• Best Cafe Racer Motorcycles in 2022

What started as a home-built phenomenon, turned into production reality for manufacturers

The cafe racer phenomenon started in the late 1950s as young motorcyclists stripped down their production roadsters and rebuilt them to resemble the racing Nortons and AJSs of their heroes such as Geoff Duke and John Surtees. These young rockers then challenged each other to races, based at their local café, setting off as a record started on the jukebox and having to get back before the record ended. Fast forward to the 2000s and the cafe racer becomes a production model for many manufacturers.

The Beginning: The Triton

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While not the only combination of frame and engine in the history of the home-built café racer, the Triton is by far the most popular. The name derives from the use of the Triumph parallel twin engine and the Norton Featherbed frame.

The Triumph twin engine was acknowledged as the best engine of its time, while the Norton frame was deemed to be the best handling frame available. In the late 1950s, Formula 3 racing was hugely popular in the UK and Europe, being for cars powered by 500cc engines. For that, the Norton 500cc single-cylinder racing engine was very popular but Norton wouldn’t sell engines on their own, so car builders had to buy whole Manx Norton motorcycles just to get their hands on the engine.

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The rest of the motorcycle was then sold off to recover some of the costs. This led to many featherbed frames becoming available, into which Triumph, Vincent, BSA, or other engines were fitted. A set of low clip-on handlebars, rear-set footpegs, single-seat, polished aluminum tank, and swept back exhaust headers ending in megaphone mufflers and your cafe racer was complete.

Of course, many owners simply bolted those parts onto their standard motorcycle to turn it into a race-replica, style often being more important than outright performance.

Triumph Thruxton RS - $16,200

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With the success of the new Bonneville in 2001, Triumph realized that here was an opportunity to delve further into its history to diversify the range.

The original Triumph Thruxton was a limited edition, hand-built, production class racing machine based on the Bonneville T120, first seen at the 1964 Earls Court Motorcycle Show and intended to race at the prestigious 500-mile race at the Thruxton race circuit in England, at the time an important showcase for the manufacturers.

In 2004, Triumph took its reborn Bonneville and turned it into the Thruxton 900, using the 900cc parallel twin engine, and completed the style with a single seat, clip-on handlebars, rear-set footpegs, and reverse-cone mufflers.

In 2016, Triumph completely re-engineered the Thruxton, fitting it with the high-power version of the 1200cc parallel twin engine and retaining the style of the original. High-specification suspension by Ohlins and brakes by Brembo were fitted to the Thruxton R model.

The Triumph Thruxton remains the most authentic of the modern café racers and spawned a whole new class of motorcycles from many major manufacturers.

BMW RnineT Racer

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BMW followed Triumph’s lead and introduced the RnineT retro-themed model in 2014, built around an air-cooled boxer-twin engine and designed as a ‘blank canvas for customizing.’

Many variations on the theme followed, including the RnineT Racer, which had a café racer style, complete with all the right parts - a single seat, clip-on handlebars, and a nose fairing with a single round headlight. To many, this was the best RnineT variant but, by 2019, BMW had discontinued the model, due to poor sales.

The reason for this was that the RnineT Racer simply wasn’t sporty enough: the suspension was basic, cornering ground clearance was compromised by the cylinders sticking out either side and the riding position was a little too extreme, especially for the older clients who saw the model as recapturing their youthful love affair with café racers.

But, it looked the part and, for many, that is enough to make the RnineT desirable.

Ducati Scrambler Café Racer

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So, the name might be a bit confusing - how can you have a ‘Scrambler’ Café Racer? - but, in actual fact, the Ducati was one of the better models in the Scrambler line-up.

In reality, the model was a styling exercise on the Scrambler platform and had no equivalent model in the Ducati back-catalog. That didn’t matter as it looked great, even if the 803cc air-cooled V-twin wasn’t the most powerful.

The Café Racer was discontinued in 2020, largely due to the engine not complying with emissions regulations, although the current Scrambler 1100 Sport Pro is probably the closest in spirit.

Husqvarna Vitpilen 701 - $9,499

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The Husqvarna Vitpilen and Swartpilen models caused a sensation when they were unveiled in 2016. They might have been KTM models under the skin, but it was the skin that was so ground-breaking: here was the most modern-looking motorcycle ever.

While the Svartpilen (black arrow) models had more upright riding positions, the Vitpilen (white arrow) versions had café racer style, complete with low-set handlebars, single-seat, and rearset footpegs.

The engine is the single-cylinder, 692cc unit from the KTM 690 and produces 75 lusty horsepower, which pushes the 350-pound machine along at hooligan speeds. The chassis has all the top-spec components, including WP inverted forks and monoshock rear and Brembo brakes.

All-in-all, the Husqvarna Vitpilen 701 is a brilliant modern take on the traditional café racer.

Moto Guzzi V7 Cafe Racer - $9,990

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Café racers might have been traditionally British style, but it would be fair to say that similar things were happening in Italy, another European country with a strong motorcycle industry and racing heritage.

Moto Guzzi has been defined by its transverse v-twin engine since the late 1960s and the current V7 Café Racer mirrors the style of the original V7 Sport of 1971.

It’s not the most powerful cafe racer out there, with the 744cc engine producing 52 horsepower to push along a 470-pound weight but there is no doubting the style, with the chrome tank, red frame, brown suede single seat with cowl, black exhaust system, clip-ons, and rearset footpegs.

Royal Enfield Continental GT 650 - $5,999

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If anything, Royal Enfield has a stronger claim to Café Racer authenticity than Triumph, with the first Continental GT 250 appearing in 1965 as a production machine available to the public.

In 2014, the Continental GT 535 was launched, following directly on from the GT 250 in terms of style and featuring a single-cylinder 535cc engine producing 30 horsepower in a traditional café racer chassis and running gear.

Then, in 2017, the Continental GT 650 was introduced, powered by a 648cc parallel-twin engine producing 47 horsepower. There’s nothing that’s not right about this bike: the right name on the tank, the right engine configuration, the right style and, to make it even more attractive, a price that is a third of the current Triumph Thruxton RS and significantly lower than all the other bikes in this list.

AJS Cadwell Custom - $3,325

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So far, all the café racers on this list have been large-engined and expensive so how about something a little cheaper and suitable for the beginner?

AJS is a famous name in British motorcycling, founded in 1909 and running to 1969. Later the name was bought and today it is applied to Chinese-sourced single-cylinder motorcycles, of which the Cadwell Custom is one.

It might have a single-cylinder engine of 125cc producing a weak 10 horsepower, but the style is perfect, with gloss black paint adorned by that famous AJS badge with gold pinstriping.

Clip-ons, rear-sets, single-seat, inverted forks, twin shock absorbers, spoked wheels with chrome rims, and disc brakes front and rear complete the picture, and, best of all, it can be bought for as little as $3,325!

Who says style has to be expensive?

Kawasaki Z900RS - $11,799

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Kawasaki jumped onto the retro bandwagon with its modern take on the iconic original Z900 from the early 1970s. The new bike was based on the modern Z900, ditching the angular bodywork in favor of full retro flavor, an exact copy of the original.

While the Z900 was never released as a café racer style, that didn’t stop Kawasaki from stirring the pot and bringing out the Z900RS with its nominal cafe racer style, competing with nose fairing, small screen, low ‘bars, and humped seat.

The 948cc inline-four engine produces a healthy 111 horsepower, which the chassis and suspension is more than capable of coping with.

Some commentators say that this is the best café racer on the market today, even if it lacks a little authenticity, and it certainly goes as well as it looks.

MV Agusta Superveloce - $23,000+

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In the pantheon of legendary motorcycle brands, MV Agusta stands head and shoulders above the rest and, if money is no object but you still want that racer-for-the-road look, then the Superveloce 800 is the bike for you.

Fairings were unusual but not unknown in the 1960s for road bikes, even though race bikes had fitted them since the late 1950s. Road bike fairings were available as after-market accessories but no manufacturers offered them from the factory.

Drawing inspiration from the Italian marque’s heyday of Grand Prix racing, the Superveloce 800 is the ultimate café racer, with a screaming 798cc three-cylinder engine producing 148 horsepower in a chassis weighing in at 381 pounds.

Sublime style and those iconic MV Agusta colors of red and silver make this the most desirable ‘retro’ model on the market, but you’ll have to part with $23,000+ for the privilege of owning one.

FAQs:

Which is the best café racer?

There is no one ’best’ cafe racer: it all depends on how much you are willing to spend and which one tickles your sense of style. However, the Triumph Thruxton might be the most authentic while the MV Agusta Superveloce is the most desirable.

Why do they call them Cafe Racers?

In the 1960s, ’rockers’ would gather at transport cafes in the U.K. for late-night refreshments on their race replica motorcycles. Often, they would race each other from the cafe, round the streets and back just for fun.

What brands make Cafe Racers?

Triumph, Kawasaki, Ducati, BMW, MV Agusta, Royal Enfield, Moto Guzzi, Husqvarna,

Are Cafe Racers good?

If you can stand the riding position, they are brilliant: full of style and performance.

Harry Fisher
Harry Fisher
Motorcycling Contributor
Born and raised in England, he has lived in South Africa with his family since 2002. Harry has owned examples of Triumph, Norton, BSA, MV Agusta, Honda, BMW, Ducati, Harley Davidson, Kawasaki and Moto Morini motorcycles. He regrets selling all of them.  Read full bio
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