Your Bible To Building A Kick-Ass Cafe Racer
So you’veyou’ve decided to ride something that’s one in a million, not one of a million. Congratulations.
There’s nothing more rewarding than tearing through streets and hills aboard a custom bike you’ve built with your own hands or with a few good mates. This rolling art, as defined by you, will bathe in your blood, sweat, tears and money. You’ll also spray it with fierce profanity and threaten violence when things don’t work but, once you know its personality, it will be priceless, damn charismatic and entirely yours to savour.
So where do you begin? Right here, of course, reading about the bespoke bikes in the pages of Cafe Racer magazine from their creative, passionate owners. Sure, there’re plenty of bikes on the web, but you won’t find stories as candid or informative anywhere else, let alone in one magazine.
Here are some guidelines to consider when embarking on a café racer project (or any other type of custom-built bike for that matter including trackers, scramblers, bobbers and brats). They’re not strict rules – especially in the styling stakes – but a few tips and tricks you mightn’t have otherwise thought of. And remember, have fun and be patient!
What donor bike should you begin with? What style does the donor bike lend itself to? How easy is it to do? Where, when and how will you ride it? Is there a healthy industry of OEM and aftermarket parts? Do you have the funds, skills, time and tools? What’s your budget and how much over are you willing to go? Do you have handy, time-generous friends and are they onboard? Is your better half onboard?
These are the tough questions you need to answer early and honestly to avoid heartaches and becoming another unfinished, ‘given-up’ story on eBay. Research and careful consideration are key and Google and Pinterest are your new friends. Study what works and what doesn’t. It also pays to join Facebook community groups for advice from like-minded enthusiasts. There are heaps out there, for café racers in general as well as make/model specific forums.
Donor bikes are covered in greater detail on page 74, but you’ll have to carefully look into how easy it is to safely switch from the original seat to a universal solo seat.
If you’re lucky and choose a popular bike then chances are you’ll be able to buy a model-specific seat with pre-drilled holes to fit over the existing rear sub-frame. Other bikes, such as ‘Airhead’ BMWs, have a bolt-on sub-frame and you can buy or make up smaller, shorter ones to fit the seat.
The least-desirable option is when the angle grinder has to come out, which could be a deal breaker or handed over to an expert to cut and weld up a new sub-frame to suit. Moral of the story: research, research, research.
MAKE A PLAN
The next step can be just as time-consuming as researching, especially if you’re understandably undecided.
A trick to help avoid this is to use imaging software such as Photoshop to better visualise how your completed bike will look when stealing bits from other bikes. Crucially, you also need to play with colour schemes which significantly impact the overall look and feel of your bike. If that’s all too hard, then go the old-school route of literally cutting and pasting. Websites such as Pinterest are ideal for collecting and cataloguing inspiration, be it complete bikes, parts or colour schemes.
While you’re in front of a screen, create a spreadsheet to list all expenses and parts you need including estimates and actual prices paid. This helps monitor the project’s financial side and whether you’re on track. Password protect the file from prying eyes.
Speaking of money, you’ll be surprised by how much you get back by selling off the original, unwanted parts. It’s all about treating them to a good clean, good photos and a good description. Throw out nothing!
You might also consider a modern retro machine that comes out of the factory pretty much ready to go, with the long warranty for trouble-free riding only a recently built bike brings. These include a Moto Guzzi V7 Racer, Triumph Thruxton or one of the others featured throughout these pages, but also consider insurance and registration costs in particular.
Many states of Australia have a club permit scheme which involve limited usage (45 or 90 days annually in Victoria, for example) at a fraction of regular registration fees – if the motorcycle is 25 years or older and you’re in a club. Check your state rego authority for details.
LOOKS CAN KILL OR THRILL
When it comes to café racers and custom bikes, there’s a fine line between form and function, and the latter doesn’t always win the day. Aesthetics are crucial to a good café racer – it has to look fast when standing still. We’re talking about stance here so pay attention because there are too many poorly executed examples out there.
Firstly, if comfort is a primary concern then go for a tracker or scrambler with an upright riding position and ’bars because café racers are about speed and style. In ergonomic terms, a café racer is about as (un)comfortable as a conventional sportsbike, albeit lighter, nimbler and narrower between the legs than the modern machine.
“All you need is a saddle, tank, engine, two wheels and handlebars,” Ducati designer Miguel Galluzzi said of the Monster philosophy. He proved his point by stripping his own Ducati 888 to expose the engine and trellis frame. Less is more, and the emphasis should be on the bare essentials (engine, tank, seat and wheels) and not distracted by rubbish such as big, orange indicators, oversize guards or an overly long seat. As with car design, a café racer is all about the right lines and reducing visual weight.
PERFORMANCE & HANDLING
That’s style done, now for substance. Life’s too short to ride shit bikes and there’s no point just looking good – it’s gotta ride good, too.
Much of this comes down to the age of your donor bike. If it was built in the 1960s then expect ’60s performance and handling to some extent. There’s little point flogging a dead horse and, as gentlemen with engineering respect and mechanical sympathy, we don’t ‘flog’ motorcycles. At least a simple bike will be relatively simple to work on.
The biggest performance gains come from drastically reducing weight, which should have come during the caffeination transformation. Results will vary depending on what you begin with, but expect your bike to weigh at least 30-kilograms lighter, even as much as 60kg for a BMW tourer (see page 114).
Add to that a crouching tiger, hidden dragon riding position (thanks to clip-ons and rearsets) and you’ve already given a new lease on life to the once-staid bike as a stripped-down café racer. But weight, there’s more…
The bronze medal for most drastic changes goes to suspension and the need to invest in good-quality kit set up for your weight. If you’re planning on leaving this to the experts then take it to a suspension specialist instead of a general motorcycle mechanic unless they come with race-proven credentials. An important note here is to explain your riding style – are you a gentle, straight-line cruiser or redlining corner carver? – and do you plan on having a crack on the track?
Set aside a generous budget and don’t be a tight ass and settle on the shit stuff. It’ll be worth it.
Unless cornering and handling in all conditions are low priorities then you might consider passing up on the sexy-but-crap-handling tyres such as Firestone Deluxe Champions or Coker Diamonds. You can instead opt for more modern rubber with a semi-vintage tread pattern and contemporary compounds for confidence-inspiring handling in dry and wet conditions. These include Avon Roadriders, Michelin Pilot Activs and Pirelli Sport Demons to name a few.
On the other hand, those old-school, fat donuts – or even off-road knobbies – are pretty much obligatory for some styles or to achieve a certain look, so it comes down to how you plan on riding it.
Braking performance will also come under scrutiny, and you’ll be thankful for the bike’s weight loss. Still, though, you’ll come to rely on some good anchors in this modern era of impatience, traffic congestion and distracted drivers. If a lack of stopping power shakes your confidence then consider fitting braided lines, a twin front-disc conversion or even swapping the entire front-end with something more contemporary.
As for going faster, there’s the usual avenue of upgrading carbs from CV to trendy and racy flat-sides, but do your research to ensure it’s not at the expense of rideability and a linear power delivery.
If you want the burger with the lot then you can opt for a big-bore kit, engine rebuild or even a complete engine swap if compatible.
Whatever you do, however, be sure to have the bike properly tuned on a dyno, which isn’t exclusively for big-power beasts. The benefits, other than confirming its outputs, are to identify any flat spots in the power delivery, set the correct air/fuel ratio and tune it accordingly, now that you’re running pod air filters and a free-flowing exhaust system. Money well spent.
SPEED, STYLE & SUBSTANCE
These are guidelines, and remember, style is subjective. When it comes to custom culture there are no rules.
This article appears in Cafe Racer #1
Photography by Ben Galli