A café racer project all starts with one simple question: which bike should I use as a donor / base motor?
In this post we list some of the most popular models which are very suitable to turn into a café racer and are affordable for the most of us. Classic icons like Nortons, Moto Guzzi’s BMW’s and Triumphs are some truly cool bikes to turn into a café racer, but come also with a five-figure price (we’ll write an article later on these ;)). Also check my list of the 17 Best Café Racer Bikes.
Selecting the best bike for a Café Racer project
When selecting a bike for a café racer project, it’s important to know where to start. Do you have some references or ideas? Start right here. On which bikes are your references built? Just pick this model.
Not quite knowing what to build? Search for bikes you like, starting on Pinterest or Google Images. There are a lot of cool projects which can help you get inspiration. It’s important to keep your budget in mind and be realistic. Starting with a rare Moto Guzzi for your first project is not a good idea if you’re on a tight budget.
Also keep in mind that every bike is different and if it’s your first project it’s better to pick a mainstream model with a lot of online help and info.
Another tip before you start building your café racer: make a plan! It sounds so easy, but if you’re failing to plan, you’re planning to fail. You have to make a proper plan. If you’re not that handy mechanic: choose a common bike with a lot of café racer parts available which you can relatively ease “bolt on”. Awesome front shocks, a custom mono shock subframe, a handcrafted fuel tank: they are beautiful but also come with some real craftsmanship. And before you even start, I’ll suggest to give “The Build” a try: one of the best references for building a custom motorcycle [view on Amazon].
It’s also not a bad idea to stage your café racer project. For example: work to a rideable first version with some small customizations (making a list is very helpful!) so you can ride your bike in the summer. Go back to your garage in the winter and work towards another rideable version 2 of your bike and so on. Because riding your bike will help you keep your enthusiasm for the project before the bike is ending up as an “unfinished project” on eBay… This happens a lot, also because some ambitions are greater that the willingness to learn: working on a motorcycle requires technical knowledge and skills and if you don’t have them, you have to be patient enough to learn.
And remember: #KTSSU!
Café racer bike #1: Honda CB
We can’t actually point out THE #1 base bike for your café racer project, but there is one type that stands out: the Honda CB.
The Honda CB-series were very successful in the 70’s and 80’s, so there are a lot of them on the market. Their success resulted in a huge selection of aftermarket products, and a lot of “custom ready products”. Their engines are very reliable and easy to work on. Though, the popular CB’s like the CB500, CB550 and CB750 are not the cheapest to get, the parts are relatively cheap and know a very wide variation. For example: there are complete front fork conversion kits available for just a few bucks. And sites like Ryca Motors and Benjie’s Café Racer offer complete café racer kits: just bolt it on and go!
Another big plus of the Honda is, since it is used a lot in cafe racer projects, there are a lot of examples available and you can find experiences and solutions for common problems almost everywhere online. So if it’s your very first café racer project, we strongly recommend to pick one of Honda CB’s!
Also check out our Top 10 Honda CB Café Racers!
The BMW R-series are very popular by motorcycle builders and that’s for several reasons: BWM is one of the most sold motorcycles around the world, so there are plenty of them. The R-series are proven to be very, very reliable. It has a shaft drive, so it needs less maintenance. They are quite powerful, “torqey” and have a low center of gravity, which give the bike a solid handling. There are a lot of different types en versions from 500cc up to 1000cc’s and maybe the best of all: the twin boxer have an amazing sound.
Since there are so many around, there is a lot to find in words of parts as well as information.
Also check the 9 best custom BMW R nineT’s
Similar to the Honda CB are the Yamaha XS-series: there are a lot of them on the market and a huge world with aftermarket products. The most popular and powerful bike is the XS650 with a true bulletproof engine which generates a lot of torque and an amazing sound.
The cruiser Yamaha Virago is built from the early 80’s to mid 90’s. This was the first V-twin of Yamaha and the Virago was one of the first production bikes with a mono shock rear suspension. Unfortunately, in 1984 (2 years after the introduction) Yamaha switched back to dual shock rear suspension. The bike is shaft driven, which means less maintenance and comes with engines from 500cc up to 1000cc’s.
Just like the with the Honda’s, there is a big Virago community and a lot of spare and aftermarket parts to buy.
The so-called “poor men’s Guzzi” with a great 2 cylinder engine which can give your café racer an extra cool look and generates an awesome sound. Needs a bit more work than the Honda CB and Yamaha XS to get the well known straight café racer line because of the higher front. The bike is a lit less popular, but there are still a lot of info and the parts are easy to get by.
Suzuki LS650 (Savage)
The Suzuki LS650 is very popular because of it’s massive, fully chromed single cylinder 650cc powerhouse and the fact that it’s powered by a belt drive. Needs some more work on the frame and front to lower the bike, but there are a lot of instructions available online. The massive engine generates lots of torque and a great low sound.
The Kawasaki Z-series are, like the Honda CB’s, available in many variations, but a bit cheaper. The “biggies” like the Z650 are equipped with a lot of torque and power.
Modern retro models
If you don’t want an “oldie” and want to rely on modern technology and more up to date specs, you can take a look at some retro models:
- V7 Stone
- V7 Special
- V7 Racer
- Monster (especially the models between 1992 and 2002)
Also check out this list of modern café racers.
Got your bike?
As mentioned before: there is no #1 base bike for your café racer project, and this is only a selection of affordable 70’s and 80’s machines, but we hope that this posts can help you selecting your base bike. If you’ve got any suggestions: leave your comment!
Not into cafe racers and want to build something else? Maybe a scrambler will suit you. Check out the best base bikes for a scrambler.