The Hogbitz Café Racer

American muscle and British style come together for a modern take on a classic theme

| July/August 2009

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    Phil Masters
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    The Hogbitz Café Racer.
    Phil Masters
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    Test bike uses Buell Lightning cylinders and heads mated to a standard 883 bottom end.
    Phil Masters
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    Phil Masters
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    Phil Masters
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    Phil Masters
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    Phil Masters
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    Bad in black: Customers can specify final finish.
    Phil Masters

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Claimed power: 80hp @ 6,000rpm
Top speed: 130mph (est.)
Engine type: 1,202 air-cooled 45-degree V-twin
Weight (dry): 484lb (220kg)
Price: $11,150 base, $12,650 as shown

The phone call came out of the blue, just as I was finishing the photo shoot of the Café Racer. Hogbitz boss-man Brian Udall was on the other end of the line, asking me to return the bike immediately.

I was in London for the Ace Café’s annual reunion, but there was an emergency at his workshop in Essex, northeast of London, and he needed me to head there as soon as possible. It sounded like the perfect excuse for a last, fast ride on the Hogbitz Café Racer. Any slight disappointment at having to cut the photo session a little short was more than offset by the thrill of an important mission, even though I knew the urgency of my task would cut little ice with the local police, let alone the speed cameras on the A40 highway.

Minutes later I was back in the saddle, stretched across a long, aluminum gas tank to a pair of clip-on handlebars as a grunty 2-cylinder engine rumbled away between my shins. There was a distinct air of a period Triton from the gleam of that polished aluminum and the racy riding position, reinforced by the way the bike punched enthusiastically forward as I wound back its throttle.
But this bike is no survivor of those Sixties days at the Ace, as I was reminded by the unmistakable feel and sound of its big-bore V-twin engine with its large air filter jutting out in most un-British fashion near my right knee. Despite its classic looks, this bike is the first of a new series of Café Racers built by Hogbitz around Harley-Davidson’s Sportster.



The Triton look

I’m sure some purists are sputtering angrily at this improbable blend of lazy American cruiser and the legendary British hybrid, the Triton, that was built to deliver the best of engine performance and handling. But even when the Hogbitz machine was surrounded by real Tritons and other café racers of similar vintage at the Ace, its hunk of air cooled, pushrod-operated V-twin engine looked somehow at home below that long aluminum tank.

Besides, nobody can argue that Udall isn’t entitled to build a special with that period look, because he’s been doing so for four decades. Udall was a Triton-riding Ace regular all those years ago, and even built the hybrids while working for North London shop Gary J. Tritons. More recently, he’s gotten into Harleys, after starting out drag-racing one. And now he’s combined his old and new hobbies to create the Café Racer.

“Tritons were my passion in the Sixties, so when I started business working on Harleys it was natural to build a bike like this,” Udall says. “I came from a biker family — both my parents and my brother were into bikes — and had some great times with my Triton, at the Ace and other places like the Calypso and Ted’s Café [both in Essex]. I love the old café racer look and I love Harleys, so it’s the perfect combination as far as I’m concerned.”

Udall is happy to admit that his Café Racer is more an exercise in style than a Triton-type attempt to match ultimate power with handling. It’s similar in that respect to the XLCR café racer that Harley-Davidson produced in 1977-1978; even more so when it’s finished in the black paint that is an alternative to this bike’s polished alloy.

Despite its American origins, the Café Racer’s shiny period looks made it seem at home among the mostly elderly Britbikes that gathered for the Ace reunion run. A few diehards might have been unimpressed at the sight of this interloper from across the Atlantic, but nobody seemed to object, and several smiled or nodded their appreciation.

Road test

Any recent Sportster engine can power the Café Racer. Alternatively, you can mix and match engine parts, as with this bike, whose engine was put together by Hogbitz ace bike-builder Mark Hudson using the bottom-end from a standard Sportster 883 and the top end from a Buell Lightning. Mild tuning work includes ported heads, a carburetor kit from Canadian Harley-Davidson specialists Headquarters, and a Supertrapp siamesed exhaust system with a muffler that can be fine-tuned for noise level by adding or removing baffles.

The fabric exhaust wrap around the down pipes is “mainly for show,” Udall admits, although it does help performance by keeping heat in the cylinder heads. This bike’s pipe is set at a relatively restrained output but the big V-twin still comes alive with a suitably menacing bark when I hit the button. (There is no kickstarter.)

Although the Hogbitz-made clip-ons aren't set radically low, the riding position is a typical café racer crouch. The seating position is good, the humped seat giving plenty of room in conjunction with rearset foot pegs from German specialist LSL.

Setting off, I was initially surprised to find the Hogbitz feeling much more like a normal Sportster than I expected, and not just because it has standard Harley instruments and handlebar controls. Despite its traditional street-racer look, the Café Racer lopes along with the trademark low-revving, slightly agricultural feel of a big air-cooled V-twin, complete with its distinctive exhaust note.

The Café Racer pulls effortlessly from less than 2,500rpm, carbureting crisply thanks to the tweaked Keihin carb with its free flowing Force air filter. Its straight-line performance is good enough to make for an entertaining ride when the road opens out, though the Café Racer works best if it isn’t revved too hard.

Sitting at between 60 and 70mph is fine, with the riding position giving a comfortable lean forward against the wind. The bike feels reasonably smooth as well as ready to respond with a burst of acceleration when required. It punches pretty hard through the midrange, heading toward the “ton” mark and a likely top speed of about 130mph. Not that there was much chance to see that kind of speed, even when I was hurrying back along the A40 in response to that urgent phone request.

When the Café Racer is given its head in a straight line, its solidly mounted engine’s vibration up near the 6,000rpm redline make it all too clear why Harley started rubber-mounting the Sportster engine a few years ago. On this bike, even when hurrying, it’s best to make use of the very nice 5-speed box to keep the engine in its sweet spot between about 3,000 and 4,000rpm.



Engine and frame

I was actually glad Hudson had detuned the engine to its current level, after originally building a much more powerful but demanding bike around a hotted-up 98hp engine that was intended for drag racing.

“It was very quick but hard work at low revs; a nightmare below 30mph,” Udall admits. “So we changed the Andrews cam for one from a Sportster 883. Now it makes about 10hp less but is much nicer to ride. We can build them more powerful, though, if that’s what people want.” This engine’s output was quite adequate for an entertaining ride, and well matched to what is, after all, a relatively standard Harley chassis. Even this substantially tweaked Sportster is still much more of a Harley-Davidson than a genuine sports machine, yet its handling makes the bike enjoyable on back roads.

Some of that retained Harley character comes from the fact the Café Racer’s twin-downtube steel frame is essentially an old-style, non-rubber-mounted Sportster original. Hogbitz cuts down the rear subframe and adds some brackets to locate the new 3-gallon tank, which, like the similarly hand-crafted seat, is handmade by one of Udall's suppliers from his old Triton days.

Front forks and yokes are stock Sportster, too, although Hogbitz firms up the former with stiffer springs and thicker oil. Pairing 18-inch wheels (instead of the standard 19-inch front and 16-inch rear) with longer-than-standard Hagon shocks lifts the back and steepens steering geometry. The wire-spoked wheels combine stock hubs with Spanish-made rims.

Although the Café Racer is lighter than the standard Sportster it still weighs the better part of 500 pounds, and in typical Harley style it requires a fair bit of effort on those narrow bars to pull it down into a tight turn. But for reasonably spirited riding it is just fine, sending an occasional twitch through the bars over bumps but generally staying very composed. It steers with admirable precision and has a nicely taut feel that encourages reasonably hard riding. The Hagon shocks are well damped, the Avon Roadrider tires grip just fine, and in contrast to the easily-scraped standard Sportster the tucked away rearsets and muffler mean ground clearance isn’t a problem.

The Café Racer even brakes reassuringly hard, provided I give the lever a firm squeeze. The bike retains Harley’s standard 11.5-inch front discs and twin-piston calipers, and with the aid of the rear disc the brakes were more than adequate and a pretty good match for the bike’s overall performance.

Made to order

Additional speed and stopping power are readily available if budget allows, as each Café Racer will be hand-built to its buyer’s specification. The guys at Hogbitz are currently assembling a 1,450cc version that will be considerably faster, Udall says, and will have upgraded brakes to match. It will cost considerably more than this bike, which with its alloy tank and mildly tuned engine would sell for close to $13,000. Prices start at just over $11,000 for the basic version with black paint and a stock engine.

Inevitably, the Hogbitz runs the risk of alienating both Britbike enthusiasts (with its engine) and Harley fans (with everything else). In that respect it shares much with that original Harley-Davidson café racer, the XLCR, which bombed following its introduction. Yet three decades later the XLCR is revered by many Harley enthusiasts, and with good reason.

The Café Racer’s appeal is easy to understand. Blending the classic clip-ons-and-aluminium-tank format with a big V-twin engine results in a handsome, hand-assembled machine with an old-style look, distinctive character and relatively modern performance. And that’s a mighty appealing combination. MC



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