Sturgis: to a Café Racer, a sporting rider, or even a plain ‘ol vintage rider, it’s a name with zero resonance. We all know the deal: it’s swamped with a quarter of a million bagger Harleys, peppered with unridable (except at Sturgis or Daytona) customs, salted with unasked-for exposed flesh (that cannot be un-seen), and washed out with drunken, boorish behavior.  We’ve been there as your emissary, and must report that all of your assumptions are correct. What’s also true is the Black Hills of South Dakota is a magic landscape, sacred to its original inhabitants, and a place of gentle beauty.  The landscape is an infinity of soft green grass and rolling hills, with exceptional motorcycle roads cupped between its swelling rises.

Photographer Michael Lichter, a legend in the Harley-centric world of Sturgis and V-twin ‘custom lifestyle’ books and magazines, has a warehouse-size exhibit hall dedicated to his ‘Motorcycles as Art’ exhibit, held annually at Sturgis since 2000. The exhibit was off our radar until we met Michael on the 2012 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Rally; he’s the official photographer for the event, and has ridden backwards across the USA several times now!  In early 2013 Michael asked if we could help source vintage Café Racers for his 2013 Sturgis show, to be called ‘Ton Up! Speed, Style, and Café Racer Culture’.

Michael Licther with Mars Webster’s Godet-Egli-Vincent

We were immediately on board, and suggested a formal collaboration as co-curators, as Café Racers were our first vintage love.  Paul d’Orléans’ clip-on and rearset credentials go back to the 1980s, when he co-founded the ‘Roadholders’ Café Racer club in San Francisco, and he’s owned a very long list of classic Café Racers, and covets his 1966 Velocette Thruxton as his ‘you’ll take it from my cold dead hands’ bike.

Mark Mederski (National M/C Museum) also supplied his low-mileage 1970 Velocette Thruxton

What was Michael’s reasoning for bringing a bunch of non-American canyon carvers to the mighty Bagger Bacchanal?  “I’ve been watching the explosion of interest in Café Racers over the past few years on the internet and TV, and I see parallels with the Harley custom world – the personal expression, the quality of the work – and it seemed a good, if controversial, subject for this year.”  The absolute explosion of interest in the Café Racer and ‘CB’ Custom world since 2010 has overlapped with the best of the Harley custom world, and plenty of builders known for Choppers and Bobbers are now making performance-oriented motorcycles which can be ridden around corners.

The legendary Willie G. Davidson in front of his ‘Serial #1’ H-D XLCR, his epic attempt to manufacture a real cafe racer in America.

In fact, when word leaked of the Café Racer theme for Michael’s 2013 exhibit, we found ourselves turning away well-known shops who were eager, sometimes even desperate to be included in ‘Ton Up!’  It was overwhelming actually, how many shops proposed building machines just for Sturgis: I had underestimated the importance of Michael Lichter’s show to the builders themselves. In the end 7 bikes were built expressly for ‘Ton Up!’; they ranged from Sportster to Triumph to Victory to an RD Yamaha, with stock or home-built chassis, from visually fairly ‘standard’ to completely radical and unique, from the factory-slickness of Zach Ness to the hand-hammered and sticker-covered scratcher from ‘Brewdude’.

Roland Sands/BMW (RSD) 2013 BMW prototype ‘Concept 90’ with a BSA Gold Star and Dunstall Norton

We collared our Vintage pals for prime examples of 1960s-70s Café Racers, from Herb Harris’ immaculate ’62 BSA DBD34 Gold Star Clubman and Mark Mederski’s original-paint ’70 Velocette Thruxton, to a totally killer all-black Godet-Egli-Vincent Black Shadow, loaned by Mars Webster. The 13 ‘period’ Café Racers laid the exhibit’s groundwork, as the starting point for a show covering 50 years’ continuous history for the genre.  The style of motorcycle characterized as Café Racer did not begin or end during the ‘Ace Café’ era, but is an impulse as old as motorcycling – the desire for a Racer on the Road. As a touchstone machine, we included Mark Mederski’s original-paint 1962 Norton 30M Manx, the last year of Bracebridge Street production of this seminal racer.

Mark Mederski’s low-mile, original-paint ’62 Norton Manx, included as the benchmark against which all Café Racers were measured

The Manx was hugely successful on the track, but was equally remembered for the perfection of its style, which is emulated on newly built Café Racers today, whether the bike underneath is British or Japanese. The continued evolution of the clip-on brigade included a pair of divergent Ducati round-case 750s; the Fuller Hot Rods Duc being a pared-down and slick traditionalist, and Shinya Kimura’s ‘Flash’ representing the far end of the artistic expression spectrum.

Willie G Davidson (retired head of H-D design); 1977 HD XLCR Serial #1

Another pair of machines, separated by 4 decades, showed the enduring strength of Café Racer style. Willie G Davidson pulled from his personal garage the ‘Serial #1’ HD XLCR, a landmark machine and a masterpiece from the legendary former Head of Styling at HD. In some kind of ‘first’, Willie G’s replacement at Harley, Ray Drea, on hearing his former boss would include the #1 XLCR, immediately started building his own all-Harley Café Racer, based on an XR1000 engine. The resulting ‘XR Café’ is a drop-dead gorgeous Milwaukee marvel, with completely uprated suspension, brakes, carbon fiber wheels, and hand-made aluminum bodywork which closely echoes the XLCR lines; a total performance-oriented street racer, which inherited the tough-guy good looks of its spiritual father, but kicks butt all over Dad’s spec sheet. It’s so good, I asked to buy it – but Willie G. beat me to it!

Ray Drea (then H-D head of design) built this incredible 1984 HD XR1000 ‘XR Café’

The response to ‘Ton Up!’ by Sturgis regulars, both industry pros and tipsy campers, was universally ‘WOW’. Even though we were beat from hand-placing  35 bikes on their plinths, and hanging over 200 pieces of art on the walls from 12 photographers and painters, our reaction was the same.  Remarkably, I can’t recall a museum-quality exhibit of Café Racers, anywhere on the planet, until seeing ‘Ton Up!’ set up, lit, and filled with nearly 1300 people on opening day.

1280 visitors for the exhibition opening, August 5th, 2013

Not a negative peep was heard about the show’s content and non-Harley focus, and dudes covered with wrinkled, sun-faded tattoos and Rip Van Winkle beards were as fascinated by the Docs Chops’ Yamaha Virago(!) as by the super-tough Brawny Built H-D Sportster. Many times I heard ‘this show could travel anywhere’, and while moving the whole show is prohibitively expensive, luckily Michael Lichter and Paul d’Orléans collaborated on a book based on the exhibit.  Motorbooks International changed the name to ‘Cafe Racers: Speed, Style, and Ton Up Culture’, and the book is in print in several languages (English, French, and German so far), and the text by Paul explores the real history of the ‘racer on the road’ impulse, and the nails the date of the first factory Café Racer to 1914!  You can buy it here.

‘The 69’ – Dustin Kott’s (Kott Motorcycles); 1969 Honda CB450
David Zemla’s 2003 HD 883 ‘DZ Sportster’
Cover Girl! Yoshi Kosaka (the Garage Co) brought his gorgeous 1967 Triumph-Rickman Metisse
Built for the exhibit! Jay Hart’s 1972 HD XL ‘XLMPH’
The Pitch! This is how Willie G. Davidson presented the concept for the XL-Cafe Racer to the Board of H-D in 1975!
The Zach Ness Victory with Shinya Kimura’s ‘Falsh’
David Edwards (Bike Craft editor, former Cycle World editor); 1975 Triumph T140V
The only machine that didn’t make it into the ‘Cafe Racers’ book, due to a logistical error. Ridiculous! Jonnie Green’s (Ton Up Classics) 1965/7 Triton
Installing the show was like playing Tetris, sorting various-height plinths and where each machine fit in the scheme
Paul d’Orléans’ ’65 Triumph Bonneville was a useful work table during installation, and a perfect way to blow off steam after the intense work of installing the exhibition!
Steve ‘Carpy’ Carpenter built this terrific 1969 Honda CB750KO ‘Tenacious Ton’
Brad Richards (Ford Motor Co) built this substantial 1999 HD ‘Sporty TT’. Brad is now Chief of Styling at Harley-Davidson

Skeeter Todd’s (OCC) 1979 HD XR1000 ‘American Café’ – he said he ‘wore two holes in front of his milling machine’ to make the XR top end fit an XL bottom end…
The ’21 Helmets’ display, which grew to 27 helmets!
Thor Drake’s (SeeSee Motorcycles); 1985 Yamaha RZ350 ‘BH347′[Michael Lichter]
Richard Varner’s (Champions Moto) 2004 Triumph Bonneville ‘Brighton’
Ray Drea and Willie G have a private chat
The display as completed; 15,000 visitors saw the exhibit over one week.
Roland Sands and Ola Stenegard (BMW’s chief motorcycle designer)
Zach Ness; 2013 Victory Judge ‘NessCafé Victory’
How customizers thought of Cafe Racers in 1987; the “Ness Cafe” custom bike built by Arlen Ness [Michael Lichter]
Michael Lichter set up his photo studio inside the Micheal Lichter Pavilion at the Buffalo Chip. These photos were used in the ‘Cafe Racers’ book
Epic! Gordon McCall’s (McCall Motorworks); 1965 Dunstall Norton Atlas
Several of the bikes stretched the definition of Cafe Racer – they certainly weren’t light or racy! But the Brian Klock (Klock Werks); 2013 Triumph T’Bird ‘Café Storm’ had enough other cues to quality
Speed, style and finesse; Kim Boyle (Boyle Custom Moto); 1971 Norton Commando ‘Ed Norton’
Kevin Dunworth of Loaded Gun Customs with his ‘Bucephalus’ with unique alloy-plate chassis
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.
Always fascinating; Jay LaRossa’s (Lossa Engineering) 1967 Honda CB77 ‘Lossa CB77’
Bryan Fuller’s Honda CB550 with amazing Ukiyo-E engraved bodywork and chassis, the subject of Paul d’Orléans’ profile in Cycle World.
Jason Paul Michaels (Dime City Cycles) presented this pristine 1968 Honda CB450 ‘Brass Cafe’
Woolie’s way; the Deus ex Machina 1978 BMW R100S
The art of Conrad Leach was featured.
Technically fascinating; Kevin Dunworth’s (Loaded Gun Customs) 1967 Triumph ‘Bucephalus’
Steve ‘Brewdude’ Garn’s (Brew Racing Frames) 1974 Yamaha RD350 ‘Streak’
The Brandon Holstein (Brawny Built) 2003 H-D ‘Brawny Sportster’ on set up day for Born Free 5 at the Oak Canyon Ranch. [Michael Lichter]
The $20 ‘bikini bike wash’ seemed like a pretty good deal – the girls were thorough!
Shinya Kimura’s 1974 Ducati ‘Flash’ in epic company, waiting to be installed in the Ton Up! exhibit
Unique! The Chris Fletchner (Speed Shop Design) 1965 BSA ‘Beezerker’, which we’ve ridden!
Two women riders, in very different gear! Such is Sturgis…


Paul d’Orléans is the founder of He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.