Building a cafe racer can be a time consuming and rewarding process. It can also be infuriating and damned aggravating, especially if you do not select the right donor bike. No matter how skilled you are, starting with the wrong bike will cost you more money than the project is worth or the end bike will not look the way you would like it to.
Luckily, it isn’t the 1950s and you do not have to mishmash two bikes to get the most powerful engine possible on a sturdy, lightweight frame. Modern cafe racer builds are more about shedding weight and unnecessary parts, then stabilizing handling. Obviously, you want to impart the right look and a great color scheme too. Luckily, most of this can be done by selecting a bike with a large variety of aftermarket parts available to speed the conversion along. Finding the right bike can be difficult, especially if it is your first project. That is why we built this list of the best bikes for cafe racers.
Honda CB Series
The entire Honda CB-series has great potential to become the cafe racer you want. The main reason is the large number of bikes that were sold during the 70s, 80s, and early 90s. Then there is the tremendous aftermarket for the CB group and the durability of the engines. For first-time builders, the CB series is a simple bike and easy to work on. As an added bonus (since these bikes are popular among customizers) there are plenty of builds online to look at and forums that cover issues that you may encounter along the way.
There are literally dozens of bikes in the series, but the best for a cafe racer build may be the CB550 and the CB750. The CB750 was hailed as the world’s first “superbike,” and the 69-horsepower inline four is still a thrill to ride. If you want a smaller bike, the CB350 will make for a good ride, but you will not have the power some riders are looking for. The CB400 Hawk Hondamatic offers an interesting twist given its two-speed automatic gearbox.
The main issue you will face when building from a CB is that the donor bike can be expensive to buy. The cost can be directly attributed to how popular they are. After that, it gets easier. There are plenty of inexpensive parts for sale and you can find entire build kits if you spend some time looking online.
Yamaha XS Series
There are four bikes in the Yamaha XS series, each can make a great cafe racer. The smallest is the XS400, next up are the XS650, XS750/850 (both triples), and the XS1100 for the bravest among you. The XS650, also known as the XS1 and XS2, was the first bike produced in the series and offers the most durable engine within the group. It is also, in our opinion, the best option to build from.
Yamaha produced the XS650 between 1968 and 1985 and sold a literal shit-ton of these rides around the world. The ”naked bike” version was sold between 1968 and 1979. The early XS650’s featured a 654 cc parallel twin that was considered to be the most advanced engine in the class, making around 50 horsepower with a very “streetable” powerband. The early XS650 was unique for having an engine and gearbox in a single horizontally split crankcase.
In 1980, Yamaha introduced the XS650 Special, which had cruiser styling cues, including a small 16-inch rear wheel, buckhorn bars, and a two-step seat with mini sissy bar. These bikes don’t lend themselves to cafe builds quite so readily as their earlier counterparts, but they are still solid platforms. Plus, they are often less expensive than the earlier bikes.
Just like the Honda CB series there is a huge aftermarket for XS650 parts and you can find build-out kits if you look around. Again, buying the donor bike is going to be your biggest financial challenge. If you opt for one of the other bikes in the group, you will find aftermarket parts harder to come by, especially for the XS1100.
Yamaha has been building the Virago for decades. It was Yamaha’s first V-twin cruiser and one of the first mass-produced bikes with a mono-shock suspension out back. The mono-shock was abandoned in 1984. There have been many bikes within the group, but the best for a cafe build may be the Yamaha Virago XV535, Virago XV750, and the Yamaha XV920R.
Credit goes to John Ryland of Classified Moto for being one of the first builders to see the potential in these bikes, which are staggeringly ugly cruisers in stock trim. However, strip down the bike to its bare essentials, and the mono-shock architecture is a thing of beauty. Case in point: Classified Moto’s XV750 Reciprocity build.
The aftermarket for the Virago is a bit smaller than you will find for the Yamaha XS series. The donor bikes can also be harder to find, especially the XV920R. The best builds will come from bikes produced prior to 1990–especially the mono-shock bikes. On the upside, these bikes are shaft-driven, so there is less maintenance to worry about post-build.
Yamaha SR400 and SR500
The Yamaha SR is a great thumper. Yamaha started building the SR400 and SR500 in the late 70s. These bikes are very popular with professional builders and amateurs alike. That means a huge aftermarket and plenty of forums when issues arise. The SR400 is still in production and holds true to the classic look, making it easier to convert. The SR500 was mothballed in 1999 due to noise and emissions regulations, but not before it had gained a reputation as one of the most durable and easy to maintain motorcycles to have ever been built.
Both bikes offer one great nostalgic aspect…a kickstarter only. No electric start! Additionally, they offer fairly simple conversions for beginners. What they do not offer is a great deal of power, but that isn’t important if the build is done right.
Another Honda model that can make for a great cafe build is the Honda CX500, sometimes known as the “Poor Man’s Guzzi” because of the engine configuration. The CX500 offered a liquid-cooled motor with dual CV carburetors. The CX500 is equipped with electric start, but Honda left it isolated from the rest of the electrical system so riders could push-start their rides in case of electrical failure.
The CX500 requires more work than a Honda CB or a Yamaha XS because it has a higher front end that is not conducive to a cafe racer line. The bike was also less popular when it was originally sold. That makes parts a tad harder to find, but still easy enough to make the build worth the effort. Fortunately, there are plenty of forums to look over if you hit a snag or need a line on a part.
Kawasaki W800 and W650
Kawasaki built the first W-series bikes in 1966. The W1, as it was called, had the largest displacement engine coming out of Japan at the time and closely resembled the BSA A7. The Kawasaki W650 was produced between 1999 and 2007. It replaced the Kawasaki Zephyr. The W650 is a retro-standard bike that is powered by a 676 cc engine with a stroke of 80 mm and a bore of 72 mm. It also offers riders an anti-vibration balance shaft and modern electronics. The W650 was only sold in the North American market in 2000 and 2001 and sales were slow, so donor bikes may be hard to find. Hard to find or not, the donor should not be too expensive and there are plenty of parts laying around.
The Kawasaki W800 is another story, though. This is a modern bike that stays true to the standard bike style. Kawasaki introduced it in 2011 to take advantage of a worldwide fascination with retro bikes. It features a 773 cc four-stroke parallel twin engine. Bore and stroke are 77 mm and 83 mm respectively. It is rated at 70 bhp and 44 lb-ft of torque. Top speed is claimed to be around 110 mph. All of those specs are nice if you want to keep it as is, but the near classic look of the bike is what makes it so great for a cafe racer build. Its modern production also means that it will be a safe ride after you change out parts. The current production run also guarantees an inexpensive donor bike, plenty of aftermarket parts, and a ton of advice online.
Some builders like to focus on the W400, another solid bike in the series, but donor bikes are difficult to come by and parts availability make it a no-go for beginners.
Building a Cafe Racer: Other Options
These are just a few of the bikes that can be converted to a cafe racer. They just happen to be the ones we feel are the best bikes for café racer builds. Other options can be the Kawasaki Z-series (KZ650, etc) and the BMW R-series (R80, R100). Of course, if money is no object, you can always turn to an early Triumph, Moto Guzzi, or Ducati. Each of those bikes is going to set you back hard for a donor bike and parts will come at a premium.