Top 10 best Cafe Racers (2019)

Phil West
By Phil West
PhilWestNew Former Editor of Bike, ex-Road Test Editor of MCN, ridden more bikes than he can remember. Likes: GTS, Paso, Mantra. Dislikes: own rust bucket LC and 900 T-Bird daily driver.

 

Following our look at the best scramblers of 2019, 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’, incidentally, 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 new 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, reborn Norton and even the vast Japanese brands. And for 2019 there’s a whole new intake of café racers to choose from so, to help you get up to speed, here’s our Top 10 of 2019’s best, in ascending price order…

 

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - Royal Enfield Continental GT

 

Royal Enfield Continental GT 650, £5700

Historic British brand Royal Enfield is once again going places. Famous for its robust ‘Bullet’ singles in the ‘50s and sporty Interceptors and Continental in the ‘60s, the Redditch firm closed in 1967 but an offshoot, Enfield India, continued making cheap, ’50-style singles. Owned by the vast Eicher automotive group since 1994 it rebranded as Royal Enfield once again in 1999 and in the last decade has been aggressively modernizing from its old singles, first with an all-new factory in Chennai in 2013 and, in 2015, taking over UK chassis specialists Harris Performance and setting up a multi-million, all-new design facility in Leicestershire headed by former Triumph product leads Simon Warburton and Mark Wells. The all-new, eagerly-awaited 650 twin is their first product.

In fact there are two 650s: the Bonneville-esque Interceptor and the café racer Continental GT. Both share the 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 had 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, uncontestable. For this look and badge, nothing at this price comes close.

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - Husqvarna Vitpilen 701

 

Husqvarna Vitpilen 701, £8899

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? KTM-revived Husqvarna’s new single-cylinder roadster foursome 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 has been doing the show rounds for a few years as concept bikes. Now in 2019 finally available to buy they comprise 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, the more fun. With 73bhp, ultralight weight and decent cycle parts they’re brilliant fun with the Vitpilen definitely the racier. But there’re also more than a little ‘left field’ and the bigger versions are also a whopping £3300 more than the wire-wheeled, 43bhp 401s.

Read our review of the Husqvarna Vitpilen 701 here.

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - Kawasaki W800 Cafe

 

Kawasaki W800 Café, £9099

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 two forms: the roadster W800 Street and this street-racer W800 Café. Now Euro4 compliant, it’s still just 47bhp, which means it’s pleasant rather than potent, although at least is now A2-licence compliant. The twin loop frame has also been revised, there’s beefier forks, bigger front disc (plus now one at the rear instead of the old drum, to allow ABS) and a new 18-inch (in place of 19) front wheel. There’s also new LED lights, updated clocks and a refreshed look. In Café trim that means slightly lower, one-piece ‘drop’ bars, racer-style seat and neat looking little headlamp cowling, which helps justify its £700 premium. 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. Not sure if that justifies it costing £3500 more, though, especially when the Royal Enfield badge, for this type of bike, surely also appeals more than ‘Kawasaki’…

Read our review right here

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer

 

Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer, £9950

Slightly odd one, this, if only because Ducati’s 2019 newcomer is sort of trying to be a scrambler and a café racer at the same time, which is surely some kind of contradiction, especially for purists. 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 four-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, all inspired by Ducati’s legendary Scrambler singles of the ‘60s and ‘70s, starting in 2015. Along with the base roadster Icon there’s the sportier, flat-track inspired Full Throttle, the taller, trail-styled Desert Sled and this drop-barred Café Racer. All have been updated for 2019 with new switchgear and instrument pod, Bluetooth connectivity, LED lights, Bosch cornering ABS and, individually, cosmetic updates. For the Café Racer that means new 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 monoshock rear suspension it’s far more lively and long-legged than Kawasaki and Enfield 47bhp offerings yet still easy and unintimidating and its Italian style makes its a pleasing alternative.

Read our full review of the 2017 Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer here.

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - Norton Atlas Nomad

 

Norton Atlas Nomad 650, £9995

As with its sibling Norton Atlas Ranger as featured in our recent 2019 Scrambler round-up, the Nomad is so new that, as we write, customer deliveries have yet to begin but again, from everything we’ve learnt so far, not to mention the huge customer anticipation for it, it’d be criminal not to include it here. There’s a lot riding on it, too. The Atlas models are intended as reborn Norton’s first volume production models (following the heritage 861 family and ultra exclusive V4 superbike) and as such are both based around an all-new, liquid-cooled, 649cc parallel twin derived from the 1200cc V4 superbike engine in a tubular steel trellis frame with decent cycle parts such as Brembo brakes and more than a hint of retro styling. The Ranger is the knobbly-tyred scrambler version but it’s the £2000 cheaper (and we’re not entirely sure why) roadster Nomad variant which is likely to be the most popular. With a healthy claimed 84bhp, lighter, lower, café race stance and almost certainly quality handling it should be not just a great, affordable entry into Norton but an absolute hoot to ride as well – we can’t wait.

Watch our introduction video of the Norton Atlas pair here.

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - Triumph Speed Twin

 

Triumph Speed Twin, £10,500

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 bike remains the benchmark café racer. But for 2019 the Hinckley firm has broadened its café racer portfolio further with the new Speed Twin. Named after Triumph’s original 1936 sportster, it’s basically a Thruxton R engine in a reworked, more roadster-style chassis. But while purists may bemoan the lack of clip-ons it’s every bit a ‘sports retro’ and so it totally deserving to be included here. Along with its fruity 96bhp, there’s a full raft of sporty electronics including rider modes and traction control, Triumph’s latest retro console to navigate it all, a reworked Thruxton frame, lightweight alloy 17-inch wheels, twin four-pot Brembos a quality twin shock suspension package and more. On board it’s comfortable, familiar, easy retro roadster but with real fire and punch in its belly. But best of – as with most Triumphs – is how the Speed Twin handles. Lighter, shaper, better braked and more eager than any other ‘Bonnie’, the Speed Twin is a true wolf in retro sheep’s clothing – and brilliant fun, too.

 

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - Suzuki Katana

 

Suzuki Katana, £11,399

Kawasaki W800 aside, most Japanese takes on the retro bike theme tend to be different from the British rocker image many try to adhere to – which is only natural considering their very different motorcycling heritage. The new-for-2019 Suzuki Katana is a brilliant example of this. Instead of being an Ace Café style road racer, the new Katana gets its inspiration, obviously, from Suzuki’s shatteringly-different, German Target Design styled Katanas of the early ‘80s, topped off by the 1981 GSX1100S. That bike was a more sporty, radically styled version of the then top four-cylinder superbike, the GSX1100 which proved not just a winner on track but, in essence, reinvented the café racer theme for the 1980s. This new reinvention, meanwhile, takes the standard GSX-S1000 naked roadster and dresses it up in new, ‘80s inspired, Katana-esque clothes. On the whole it’s done pretty well. Although the GSX-S engine and chassis are unchanged, all the bodywork looks great and it’ll certainly make an entrance wherever it goes. On the downside, the new tank’s a fairly small 12 litres and the restyle adds a grand to the price. But as an evocative, fun, sporty ‘80s throwback with modern performance it’s a very welcome new addition.

 

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - CCM Spitfire Carl Fogarty

 

CCM Spitfire Foggy Edition, £12,495

As based on CCM’s existing 600cc, single-cylinder Spitfire retro roadster, just 300 of the new-for-2019 ‘Foggy Edition’, so named for its special Carl Fogarty-inspired restyle, are to be 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 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

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - MV Agusta Superveloce 800

 

MV Agusta Superveloce, £24,700

When it comes to exotic pedigree, café racers don’t get much more desirable, exclusive – or expensive – than the new Superveloce Serie Oro from Italian exotica specialists MV Agusta. First presented as a concept bike to gauge public response at EICMA in Milan last November, MV have now deiced to put their retro sportster into limited production. In MV’s usual manner, a limited edition, fully blinged-up ‘Serie Oro’ edition is being built first with just 300 offered at an eye watering price of €27,000 (around £24,700). For that you get the full MV F3 800 three-cylinder sports bike engine and underpinnings but with a new, retro-inspired carbon fibre fairing and single seat unit, one-off 3:1:3 exhaust and new full-colour TFT dash to deliver a magical mix of MVs old and new. Yes, nigh-on £30K is steep, but it is gorgeous and hugely potent. Better still, a cheaper, standard version is now expected after the Serie Oro series has finished. 

Watch our video interview MV's Design Director introducing the Superveloce (video no.10)

Top 10 2019 cafe racers - WSM Bol d

 

WSM Bol d'Or, £30,800

And if the new MV Agusta Superveloce Serie Oro (above) doesn’t go far enough for you when you’re considering all things retro and racy – how about this? Built by American boutique bike builder Walt Siegel Motorcycles (hence WSM) in New Hampshire, like the Superveloce it’s based around MV’s rorty F3 800cc triple powerplant but with a new, lighter, aluminium subframe, retro-inspired Kevlar fairing and seat unit, fancy magnesium wheels and top notch cycle parts. On top of that there’s an uprated engine with reconfigured electronics and mapping which produces around 140bhp. That, along with a much reduced weight (thanks to all the above) of 150kg (almost 36kg less than the MV) makes it one of the most lively and entertaining retro-styled road racers you can buy. And one of the most expensive. Gorgeous though…

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