The Cooling of the Classics

Bikes Culture


“The thing is with modern bikes, is they’ve got no soul.” Rob, proprietor of the Ace Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission district, presides over one of the hubs of neo classicism of San Francisco’s biker community. “There’s nothing like a bit of English Iron to get the adrenalin going…” he laughs.

Rob is a twenty five year émigré from Liverpool who cherishes his accent as much as he does his hard won beer and wine license from the city of San Francisco. As he tells me this, he puts another beer down on the bar as another pod of black leather and denim-clad young bucks with sculpted features and a Friday vibe stream into the Ace.

On the walls are a series of homages to classic bike scenarios, Manx vistas, racer portraits, retro oil ads and admonitions to the young and the reckless in the shape of back-to-back loops of On Any Sunday. “ Sure I’ve ridden Japanese bikes, owned tons of them. But I keep going back to British machines, as well as the odd Italian. They’ve got something more to them than loads of revs and loads of technology.”

And Rob and the crew at the Ace are just part of a huge movement toward classic European bikes here in San Francisco. But the hipster capital of the world, ubiquitously wired, post ironic and self styled capital of the American left field, is at the vanguard of a global phenomenon that has as much to do with disillusionment as it has to do with a regeneration of fashion sensibility.

Tony is a salesmen at Munroe Motors, on Valencia Street in the Mission, just round the corner from the Ace. “It’s unbelievable how popular Ducatis and Triumphs are becoming these days, “ he tells me as the slanted Californian light glints beautifully off the acreage of European steel lined up deliciously in the Munroe shopfront. “I think that it’s because people realise now that bikes are not only brilliant value and are relatively environmentally friendly, that European they are more craft-oriented and mechanically accessible than super high-tech bikes from Japan.”

But underlying this trend toward getting back to mechanical integrity is an undercurrent of romance, an aesthetic rejection of all things electronic and over-designed. “As soon as I got on a Ducati I knew I’d never go back” Crash tells me. The worryingly monikered twenty eight year old graphic designer (who is also a bike riding instructor part time), and tells me of the beauty of his Ducati Classic Sport S (above).

In a sense the return to the classic in Biking in San Francisco is a nod to the general zeitgeist. While bikers will always be petrolheads at heart, jump on a classically proportioned machine with passionate design and minimalist electronics and you’ll evoke a simpler, less guilt ridden time when getting from A-to B was not only about having as much fun as possible, but was also about hand wrought, hard won expertise. In San Francisco biking parlance, Classic means European, and European means style. In San Francisco, the classics have been well and truly cooled. And what happens in USA happens soon amongst the Eurotrash. Watch this space. And fire up that Triumph.


6 Responses to “The Cooling of the Classics”

  1. robert smith

    If you look at early jap bikes a lot of the styles were British, but the companies would not move with the times and the designer has to eat. Also the gaskets were far superior and the engines did not leak oil.

  2. Phil Davis

    I am old enough to remember objects of desire like the original Bonneville and the Triton (Norton frame – triumph engine) – even better the Vincent 1000 although you couldn’t call it a cafe racer. They all leaked oil and you spent more time with a spanner than you did riding them but there was something about them that the efficient Japanese machines could never match. Perhaps it was the sound they made or the fact that you didn’t just ride them you cherished them and coaxed the last ounce of power out of them.

    My modern Bonneville retains some of this character along with an oil tight engine and a lot of modern conveniences. The Hinkley bikes are certainly as good as anything from Japan and some at least retain the character. It is unfortunate that the new Bonneville has gone over to alloy wheels and fuel injection although it still looks like a real motorbike.

  3. Richard Hardman

    British bikes can be made just about oil tight and they can be reliable. My Velocette MSS cost £4 and I used it for commuting to London for 10 years once I had got it running correctly. It was economical and just as fast as the current Japenese bikes in the traffic. I still have it and along with my Vincent Black Shadow I can not think of any bikes to replace them.

  4. Rob Whitton

    Sorry but your talking rubbish for me many Jap bikes are classics as well by your own criteria. I have a 63 bonneville cafe racer, great classic but my Kawasaki Z1’s are just as much classics, even my Duc 916 is a classic and my mk1 R1 will be as well.

  5. Why do we always knock old Brits for leaking oil? The chrome on Italian bikes was worse than on the average loo roll holder, the German bikes were so pricey only real Gentlemen could afford them, the old US bikes would not go around corners and the old Japanese bikes inspired a legion of frame builders the handling was so useless! Okay, they dropped a drip here and there which was unsightly – but rust was never a problem, they sounded great, looked great and most important of all they handles well on what passed for roads in the UK back then… Why didn’t we invest more? We spent all our money on rescuing the French and others from the first and second attempts at European unions and had nothing left for gaskets! We quite literally blew the lot. buy a good Commando and see what you are missing.

  6. Brit bikes leaked oil because of the way the crankshaft was made and the bearings were fitted which dictated the way the crankcase was split – nothing to do with gaskets (although they are better now!).