No café racer project is complete without the requisite café racer jacket. To stir the pot at the get-go, let me say that what is generally referred to today as a café racer jacket preceded what has been defined as a café racer bike by at least a couple of decades. Those jackets were better known back then as “racing shirts” (RS); the most desirable example today being (justly or not) the BUCO J-100. Nobody in the early days of café racer culture would want to be caught dead wearing one of those “racing shirts”. They had seen “The Wild One” and wanted the jacket Brando wore in that movie. And probably most of them had one.
Although this article is about jackets, it is not about the history of motorcycle leathers or their prices. It is about whatever little I’ve learned that may help with selecting a jacket that may suit you and your machine in today’s cafe racer culture. I assume here, of course, that a vintage machine is best matched by a vintage jacket. So, with that in mind and with due respect for personal preferences and all new quality jacket makers of today, I must rephrase my opening line.
No vintage café racer project is complete without the requisite vintage café racer jacket.
Because, let’s face it: who wants to show up at the local “café” on his/her vintage-based machine wearing a brand new pristine SCHOTT RS 660 or a “vintaged” CAF1 jacket that has not a single wrinkle or fold? Or for that matter, in a brand new AERO “Board Racer”, which, despite of its $1,000 price tag, features the no-no-you-can’t-do-that two-piece back with a stitch running down the middle. Gorgeous looking as those jackets may be in their own way, the preferred look in cafe racer culture seems to be BEEN THERE, DONE THAT AND IT SHOWS.
Vintage is…well, vintage. “Vintage look”, “vintaged”, “a perfect recreation” and all other clever advertising terminology in use today are precisely what they actually state: not the real thing. Which begs another interesting question. Why do today’s leather jacket manufacturers say “vintaged” or “recreation”? Is it because they are themselves aware of what the buying public already knows, which is that the vintage jackets are considered better, and that perhaps neither skills nor materials can be found today that could produce a superior jacket? It seems some people are willing to pay $2,000 for a genuine used BUCO or LANGLITZ and are shying away from the brand new “perfect recreations” made only yesterday and selling for less than half the price.
Your café racer jacket must be a genuine vintage product that has been worn.
Why? Because it will look something like this:
And you can’t get that look in a new jacket regardless of price.
Okay. But who made such jackets? How do I know which one to choose?
Here is only a partial list of the better known brand names: HARLEY DAVIDSON, SCHOTT, LANGLITZ, BUCO, BROOKS, BECK, KEHOE, BRIMACO, BATES, TAUBERS, REED, EXCELLED, GRAIS, BRITISH CYCLE LEATHERS.
All of them produced quality jackets. They were very similar in design and were for the majority part made of steer hide. Here is a classic example:
(Only a few of these companies have survived to this day. SCHOOT, the oldest of them all, is, amazingly, still in business today and doing well. Their “Perfecto” series of the good old days are legendary. LANGLITZ too is still around and with excellent reputation for quality.)
I’m sure others will disagree, but, in general, it doesn’t really matter which of the above brand names you choose, if you are going to wear the jacket. I am not an expert by any stretch of the imagination. All I can do here is share my experience. BECK, SCHOTT, BROOKS, BUCO, KEHOE and BRIMACO from the 1960’s and early 70’s appear similar in quality. I lack the expertise to analyse the minor differences that may exist.
What I can do is point out the major differences between the jackets of the old days and the jackets of today.
SINGLE PIECE BACK: All of the jacket manufacturers above used a single piece of leather for the back (excluding the “kidney panel”). This is a luxury most jacket makers cannot afford today. None of those in the lower or middle price range have it. Even a few of the $1,000+ jackets by AERO, LOST WORLDS and LANGLITZ do not feature single-piece backs. A glance at the back of your jacket is all that it takes to find out if you are wearing the real thing.
METAL ZIPPERS: All of the vintage jackets of that era had metal zippers. Heavy duty ones too. Indestructible, they function today exactly as they did back then some 50 years ago. TALON is the popular and respected brand name.
BI-SWING ARMS: Rarely used today, with the exception of high end jacket makers like SCHOTT, AERO, LOST WORLDS and LANGLITZ, the bi-swing feature was used by all motorcycle jacket makers in the 60’s and 70’s. (Incredibly, the highly desirable BUCO J-100 is an exception to that rule.) It allows a motorcycle rider to extend his arms forward without the sleeves running up his arms pulling and stretching the jacket’s back. This is done by using extra leather carefully cut, stitched and tucked in at the back of the shoulders area. It requires a lot of extra effort to put into a jacket. The bi-swing “flaps” are usually held in place by an elastic band running from side to side under the lining. Check to see if it is present and still functional when selecting your jacket. See photos below at the end of this post showing the bi-swing feature.
So far so good. But, there are so many purportedly vintage jackets around. How can you tell when a particular jacket was made?
Fortunately, labels changed with time and are perhaps the easiest and simplest way to date a jacket.
SCHOTT: Wikipedia has a detailed article on The Schott Perfecto label’s history .
BECK: Beck was a motorcycle parts and accessories dealer in Long Island, NY. Jackets carrying their label were made by SCHOTT. This is the only known label they used. It is believed they stopped offering motorcycle jackets at the end of the 1960’s or early 70’s when they transitioned to car parts.
BROOKS: The black and gold label is considered the BROOKS label to have. It was used in the 60’s and 70’s. BROOKS was founded by former employees of BUCO. In the 80’s BROOKS continued to manufacture jackets, but used a different label. The company was eventually acquired by Reed.
BUCO: The iconic name and its iconic label. Many similar BUCO labels appear on new jackets manufactured today by The Real McCoy’s and offered by high-end retailers such as Blue in Green in Soho, NYC. Although the $2,000 price suggests quality, those jackets are not THE real McCoy.
BRIMACO: A Canadian outfit which, sadly, no longer makes jackets. The quality of their 1970’s jackets is outstanding. It is my favorite label because of their style: the jackets are a little longer, have 4 pockets and a two-way zipper. Very convenient and extremely well wearing.
In the BRIMACO example below, the original burnt orange lining has been replaced. All other original features and style are retained:
A few words about style, cut and sizes. Vintage motorcycle jackets were cut slim, tight fitting and sized for the riders of the old days. Most agree that people were slimmer and smaller back in the 1950’s – 1970’s. If you are size 38 today, a vintage jacket marked 38 will not fit you. Go at least a size up preferably two.
What about color?
Black, of course.QUESTIONS?