Building a Cafe Racer: Selecting a motorcycle
By far the most important and difficult choice you will have to make when 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.
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.
1. Knowledge; How much do you know about motorcycle mechanics and fabrication?
2. 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?
3. 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 3 keywords 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.
Diamond Atelier BMW R100R Café Racer
Some of you, however, may already own the motorcycle you plan to customize and if that is the case you’re committing yourself to deal with whatever 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 you’re only going to allow yourself to make it better.
If you’re staring with a modern retro (Triumph Bonneville, Ducati Sport Classic, 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 are my top picks.
Triumph, Moto Guzzi, Ducati, BMW, BSA or if you’re capable of laying golden eggs, a Vincent. All these great names in motorcycling history have models that would suit your dream Cafe Racer build…trouble is, they aren’t cheap and neither are the parts required to restore or customize 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.
Rebellion of the Machines Honda CB750 Cafe Racer
Honda Motorcycles CB Series
The Honda CB 350, 500, 750 etc. The Honda series of CB motorcycles are legendary in the motorcycling world, most notably the Honda CB750, which is often referred to as the world’s first superbike. CB’s are commonly used for custom projects and as such there are loads of aftermarket parts available, making them a worthy choice for our Cafe Racer project. Unfortunately, their popularity has increased their price, especially for the early 750 models that are becoming sought-after items for collectors.
Dime City Cycles Honda CB400
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. If you’re chasing aftermarket parts for a custom CB build a few of my favourites suppliers are Dime City Cycles, Benjie’s Cafe Racers and Carpy’s CB750 Cafe.
Deus ex Machina Yamaha SR400 Café Racer
The Yamaha SR 400/500
Sydney’s Deus Ex Machina single-handedly brought them into fashion in Australia and just about every custom workshop in Japan has modified at least one. What a great little thumper the Yamaha SR is. They’ve been around for so long that they frequently come up for sale and mechanically they’re about as basic as they come. Best of all they are one of the only motorcycles made for the street today that still feature a kick starter!
The Yamaha SR400 isn’t a powerful motorcycle by any stretch of the imagination, but they’re great fun to ride. They’re also a relatively affordable option and if you’re looking for parts you won’t have to look very hard. Webike Japan is a great source for general maintenance and custom parts for the SR and they are so beautifully simple that servicing them yourself is not out of the question.
The Yamaha SR really is one of the most flexible motorcycles out there. For more about these bikes, you can read our Yamaha SR400 writeup here.
Auto Fabrica’s ‘Type 6’ Yamaha XS650
The 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 bulletproof (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 setups with early models featuring front and rear drums…oh and they sound great with free-flowing pipes!
Revival Cycles Kawasaki W650
The Kawasaki W650
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 personal favorites. There are of course hundreds of other motorcycle models that are more than suitable for a Cafe Racer conversion. I have also only listed older motorcycles that you’d acquire as secondhand bikes, but there are now many newer motorcycles that would also be suitable for your cafe racer project. Some manufacturers have even started building bikes that are more conducive to customization like the BMW R NineT and the new 2016 Triumph Bonneville range.
Now as you head off to begin your search the most important thing to remember is to go with your heart. Buy a bike that you love, even in its standard factory form. Having a connection with the bike from the get-go means your project will be an exciting one. Research your options, find inspiration, source handy parts suppliers and have fun!
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