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.
- The Best Café Racer Motorcycles Rundown
- A Brief Look At The History Of The Café Racer
- The Properties That Define A Café Racer
- The Factors To Consider When Shopping For A Cafe Racer
The Best Café Racer Motorcycles Rundown
Best Entry-Level Pick
Brixton Crossfire 125
Best Value Pick
Royal Enfield Continental GT 650
Best Commuter Pick
Best ‘80s-Inspired Pick
Best Custom Platform
BMW R nineT 100 Years
Best Modern Cafe Racer
Triumph Speed Triple 1200 RR
Best Overall Pick
Norton Commando 961 CR
Best Lightweight Pick
Best Electric Pick
Savic C-Series Alpha
Best Fully-Faired Pick
MV Agusta Superveloce S
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Brixton Crossfire 125
- Thoroughly modern take on naked cafe racer formula
- Has unique X-themed tank & headlight designs
- Features solid components for the price
- Excellent beginner platform
- Limited power doesn’t allow much room for growth
Best Entry-Level Pick: 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
Royal Enfield Continental GT 650
- Affordable turnkey cafe racer w/ classic cafe style
- Constructed around Harris Performance-developed frame
- Powered by traditional parallel-twin
- Offers outstanding bang for your buck
- Includes ABS-linked Brembo brakes & gas-charged shocks as standard
- Doesn’t feature an inverted/USD fork
Best Value Pick: 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)
- Modern revived take on classic sporty Honda commuter bike
- Equipped w/ neo-retro half-fairing design
- Offers fantastic balance of performance & utility
- Uses same proven twin-cylinder engine from Honda’s Africa Twin ADV bike, NT1100, & Rebel 1100
- Backed by Honda’s bulletproof reliability
- Not currently sold in American or European markets
Best Commuter Pick: 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)
- Based on Yamaha’s incredibly popular MT-09 platform
- Aesthetic design inspired by 1980s superbikes & endurance racers
- Sports throwback Yamaha livery & retro-inspired gold-colored wheels
- Makes for a great platform for customization
- Is also a fantastic commuter bike choice
- Super cramped passenger seating
- Ugly stock exhaust
Best ‘80s-Inspired Pick: 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)
BMW R nineT 100 Years
- Based on BMW’s ultra-modular R9T platform
- Comes standard w/ monoposto tail & myriad of chrome elements
- Wears livery with custom pin striping
- Loaded with top-shelf items from BMW’s Option 719 catalog
- Huge variety of available factory accessories, aftermarket parts, & bolt-on kits
- Expensive price (compared to other R9T models)
- Protruding cylinder heads make for a very wide bike
Best Custom Platform: 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
- Modern cafe version of Triumph’s Speed Triple 1200 naked superbike
- Brimming with ultra-premium components
- Has full suite of electronic assists & rider aids
- Comes standard w/ quick-shifter & semi-active Öhlins Smart suspension
- Features extended 10,000-mile service intervals
- Expensive price
- Costs over $2k more than regular Speed Triple 1200
Best Modern Cafe Racer: 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)
Norton Commando 961 CR
- Modernized, high-end take on ultra-iconic British cafe racer
- Combines vintage cafe looks w/ modern performance & reliability
- Powered by Norton’s own in-house developed & built engine
- Features top-shelf Brembo brakes & Öhlins suspension
- Outstanding build quality & fit & finish
- On the heavier side at just over 500lbs
- Expensive price & running costs
Best Overall Pick: 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)
- Super lightweight boutique built cafe racer with incredible performance
- Uses two-stroke engine from KTM 300 EXC TPI
- Weighs less than 250lbs (dry)
- Has handcrafted carbon bodywork & aluminum tank
- Comes w/ Rekluse clutch, carbon TYGA Performance muffler, & WP XPLOR suspension
- Made in limited numbers
- Expensive price
Best Lightweight Pick: 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: (KTM-Sourced) Liquid-Cooled 293.20cc Two-Stroke Single-Cylinder
Power: 52HP & 34.5FT-LBs
Weight: 244LBs (Dry)
Origin: Australia | Austria
Savic C-Series Alpha
- Cutting-edge naked sportbike w/ classic cafe racer looks
- Made by hand by a boutique brand
- Fairly comfortable riding position still allows for spirited riding
- Utilizes premium components throughout
- Features single-sided swing-arm
- Lack of dealership network can make it difficult to view in person or test ride prior to purchasing
Best Electric Pick: 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
- Based on MV Agusta’s F3 800 triple platform
- Looks unlike any other motorcycle currently in production
- S-spec model comes w/ retro-inspired 3-pipe Magni-style race exhaust system
- Brimming with top-shelf components
- Very expensive price
Best Fully-Faired Pick: 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
Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer
Honorable Mention: 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
Original MSRP: $11,995
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).
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.
Conduciveness To Customization: While it’s true that most cafe racers currently in production are heavily inspired by custom builds, these bikes can still massively vary in terms of how well they lend themselves to further customization, with some models having even been engineered to be as modular and custom-friendly as possible. For those interested in further customizing, upgrading, or otherwise personalizing their new cafe racer, we also recommend looking into the availability of optional factory accessories, aftermarket parts, and bolt-on kits.