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Universal Technical Institute's Motorcycle Mechanic Institute (MMI) is more than a place of learning. It’s a place to explore your passions.
For those who love vintage bikes or want to see from where the sleek machines of today evolved, the Vintage Café Racer class is a hands-on trip to the past. Along with learning about a variety of vintage bikes, there’s a focus on café racers, a movement that’s all about stripping things down and going fast.
The best part? These mechanic classes are available to the general public.
Café racer motorcycles were born from the same spirit of youthful rebellion as rock and roll. Where rock and roll displaced the boring brass of the big bands with stripped down, guitar driven noise, café racers also challenged the conventions of the day.
“The iconic motorcycle influencers, those guys who were the original hipsters, who didn’t even know they were the hipsters. All those guys were riding cool, chopped up bikes,” said Gary Stiles, Educational Manager at Motorcycle Mechanic Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.
They took away all that was dull and unnecessary from their bikes in the need to go faster. And like rock and roll, their movement was driven by the bravado and reckless energy of youth.
In the late 50s and 60s when hot rods were scorching down the streets of the USA, a bunch of scrappy kids in the United Kingdom were tearing down their own streets on motorcycles. Car culture had yet taken hold of the UK due to economic reasons, so they had to go fast on two wheels instead of four.
They chose a minimalist aesthetic in the types of motorcycles they rode. This wasn't rooted in any sort of upper class sophistication, but from their own working class practicality. They took what they could afford and customized their motorcycles in the image of the more expensive British race bikes of the time.
They were DIY before being DIY was a thing.
Café racers claimed their territory at the many coffee shops, otherwise known as transport cafés, dotting their cities. The epicenter of the scene was the Ace Café, located in London. Here and at many other cafés they would hang out and wait for challengers to show up.
These cafés were often the starting lines and finish lines of many races. What was important was going fast for a short distance. These bikes weren't built for the long haul.
And café racers liked to see just how high they could push their speedometers—that is if their dead weight hadn’t been discarded. Their goal was to hit "the ton" which was 100 mph. It was quite the feat for bikes that weren't race bikes. The only way to meet the triple digit ambition was to customize what they had to go faster.
Café racers had to find any way possible to increase the speed of their bikes and this meant taking away anything that was weighing their bikes down. Passenger pegs were scrapped, the rear seat removed, and those wide bars were scrapped in favor of lowered clip on bars.
“It’s about making things sparse with performance being at the heart of the bike. In their aesthetics, the form follows the function in a big way,” Stiles said.
All those parts that were taken away or replaced were a part of streamlining the bike. What began as practical modifications by these speed obsessed bikers turned into a movement that changed motorcycle design forever.
Minimizing wind resistance was also necessary in going faster. The geometry of the rider had to come down so they were on a flatter plane closer to the bike. And these modifications, like the lowered handlebars brought the rider lower. It decreased the drag but at times made things less comfortable.
But once again, these café racers weren't concerned about going far. They wanted to win in the short run.
This class, lead by lead instructor Terry Jasper, isn’t a part of the regular curriculum. It’s a standalone class offered at the MMI Phoenix campus location and you don’t have to be enrolled at MMI to take it.
For six weeks students learn all about taking a bike that could have been sitting in a junkyard for years and learning the steps necessary to get it back on the road.
“This Vintage Café Racer course does have touch points, but it’s driven by our students’ interests and the bikes we can get our hands on,” Stiles said.
Students do everything from cleaning up carburetors and pistons to reconditioning the valves and rebuilding the wiring harness, which are all basics in working with vintage bikes. Basic welding skills, parts fabrication and customization techniques like pinstriping are all essential parts of the learning experience.
And tricks of the trade like how to free up rusted bolts, how to replace a thread and cutting down the wiring harness and getting rid of everything that isn’t necessary are all learned hands on.
Students take a similar DIY approach to that the original café racers took in modifying and customizing motorcycles, but with better tools.
“It’s really weird because it doesn’t feel like teaching. It feels like working on a team, where some team members have less experience. And for those who don’t, we bring them up to speed” said Gary Stiles, about the spirit of collaboration that is so much a part of the learning environment.
“Students lean on me for the history and how things were done, but sometimes we let the students, even those without any preconceived notions, create these crazy things based on what they think is possible,” he added about the flexible curriculum.
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