The Cafe Racer Festival at Montlhery gets better every year – it is fast turning into the most exciting bike event in Europe
If you can bear to turn away from the frantic dirt track action (see p125) and look over your right shoulder, you can just make out Honda endurance four-strokes and screaming F750 two-strokes arcing gracefully down into the chicane from the monolithic banking of the Montlhery autodrome. Look over your left shoulder and there’s the Sultans of Speed drag racers’ temple standing proud above a selection of custom bike stands. And when the noise of race bikes die away, the pleasant jingle jangle of Creedence wafts across the airwaves.
The Cafe Racer Festival at Montlhery, just 30 miles south of Paris, has a wonderful 1970s feel, not just from the eclectic mix of machinery but also from the laid-back vibe that lifts you from the stressed-out world and plonks you in a wonderful petrolhead playground.
Location is everything. Autodrome de Linas-Monthlery was originally built as a 1.58-mile banked oval racing circuit back in 1924. A road course was added in 1925, making it 7.76 miles. Pre-war it hosted bike and car Grands Prix. Post-war its major event was the Bol d’Or, the legendary French 24-hour endurance race.
How it all started
Bertrand Busillet, a former MotoGP journalist and owner of the excellent Cafe Racer magazine, organises the Festival: “Back in 2003, when I was a contributor to Cafe Racer, we came here for a photoshoot and I realised what an amazing venue it is. In 2009, the company owning the
magazine decided to sell – so I bought it and hosted a special event for our strong community of readers. That same year I’d been inspired by the sprint races at Glemseck and I thought maybe we’d try a sprint, but then I thought of Montlhery. The track had just had some work done which meant it could be used again – for demonstration purposes only, with a speed limit of 100mph,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye.
Five years ago Bertrand, with his team of two, launched the Cafe Racer Festival – a run-what-yabrung trackday for customs and classics, with plenty of other attractions. Which is what it still is.
Way beyond cafe racers
“My idea was to invite readers – to have Cafe Racer magazine live,” says Bertrand. “It’s all about the motorcycle lifestyle. The magazine and the festival are called Cafe Racer but it’s way beyond that. It’s life in the garage. It’s also much more than cafe racers now. It’s evolved into all kinds of customs and classics.” The French are far more steeped in cafe racer culture than even us Brits. That might be hard to swallow, but while cafe racers were part of the Sixties Rockers era in the UK, their popularity faded as the bigger, faster, more reliable Japanese superbikes became fashionable in the Seventies.
The French, however, put their own twist on the new breed of superbike. I can remember going to my first Bol d’Or in 1976 and virtually every Z1 and CB750 sported clip-ons, hump seats and truncated Devil pipes. It was a scene driven by two things: endurance racing and the Joe Bar comic heroes.
And while we still worshipped Ogri and his rorty old Vincent in Bike magazine, Joe Bar characters moved with the times from naked superbikes and onto more modern cafe racers. I could never work out if the French bikers and bikes were caricatures of Joe Bar – or vice versa.
Mon Cafe Racer’s Pascal Thomas brought along several bikes, including a cobby-looking 1980s XJ900 cafe racer and a work-in-progress 1983 750cc Virago. “The young people are working hard, but it’s tough for them to make good money so I build bikes for them,” Pascal says. “I used to be a retailer but I’ve retired. I’m no machinist but have many friends who are so we can build bikes like this, and keep the costs sensible.”
Luis Moto had a delightful Honda Dominator in a trackercome- cafe racer style – and a VFR1200F cafe racer. Both had enough chrome to sear your retinas, but still looked cool. Toulouse-based PZF Motorcycles, owned by Frederic Pissolitto, got MotoGP chassis company BMS to fabricate a neat alloy tube frame around an RD200 motor, which Frederic then reversed the cylinders on. “I wanted everything compact and with the exhaust pipes facing forward there was too much bulk with the chambers under the bike,” he said. The bike rolls on 17in wheels, has Cagiva 125 forks and a Honda CB450 front brake. Frederic produced formers for the tank, seat and fairing tank to make the final components out of polyester. Not all his bikes are this complex. On the stand were a neat XS650 tracker and a stock restoration of Yamaha’s 650 twin.
We loved the tidy orange XT500 on the Classic Machines stand, and discovered it was a show bike to promote the Classic Machines Festival for classics up to 1991 at Carole, just north of Paris, held just two weeks after this event. The same people run Iron Bikers at Carole in April for bikes from the 1940s to 1981.
There were plenty of Brit bikes too with the Club Triton France, major supporters of the show since its birth, teaming up with the Triumph Owners Club France and the World Association of Triumph Owners Club to present an impressive array of modified Meriden-based bikes, including a lovely JoMo-inspired 1948 T100 (JoMo was Triumph’s west coast-based distributor); a wacky T25SS 250 single-based sprinter and two very different TriBSAs, one in scrambler guise with a 1969 T120R motor and the other a red glitter-flake bobber based on a 750cc-kitted 1955 pre-unit T120 with Joe Hunt mag, dirt-tracker side-mount oil tank and very early Lockheed calipers.
It wasn’t all classic by any means. Parisbased Bad Winners were there with their outrageous Apex, low-slung Triumph Bonneville, the 125 Suzuki owner Walid has done as a series of ten identical bikes, plus a new CB400T tracker.
Baak Motorcyclettes from Lyon had its chunky Triumph twins fitted with Firestones. Kikishop had its dragsterstyled Suzuki GSX-E but reckons it has two brand new builds nearing completion.
It wasn’t all French fancies either. Star Twin is Holland’s longest-established Ducati dealership – just an hour from Amsterdam (isn’t everywhere in Holland and hour from the capital?) – and it fronted-up with a cafe racer-styled Scrambler with lots of Rizoma parts.
Star Twin boss Wieger Heukels says: “We sell plenty of different Ducati models but the Scrambler brings a new client base of younger riders to our store.” And Axel Budde of Kaffe-maschine came from Hamburg to show off his engineering with the beautifully, super slick Guzzi cafe racers.
The great thing about Bertrand’s festival is that while the cafe racers and classics remain unchanged, key new elements are introduced annually. This year there was flat-track racing and the Essenza Sprint.
“Each year I try to add something new,” says Bertrand. “Last year we has Sud Side from Marseille (www.sudside.org), a kind of bike circus. They had a BSA on a tightrope. It was all mad – but great fun. This year we are trying flat-track and built a special oval course. We have always had the sprint, but this year we have Essenza which is a little more manufacturer based (see page 136).”
The dirt oval was more demo than pure racing, but it was a chance to give the French fans a little taster of a sport that’s spreading fast across Europe. You can see why all this created the impression that the event just seemed to keep on giving.
Manufacturers go for it
Opposite the spacious Triumph stand was Ducati with 26 Diavels on hand for customers to try – Montlhery has a second road circuit which is perfect for ride-outs.
Harley-Davison arrived with what appeared to be the set from London’s Excel Show in February (in other words – huge) and featured an interesting streamliner that looked built to blast.
BMW had a broad selection of machinery that wasn’t just custom-based.
Yamaha was there with its Yard Build show, which was pretty much the same as Bike Shed. Ditto Enfield. While French company Mash was promoting its cool 400cc singles and threw in a Von Dutchthemed custom.
The big clothing companies were there too. Rev’It had the crazy H2 Kawasaki wrapped in a white perimeter frame – we love those laser-cut slicks, but they’ll need to get a grip to live up to the challenge laid down by TW Steel for Glemseck…
If Triumph UK is so lacking in ideas how to engage with the custom scene in the UK (and it is judging by the sorry effort at the Bike Shed Tobacco Dock show), it should have a chat with its cousins at Triumph France. This was the standout show of the festival, promoting the Thruxton R with ten customised bikes from dealers across the country in a competition called Jeu Concours Thruxton Project.
The rules were simple: build ‘the most beautiful machine of the Cafe Racer Festival’ and ‘participate in the sprint competition.’ The winner was decided not on the track, but by a public vote from showgoers. Not all the bikes were new builds. The 146bhp ‘White Bike’ that Carl Fogarty raced in the Essenza sprint at Glemseck last year was part of the expo.
There was also a lovely Thruxton R built in the American racing Triumph colours, with a styling nod to the Daytonawinning 500s twins of ’67 and the livery of the 1970s triples.
Guests of honour
The festival guests of honour were Colin Seeley and George Martin (of Moto Martin) – both of them famous for their aftermarket frames.
Colin effectively saved the British bike industry from extinction by making his own single-cylinder racing engines and keeping them competitive in his lightweight chassis. He made frames for Barry Sheene’s works Suzukis, Paul Smart’s works Kawasaki triples and became known worldwide for his racing frames. He also made frames for road machines, including a Condor G50 and Honda CB750 – examples of both which were at the show. Colin, now 81, said: “There’s such a nice collection of bikes here. I never realised I had such a following in France. I started my business at 18 and I never dreamed that the Seeley name would still be represented like this.”
Moto Martin was established by George Martin in 1972 when the early Japanese superbikes needed decent chassis to use their awesome horsepower. His tubular frames harnessed the power of the early Kawasaki and Honda fours as well the six cylinder Honda CBX. Martin always finished his bikes with curvaceous bodywork.
Over 6800 Moto Martins were built, some for racing but mostly for road-going specials. After early tubular frames he switched to beam frames and when the superbikes finally had chassis to match the horsepower, he switched to kit cars.