What is a Cafe Racer? A Guide to the Bikes and the Culture



Cafe Racers are now an integral part of modern biking and sit firmly in a well-established retro motorcycle genre.

This popular style of bike has roots stretching back in English moto folklore and, following a hiatus, made a recent comeback to the bike scene creating a surge in retro-styled bikes.

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Cafe Racer History

cafe racer

Way back in the days of Brylcreem and Milk Stout, a bunch of young cigarette smoking bikers began hanging out at Transport Cafes around England. 

Known by many names, such as Rockers, Ton-Up Boys, or just Cafe Racers, legend has it that whenever a fast bike went past, they leapt on their machines and raced the aforementioned target, thus creating the Cafe Racer scene.

To make their bikes as fast as possible, they tinkered and fettled to reduce weight, creating faster, more nimble machines that developed a very unique and endearing style.

The key features of a Cafe Racer were their stripped-back enhancements that evolved into the following set of attributes:

  • A single headlight and solo seat (often with a rear cowl)
  • Rearsets (set back foot controls) to create a ‘tucked-in’ riding position
  • Clip-On (dropped) handlebars
  • A parallel twin engine
  • A half or full race fairing
  • Loads of black leather
  • An open face lid/goggles

In between racing, they spent their time hanging out in cafes, smoking Woodbines and listening to rock music on jukeboxes.

Their culture was further enhanced by various meets, such as the legendary Chelsea Cruise and long-gone locations like the Busy Bee Cafe in Watford.

This later spawned several now-famous locations and movements, such as London’s Ace Cafe and the 59 Club, the latter now a global movement. 

Alas, the scene began to fade by the late ’60s, as trends changed, with places like the Ace Cafe closing in 1969 (reopening 30 years later in its current guise). However, the resilient 59 Club kept going in the background keeping the Cafe Racer flame alive until the current boom restarted.

The Modern Cafe Racer

Since the retro Cafe Racer trend rose from the flames, it has spawned two distinct routes for a would-be retro fan:

The Customisers

Customised Monaco Triumph
Customised Monaco Triumph via Down & Out Motorcycles

Not for the faint-hearted, this trend converts modern, often plain bikes with a view to ‘cafe racer’ them. Dedicated enthusiasts remove/replace components and rebuild them in this much-loved style. 

Although anything can be turned into a Cafe Racer, there are many popular base bikes for these projects (known as donor bikes), such as the BMW K100, the Kawasaki W range, the Yamaha XS650 or anything from Honda’s CB series.

Customisers tend to faithfully follow the original cafe racer ethos, turning what could have been a plain bike into a beautiful stripped back Cafe Racer.

These costly projects are a labour of love. The time, sweat, blood and cash poured into them doesn’t always deliver a great return, hence why these works of art are rarely available to buy, often becoming the owner’s life-long pride and joy.

You can also commission companies to create a custom bike on your behalf, such as Thornton Hundred Motorcycles, Down and Out customs, or the R9T experts over at Pier City Custom.

You will often see these bikes proudly displayed at specific bike shows, one the best being the Bike Shed London Show.

The ‘Off-The Shelf’ Option

Moto Guzzi V7
Moto Guzzi V7 Special

The second and more accessible route is the booming new modern retro market. Most big manufacturers (and some small niche ones) offer ready-made Cafe Racer bikes that can cater to any size purse or wallet. 

They don’t always stick to the original Cafe Racer concept, with many purists preferring to class them as retro bikes. 

Click here to check out our favourite Cafe Racer Bikes.

Cafe Racer Culture

cafe racer culture

Since the dawn of the cafe racer trend, a large cultural following has emerged, with vast numbers of social media groups, websites, shows, clubs and retro specific cafes appearing.

The Bike Shed is one of the most exclusive, based in London’s trendy Shoreditch, hewn from some old Railway arches. 

It offers visitors a high-end meeting point, with a restaurant, barbers, tattoo parlour and accessory shop.

I particularly love the way you enter from the main road, having to ride through the diner’s tables to get to the secure car park.

Other places dotted around the country include Idle Torque, Koti Autotalli and Caffeine and Machine. All offer a place to meet, eat and purchase popular clothing brands such as Deus ex Machina, Fuel, Gold Top and Kytone.

Aftermarket Upgrades

There are also several high-end aftermarket parts organisations, some of which specialise in specific motorcycle marques and models. 

These companies offer luxury add ons and replacements for retro bikes, allowing owners to personalise their bikes simply but effectively.

Some examples of such companies include Motone Customs, Baak and Wunderlich.

Coming in at a price, there is a popular list of upgrades, such as seats, bar-end mirrors, tail tidies, wheels, silencers/exhaust systems and electronic performance upgrades. 

Mostly to make your bike more retro, powerful or louder!