The Café Racer is Making a Comeback in America


July 19, 2011 | By: Patrick Garvin

The café racer got its start in Europe in the early 1960s, making its way across the pond later in that decade, and eventually catching on with a few factories in the U.S. Even Harley-Davidson gave it a shot in 1977 with the XLCR. But the AMF-built bike was pretty much ignored in showrooms and quickly vanished from the H-D lineup. Unlike the Beatles and Stones, the café racer trend in America was short-lived.

Then a new craze smacked America upside the head in the late ’80s and early ’90s with bikers morphing their motorcycles into grossly overpriced machines where functionality took a back seat to the largest back tire you could jam under the bike, super long front ends and zillion-dollar paint jobs. Most of these bikes were barley rideable,but for the egomaniacs who owned these rides, it was much more about status and excess than speed or performance.

The idea behind the café racer was the polar opposite of the chopper monstrosities you see on reality TV shows these days. One thing these European café racers had in common with our early-day bobbers and choppers was the habit of removing any parts deemed unnecessary or bulky. Anything that was attached to the bike that didn’t improve speed was taken off or “chopped.” We did it to Harleys; the British did the same with their 100-mph coffee bar hoppers (ergo, the café label.)

The British builders were tearing off factory parts and fabricating only what they needed, while at the same time building their own flare and personality into the bike. The biggest difference between the chops and the café bikes was that the café bikes were built to retain as much functionality with as few parts as possible to attain the maximum speed. The cafés were stripped to the bare essentials and put back together with performance in mind. Clip-on handlebars were bolted up front with small (café) fairings while one-piece tail sections shed unnecessary weight in the back. Add some nice suspension, a performance pipe and a carb kit, and guys were blasting through corners in no time.

Now fast-forward to the current economic downturn. Bikes are being built in small shops and in attached two-car garages with the focus once again on getting your bike down the road. Gone is the idea of building a bike around some ridiculous “theme.”  Once again, the café racer is rearing its speedy head as people pull CB750s, XS650s, and Ironhead Sportsters out of barns and garages across the country and start spinning wrenches in their own garage.

J&P Cycles even built its own café racer, which was featured in a recent American Iron Garage mag. So if you’re looking for an inexpensive way to get a great bike underneath you, and you’re not afraid to get your hands dirty, start combing the Internet classifieds, cruising the garage sales and rummaging through your neighbor’s barn. There are a ton of old bikes out there just begging for somebody to rescue them.

Comments (28)

I agree with Will. Nice bike but the thing looks like a HD Nightster. It looks way to heavy and big to really call it a cafe bike. Really the look of a cafe racer is a early Norton or Triumph. I See a lot of guys recently cruising mostly early 70’s Honda CBs striped down with dropped bars. They buy these for a few hundred dollars and some look just great, very refreshing.
“Build Ride Love”

I think the fat tire guys missed a trick by not putting a bias ply Mickey Thompson slick on the rear and deleting the kick stand. Stop, step off your bike and walk away. How cool would that be?
Sure I know, not a cool as riding. Amen.

I like the Cafe Racer concept, but my back is FUBAR so the riding position is painful.
My ’79 Ironhead (stage 2 S&S Stroker street motor) is set up more like a 1/2 miler for comfort and practicality.
+1 on the bizarre choppers.

I rode a ’62 Bonnie stripped to the bone and have pics to prove it! Oh, and did I forget to say that I rode it all around Europe in ’71!

“The Lord hath spoken.” Thank you for the lesson, Master Lochwood, I bow to your superior knowledge. Just wanted to get William’s take since he was pretty adamant. I wouldn’t consider it a true cafe racer, either.

I’ll run along now, my mommy said to be home before dinner.

Well, like some, I was there too. I don’t remember any large 4 cylinder Hondas done anything like cafe style. Yoshimura had some input on the 350cc and 400cc Hondas. Mostly my friends and I rode R-5, RD350 and 400 based bikes. If I were to do one today, (my main bike is a Road King) I would look for a Bultaco Metralla to base it on. Or alternately a Honda dirt bike single motor with a custom frame. A ground up machine. If going the antique route I’d look for a Velocette and leave it stock. No iron heads for me sorry. I ain’t got the butt for it.

Rearsets and a small tail lamp on the fender would complete this bike. Well done

I loved the look on my Dad’s face when I smoked his butt on the way to little league game. I on a modified can-am 250, Pop’s his new 1978 KZ650B series. We did not make it to the game and kept riding.

Sorry gents – nice work but its just a nice custom harley, more of a bobber than anything else.
A HD cafe would be more like this:
Good first cut though – now for some rearsets (Buell?) and some longer travel suspension – or chase down a tube frame Buell

I’m diggin’ the bike shown, but it’d certainly be a better cafe racer if it had longer shocks; raising the bike a bit in the back would quicken the steering and give it some much-needed ground clearance when leaned over.

Nice job overall, though. I think you guys should post the ‘build kit’ on your website.

Ain’t a rigid…ain’t a bagger…looks like…a racer.

Very nice example of an American cafe racer. The article nicely describes what one is and the Sportster is a fantastic platform on which to build one. That’s why I just bought a 2005 XL 1200R 😉

William I know… I owned #427 (1978). I honestly can’t identify with the “Sporty” in the pictures. It looks like a “Bobber” with drag bars. I’d rather have an XR-750 if we’re going to try and do a Cafe Racer. H-D Cafe racers of any kind are rare and there ain’t much racing going on between the “Foreign” made rockets and push rod V-Twins. I used to wax 900 Kawasaki’s back in the ’70s with a 1974 Sportster with S&S 4 5/8″ wheels.

Go check out the Xl forum about 30,000 members with a section on Sportsters turned into cafe racer style bike, tons of pics.

A real cafe’ racer is old honda cb750,Kawasaki 500 and 750 tripples yamaha rd and so much more dont let me forget the bonnie.but i hope these bike come back strong

what do you think of Harleys?

Insulting a significant portion of your customer base struck you as a good idea? Really?

I am old enough to remember what a proper cafe racer looks like. And I LOVE the piglet with the cafe look. I have an old Bonnie in my garage and your bike is inspiring me to modify mine….thanks guys and keep up the great work!

Yep…. It is a cafe racer. Stripped down, big motor, low bars and full suspension. If you look at the majority of old pictures of cafe racers, most didn’t have alloy tanks and the other modern stereotypical add-ons of the current “cafe racer”. The english lads of that era couldn’t afford such finery. They just grabbed a triumph and stuck a set of clip-ons in the front forks… instant cafe racer.

Well, Mr. Smart-pants Steel ‘Phony’, a real cafe racer starts with the clip-ons thrown on your example, but also includes things like a 1/4 fairing (optional), drilled holes for lightening everywhere (not so optional), and most importantly, rear mounted controls to put the rider in the right position to sti over the tank and lean into corners… a must! HEck the Isle of Man TT has 250cc class bikes that will do circles around the Sportster you’ve pictured here.
Let me guess, you weren’t even born when MoCo first came out with the 1977 XLCR…
Besides, the industry isn’t crazy, it’s just filled with crazies!

fat tires and neion lights are to make up for a short pecker LOL . yuppies !

fat tires and neion lights are to make up for not being manly LOL .

William, Will Rodgers once said, “We are all ignorant, only on different subjects”. The next time you feel the need to point out to people that they don’t know what they are talking about, keep that quote in mind, smartypants! I know you are but what am I? Nana nana booboo!!!

Right on about all the custom bikes. Every weekend I see all these wanna be bikers on their seriously expensive custom bikes driving the couple of miles from their overpriced downtown lofts up the road a mile or two so they can sit outside a bistro and drink overpriced coffee in all their biker gear and do rags, etc. Funny thing is, Sat and Sun are the only days they ride.

William, there are several different vesions of Cafe’ Racers. I have built several and just completed my 3rd. Some say my bikes are not Cafe Racers becasue they are not from the original date or make of when Cafe’ racing was a popular sport. I say “hat off” to anyone building or fabing a bike these days.

Then fill us in, William. Always looking to learn in this crazy industry.

Do any of you guys know what a Cafe Racer is? I don’t think so. The bike is beautiful but not a Cafe Racer.

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