Picture this: Full set of leathers, vintage aviator goggles, open-face helmet, leaning over the tank of a beautiful machine while cruising through the local streets. Café racer motorcycles have been a symbol of stylish counter-culture for over 50 years, and their popularity has yet to waver. Few motorcycling styles harness the character and charm of vintage glamour quite like the café racer does.
The notion of self-building a café racer is as old as the café racer itself. Built for speed over comfort, and cool over cushioning, the café racer was first and foremost a hybrid contraption; a union of Triumph engineering and Norton handling. Sleek and paired-back, these machines pay homage to 1960’s racing style, intriguing motorcyclists and mechanics alike.
If you’ve ever considered building your own café racer, but have been too timid to try, fear not. We’ve done the dirty work, and we’ve got the busted knuckles to prove it. Here is your guide to creating the racer of your dreams.
Step 1: Be a mechanic
Seriously though. You don’t need to hold a qualification in mechanical engineering to start tinkering with a bike, but it helps. A certain amount of mechanical nous is going to serve you well. If you’re not exactly that way inclined, you’d better hope you’ve got a good friend or a kindly local mechanic who takes payment in beer and back-slapping man-hugs. Messing around with handlebars and mirrors is one thing, but swapping out fuel tanks, wiring looms and engines is another thing altogether.
There are an absolute myriad of handy YouTubers out there who are keen to pass on their infinite wisdom; so at the very least, spend a few hours gobbling up all the information your brain can manage from those who’ve tried and failed before you.
Step 2: Choose your bike wisely, young Padawan
Your bike needs to have some great bare bones which lend themselves to the café racer style guide. A smooth, straight line through the centre from back to front is essential to the look. Experts recommend the Honda CB range (just about all of them), the Yamaha XS range (the Virago and SR400 and SR500 are also great options) as well as the Kawasaki W800 and W650 models. There are infinite possibilities, however these bikes all lend themselves to the fabled ‘café racer line’. Choosing a bike which is in good working order, and which already lends itself to the café racing style can save you a lot of coin, and no small amount of heartache.
Step 3: With great power comes great responsibility
Sure, you’re building a dream machine, but you still need to be able to ride the thing. Consider your skill level and license class before choosing your bike. Also, take a look at your local transport body’s regulations for registering a modified bike. You wouldn’t want to spend all that time and cash creating a masterpiece, only for it to be relegated to the pool room. And that’s all we’re going to say about that! NEXT!
Step 4: Tools at the ready!
Chances are, if you’re a bit of a mechanical boffin (or at least ‘weekend tinkerer’) you’re going to have a lot of the tools you require already. Suffice it to say that you’re going to need:
- Tin snips
- Welding equipment
- Crimp connectors
- Electrical and automotive tape
- Polishing compound
- Brake cleaner
If you’re kitted out with this well-stocked toolboxery, you’re just about ready to get started. Next on the list are the parts for the bike. If your base machine is already pretty spiffy, and carries that vintage style, you can get away with simply replacing the seat and mirrors and Jack’s your aunty – off you go! Depending on the bike you’re playing with, and your colour choice, you may require a few more modifications. Here’s a general guide:
- Headlight and taillight
Step 5: Measure twice, cut once
Be sure to get a good look at your parts, what you take off, what you tinker with and what you attach. It’s a good idea to take some pictures of all aspects of your bike before, during and after your modifications. There’s nothing worse than removing something, only to forget where it goes. Pictures will also help you when you need to turn to the Googleverse for assistance. If you get stuck along the way, there are plenty of forums filled with willing advisers to give you a hand and get you out of a pickle. Photos are much more helpful than a load of text.
Remove all of your accessories before attempting any work on the frame, brakes, engine or wiring, as this will make everything a lot easier to access. For tips on how to remove your engine, take a look at this video from modification enthusiast and YouTuber mrmaxstorey.
Cutting the frame is up next—as most original frames will be too long for your café racer seat. Be sure to measure this carefully before cutting. It’s easy to remove more material than it is to put it back, after all. If you’re a little worried about digging into the hardcore tasks of engine removal, brake fiddling and frame cutting, this may be the time to spend some cash and hire a professional. While many of your parts can be bought on the cheap, messing around with the mechanics can result in real damage to your bike.
Step 6: Apply a lick of paint
If you’ve got any rust on your machine, you’ll need to take care of that. Sandpaper and Spakfilla that nonsense until you’re rust free. Then it’s time for the fun bit—a bit of a paint job. Tiger stripes, skulls, white flames or a groovy pearl finish? This is the time to unleash your inner artist.
As we all know, the most important painted surface on your bike is its fuel tank. If you don’t fancy yourself much of a Da Vinci (and if you’ve got the wallet for it), you can hand this job off to a professional painter or else buy a custom-painted tank from your favourite online marketplace.
Step 7: Leather, baby
Well done you. Assuming you’ve covered the step of putting the bike back together (we didn’t need to say that, did we?) you’re ready to hit the town on your new chick magnet. Go and purchase yourself a set of vintage leathers, a totally impractical bucket helmet, and a pair of goggles. The Michelle Pfeiffers of this world don’t stand a chance.