Demon on Wheels : The Zenith Heritage Pilot Café Racer
To the dismay of Mothers everywhere motorbikes and the culture surrounding them are cool and it is this innate coolness that Zenith hopes to capitalize on in the latest Pilot, the Café Racer.
The Café Racer is the continuation of the Pilot series that Zenith has been producing for a number of years now that are inspired by pilot's watches from the late twenties. The large arabic numerals, the cathedral hands and the extremely legible design are perfect for quick glances whilst navigating the skies and perhaps whilst roaring down Britain's motorways?
The official Zenith description of the Café racer says that the biker culture started in the 1920s however this is inaccurate as it is widely recognised to have begun in the late 1950s with the development of the first motorways in Britain in 1958. Whilst the winding country roads still snaked between tiny village to village in England like small veins, the new motorways became thriving mutli-lane arteries that could be ridden from the beating heart of London all the way up and down the country. Small transport cafés started to open up beside these roads to allow motorists (and their cars) some relief from the road as when the roads first opened cars would be found broken down in the lanes (No hard shoulder just yet) as their engines had given up because they weren't suited to such long driving. These roadside cafés were more focused on selling food and drink than being dedicated petrol stops so they were perfect hangouts for teenagers with nothing to do.
It is unsure exactly where the term café racer came from but author Mike Seate who has followed the café racer culture for the last twenty years believes in started as an insult against teenagers cruising from café to café. He says they "would hang out in transport cafés and wait until somebody else came by on a fast bike and challenged them for a race, and they all rushed outside to see who gets up the road the fastest. When they get back to the cafés, which were often occupied by long distance truck drivers, the truck drivers would laugh and say, ‘You’re not a real racer, you’re not Barry Sheen, you’re just a café racer! And the kids thought, ‘Well you’re damn right I’m a café racer!’... and the name stuck; they embraced it despite the fact that it was a derisive term".
These bikes didn't start out as dedicated racers and instead were ordinary road bikes that had been modified, tuned and altered to sacrifice comfort for handling and immense speed over the short distances between cafés. The low profile handlebars, the seat right at the back of the bike and the minimal lightweight design would soon all become iconic of a typical café racer bike. One of the most enduring myths surrounding the sub-culture is that of "record races" where two riders would attempt to reach 100mph (Also known as the ton) whilst racing between two cafes, all whilst trying to return before the end of a record single. Like all overly romanticized elements of sub-cultures, it is debated whether these record racers actually took place.
The design of the Pilot Café Racer visually has more in common with the rest of the pilot family and the pilot watches from the 1920s although it does have some elements more geared towards the Café racer crown. The 316L stainless steel cases has been artificially aged to a dull lustre with a matching slate gray dial with a subtle grained pattern, both of with evoking oil and dirty covered bike chassis. The grooves on the pilot style crown and the textured grip on the chronograph pushers give the watch a rugged and worn down look with the beige superluminova that coats the hands and hour markers producing an artificial patina. Some might not like the vintage lume wave that is sweeping through modern re-editions but I think if it is done tastefully, like the Pilot Café racer, there is a place for it. At 45mm the watch is no shrinking violet and is definitely for the well built wrists of a mechanic.
The titanium case back is where the biggest tribute to the Café racer culture lies with a large engraving of biker speeding towards you with a Zenith Coat of Arms retreating in the distance. Inside the watch beats the iconic Zenith El Primero movement, specifically the Caliber 4069. Beating at 36,000bph allows the watch to achieve a stunningly smooth flow to the hands. It is a shame that the watch is missing tachymeter which seems fitting considering the café racer's need to cover speed and short distances; instead there is a small minute track around the dial with orange highlighted numbers every five minutes. One parallel between Café Racer culture and Swiss watches which might not be apparent at first is that overtime the more expensive British bikes fell out of favor with the cheaper and more efficient Japanese imports gaining more and more popularity. Sound awfully familiar?