was about it. I even used to switch tyres around to get maximum wear from them from a couple of meetings.
“Think I was the first racer to use a disc brake, that was back in ’66. Met this guy Colin Linton from New Zealand, he told me he was gonna make a disc brake for bikes. He made a huge disc, plus a carrier from old boiler plate, cast iron caliper from a Mini Cooper, plus master cylinder, and made up a linkage…think the pads came from the Mini as well. It was incredibly heavy. I tested it at Mallory Park and it felt great braking late into the hairpin, so I was the first bloke to win a race there with a disc brake..as far as I know Colin sold the patent to Lockheed, but I know he sent it to BSA, Triumph, Norton…all of `em…they just laughed. That was the British bike industry at that time, they had idiots running the factories.”
“On the track back then, you could out-brake nearly everyone else with that disc – the only thing it lacked was the feel, the sensitivity you got with a real nice twin shoe drum brake…I rode the restored John Player Norton that was damaged in the Museum fire, and I thought the brake was so wooden, I couldn’t believe that I raced it so hard!”
“Paul Dunstall used to sponsor Ray Pickrell, and Paul realised that the disc brake and other chassis developments were long overdue…he was good at making plates, footrests, bracing frames and other mods to improve on the Nortons, then later with Suzukis…Colin Seeley tried to do a complete road bike, but I think he did a few hundred, it was better to offer the kits I think, or offer tuning for racers and the faster road riders.”
Colin Seeley was a right fussy bugger, the type who insisted on a matching cup and saucer…you could eat your dinner off the workshop floor and everything was in symmetrical lines in the shop, rows of immaculate bikes and bits. Other tuners, like say Joe Ryan from Ireland was the opposite way; dirty looking bikes, scruffy, but really fast Nortons. He knew his stuff. You had to know lots of tricks and dodges to get the best from British bikes back then, or be a clever engineer like Pete Williams – then you could build a bike that was capable of winning races. Happy days!”
The Cafe Racer Phenomenon is still in print, available on Amazon.