This is going to be a Cafe Racer Retrospective, and it is a bit long. It is something that I never published formally, though it is probably still in the archives of the Bridgestone Motorcycle Forum. But first, a brief explanation…
Back in 2000, I fell in love with an obscure brand of motorcycle, built in the late 1960s by the same Bridgestone company who still make tires today. They were all two-strokes, with disc-valve induction and other innovations that made them unique among the motorbikes of the time.
An ad for the Bridgestone 350 GTR, with very stylish “farkle”…
Bridgestone quit making them when the competition threatened to stop buying their tires for OEM fitment. They made much more money with tires than they did on these racy, high-quality scramblers and streetbikes, so the decision was really a no-brainer.
These machines have a fanatical following amongst a small group of eccentrics, and somehow I caught the bug. The first one I bought was stock, and not running. While I was preparing to restore it, I located a 350 GTR which had been modified for racing. It was owned by a NASA engineer down in Titusville, Florida, and it was rumored to run very well indeed.
He wanted a stock bike to restore, and I wanted a streetable cafe racer, so we resolved to make the trade. My Dad and I embarked on an epic roadtrip in my pickup truck to go and fetch it. That is a story in itself, but not here, and not now…
We brought the bike back to Minnesota, and I quickly learned that it had an expensive appetite for 100+ octane race gas. It would ping on anything less. The fiberglass tank was held in place by an old hemp belt, stretched longitudinally over the top. The expansion chamber exhausts were suitable for the racetrack, but a bit loud for riding to work at six in the morning. Still, it was a wonderfully unique ride, and I enjoyed it immensely, until I siezed the engine on a top-speed run several months after this was written…
My Bridgestone GTR Cafe Racer, “Moriarty”, posed next to a Ford Trimotor.
First Call to Grid
I had one of the best rides of my life today. It wasn’t on a racetrack, at least not physically. It wasn’t for a very long distance either. There was nothing remarkable about it other than the fact that I was on my GTR cafe racer, the sun was shining, and it was almost 50 degrees. That’s above zero.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. All the weather pundits and witch doctors agreed that it would rain ferociously from sullen, cloud-choked skies from Friday right through sometime in the middle of next week. On Saturday, I was at work at nine thirty in the morning when the power was knocked out by high winds and falling trees.
So you can imagine my surprise when, sitting in my garage this sleepy Sunday morning, fettling this and polishing that, the sun appeared suddenly through a break in the clouds. I peered at it skeptically for several long moments. Still holding a carburetor float bowl in my hand, I walked out into the middle of the yard, and scanned the horizon for 360 degrees. No doubt about it, the clouds were slowly breaking up, and it was starting to get warmer!
A rush of adrenaline surged through me as I ran back to the garage and pulled Moriarty, my 1968 Bridgestone GTR Cafe Racer, out into the light for the first time in almost 5 months. All his control cables, chain, nuts, bolts, and tire pressure were adjusted to perfection. He wasn’t completely clean and polished, I was planning on doing that over the course of the next several days of bad weather, but it would be absolutely criminal to miss an opportunity like this.
The only nagging question was whether 100 octane race gas, with no stinking additives, had remained stable during the long winter storage. This question was answered on the seventh kick, as a cloud of blue smoke erupted from the pipes and “The Devil’s Own Chainsaw” shattered the stillness of a sleepy Sunday morning in West Saint Paul.
I had to hold the enrichener open for quite awhile, while simultaneously blipping the throttle, just to keep him running. I’m sure this really endeared me to my neighbors, but they know me by now. To complain at this point would be like somebody moving in next to an airport and then whining to city hall about jet noise.
Satisfied that he was ready to roll, I shut him down and ran into the house to suit up. No leather snowmobile bibs this time, no balaclava, just pure motorcycle riding gear today. I put on a wool scarf to protect my throat against the 40-some degree wind, and selected my full-face Arai Renegade rather than my customary pudding bowl and goggles. After informing my wife and the wee savage (daughter Emily) of my intentions, I went back out the door for the familiar take-off ritual.
I rotated the kickstart outward, but then thought better of it. Turning on the ignition, I pulled in the clutch and snicked it into first gear. Then, running a few steps down the slope of the driveway, I jumped on sidesaddle and bump-started the beast like Mike Hailwood himself.
Swinging my right leg over, I turned down the street and brought Moriarty slowly up through the gears. The air was crisp, and the raspy howl of his disc-valve twin echoed off the houses on either side of the road. Taking a deep breath, I experienced Profound Joy for the first time after many months of dreaded Winter.
Keeping to the city streets and a sedate 30mph speed limit, I rode slowly and savored every sensation. All the while I was listening and feeling for any unusual vibrations or noises, but the faithful GTR was simply chomping at the bit and waiting to be unleashed. Noting the sand almost everywhere on the roads, I decided caution should rule the day. No weaving to heat up the tires, no scraping the pegs around corners, just a simple putt past all my familiar haunts.
First stop was Dunn Brother’s on Grand Avenue, for a mocha and a blueberry scone. Parking up, right in front, we drew many appreciative glances. I always enjoy watching guys walk up to the bike, squint at it for a bit, and then seeing that cartoon question-mark pop above their head as they try to figure out just what in the heck that thing is, anyway. The only clue is the “350 GTR” badge on the left side cover, and that is on the side away from the curb.
Finally I called out “`68 Bridgestone GTR!”, and the inevitable conversation ensued. I find this interface with complete strangers one of the most satisfying parts of owning a vintage bike.
Back on the road, after another theatrical run-and-bump start down the middle of Grand Avenue, we headed down West River Road to enjoy the scenery. The Lycra-Clad Trotters were out in force on the paths along the river. I felt like a one-man parade as several of them waved, and I spent a lot of time waving back. Something about that Bridgestone sound really attracts their attention.
The bluffs along the river reflected that sound back to me, and there was no way I could hold to the 25mph speed limit along the parkway for very long. As soon as I could see about a half mile down the road, and satisfy myself there were no speed traps in my immediate future, I twisted the throttle and let it rip through a couple gears. Cresting a hill, I tested the twin-leading-shoe brake on the front, which brought me back to legal velocity with a moderate two-fingered squeeze.
I stopped at my secret source for race gas and filled the tank, on my way to Bob’s Java Hut. The price for 100 octane is up to $2.49 a gallon now, $.50 more than last season, but still a bargain for the trouble-free running, extra performance, and especially that wonderful smell!
At Bob’s I noticed a few other hearty souls had taken advantage of nature’s oversight. There was an old Yamaha 175 enduro parked up on the corner, a GS-something BMW on knobby tires and lanky suspension, and a T595 Triumph Daytona in Basic Black, with a fancy titanium aftermarket exhaust.
I got a simple cup of coffee at the counter and was very lucky to hot-seat into a just vacated table by the window. The joint was packed, mostly with the too-hip, strung-out, uptown Minneapolis crowd. But the bikers were coming back, and would soon take over for another season of bench racing and outrageous lies. I sat there only long enough to warm up and finish my one cup, then it was back down the road I knew not where…
I ended up at a local Irish pub called Molly Quinn’s. Inside, it’s like being magically transported to the Island Kingdom, with authentic accents and a choice of several different brands of Stout, Ales, and of course Harp’s bitter lager. I ordered a pint of Guinness and sat back to soak up the ambience.
This is what cafe racing is all about, here in America at the turn of the century. The agents of law enforcement have become too overbearing and technically adept for us to engage in ton-up antics on urban streets. A bike in impound and my ass in jail is too steep a price to pay for a little testicle-tightening thrill, especially when access to a racetrack is only a month away.
So I contented myself by sipping my Guinness, gazing at my motorcycle out the window on this brilliant spring day, and counting my blessings. When I got home, I would do some more work on my Cafe Scrambler project, and take the girls out for a walk if the weather held until sunset. It had been a long, cold winter here, but one day like this can erase months of boredom and frustration if you let it. The sun is shining… It’s time to ride!