Easy How to Build a Cafe Racer

A Triton Cafe Racer under construction. John H Glimmerveen. Licensed to About.com

The vast majority of motorcycle owners are interested in motorcycle racing, but not all want to take part in organized races that take place on purpose-built tracks. Many owners simply want to improve the performance of their bikes and make them look more like a race bike.

In England in the 60s, a new style of motorcycle was invented. The new look was not invented by highly paid design engineers or in specialist style studios; it came from street bike owners.

The owners, by improving the performance of their bikes, created a look that reflected racers of the time and made such a mark that the look has lasted for over 50 years: the café racer.

Building a café racer was relatively easy. Besides engine modifications, the rider would fit clip-on or ace bars, swept-back pipes, reverse cone mega’s, a race seat, and rear-set footrests. Occasionally, a small fairing would be used, and later a top half fairing.

Building a café racer today is even easier than it was in the 60s. With such a well-known style, specialist suppliers can be found for almost every item on almost every bike. However, a certain amount of fabrication or metal work (including welding) is typically required. This fabrication may be as simple as drilling some holes, or making an instrument bracket, or as involved as welding additional brackets to a frame. It pays, therefore, to consider the entire project before committing to converting your bike to café racer style.

Converting your bike to café racer style can be done in stages. The following is a typical sequence for conversions:

Fitting Clip-on

Although clip-on may be the first item to fit, they can be the most challenging. First and foremost, the mechanic must try to purchase a set of clip-on that are designed for the particular bike being converted (easy if it’s a Norton or Triumph!). The problems associated with fitting clip-on include the need to replace all cables (front brake, throttle, and clutch where appropriate), modifications or replacement of the wiring and switch assemblies, and possible modifications to the steering stop system.

Fitting new cables is relatively easy and shorter cables are available for most bikes from your local dealer. Modifying the switches and wiring is often necessary if the wiring is the through the bars type; clip-on generally require exposed wiring to the switches. The mechanic must avoid drilling the clip-on to feed wires through as this will affect their strength and also create a burr inside the bar which will eventually damage the wires.

When the clip-on have been fitted, along with all the associated hardware, it is very important to check the bar-to-fuel tank clearance, and also the free movement of the various cables (unintentionally opening the throttle when turning the bars is not good!).

Race Seats

The typical café racer of the 60s used a seat that resembled the Manx Norton racers, complete with the tail hump. These seats are available from many sources but the owner must decide if he or she intends to carry a passenger (single or double seat).

An important aspect of fitting a seat, which may seem obvious, is that it must be securely fitted. Any movement of the seat during riding will make the rider think the bike is handling badly. Another important consideration is the rear light wiring; when fitting a new seat the mechanic must ensure the seat cannot trap any wiring when the rider’s weight is applied.

Swept-back Pipes and Rear-sets

Although not essential, swept-back pipes and period mufflers will give an authentic look to any café racer. A well-designed set will also improve the engine’s performance. However, swept-back pipes generally require the additional modification of fitting rear-set footrests.

Rear-set footrests have a number of advantages. First, and foremost, rear-sets make riding with clip-on or ace bars much more comfortable. In addition, rear-sets are often necessary to clear the levers from swept-back pipes. And normally, rear-sets increase ground clearance for cornering.

Performance Tires

The tire of choice for 60s café racers was the Dunlop TT100, which are still available today. However, the tire choices available today are much greater than those in the 60s. The choice of tire depends on the type of riding the owner is likely to do. But to keep the café racer look correct for the period, TT100s are the norm.

Fender Replacement

Replacing the front and rear fenders will keep the café racer style correct, but may also be a necessity due to the seat change (the mounting brackets are often part of the same assembly). The 60s café racers used aluminum fenders which were highly polished.


The Manx Nortons used a small handlebar mounted fairing. These fairings helped to divert the air stream over the rider. Many café racers used these small fairings to resemble a racer. Later café racers used the half fairing. As the name implies, the half fairing was the top half of a full race fairing. Generally, the headlight on these half fairings was solidly mounted which reduces visibility considerably at night when negotiating tight turns. Some versions of half fairings have a wide Perspex panel to allow the headlight to be mounted to the forks in a conventional way.