How to Build a Cafe Racer

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The cafe racer is a type of motorcycle that draws the interest of many new builders.

Starting a cafe racer build of your own may be the reason your ended up on MotorcycleZombies.com in the first place!

Cafes can be a great way to learn about custom builds, motorcycle restoration, and maintenance in general.

Before you get started and start buying all sorts of fancy aftermarket upgrades, check out this page to find tips on:

  • What really makes a cafe racer a cafe racer?
  • How to build your own.
  • How much it will cost.
  • Best motorcycles for building custom cafe racers.
  • Stock cafe racers and cafe-inspired stock bikes.

What is a Cafe Racer Motorcycle?

A cafe racer is a style of motorcycle that was originally designed for performance and speed over short distances. The aesthetics of original cafes were the result of weight reduction and aerodynamics.

While the modern cafe seems to have leaned more towards the aesthetic side of things, the core of a true cafe racer motorcycle is performance-oriented.

Some common characteristics you’ll find among cafe racers include:

  • Weight reduction with simple and stripped down body work.
  • Low or clip-on handle bars to allow for a tucked riding position.
  • Knee-dents or knee grips on the gas tank to further allow for a tucked position.
  • Rear-set footpegs and levers to allow for operation in the tucked position.
  • Long-low fuel tank.
  • Swept-back exhaust.
  • Fuel, intake, and exhaust modifications for performance.
  • Flat low seat and rear seat hump.

The body work and design modifications were intended to cut down on unnecessary weight in order to increase speed and acceleration, and reduce wind resistance.

The cafe racer’s roots can be traced back to motorcycle culture in Britain in the early 1960s when riders would modify their bikes to mimic early Grand Prix motorcycles and ride fast between popular cafes in the London area.

How to Build a Cafe Racer

A cafe racer can be a good first custom motorcycle build to start with.

A classic cafe racer style is based on minimalism with a focus on performance. If you use that as a guide, your project should go smoothly.

Building a cafe racer is just like any motorcycle project:

  1. Get the bike running.
  2. Disassemble the bike.
  3. Service and repair everything that needs it.
  4. Clean parts and prep for paint.
  5. Make any frame modifications or other appearance changes necessary.
  6. Reassemble and tune the bike.

The most important step that first time cafe racer builder often over look is actually getting the bike running and tuned before worrying about aesthetics.

The biggest mistake that first time cafe racer builders make is to start grinding off parts of the frame to achieve the “cafe look.”

Anything you do on a project motorcycle should start with a plan.

The tabs on your motorcycle’s frame serve a purpose – i.e. they hold parts in place. If you’re going to remove or relocate things, you’ll need to have a solution for where they’ll go.

Another mistake is automatically ditching the stock airbox for pod filters. If you do this, you will need to spend some time adjusting and retuning your carbs.

However, once you do have a plan and have spent the time getting the bike running well, some common modifications for cafe racers include:

  • Shortening the rear frame and adding a seat hoop and custom seat pan.
  • Adding knee-dents to the gas tank and painting it.
  • Swapping for clubman bars or clip on handlebars.
  • Relocating and upgrading the electronics and swapping for a smaller battery.
  • Swapping for a smaller, swept-back exhaust.

Once you’re ready to dive into the cafe build, check out our guide on motorcycle restorations as well as our maintenance and repair sections:

Best Bikes to Build a Custom Cafe

Your first step in building a cafe racer is choosing a bike to start with.

If you’re a purist, a European motorcycle like a Triumph, Ducati, BMW, or an old BSA would make a good choice for a cafe. However, bikes like these are going to be far more expensive and harder to come by.

If you’re just getting starting with motorcycle rebuilds and restorations, a great choice is a Japanese motorcycle from the 70s and 80s.

These bikes are going to be cheaper, highly common, easy to work on, and easy to find parts for.

Some good choices for Japanese motorcycles to build a cafe racer include:

  • Honda CB series
  • Honda CX500
  • Kawasaki Z Series
  • Kawasaki KZ series
  • Kawasaki W series
  • Yamaha XS series
  • Yamaha SR series

Cafe Racer Build Price Range

The total cost of building a cafe racer will depend on a few main factors, including:

  • Whether you’ll be doing all the work yourself or if you’ll be paying someone else to do it.
  • Which parts you plan on upgrading.
  • If you’ll be rebuilding or upgrading the engine.

Aside from the cost of the motorcycle you start with, a cafe racer project will typically cost about $750 to $2,000.

Some examples of price ranges you can expect for things you’ll likely replace, restore, or upgrade include:

  • $50 to $100 for paint and painting supplies.
  • $50 to $250 for a seat.
  • $150 to $200 for new tires.
  • $40 to $100 for new handlebars.
  • $25 to $50 for a carb rebuild kit.
  • $40 to $150 for a battery.
  • $100 to $500 for engine parts, gaskets, valves, chain, sprockets, etc.

Stock Cafe Racer Motorcycles

Stock cafe replicas and cafe-styled motorcycles began to emerge as the style grew in popularity.

Major manufacturers caught on and started producing cafe-inspired bikes in the late 1970s through the late 1980s.

The first stock cafe motorcycles included:

  • Moto Guzzi Le Mans.
  • Harley-Davidson XLCR.
  • Honda GB250, GB400, GB500.

As the cafe style has gained popularity again in more recent years, there has been another resurgence of stock cafes coming from the major manufacturers, some examples include:

  • BMX R nineT Racer
  • Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer
  • Honda CB1000R Neo-Sports Cafe
  • Royal Enfield GT650
  • Triumph Thruxton
  • Yamaha XSR900