Building a Cafe Racer: Selecting a motorcycle

By far the most important and difficult choice you will have to make before building a Cafe Racer is the selection of a donor bike. Back in the fifties Cafe Racers were a kind of Frankenstein creation, using 2 bikes to make one, pairing the most powerful engine with the best performing frame and suspension set up. These days motorcycles have benefited from decades of racing development and technological advancements which means such transplants aren't necessary (but not out of the question) so the whole process has become a lot simpler. Building a Cafe Racer from a modern bike is more about removing unnecessary clutter, dropping weight, improving handling and unlocking potential horsepower...and of course some classic styling modifications.

Umm... What now?

So where do you start? Well there are 3 main factors that need to be considered, each person will have different responses and it's these responses that should guide you on your purchase. Knowledge; How much do you know about motorcycle mechanics and fabrication? Time; How long do you have to spend on a project or how long can you afford to have your bike (if it's your only one) off the road? Money; What's your budget and what happens if it blows out? So knowledge, time and budget are the 3 factors that not only affect your initial decision, but will also dictate how your Cafe Racer will turn out in the long run. You may have the time and the money but without the knowledge your project could end up as an "uncompleted" Cafe Racer auction on eBay. Switch any of those three key words around in that last sentence and the result could end up the same. So do your research, make an educated choice and avoid this somewhat depressing scenario. I'm not saying don't challenge yourself, just be careful not to bite off more than you can chew.

Some of you however may already own the motorcycle you plan to customise and if that is the case you're committing yourself to dealing with what ever limitations that motorcycle may have (if any). At the end of the day though the decision is yours to make and should be driven by passion more than anything else. If you own a motorcycle that you love chances are when you start transforming it your only going to allow yourself to make it better.

If you're staring with a modern retro (Triumph Bonneville, Ducati Sport Classics, etc) then the manufacturer probably already produces all the parts you need to "transform" your bike into a "bolt on" Cafe Racer. While this is an easy option it isn't what this post is about. If you're ready to strip down an engine, cut a frame, upgrade parts and generally transform a motorcycle here's my top picks.

The classics: Triumph, Moto Guzzi, Ducati, BMW, BSA or if poop golden eggs, a Vincent. All these great names in motorcycling history have classic models that would suit your dream Cafe Racer build...trouble is though they aren't cheap and neither are the parts required to complete them.

If money isn't an issue start searching, local auctions are a great place to pick up cheap old bikes, Ebay and online sites tend to fetch higher prices for most classics. Aside from the price issue old bikes are just that, they're old. Old technology may mean the machines are easier to work on, but it also means they require more regular maintenance which is not what everyone wants from their daily ride. You may also find a lot of hidden costs in older bikes because of the wear and tear of years of use and exposure to the elements. Be prepared to spend money replacing mechanical parts, wiring and things like seals and bearings. After all a good looking motorcycle is useless if you can ride it safely and with confidence.

So for the experienced motorcycle mechanic, skilled home bike builder or for those willing to take up the challenge "classic" motorcycles are an exceptional base for a Cafe Racer build. However for those of us who don't fit into this category there are other options that will give you just as much satisfaction to own and ride.

Honda CB series: 350,400,750 etc. The series of Honda CB motorcycles are legendary in the motorcycling world, most notably the Honda CB750, which is often referred to as the world's first super bike. CB's are commonly used for custom projects and as such there are loads of aftermarket parts available, making them a worthy selection for our Cafe Racer project.

There is also a thriving community of enthusiasts online who will offer you plenty of advice and guidance on your CB based Cafe Racer project. There are plenty of workshops and builders who are producing parts designed specifically for custom CB applications, some of my favorites include Dime City Cycles, Benjie's Cafe Racers and the CB750 Cafe.

Yamaha SR 400/500: Deus Ex Machina single handedly brought them in to fashion in Australia and just about every custom workshop in Japan has modified one. What a great little thumper the Yamaha SR is. They've been around for so long and their basic set up remains the same, best of all they come with a kicker! They're great fun to ride, relatively affordable secondhand and if you're looking for parts you won't have to look very hard. I love what people do with this bike, it really is one of the most flexible motorcycles out there. I've written more about the Yamaha SR series on this site before and you can check out my Yamaha SR writeup here.

Yamaha XS650: The Yamaha XS650 is another incredibly flexible motorcycle for a Cafe Racer build.You can pick up a secondhand one for almost nothing and their engines are renowned for being bullet proof (although their electrics can be a bit fiddly). I have been building my own XS650 Cafe Racer for a while now (way too long!) and I started with no knowledge of XS650 mechanics. A huge online following has enabled me to easily find answers to any question I have. Parts are also very easy to come by thanks to a big custom scene following in the States, guys like Dime City Cycles offer an extensive range of custom parts designed especially for your Cafe Racer conversion. The many different models that came out between 1968-1985 offer different electrical systems, wire or alloy wheels and different brake set ups with early models featuring front and rear drums...oh and they sound great with free flowing pipes!

The love of my life. My W650 Cafe Racer, completed in 2006 and ridden daily ever since.
Kawasaki W800/650/400: Another motorcycle I personally own. The Kawasaki W650 was the motorcycle that guided me into the world of Cafe Racers and was my first ever custom motorcycle build. It's got one of the best looking, modern engines around and it's a treat to ride. My W650 Cafe Racer turns more heads than a hot blonde in a mini dress and gets plenty of attention and curious questions when it's parked. Again the Kawasaki W's are huge in the Japanese custom motorcycle scene and as such parts and snippets of advice are easily acquired. The recent release of the Kawasaki W800 should see prices on the older 650 and 400's drop which will make them an even more affordable option for your Cafe Racer build.

The bikes I have mentioned here are my favorites and there are of course hundreds of other great motorcycles suitable for a Cafe Racer conversion.

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