Not sure what makes a café racer a café racer or a bobber a bobber? Here are descriptions of the common styles you'll see on the road and on your favourite website. Be warned! Some of these backstories may be urban myths, but they're fun all the same!
Many styles and movements have appeared in the motorcycle industry. Most have stayed, some have thankfully disappeared, but perhaps none have been as influential and long-winded as the ubiquitous café racer.
The name supposedly comes about from their original purpose to race from one English cafe (roadhouse/truck stop) to another during the 1960s. Famous cafes at the time were the Ace Cafe in London and Busy Bee Cafe in Watford, about 15 miles north of London (the Ace cafe is still in existence).
These back-to-basics bikes were built for speed and handling rather than comfort, mainly as the rider would need to adopt a ‘tucked in’ position. Their look often emulated the Grand Prix racers of the period.
Riders typically modified their motorcycles to achieve three main goals. They wanted to reduce weight, increase engine performance, and streamline the riding position for optimal aerodynamics. How far a rider went in pursuit of these goals often depended on the size of their wallet. Some focused simple and relatively cheap changes such as removing unnecessary (and heavy) components or bolting on sleeker parts like clip-on handlebars. Others performed expensive engine mods, used exotic ultra-light materials, and installed custom bodywork.
When it comes to cafe racers, the adage ‘less is more’ certainly applies. Cafe racers were and are all about stripping off (or changing) anything that is not strictly necessary for a functional motorcycle.
- Anything that reduces weight is removed. Heavy OEM components, often over designed to increase durability, get swapped for lighter, aftermarket parts with a minimal style. Heavy lead-acid batteries are replaced with lighter lithium batteries (or removed altogether on kickstart-only machines).
- Small but curvaceous rear cowls are used to hide electrics and seats are often reduced to a single seat. Sometimes instead of a separate metal rear cowl, custom seats with a rear hump are used to give a similar silhouette.
- Built to go fast, performance parts make an appearance in the engine. Easy changes are upgrades to performance exhausts, with free-flowing reverse cone or megaphone style mufflers used. Of course, free flowing out means free flowing in, so the heavy restricted OEM air boxes are ditched in favour of trumpet or pod filter intakes.
- With an engine that can now breathe easier, carburettors get re-jetted to increase fuel flow and power or even swapped out for better units altogether. Those with a serious penchant for power might consider a custom-built engine with oversize pistons, hot cams, and lightweight internal components to really get things buzzing.
- Of course, with a bike that can now really tick along, it's time to get down and out of the wind. To accomplish a more aerodynamic riding position, riders often fit rear sets along with low handlebars like clip-ons or clubmans. This combination allows the rider to tuck down low on the tank. Long shallow tanks help as well, normally featuring knee indents to mesh rider with machine.
- Spoked wheels (even sized front and rear) are used for their lightness, both visually and in the un-sprung weight that must be started and stopped.
- The exhaust is often slung low under the engine and following the grand prix racer look, many bikes have half or bikini style fairings around the headlight to improve the airflow and allow the rider to tuck in.
Budget cafe racers of the 60’s era would run a Triumph, a BSA or a Norton. Those racers with a little more cash would start to combine parts of these various bikes. A popular hybrid was the ‘Triton,’ where a Triumph Bonneville engine was placed in a Norton Featherbed frame. A slight cheaper version was a ‘Tribsa,’ which the Triumph engine was installed in a BSA frame. Another version was a Vincent engine in a Norton frame called a ‘Norvin.’
If you had a lot of cash, you could take a racing bike frame, such as Seeley or Rickman frame, and make it road useable.
In the last 10 years many brands have come out with naked bikes that they have tried to shoehorn into the café racer category. However, not many of them always conjure up the exact look and image of those early cafe racers.
To a degree, any naked bike with short front and rear overhangs and minimal bodywork and lights has started to be referred to as a cafe racer (often by OEM brands trying to cash in on the vibe), when perhaps they are not.
Below are some of the more recent ‘truer to the original form’ iterations:
- Moto Guzzi V7 Racer
- BMW RnineT
- Royal Enfield Continental and Interceptor
- Kawasaki W650 and 800
- Ducati Sport1000
- Triumph Thruxton
- Norton Commando
- Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer