During a broadcast of Café Racer, viewers take in thousands of individual images, some of which zip across the TV screen so quickly, our brains sometimes wonder whether we’ve actually seen what was actually there. The speed of it all reminds me of the first visit to the Isle of Man TT I made about eight years back; I was shooting photos as fast as my Cannon Rebel would allow, with the shutter pressed to the metal and the electronic motor on “full sports” more which allowed the camera’s brain to enter hyperdrive mode. Unfortunately, when I returned home and went to the photo processing stores (remember those?) I was shocked to find my film was about half-filled with empty frames- the racers were whizzing by so fast, that most frames contained only a rear tire, if that.
That experience- which seems funny with a few year’s distance applied- reminds me of a shot that appears very briefly during the promotional summary segment that aired during the first show of this season on Wednesday, August 43. It was filmed at Squires Coffee Bar near Leeds, England and captured a fellow doing a massive burn-up on an original Manx Norton. For the uninitiated, the Manx Norton was the racing machine of the 1960s, claiming more British and International racing titles than Usain Bolt does today in track and field. For a 350cc or 500cc single, the Manx clearly punched above its weight – so much so that a few years back, Grand Prix champ Phil Read took on a modern Yamaha YZF-R1 with his trusty bump-start-only Manx Norton and lapped England’s Donnington Park circuit nearly as fast as the R-1 pilot!
Well, when our crew spotted the Manx sitting beneath the Squires sign, we struck up a conversation, and during our chat, asked just how fast the little silver devil could actually go. “About 130 when she’s in the proper mood,” the owner proudly boasted, which caught us off guard. A true 130MPH form an air-cooled, four valve, 500cc single just didn’t add up, not when we’ve struggled to do 120 on modern, air-cooled café bikes manufactured and designed in the modern age. But before we could voice our doubts, CRTV producer Brad Jones was shoving the Manx and its rider along the Squires car park, helping to bump-start the machine, which erupted to life in a glorious swell of single-cylinder thunder.
The crew placed their cameras alongside the undulating, two-lane road adjacent to the coffee shop and as a small crowd of rockers gathered to see the legendary machine in action, the owner revved his throttle for all it was worth and blasted past us at a speed well in excess of the ton. Grin firmly planted on his face, he turned around and burned by us again, even faster. You can youtube the clip and share in this amazing spectacle and I’m glad we were there to see it ourselves. If our collective jaws didn’t scrape the pavement that day, they should have and it wasn’t the first- and thankfully will not be the last – time we’ve been completely godsmacked by the sheer speed and mechanical prowess of a vintage café racer. No wonder riders in the know treat Manx Nortons with the respect and reverence NBA players did a Michael Jordan jump-shot. Who knows how Norton created a machine with that sort of performance capability back in the days when most streetbikes were barely capable of wheezing their way to 100 MPH, but the next time I doubt some old school rocker about his machine’s top speed, I’ll remember that particular ride.
Now, I wonder if we can piece one together in our own garage…