Top 10 production café racers

The days of mods and rockers may be over but the café racer market is thriving. Well, it's alive, anyway

CAFÉ racers are an odd phenomenon. They’re popular enough to inspire endless shed-built specials and even dedicated websites, magazines and TV shows, but when it comes to strolling into a showroom and buying one, the options are surprisingly thin on the ground.

Perhaps it’s their ‘custom made’ nature that is attractive, and as such owning a café racer that’s been stamped from the same die as thousands of identical machines dulls the appeal of factory-made versions. But surely the same applies to ‘custom’ cruisers, and virtually every manufacturer will happily sell you one of them.

Or perhaps the reality of café racer ownership isn’t as appealing as the idea – certainly, Ducati’s late SportClassic range, including the Sport 1000 café racer, never achieved the sort of sales success that the apparent interest around the bikes pointed to. Shame really, as the Sport 1000 could well have earned a high position on this list if it was still available new.

Limiting ourselves to spanking new, factory-fresh, ride-away café racers, here’s our run-down of the top ten on the market right now.

10: CPI Sprint 125

The bars are a bit high for a café racer and it’s just a Chinese-made 125cc learner bike, but the CPI has the proportions about right. In America, the same bike is marketed as the Cleveland Cyclewerks Misfit, adorned with better paintwork and details like gold-coloured forks, and aimed at the sort of trendy young things that might leap on their Misfit to visit a hip bookshop-and-cafe somewhere in Manhattan. Here it's all high-vis vests and L-plates, which somewhat spoils the illusion.

9: Skyteam Ace 125

Chinese-made and only £1,799, the Skyteam isn’t the sort of café racer your dad rode. At this price you won’t be expecting masses of high-quality parts, and neither will you get them, but it is a strikingly good-looking thing; a surprisingly convincing replica of a 60s Honda race bike. For that, we could forgive it many faults. Let's face it, you’re not likely to be planning huge miles on one anyway, so it might even hang together a fair while. If not, well, long evenings in the shed with some spanners is part and parcel of the real café racer experience, isn’t it?

8: Sinnis Café 125

A what?” you might be asking. Yes, it’s not a name that ranks up there with Triumph or Norton in the café racer stakes, but this is one of the few machines that is bold enough to actually feature the word ‘café’ in its name. And as such it’s hard to ignore. Blatantly one for the youngsters, this Chinese-made machine is the definition of cheap-and-cheerful (Sinnis might sound an odd name, but it’s better than Jinan Qingqi, which is the parent brand’s real title). At £1,649 you can’t expect too much, but at least it looks more interesting than most machines at that price level.

7: Royal Enfield Continental GT

We’re stepping up massively in terms of price, quality and performance here. The Continental GT isn’t to be confused with the usual Indian Enfields. It might come from the same firm, but the frame is designed by Harris, which gives it some proper kudos. The engine is bigger than usual, too, at 535cc, although at 29bhp it’s limp wristed. That’s where the £5,199 price starts to look a bit salty. It’s not expensive, by any means, and gives you a traditional café racer look and a classic name. But a lightly-used Triumph Thruxton or Guzzi V7 is within spitting distance at this price…

6: Guzzi V7 Racer

Ooooh… Shiny… The Guzzi V7 is arguably the most complete and convincing out-of-the-box café racer on the market today. Look at it. Drop bars, upswept pipes, chrome finished tank, red frame, laced wheels. You even get race number boards. It covers pretty much all the clichés, but in a style that’s perhaps just a bit too bling to really capture the old ‘ton-up club’ feeling of a real, home-built café racer. At £8,132 it’s far pricier than the base V7 Stone or mid-range Special, too – both more subtle machines that, for minimal outlay, could be made into more convincing retro café racers.

5: Norton Commando 961 Café Racer

Virtually any of the modern Nortons fits the bill as a factory-fresh café racer, but since the firm markets one of its machines specifically as theCafé Racer’, that’s what we’ll focus on. Yes, it ticks a lot of boxes. It’s a Norton, and unlike the Triumph Thruxton, the engine’s heritage can be traced right back to the original Commando. On the downside, the modern upside-down forks an Ohlins shocks look a little out of place and the price, at £15,250, is pretty terrifying.

4: BMW R NineT

Right, let’s get one thing straight. As a real ownership proposal, a machine to use in the real world, the new NineT is probably going to be the best bike in this list. It’s held back to this position because the styling (not truly retro, more retro-inspired) is going to be divisive and it lacks a couple of elements that would make it a ‘real’ café racer. Pick the right options (and the NineT is all about options – there’s barely such a thing as a ‘standard’ spec) and the back end is café racer-ish, with a humped aluminium tail cover and a choice of upswept or high-level pipes. What’s missing – at least until someone bolts some on – are proper, low, clip-on bars that would complete the look. 

3: Guzzi V7 Classic Café

We’re cheating a bit here. The Classic Café has actually dropped out of Guzzi’s range now, but searching around still turned up one or two new or delivery-mileage 2013-registered bikes at dealers, so it’s in. Basically a V7 Racer minus the bling, it looks every inch the part. Better still, if you can find one you’ll probably pay around £2k less than you would for the V7 Racer. If you can’t, then you can make your own by buying a V7 Special and adding clip-ons, a humped seat and upswept pipes…

2: Triumph Thruxton

Cheaper than the Guzzi V7 Racer by a hefty £800, the Thruxton ticks pretty much all the boxes, from the name to the styling. Even the performance is pretty similar to that of an original 1960s Bonnie-based café racer. Avoiding the V7 Racer’s chrome in favour of blacks and bare alloys, it’s more in keeping with today’s vision of the sort of thing the original rockers would have favoured when nipping out for a nice little fight at the weekend.

1: Build your own (not like this)

Maybe it’s a cop out, but we couldn’t settle on a ‘best’ production café racer on sale today. And that’s because the very essence of a café racer is something that’s been made to suit one person and one person alone – its owner. For less than the cost of most of the bikes in this list, a rider with a bit of DIY ability and a decent selection of aftermarket parts could put together a café racer that, to them at least, would be better than anything you can get ‘off the shelf’. If it goes arse-up, you can always auction it as a café racer 'project', like the beauty on the right, a one-time Yamaha FZ750 currently up for grabs on eBay.

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