Over the last decade, the world has become increasingly infatuated with all things nostalgia, resulting in everything from watchmakers to shoe companies to shipbuilders producing vintage-inspired offerings and full-on rereleases of models from yesteryear. Unsurprisingly, this same phenomenon is no less prevalent in today’s motorcycle industry, where retro-themed production models have been, and continue to be introduced at an unprecedented rate. And while factory-made old-school bobbers and scramblers have also seen consistent growth in recent years, their influx in popularity doesn’t begin to compare to that of the modern café racer boom.
Spurred on by the simultaneous rise of the modern “new wave” custom motorcycle scene, the immense success of these stripped-back street-racers has given way to turn-key café racer models now being offered by more than 20 of today’s manufacturers. As a result, the café racer market has evolved into a hugely diverse array of bikes, encompassing everything from economical, small-displacement beginner-friendly bikes, to top-shelf, high-performance café’d superbikes — not to mention the steadily emerging fully-electric café racer segment. And though this allows for a buyer’s market that’s brimming with options, the sheer abundance of available production café racers can make it difficult to hone in on the model that’s best for you – let alone fully discover all the available options — so with this in mind, we’ve pieced together this definitive guide to the best café racers you can buy off the lot.
From Shed-Built To Mass Production
A Brief Look At The History Of The Café Racer
Café racers can be traced back to post-WW2 England. Many-a-young men were returning home from the global conflict with cash in their pockets, and as a consequence, the UK experienced an uptick in the popularity of motorcycles. However, riders weren’t just buying bikes, they were stripping them down, ridding them of any and all superfluous parts and making performance upgrades. Around this same time, the main social hubs for the UK’s youth were local cafés.
These cafés increasingly became de facto meet-up locations for riders looking to check out other bikes and rub leather-covered shoulders with like-minded bikers. And, while there are several other locations of significance, the two spots that became by far the most famous for their connection to motorcycles were The Ace Café in London, and the Busy Bee Café in Watford, on the capitol’s Northeastern outskirts. And it’s this connection to these establishments that ultimately resulted in the term: “café racer.”
By their very nature, café racers were modified and customized versions of production offerings, typically built in garages and backyard sheds. Because racing and track-only models weren’t available to nonprofessionals, most rider’s only real option (if they wanted a racier bike) was to build one themselves. In a bid to unlock a motorcycle’s maximum potential, early café racers enthusiasts were known to combine different elements from different models, with the most famous example being the use of Norton’s legendary Featherbed frame being used to build Triumph-powered “Tritons” or Vincent-powered “Norvils.” Today, café racer’s connection to one-off machines remains just as strong as it was back in the sub-genre’s infancy.
The post-war era also saw the United Kingdom experience the beginning of a golden era in Grand Prix racing, with a slew of Brits such as Fergus Anderson, Freddie Frith, Bob Foster, Geoff Duke, John Surtees, Phil Read, and Mike “The Bike” Hailwood dominating top-level racing in the 1950s and ‘60s. This undoubtedly played a pivotal role in influencing café culture, with enthusiasts borrowing and adapting race parts for use on their road-going bikes. This is also why cafe racers bare such a striking resemblance to the competition machines of half-a-century-ago, as well as why these race-derived bikes traditionally sport a headlight.
It’s difficult, if not impossible to pin down which bike was the first true production café racer, as the genre slowly evolved into being over time. Complicating the matter even more is the fact that production café models are by no means a new phenomenon, with every decade since the 1950s offering turn-key models that we would today classify as café racers. In the late ‘50s and ‘60s, AJS had their 7R “Boy Racers” while Norton famously produced its Manx model. The 1970s saw even more café’d bikes, including an increase in models from Italy such as Moto Guzzi’s Le Mans and Laverda’s Jota and SFC. In the 1980s Honda released its GB500 TT, which today we’d view as something of an archetypal café racer.
The modern café racer craze that persists today arguably began at the 2003 Tokyo Motor Show when Ducati pulled the cover off its revolutionary Sport Classic: a modern L-Twin dressed up in unmistakably vintage aesthetics. A few years later, and not only had Ducati released its Pierre Terblanche-penned modern-retro, but Triumph also followed suit with its Thruxton model. With the success of the Thruxton, it didn’t take long for other major manufacturers to catch onto what was happening and toss their hats into the proverbial café ring. Fast-forward to today and café racers have gone from a niche style to a widely-recognized production model genre.
The tremendous growth in the production café segment (and the global custom motorcycle scene) has also resulted in a growing number of factories in China — which have made marked bounds in build quality and reliability in recent years — designing and producing budget-friendly models that legitimately resemble one-off café builds and are typically powered by crate motors. Almost always of the small-displacement variety, these bikes are generally rebadged and sold under the banner of small motorcycle marques (which is the reason you’ll find what are essentially identical models sometimes offered by more than one of these fledgling companies).
Retro Road Racers
The Properties That Define A Café Racer
Taking influence from Grand Prix racing bikes of the time, café racers are primarily modified to be more aggressive, performance-focused bikes, and are typically outfitted with numerous moto upgrades. As such, the standard handlebars and foot-pegs are almost always replaced with a set of low-mounted clip-ons (or flipped Clubman bars) and a pair of rear-sets that ultimately afford the rider a markedly more hunched-forward and aggressive riding position. Headlights are often lowered to compensate for the lowered cockpit, as well.
The stock bench seats that come on most standard bikes are also usually swapped out for “Monoposto” (single-seat) tail sections capped off with a humped café seat or a hard tail cowl, giving the machine a sportier look while also slightly bolstering aerodynamics. Partial fairings and windscreens are occasionally used on café racers for the same reason. Factory gas tanks were also frequently jettisoned in favor of lighter cells, often longer, lower-profile items with knee-dents for more spirited riding. Swept-back headers and cone (or reverse-cone) mufflers are another ingredient that’s seldom left out of the café racer recipe.
The Factors To Consider When Shopping For A Cafe Racer
As vintage-styled machines that feature modern mechanics, it can be a little tricky knowing what to look for when shopping around for a café racer. Below, we’ve broken down the eight most important areas to consider before buying a cafe racer.
Price: The truth is some models offer substantially more bang for your buck than others. You should be thoroughly considering what features and performance aspects you need, and which you can live without, as this should help you determine a price point. It’s also worth mentioning that if you’re a new rider, you’re going to want to factor in/set money aside from other necessary expenses like riding gear, luggage, parts. etc.
Running Costs: Once you’ve purchased a motorcycle, you’re still going to have regular expenses associated with keeping the thing up and running. There are taxes and registration fees, (plus dealership, shipping, and crate fees), the cost of insurance, maintenance, tires, brake pads, and chain lube, to name a few. Obviously, a new $25,000 Italian bike is going to cost substantially more to insure and operate than a budget-friendly Chinese-made single. In short: just remember to calculate the total cost of ownership. There are even online tools to help calculate these numbers.
Engine Size: Though there are other elements involved, displacement, number of cylinders, and engine configuration essentially determine an engine’s horsepower and torque. It’s extremely important to select a bike with an appropriate engine size, as learning to ride on an incredibly potent motorcycle is an incredibly bad idea. You wouldn’t want to learn to drive behind the wheel of a Lamborghini, and motorcycles are no different, aside from the fact they lack seatbelts, crumples zones, and airbags. As a rule of thumb, new riders shouldn’t be starting on anything north of a half-liter (500cc’s).
Running Gear: A motorcycle’s frame and engine are plenty important, though there are other aspects that determine a bike’s performance (and thus overall quality), and one of the biggest ones is running gear (or hardware, or componentry). This includes the type of brakes, the wheels, and the type of suspension (dual versus mono-shock, conventional versus USD fork, and so on).
Riding Position: While café racers typically sport the clip-ons and rear-sets that allow for a tight, hunched-forward rider’s triangle, the truth is that, while this setup looks cool and allows for more spirit riding, it just isn’t very practical for commuting or day-to-day riding (assuming you don’t spend 90% of your saddle time in the canyons). Consider your intended use, and whether a bike’s riding position is conducive to that. It’s also worth noting you can always swap out any model’s handlebars or foot-controls with relative ease.
Style: With the modern café racer segment having existed for some time now, the sector has grown from exclusively being comprised of retro-themed models, to now including an increasingly diverse array of contemporary takes on the genre, such as Husqvarna’s Vitpilen 401 and 701 and FB Mondial’s HPS 125. There’s more than one kind of café racer out there, and it’s well worth exploring all the different aesthetic options before pulling the trigger on a purchase.
Availability: This isn’t really an issue when buying most models from major manufacturers, however one downside to buying from small brands is the relatively limited access to replacement parts. It can also be harder to find shops to service certain types of bikes (though this obviously doesn’t apply to Chinese-made air-cooled singles). Special and limited-edition models also tend to have much more limited availability in terms of parts and replacements.
Passenger-Readiness: Because they’re roughly-modeled after race bikes, café racers tend to be one-seat machines that don’t allow for taking a passenger along for the ride. There are however café models that are pillion compatible, as well as models that have removable tail cowls that hide a passenger seat. If you plan on doing a lot of two-up riding., then you may also want to opt for a more powerful bike, especially if you intend on covering freeway miles. New riders should still stick to smaller, less powerful machines either way.
The Best café Racers You Can Buy Off The Lot
Bluroc Spirit 125
Made by a Belgian brand formally known as Bullitt Motorcycles, the Bluroc Motorcycles Spirit 125 is an air-cooled eighth-liter standard with traditional cafe styling. Powered by an 11.4-hp Chinese-made single-cylinder engine, this affordably-priced cafe bike comes loaded with a circular headlight, a knee-dented four-gallon tank, side covers, a reverse cone muffler, clip-on handlebars, rear-sets, spoked wheels and a humped tail section with a monoposto cowl — all key cafe racer traits. Additionally, the Spirit 125 also features a 253-lb dry weight, a USB fork, a combined braking system, an electric starter, a five-speed gearbox, a digital display, an approachable 29.5” seat height, and adjustable double oil spring rear shocks. Backed by a two-year warranty, the Spirit 125 is sold in two color options (black or green), both of which sport gold pin striping.
Engine: Air-Cooled 125cc Single-Cylinder
Weight: 253LBs (Dry)
Brixton Crossfire 125
The Crossfire 125 puts an ultra-unique spin on traditional cafe racer designs, with a sporty stepped seat, tire-huggers front and rear, a circular LED headlight, a knee-dented tank with an idiosyncratic X design, and a black belly pan that caps off the bottom of the Brixton’s silhouette. Elements such as its circular bar-end mirrors and angular side-covers also make it clear that the Crossfire 125 also takes inspiration from the custom motorcycle world. Mated to a six-speed transmission, the Crossfire 125’s engine consists of a liquid-cooled and fuel-injected 124cc single that pumps out just under 14hp and allows for a top speed of over 60mph. Riding on spoked wheels, this modern cafe racer also comes outfitted with hydraulic disc brakes, an upside-down fork, and a rear mono-shock setup.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 124cc Single-Cylinder
Power: 13.4HP & 8.4FT-LBs
FB Mondial Sport Classic 300
Also known as the Pagani 1948, the FB Mondial Sport Classic 300 is a fully-faired cafe racer inspired by 1970s-era Grand Prix race bikes. Adorned in a full suite of neo-retro bodywork, the Sport Classic features a sleek dual-pipe exhaust setup, a pair of 17” spoked wheels, a six-speed gearbox, and a low-profile removable cafe tail cowl. Despite its price, the cafe racer also comes equipped with some fairly high-end componentry such as an inverted 40mm fork, a set of rear shocks, and braking hardware that consists of a radial-mount quad-piston front caliper and a floating dual-pot item in the rear.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 249cc Single-Cylinder
Power: 22.8HP & 16.6FT-LBs
Weight: 337.3LBs (Dry)
Royal Enfield Continental GT 650
Taking ample inspiration from (the then-British-owned) marque’s Continental GT 250 model from the ‘50s and ‘60s, Royal Enfield’s contemporary GT 650 perfectly epitomizes the classic café racer. Pretty much every quality that we associate with café racers today can be seen on this very bike. Dripping in classic café looks, the Continental GT 650 is a reasonably-priced model that’s good for everything from urban commuting to long-distance touring. Long story short: if you want a supremely original and authentic café racer that won’t break the bank, this very well may be the bike for you.
Engine: Air & Oil-Cooled SOHC 648cc Parallel-Twin
Power: 47hp / 38.35lbs
Weight: 557lbs (Wet)
Taking inspiration from the Tuning Fork Company’s XS650 model from half a century ago, Yamaha’s XSR900 is a heritage-themed offering that is built around the Japanese moto manufacturer’s existing naked MT-09 platform. This basically allows for a “best of both worlds” situation, with a bike that affords old-school looks and modern performance (and safety, reliability, fuel economy, etc). And, like BMW’s R nineT, the XSR was specifically designed to lend itself to easy customization — an area that’s been furthered by the existence of bolt-on bodywork kits for the twin-cylinder modern retro. The latest version of the XSR900 benefits from a major redesign that includes a revised headlight, a new knee-dented tank design, and an all-new boxy tail section that’s modeled after 1980s GP bikes.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 890cc Inline-Three
Power: 115HP & 68.5FT-LBs
Weight: 425LBs (Wet)
After sitting dormant for over a decade, Honda revived the Hawk name with the debut of its all-new Hawk11 model. The latest addition to the Japanese motorcycle company’s Neo Sports Café lineup, the Hawk11 features a sleek design with a half-fairing fitted with a circular LED headlight, an ultra-modern tail section, blacked-out radiator covers, an exhaust heat shield that doubles as a belly-pan, and a set of clip-on handlebars set just above a pair of circular drop-down mirrors. Constructed around the same steel semi-double cradle frame and engine platform as Honda’s Africa Twin adventure bike and NT1100 tourer, the Hawk11 is powered by a 1,082cc 270° parallel-twin that cranks out around 100hp and 76ft-lbs of torque. Other highlights on the bike include Honda selectable torque control, an inverted Showa fork complete with Nissin radial-mount dual front calipers, a circular LCD display, and four ride modes (Sport, Rain, Custom, and Standard).
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 1,082cc Parallel-Twin
Power: 100.5HP & 76.7FT-LBs
Weight: 471.7LBs (Dry)
Triumph Thruxton RS
Like Royal Enfield’s Continental GT 650, the Triumph Thruxton is another archetypal café racer model that possesses all of the hallmarks of the genre. What distinguishes the Thruxton however, is its decidedly premium nature, getting Öhlins shocks, inverted Showa forks, and Brembo stoppers. And though the Thruxton is offered in several different specs, the most top-shelf variant (not including the ultra-limited TFC edition) is the Thruxton RS, which gains new higher-compression pistons, tweaked ports and cam profiles, and a slew of other lightened internals that enable the RS to gain an extra eight horsepower over the base model.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 1,200cc Parallel-Twin
Power: 103HP & 83FT-LBs
Weight: 434LBs (Dry)
Norton Commando 961 CR
Drawing ample influence from the famed firm’s 1960s bikes, the Norton Commando 961 CR is a British-built cafe racer that features modern interpretations of the original’s distinctive tank and tail. Pieced together around a hand-TIG-welded frame, the 961 CR is powered by a proprietary, in-house-developed and built, forward-canted, air and oil-cooled 961cc pushrod parallel twin that wears hand-polished covers. Sporting an hourglass silhouette when viewed from above, the bike also features a 43mm gold-anodized Öhlins USD fork slotted in solid aluminum aerospace grade billet yokes, dual rear Öhlins shocks, 17” 36 and 40-spoke aluminum wheels, ABS-backed radial-mount Brembo brakes, anodized billet aluminum clip-ons, a handmade full stainless steel exhaust system, a color-matched seat cowl, and a carbon fiber front fender.
Engine: Air & Oil-Cooled 961cc Parallel-Twin
Power: 76.8HP & 60FT-LBs
Weight: 507LBs (Wet)
BMW R nineT 100 Years
Fitted with a host of items from the Bavarian brand’s ultra-premium Option 719 parts catalog, the BMW R nineT 100 Years is a special version of the R9T that pays homage to BMW’s earlier motorcycles. As such, the production of this R nineT variant utilizes the traditional paint-on-chrome method — a tribute to the 1969 R 75/5 — and features a removable monoposto cafe tail cowl. Offering a top speed of over 125mph, the R9T 100 Years packs a 1,170cc boxer twin that generates 109hp and 85.5ft-lbs of torque. Housing the engine is a four-part chassis with a subframe that can be taken off by simply removing a pair of bolts. The framework has also been paired with a 46m USD fork and a pair of 17” spoked wheels. Like all R9T variants, the 100 Years model was designed to be as modular as possible, lending itself brilliantly to customization.
Engine: Air & Oil-Cooled 1,170cc Boxer-Twin
Power: 109HP & 85.5FT-LBs
Weight: 487LBs (Wet)
Triumph Speed Triple 1200 RR
Based on the Hinckley firm’s Speed Triple 1200 RS naked superbike, the Triumph Speed Triple 1200 RR is a super high-performance and wildly-modern take on a cafe racer that’s kicked along by an incredibly potent 177-hp 1.2-liter inline-three engine. Top-shelf through and through, the Striple 1200 RR features Öhlins Smart EC 2.0 electronically adjustable semi-active suspension, Brembo Stylema monobloc calipers with optimized cornering ABS, a suite of electronic rider assists, a 5” TFT display, five ride modes, a bidirectional quick-shifter, a full keyless system, and all LED lighting with self-canceling indicators. Most importantly — at least for the sake of this list — the Speed Triple 1200 RR sees the RS-spec bestowed with a neo-retro-style half fairing equipped with a traditional circular headlight.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 1,160cc Inline-Three
Power: 177HP & 92FT-LBs
Weight: 438LBs (Wet)
Based on the Zero SR or SR/F, the E-Racer Bestial-E is a cafe racer kit made by a boutique Italian firm that features a custom suite of bodywork crafted from 3D-printed nylon, Kevlar, and carbon fiber. Fitted with a waspish exposed carbon tail section capped off with an Alcantara seat, this naked superbike is built by hand at E-Racer’s workshop in Bologna and weighs in at fairly hefty 485lbs. Despite its curb weight, the Bestial-E is still able to achieve a 0-60mph time of as little as 3.3 seconds — all while still affording a range of 183 miles on a single charge. The Bestial-E can be purchased as a standalone kit or as a complete turnkey motorcycle. A new opening tank design, a unique front tire hugger (fender), and a low-profile circular LED headlight complete this thoroughly contemporary take on a cafe racer.
Engine: Electric Interior PMAC Motor
Power: 110HP & 140FT-LBs
Origin: Italy | America
Savic C-Series Alpha
The Australian startup’s top-of-the-line high-performance two-wheeler, the Savic Motorcycles C-Series Alpha is a cutting-edge, fully-electric cafe racer that’s constructed around a cast backbone frame paired with a mono-shock-linked single-sided swing-arm and a Wilbers USD fork. Drawing from a 16.2-kWh battery that offers a range of around 125 miles, the bike is powered by a SM1 3-PHASE AC IPM motor that’s good for 80.5hp and 147.5ft-lbs of torque — figures that result in a 0-60mph time of 3.5 seconds and a top speed of just under 120mph. Other highlights on the C-Series Alpha include dual Brembo M4 Monobloc calipers, up to 40° of lean angle, and a stacked headlight arrangement capped off with a 7” capacitive touchscreen display.
Engine: Electric 3-PHASE AC IPM Motor
Power: 80.5HP & 147.5FT-LBs
MV Agusta Superveloce S
Fully-faired motorcycles tend to fall in the category of sportbike rather than café racer, though in the case of the MV Agusta Superveloce 800 S, there’s no denying the model’s café classification. To pen the bike, MV’s crack team of designers drew inspiration from the race machines of the Italian marque’s golden era of Grand Prix competition (in which MV claimed a record 17 consecutive world titles). Underneath its Neo-retro full fairing, the Superveloce is very much a contemporary bike, sharing the same frame and extremely potent three-cylinder platform as MV’s F3 800 and Brutale 800 — along with those models’ roughly 150-mph top speed. Sold in model-exclusive paint colors, the high-end Superveloce 800 S boasts even more retro inspiration with a set of beefy spoked wire wheels, a tail cowl, and an included race exhaust system.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 798cc Inline-Three
Power: 147HP & 65FT-LBs
Langen Two Stroke
A rolling work of art, craftsmanship, and engineering, the Langen Two Stroke is a boutique-built British cafe racer that’s constructed around a custom aerospace-grade 7020T6 aluminum frame. Fitted with an Öhlins fork and Ktech Piggyback shocks, the Two Stroke’s tubular framework accommodates an in-house designed quarter-liter two-stroke V-twin engine that puts down 76hp. Weighing in at less than 270lbs, the Langen also features a set of gold-finished spoked tubeless wheels, Radial-mount HEL billet calipers biting Brembo Serie Oro discs, ultra-unique carbon fiber intakes, a circular headlight set in an elongated shell, an under-tail-mounted two-stroke exhaust, and a bespoke suite of partially-exposed carbon fiber bodywork. It is worth noting that the Langen Two Stroke is limited to only 100 units worldwide.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 249.5cc Two-Stroke V-Twin
Power: 76HP & 33.2FT-LBs
Weight: 264.5LBs (Wet)
Hand-built by a boutique operation in Australia, the Salt Motorcycles Two-Stroke is essentially a transformative custom kit that’s sold as a turnkey bike. Tipping the scales at just 244lbs (dry), the cafe racer starts life as a modern KTM 300 EXC TPI before the two-stroke dirt bike is treated to a modified frame, handcrafted carbon fiber bodywork, and a five-gallon aluminum tank. Offered in three colors options — including an homage to the famous Gulf Oil livery — the Salt Two-Stroke also features a six-speed transmission with a top-shelf Rekluse Radius CX clutch, high-end brakes, a custom stainless steel expansion chamber exhaust culminating in a carbon fiber TYGA Performance muffler, and a premium suspension setup in the form of a WP XPLOR inverted fork and progressive damping system rear shock.
Engine: Liquid-Cooled 293.20cc Two-Stroke Single-Cylinder
Power: 52HP & 34.5FT-LBs
Weight: 244LBs (Dry)
Origin: Australia | Austria
Ducati Scrambler café Racer
Though it admittedly sports a fairly oxymoronic monicker, the Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer is one of the finest executions of a modern take on a café racer. For the latest iteration of this model, its unmistakably café’d bodywork is now adorned in a silver and multi-tone blue livery that was inspired by Ducati’s 125 GP Desmo of the 1950s. The bike’s hard tail-cowl, can also be removed to open up space for a pillion. And, on top of Ducati’s usual top-notch industrial designs, the Scrambler Cafe Racer also gets a host of standard safety gear including Bosch cornering ABS. Because this model is no longer in production, we’ve relegated it to an honorable mention, though new and low-mile examples are still readily available at dealerships and on showroom floors.
Engine: Air & Oil-Cooled 803cc L-Twin
Power: 73HP & 49FT-LBs
The Best Scrambler Motorcycles You Can Buy
Interested in checking out an additional selection of old-school-inspired bikes backed by modern performance and reliability? Then be sure to cruise over to our guide to the best scrambler motorcycles for a curated array of on and off-road-capable two-wheelers with retro-style looks.