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The New Cafe Racer Paradigm

Sunday, October 16, 2016 23:24
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The New Café Racer Paradigm
Revival Cycles’ Rickman-Velocette
Paul d'Orleans 2016

Revival Cycles' Rickman-Velocette – best of the genre?
The Rickman brothers made their name in the late 1950s by embarrassing the British motorcycle industry in motocross. They ditched the heavy lug-and-tube frames of the barely modified roadsters that passed for competition machines at the time, and built their own brazed-up lightweight chrome-moly frames, which they nickel plated for show, and also to reveal cracks from hard use. Rickman collaborated with Doug Michenall of Avon fairings for the fiberglass bodywork on their Rickman frames, which made them among the best looking motorcycles anywhere when they began selling chassis kits to the public in 1961.
The compact and sleek aluminum fairing built by Andy James
Only a few years later, they took their idea road racing, with a lighter, narrower, and stiffer chassis than the industry-standard Norton featherbed, into which mostly Triumph engines were slotted, although they also made frames for Norton, Matchless, and Velocette motors—or anything else by special order. At first these were strictly road racers, but their real popularity was on the street, where a Rickman-anything was a glittering attraction wherever parked. By the 1970s, four-cylinder engines from Honda and Kawasaki were housed in wider Rickman frames, and the company survives today, ready to frame up whatever you’ve got.
Stunning details, and simplicity
A Rickman chassis, like a Triton or BSA Gold Star, has a silhouette enshrined in the Pantheon of classic café racers, although like its hallowed kin, the quality of the built machine varies greatly. Tipping the sad end of the scale was this Rickman-Velocette as it was delivered to Austin’s Revival Cycles a little over a year ago. With a three-bend exhaust pipe, a chopper-worthy kicked-up Velo fishtail muffler, tossed-spaghetti wiring, and wonky bodywork, the impact was pure Greyhound—as in bus. Revival’s Alan Stulberg says, “It wasn’t cohesive.” He’s just being diplomatic. “Okay, it was pretty ugly. I took it on to show the difference between an off-the-shelf custom and what we do, which is a coherent design from first principles. Now it’s a completely different motorcycle. You don’t have to start with a factory bike to make a good custom bike.”
As purchased – a mess
The best part of any Rickman is of course that nickel-plated chrome-moly frame, which also holds the engine oil to save weight. Rickman made frames with lugs specifically for Velocette engine/gearbox combos, which are extremely narrow compared to a Triumph twin, for example.
While this Velo frame was beautiful, Revival still chopped the seat loop, installing a shorter one and re-plating the frame. The alloy fuel tank was stretched and reshaped with a hollow at the back, so the alloy bump-stop seat unit could slide underneath, making a continuous bodyline. The fork was swapped for Ceriani road race unit (with custom triple clamps), and a magnesium Fontana four-leading-shoe brake installed, paired with a Norton Manx conical rear hub.
Not an illusion!  An observation deck at COTA in Austin
While an LED lamp was integrated into the seat bump (with modern battery and electronics hidden beneath), the headlamp was sourced from a 6-volt Miller bicycle kit! The headlamp rim barely protrudes from Andy James’ lovely aluminum bodywork—not everyone loves the lamp’s small scale, but it’s totally sufficient with a retrofitted LED bulb, powered by an Alton 12-volt alternator. The Velocette Venom motor is built from replica cases, mated to a standard close-ratio four-speed gearbox, and exhales through Revival’s continuous-taper megaphone exhaust, which follows the line of the frame exactly, just as it should. Mr. James also fabricated the delicate/elegant stainless-wire bracketry for the abbreviated alloy fenders, and exhaust, and everything else. The workmanship throughout is perfect, far better than any off-the-shelf race parts available in the 1960s or ‘70s, and in fact, better than the Rickman brothers could afford to provide their customers, not than anyone expected such artisanship in the period.
The 'off side' – interesting to see the primary drive resolution, which is surprisingly standard
The intervening decades have allowed a re-think of legendary designs, especially as a new generation of custom builders aren’t steeped in the period’s rules. “The best part of me not knowing how ‘it was done’ was I didn’t know what was untouchable. At first when we spoke with the customer, he specified traditional parts, but eventually we convinced him it would be better if we did our own thing.” Stulberg was familiar with the Rickman-Velo in its previous incarnation, when it was for sale online: “I’d seen it some time ago—it was this illusion of a well-built bike. I thought, ‘I’d really like to fix this thing.’ A year later I got a call from the buyer, and when we agreed to rebuild it, he had it sent to us before he even saw it in person. He still hasn’t! But he’s pretty happy, especially after it crossed over the podium at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering.”
The machine in question on the lawn at the Quail
In full disclosure, I presented the bike with the Design and Style Award at the Quail for the custom motorcycle I’d most like to take home. You’d be hard pressed to find a more beautifully integrated Rickman chassis, and the understated BRG paint tones down the bling of all that naked alloy and nickel plating. It’s a gorgeous machine, with enough road-race grit in its soul to compel a good hammering down a twisty road, expense be damned. Revival’s recent customs masterfully evoke this visceral, speed-horny response from a café racer’s soul, and their “silver machines” are excellent inheritors of the Rickman mantle.
A laying of hands, and a benediction!  Awarding the Rickman-Velo the Custom&Style Award at the Quail Motorcycle Gathering

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