If there are two dominant themes in the current biking fashion for all things retro then, after scramblers, it has to be that of the café racer.
Like scramblers, historically, café racers were originally production road bikes from the 1950s and ‘60s that had been modified, either by their owners or specialist customising shops. The difference here, though, is while scramblers were adapted for the dirt with the likes of high bars and mudguards and knobbly tyres, café racers were customised for street speed.
The term ‘café racer’, meanwhile, grew out of the ‘50s café and coffee shop culture in Britain where, in the late ‘50s, disaffected teens who could afford two wheels for the first time and were influenced by the new rock ‘n’ roll of the likes of Bill Haley, Eddie Cochrane and Gene Vincent, used to congregate. The most famous of these, of course, was London’s Ace Café.
At places like this, it was a short hop for these bored and boisterous youths, with their rocker Brylcreemed quiffs and personalised biker leather jackets, to begin street racing, either to other cafes or, famously, to a pre-determined point and back before a favourite 45 on the café juke box played out. Inevitably, in the search for speed, modifications to their Triumphs, BSAs and Nortons followed, influenced by the track and including clip-on handlebars, performance tuning and exhausts and the occasional cockpit fairing. The café racer was born.
Today, originals like the Triton (which married Triumph’s fast Bonneville twin engine with Norton’s fine-handling featherbed chassis) are revered classics in their own right. But in recent years the increasing interest in the style of those bikes has spawned a whole generation of brand new, retro-styled machines specifically re-creating the café racer look and feel. Re-born Triumph arguably got the whole bandwagon rolling with its reinvented Triumph Thruxton, a pepped-up, drop-barred version of its Bonneville retro roadster, in 2003. But in the last few years it’s been joined by similarly themed café racers from the likes of BMW, Ducati and even the vast Japanese brands resulting in a huge variety of café racers to choose from. So, to help you get up to speed, here’s our Top 10 of the current best, in ascending price order…
Historic British brand Royal Enfield is once again going places. Now owned by the vast Indian Eicher automotive group, in 2015 it took over UK chassis specialists Harris Performance and soon after set up a multi-million, all-new design facility in Leicestershire headed by former Triumph product leads Simon Warburton and Mark Wells. This all-new, 650 twin is its first product, was launched in 2019 in two guises, the Bonneville-esque Interceptor and the café racer Continental GT, and both have proved a big success.
Both share a new, air-cooled, 648cc, 47bhp twin, Harris-designed tubular steel twin loop frame and cycle parts including wire wheels, disc brakes and telescopic fork/twin shock suspension. But the roadster Interceptor has upright, one-piece bars, a bigger and more bulbous tank where the Continental has lower, café racer style clip-ons, slimmer, smaller tank (complete with ‘Monza’ filler cap and optional single racer seat.
Inevitably the ride is similar, too: a willing, thrummy, A2-compliant motor and easy, sweet handling. Build and equipment is adequate rather than inspiring, but the look is great, the experience easy and evocative and the value, thanks to being built in India, incontestable. For this look and badge, nothing at this price comes close.
Although probably the least convincing and authentic as a café racer and the most disingenuous of all the retros here, the Suzuki SV-X is still a decent bike at a tempting price. Introduced in 2018 it’s basically a mildly restyled SV650, which itself was reintroduced in 2016 after a facelift and update and which dates all the way back to 1999, so don’t expect much in the way of cutting-edge tech although it has now been updated again to meet 2021 Euro5 regs. The SV is cute, clean, honest and a perky performer at a great price while the £500 more expensive X adds a ribbed seat, lower bars, nose cowling and different paint. True, that doesn’t add up to a credible retro but it does add a touch of retro style to an already decent bike and the slightly more café racer feel somehow makes it more engaging and fun to ride, too. The 75bhp V-twin is one of motorcycling’s greats, as well.
Is it a bird? Is it a plane? KTM-revived Husqvarna’s new single-cylinder roadsters are many things: one is good old fashioned, single cylinder punchy fun, another is sort of retro-ey style and the third confusing. So let’s sort the last one out first. Now KTM owned, a pair of Husqvarna roadster singles using KTM powerplants had been doing the show rounds for a few years as concept bikes. In 2019 these were finally launched and comprised the Svartpilen (‘black arrow’) roadster and Vitpilen (‘white arrow’) lower-barred, café racer-esque version, with both available in 401 (373cc, actually, from the KTM 390 Duke) and 701 (692cc, from the KTM 690 Duke) forms. Yes, it’s not particularly retro and certainly hasn’t a British Ace Café vibe, but if there’s a purer modern take on the café racer theme we can’t think of it. The bigger ones are, naturally, more lively. With 73bhp, ultra light weight and decent cycle parts they’re brilliant fun with the Vitpilen definitely the racier. But they’re also more than a little ‘left field’. Initially fairly costly, prices have now actually come down with the 701 Vitpilen now nearly £1500 less than when launched.
Read our Husqvarna Vitpilen 701 review here.
The return of Kawasaki’s retro roadster W800 twin was one of the surprises of 2019 – but a more than welcome one. First introduced as the W650 in 1999, as a homage to Kawasaki’s original 1966 W1, the bevel-drive, air-cooled, ‘60s style twin gave Triumph’s then Bonneville a run for its money, if not quite, for its fairly limp 49bhp performance, then certainly for its exquisite detailing (the metal switchgear is divine) and authentic style. Uprated to 773cc W800 form from 2011 to 2016 it’s now been updated again and comes in three forms: the standard, chrome W800, the more blacked-out W800 Street and this street-racer W800 Café – although all are likely to soon be deleted due to Euro5. It’sl just 47bhp, which means it’s pleasant rather than potent, although at least is now A2-licence compliant. In Café form it has slightly lower, one-piece ‘drop’ bars, racer-style seat and neat looking little headlamp cowling, which helps justify its £700 premium over the cheapest Street. To ride, it reminds of the easy, thrummy, pleasant and slightly dinky Royal Enfield Continental but in terms of quality touches, detailing and solid feel the Kawasaki’s a class above, although we’re not sure if that justifies it costing £3500 more.
Read our Kawasaki W800 review right here.
Slightly odd one, this, if only because this Ducati is trying to be a scrambler and a café racer at the same time, which is surely some kind of contradiction. But the success of the Italian marque’s whole retro Scrambler family has been such we’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.
Ducati’s now five-strong retro 800cc Scrambler family (along with the A2-compliant 400cc Sixty2 version) have all been big hits since being introduced as novice-friendly but still perky retros, inspired by Ducati’s legendary Scrambler singles of the ‘60s and ‘70s, starting in 2015. Along with the base roadster Icon and Icon Dark, there’s the sportier, flat-track inspired Full Throttle, the taller, trail-styled Desert Sled and this drop-barred Café Racer. All have been repeatedly updated with new switchgear and instrument pod, Bluetooth connectivity, LED lights, Bosch cornering ABS and, individually, cosmetic updates. The Café Racer, meanwhile, is distinguished by its 17-in wire wheels, seat cowl and small nose fairing along with a silver/blue paintjob intended to remind of the ‘70s 900SS. With 75bhp, decent brakes and mono-shock rear suspension it’s far livelier and more long-legged than Kawasaki and Enfield 47bhp offerings yet still easy and unintimidating and its Italian style makes its a pleasing alternative.
Watch our Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer review here.
As based on CCM’s existing 600cc, single-cylinder Spitfire retro roadster, just 300 of the ‘Foggy Edition’, so named for its special Carl Fogarty-inspired restyle, are being built. Like the base, bespoke bike it’s built by hand in Bolton and is an ultra light (142kg), modern (but retro-inspired), punchy, single with bags of style and is capable of delivering plenty of Sunday blast fun – though we’re not sure, considering how small, minimal and, well, ‘single’ it is you’d want to go very far. In this ‘Foggy’ trim it’s even more exotic and special still with bespoke carbon fibre bodywork, an uprated 62bhp, special exhaust and brake calipers, fully adjustable Marzocchi forks and a K-Tech shock and even forged alloy wheels. Mouthwatering the lot of it – and great fun in a true café racer sort of way as well – but pricey, too, and more of a sunny day toy and ornament than a versatile or practical motorcycle.
The revived British firm are masters of all things ‘retro’, as proven by its stupendous and mouth-watering Thruxton R café racer, as fully re-invented in 2016 with a 96bhp 1200cc twin and genuinely sporty chassis sprinkled with Ohlins and Brembos. That model was then further improved for 2020 to become the Thruxton RS. Lighter than the previous Thruxton R, more powerful (by 7bhp, taking peak power up to 103bhp) and even better equipped, the RS is not only a genuinely authentic café racer, it’s a brilliantly performing sportster in its own right complete with a raft of sporty electronics including rider modes and traction control, Triumph’s latest retro console to navigate it all, lightweight alloy 17-inch wheels, twin four-pot Brembos a quality twin shock suspension package and more. On board, despite the slightly dropped bars, it’s comfortable and easy but when you crack open that throttle there’s real fire and punch in its belly. Lighter, shaper, better braked and more eager than ever, the Thruxton RS might not be cheap, but it’s about as classy and effective as retro café racers get.
When it comes to exotic pedigree, café racers don’t get much more desirable, exclusive – or expensive – than the new Superveloce from Italian exotica specialists MV Agusta. First presented as a concept bike to gauge public response in 2018, MV put their retro sportster into production the following year and have now supplemented it with a blinged up, limited edition ‘Alpine’ version. Essentially MV’s F3 800 three-cylinder sports bike with a new, retro-inspired styling, one-off 3:1:3 exhaust and full-colour TFT dash to deliver a magical mix of MVs old and new. Yes, at approaching £20K, it’s not cheap, but it is gorgeous and hugely potent.
Catch our MV Agusta Superveloce review here.
Fancy a used café racer? Here’s our five of the best:
2017-20 BMW R nineT Racer, £7-11,000
Now-deleted half-faired café racer version of popular R nineT roadster.
2016-20 Triumph Thruxton R, £7750-11,000
Middle-spec (between base S and RS) variant of definitive Triumph café racer.
2017-18 Yamaha XSR900 Abarth, £8-9000
Limited edition, café racer-styled version of three-cylinder retro roadster.
2011-16 Moto Guzzi V7 Racer, £5-7000
Café racer-styled premium spec version of popular Guzzi V7 retro roadster.
2014-current Royal Enfield 535 Continental GT, £3-5000
Classic, single-cylinder café racer was predecessor to current 650 twins