The 10 BEST Cafe Racer Motorcycles you can buy right now

Retro inspired Cafe Racer-style motorcycles have never been more popular, but which on the market are the best you can buy right now?

The café racer take on retro bikes is more popular than ever – and with good reason. 

While the broader ‘retro roadster’ class, as exemplified best by Triumph’s best-selling Bonneville, encompasses everything from sedate 125s to more mainstream but still novice-friendly middleweights such as the ‘Bonnie’ or Moto Guzzi V7 before extending up to big softies such as Honda’s CB1100, the sub-set of café racers is sportier, sharper and generally more exciting.

The term derives, of course, from Britain and particularly London back in the early ‘60s when bike riding ‘Rockers’ or ‘Ton-Up’ boys, usually on board Triumphs or BSAs, used to congregate around ‘biker caffs’ such as the revived Ace Café on London’s North Circular and entertain themselves ‘racing’ between different cafes. 

Kawasaki Z900 RS REVIEW

Bikes naturally became modified with the emphasis on speed – losing surplus parts to save weight, with racer-style drop handlebars (hence the term ‘Ace bars’), tuned engines and performance exhausts. They also became associated with the ‘bad boy’ or hooligan element amidst motorcycling.

Today, the revival of modern ‘retro bikes’ have become increasingly popularised over the past two decades meaning there is now a brand new cafe racer out there to to suit all styles and budgets. Here’s our current pick of the best in price ascending order…

Herald Café 125 (from £2499)

When it comes to bargain-priced retro roadsters, or, specifically, café racers, we’re currently spoilt for choice. The rise of Chinese-built but Brit styled/branded/marketed budget 125s suits the genre perfectly. We could just as easily pick out the Belgian Bullit Spirit 125 or Sinnis Bomber but we’ve gone for the Café 125 from Cambridgeshire-based Herald.

 It’s typical of the breed and, on face value, not that much to shout about being an old school, air-cooled 125cc single producing just 9.9bhop, in a similarly old-fashioned tubular steel, twin shock frame. However, that ignores the fact that those components suit the café racer look perfectly, it’s evocatively styled with drop bars and so on, is simple and so both authentic and easy to ride for novices and, best of all, it’s priced just £2499. 

Don’t expect much by way of frills or thrills and durability compared to more established European or Japanese brands remains suspect but as an entry into the whole café racer genre they don’t come cheaper.

Royal Enfield Continental GT (from £5899)

Another ‘affordable’ café racer that justifiably has proved a huge success. The historic British brand Royal Enfield is now Indian-owned but its all-new 650cc retro twins, the Interceptor and Continental GT, as introduced to rave reviews in 2016, were developed in Britain (Enfield has an R&D facility in the British Midlands). 

Both are retro-style, novice-friendly roadsters with the upright Interceptor similar to Triumph’s all-conquering Bonneville and the drop-barred, longer-tanked, Continental GT being the café racer version. Admittedly neither is quite as slick, sophisticated or quick as their Hinckley rivals but at over £2000 less that hardly matters. They’re good looking, have the right name on the tank, are genuine air-cooled retro twins, easy to ride, handle well and, being 47bhp, are A2 compliant, too. 

Nor is the Continental GT any more uncomfortable or extreme than the Interceptor and, if anything, is more engaging to ride – although we do struggle to justify its £200 premium over the roadster.

Suzuki SV650X (from £5949)

A bit of an oddball, this, and one that’s pushing, slightly, the ‘café racer’ definition by being merely a restyled SV650 roadster. 

But the fact that Suzuki has just updated the whole SV (including the X) family to be Euro5-compliant for 2021, the X, though cosmetically dubious (it only gets a ribbed seat, lower bars/nose cowling and different paint) actually rides really well with sweet handling and the SV’s fabulous 75bhp 645cc V-twin and, also, remains such good value, it makes it worth a serious look.

 Yes, you may get a few noses turned up at any biker café but you’ll enjoy the ride there and back better than most and, although the X lacks café racer authenticity, it’s far better dynamically than, say, Enfield’s 650 twin.

Husqvarna Vitpilen 701 (from £7549)

Another slight oddball. The wackily-styled Husqvarna Svartpilen/Vitpilen single-cylinder duo have remained largely overlooked since their over-hyped debut in 2018 and, in essence, they’re little more than re-bodied KTM Dukes (the Austrian firm bought Husqvarna from BMW in 2013). 

But for those wanting a café racer with a difference the Vitpilen version (its Svartpilen sibling is a more conventional and upright roadster) is certainly worth a look. Two versions are on offer: the 44bhp 401 based on KTM 390 Duke running gear and priced from £4299 and the higher spec, 75bhp 701 derived from the Duke 690 costing £7549. 

Both are lightweight, minimalist, aggressive, modern takes on the café racer theme with futuristic styling that will stand out in any car park. They may not be practical, particularly retro or many people’s cup of tea, but they are pure, sporting, single-cylinder motorcycling at its most raw and a refreshing, futuristic take on the café racer.

Kawasaki W800 Café (from £9099)

Kawasaki’s original ‘W’ bike, the 1999 W650, was a brilliantly executed retro roadster twin that actually predated (and bettered in some ways) Triumph’s first Bonneville. 

Beautifully authentic with a soft but sweet air-cooled, bevel drive engine and neat detailing including metal switchgear it was enlarged to become the W800 in 2011 (although it wasn’t really any more powerful, producing just 47bhp) then revived and updated again in 2019, this time with the café racer style ‘Café’ joining a roadster ‘Street’ version. It’s as charming as ever, too. 

The Café gets lower ‘Ace’ bars and a headlamp cowling but isn’t really any more extreme and, disappointingly, much of the bare metal and chrome was replaced with black (something rectified with the introduction of a new, chromier, upright, base ‘W800’ version in 2020. 

Unfortunately, too, its performance and proportions remain respectively soft and dinky and it’s quite pricey – at over £9K it’s almost twice that of the similar performing Enfield 650. In terms of quality and detailing, though, nothing comes close.

Ducati Scrambler Café Racer (from £9995)

Ducati’s retro-style, novice-friendly Scrambler family, mostly based around a fairly soft, 73bhp, 803cc V-twin and with styling inspired by the Italian firm’s iconic 1960s scrambler singles, have proved a big success. 

And although more Italian/American in style than true British café racers, the introduction of a Café Racer version in 2017 married the two styles with low bars, side-mounted ‘race plates’, retro paint and more. The result may lack the Brit bike authenticity of other café racer offerings, but it has the Ducati badge, better handling and performance than many and is unquestionably stylish, too. 

For those wanting more performance, Ducati has since reinvented its bigger, 1100cc Scrambler while for 2021 it has introduced the new Scrambler Nightshift, starting at a more affordable £9595, whose blacked-out styling and low bars gives a more subtle take on the café racer theme.

Harley-Davidson Sportster Roadster (from £10,195)

A Harley-Davidson café racer? Are you sure? Yes, we are. Although it’s not called a ‘café racer’ as such (but then Harley has been calling its non-sporty bikes ‘Sportsters’ for years, too), the Roadster, introduced in 2016, is very much H-D’s take on the café racer genre. 

Basically it’s a 1200 Sportster that’s been turned from a cruiser into a genuine, retro-style sports machine by way of 19/18in wheels, sporty inverted forks, uprated rear shocks and racy dropped handlebars. The result changes the whole posture of the bike making it reminiscent, in fact, of Triumph’s first generation Thruxton and delivers and attitude and handling which is not only the sportiest Sportster yet, but also genuinely in the café racer style. 

Yes, the slightly archaic air-cooled, pushrod V-twin is unchanged and produces a fairly meagre 66bhp, but the Roadster makes up for that with bags of character, genuinely entertaining café racer handling, a basic, ‘blank canvas’ spec that’s ripe for customization and all for a fairly reasonable c. £10K ticket price.

Kawasaki Z900RS Café (from £10,949)

When Kawasaki introduced the brilliant Z900RS in 2017 its blend of modern, 110bhp, Z900 performance and monoshock handling (the RS is basically a restyled Z900) but with impressively authentic and thorough retro, 1973 Z1-inspired styling, right down to its metallic paint, round headlight and seat strap, it instantly became one of the most desirable retro roadsters of all. 

So it was no surprise when Kawasaki followed it up with a headlamp-cowled, drop-barred, ‘hump-seated’ café racer version, the RS Café, the following year. As you’d expect, with Z900 engine (albeit slightly detuned), chassis (including 17inch wheels, suspension and more, the Café rides brilliantly – just like a modern bike, in fact. 

Less expected is its impressive attention to retro detail, ranging from the sweet, twin chrome-ringed dials to the ‘wire-alike’ cast alloy wheel design, to the badging and more. Yes, close your eyes and there’s little of the character of a true café racer but for many that won’t matter. It’s just as potent, practical, durable and versatile as any modern motorcycle yet with a retro café racer charm and style that brings a smile to the face of anyone.

CCM Spitfire Foggy Edition (from £12,495)

Again, you might argue that CCM’s quirky but hugely-successful, handbuilt, retro-inspired roadster single, the Spitfire, is something of an odd choice for inclusion here. But, despite its modern, liquid-cooled, Husqvarna enduro engine (which, incidentally, thumps out a juddering 55bhp) and modern cycle parts (inverted forks, radial brakes), everything else about the Spitfire, from its quilted seat to bespoke tubular frame is pure retro. 

Lots of variants are available, all built to limited edition short runs so, while the original Café Racer version is no longer available, the ‘Foggy Edition’ of it, with nose-cowling, drop bars and more, still is and is the closest to a modern café racer. It’s not cheap, the ride is raw (but lively), servicing is due every 3000miles and practicality is virtually non-existent.

But for a visceral, thrilling, characterful old school style motorcycling experience, especially over short distances, there are few better.

Triumph Thruxton RS (from £13,000)

We’ve not just saved the original retro café racer – Triumph’s first modern café racer Thruxton came out in 900cc form in 2004) – this latest, high spec RS version is also the most expensive. For the most part it’s more than worth it, too. 

When the British marque completely overhauled its retro Bonneville family in 2016, a new Thruxton, now with 1200cc parallel twin engine, was one of the first highlights. Featuring a longer tank, lower bars and semi-rearsets than the roadster Bonneville, plus also a High Performance, 96bhp version of the Triumph motor, it looked good, went well and handled even better. 

More impressive still was the ‘R’ version which added inverted Showa ‘Big Piston’ forks, twin Ohlins rear shocks, Brembo monobloc radial brakes and improved electronics and tyres. 

However this new RS version, as introduced in 2020, takes things further still: it’s 6kg lighter than the R, a raft of engine mods boosts power to 103bhp, further uprated brakes and electronics, all of which adds to a bike that goes like a true, modern sports bike yet has all the style and allure of a classic café racer – albeit at a price!
 

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