There is something strangely romantic and appealing about a classic motorcycle or cafe racer. I say “strangely”, because a gander through the interwebs reveals that this style of motorcycle was born in the 1960s in Britain and was favoured by a rocker subculture, known as “Ton-Up Boys”, who customised their motorcycles and raced between cafes.
All definitions of a cafe racer centre on British standard production motorcycles that were modified for speed and handling. The ton-up name is derived from British slang at the time when riding at 100mph was referred to as a “ton”. Modifications included low handlebars, single racing seats and racing petrol tanks, foot pegs set back on the bike and the like. Fairings were a matter of preference.
Attached to the modification of the motorcycles was the style associated with being a Ton-Up Boy that usually included open-faced helmets, jeans, boots and jackets — essentially rocker wear of the time with lots of leather and denim.
While the subculture did fizzle out at some stage, the appeal of cafe racers and classic motorcycles has been enduring, undergoing a resurgence in recent years. The different motorcycle manufacturers have increasingly explored this space with what can be categorised as modern-day classics or retro motorcycles.
Triumph, which was very much a part of the original cafe racer movement, has a host of modern classics that draw from the styling of the 1959 Triumph Bonneville, including the new Bonneville T100 and T120, the Thruxton RS, the Bobber, the Scramblers and the Speed Twin. Each, in its own way, marries a classic design style with modern-day technology and engineering, including ABS, traction control, LED headlights, and riding modes among other features.
Another manufacturer synonymous with the cafe racer is Royal Enfield, which is said to have launched the first production cafe racer in the form of the Continental GT 250 in 1963. Now Indian-owned, they have retained the cafe racer/classic motorcycle aesthetic with, among others, the Continental GT 650 Café Racer (released in 2018), Classic 350, Super Meteor 650 and the Interceptor.
BMW Motorrad has the “retro-styled roadster” R nineT, which is designed to be customisable. There are multiple variations including the R nineT Pure, Urban G/S and Scrambler. I am a fan of the R nineT Racer, which had an aggressive riding position, with the pegs set back and the handlebars forward, but it was discontinued in 2019. From a classic, heritage perspective, BMW also released the R 18 and its derivatives/variations, though it is more of a cruiser.
I do love the styling of the Kawasaki W800, which harks back to the W1 first manufactured in 1965 by Meguro, before it was fully acquired by Kawasaki. There is also the Z900 series, including the Z900RS Cafe with its cafe-racer style front cowl. All, as with motorcycles from other manufacturers, come with the necessary bells and whistles expected from a modern-day motorcycle.
In truth, there are so many retro motorcycles to choose from, including, in addition to the above, Ducati’s Scrambler, Yamaha’s XSR700 and Moto Guzzi’s V7 Special. This means you don’t have to always go the route of finding an older motorcycle and modifying it into a cafe racer, or, if you’re like me, you would like a motorcycle with the comforts and safety of a modern motorcycle.