Motorcycle Classics

How to Build a Café Racer: Aesthetics

Written by well-known motorcycle and automotive author Doug Mitchel, How to Build a Café Racer (Wolfgang Publications, 2013) starts with a history lesson. While those first bikes were built in the UK for racing from café to café, the current rage for Café Racers has definitely spread to the US.

The book starts with chapters on planning and choosing an appropriate bike, followed by chapters that detail the modifications that will likely be embraced by anyone converting a stocker to a rocker. The center of the book holds a gallery of finished bikes that includes nearly every brand imaginable from Japan, Italy, the UK, and Germany.The final chapters include two, start-to-finish Café builds. This is the chance for the reader to see how professional shops take a stock Honda, Triumph, or Ducati and convert it into a fast, sexy, and functional Café Racer, ready to race from cafe to cafe on Saturday night, or around the race track on Sunday afternoon.The following excerpt comes from chapter seven, “Café Racer Aesthetics.”

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Fairings and Bodywork

Taking a stroll down the rows at a local swap meet or via the internet will expose you to a dizzying array of available accessory bodywork for your new machine. By using “sport fairing” as an internet search you’ll be astonished by the number of items being sold for that use. As always be sure to select the product that will fill your needs and retain safe operation of your cycle upon installation. Adding a really cool fairing that blocks your vision or the use of your lights does no one any good and will probably end up hurting you or someone else. Most of the sport or bikini fairings are simple affairs that bolt to the headlight brackets and add a nice visual reference and help to keep a small percentage of the wind and bugs off of your visor. The primary use for these compact and stylish fairings is to bring the Café racer feel to your ride although they won’t provide storage or a place to mount a radio.

In addition to what you can find online or at the swap meets there are a few terrific companies that produce finely finishing fairings and bodywork that can be bought and used with little effort. Most are delivered in unpainted form allowing you to select the theme and hues to be applied once the items arrive. Air-Tech Streamlining has an extensive line of available options that are designed to work with a myriad of different machines. Formed using high-grade fiberglass the products are durable and easy to prepare for paint. Mounting them to your machine requires brackets to fit your exact chassis layout but again the lightweight material makes adding hardware a snap. Syd’s Cycles, Inc. also carries a wide array of fairings and bodywork for Ducati models and has decades of experience in the arena. Hot Wing Glass makes a series of tail sections for your machine and their website gives enough information for you to order the correct item for your use.

If your tastes and budget have some extra room you can also opt for tanks and seat bases made by hand in alloy. This practice is not as fast as most of the pieces are made to order and made from scratch and as expected they are a bit pricier than the fiberglass components. VarnHagen Metalworks is in the business of producing such a line of parts and has several different designs to best suit your own application. They even offer a universal fit model that can be adapted to almost any chassis without too much effort. VarnHagen produces tanks and seat sections that can be matched to fit in design, bringing a more pleasing shape to the overall layout of your cycle. Another artisan toiling in the craft of hand shaping sheet metal into motorcycle trim is Evan Wilcox. Once again the nature of his art requires time and a higher cost than an off the shelf item and can be built to your exacting demands. He too can produce both seat sections and fuel tanks to meet with your exacting standards as long as you aren’t in a hurry or on a strict budget. Framecrafters is another firm that can shape a fuel tank for your updated cycle using some very old school techniques. Once dimensions for the tank have been taken a form is made from steel tubing, then cardboard is used to create templates to fit the shapes of the frame. Sheet metal is then cut to match the templates and each piece gets welded in place to become a fuel tank. Final welding, grinding and finishing wraps up the process and brings a new dimension of unique to your creation.

Once you’ve taken delivery of your new fairing, you may want to add a different windscreen. Your reasons may be to bring some color to the equation or to alter the height and protection of the screen based on your riding style. Gustafsson Plastics, Inc. is well known for delivering a huge variety of screens to fit nearly any fairing whether new or vintage. They can also custom form one to match your existing fairing but again allow time and some extra expense for a one-off item. Zero Gravity also sells a nice line of windscreens that mount right onto your factory fairing. Different hues and configurations can be seen and ordered to meet with your specific needs.

In the early days of motorcycle customizing there was a company named Tracy that made one-piece bodies for motorcycles that were tailored to fit a specific machine. These graceful units bolted onto the chassis with little or no modification and blended the fuel tank, side covers and tail section into one single unit. The company has long since faded from view but if you are diligent and lucky they pop up on online shopping sites from time to time. They can also be found at swap meets on occasion but prepare to pay an extra dividend if you find one at all. They were never made in big numbers and had a way of disappearing as time went by. Odds are they can be found stuffed in barns and attics but knowing which hole to explore is your first hurdle.

Regardless of your design theme and intentions some research and digging will deliver whatever bits fit your cycle and will provide a personal expression of your intentions. As with most projects of this nature doing some advanced planning will permit you to narrow your search and result in locating exactly the items you need to bring your creativity to life.

Replacing the front fender with something more stylish and lighter in weight is another option with numerous examples molded in plastic or fiberglass on the market today.

Handlebars and Controls

Regardless of how amazing your finished Café Racer looks, you’re going to want it to be easy to steer and control the operations of the machine. By altering the handlebars that came from the factory you can easily make a big change to the way your cycle steers and responds to input. Using a lower set of bars will alter your riding stance but also give you a better feel when entering turns. The more radical clip-on bars literally attach to the upper sections of the fork tubes and give you a truly race-ready posture. Achieving the same goal without the same level of hardware modifications would be the use of Clubman bars. These models bolt into the OEM handlebar mounts and drop the grips and levers into a racing configuration. A less aggressive choice in the handlebar department would be the “superbike” bar. These bars tend to put the rider’s hands at only an inch or so above the triple trees but provide a slightly more forward position. These bars provide an improved feel without causing back issues on a long ride. Nearly any form of handlebar can be had in chrome or gleaming black paint and as we will soon read there is a new selection of other finish options that await you.

Changing the grips and control levers is another facet of the plans you want to address if for no other reason than to improve the looks of the finished product. The comfort of the grip surface is more important if you plan on spending long hours at the handlebars and can also contribute to numbness of the hands if too hard a material is chosen. Style shouldn’t trump comfort entirely but with a vast array of grips being sold you’ll be sure to find a set that best suits your needs. Within the rubber category you’ll still find an amazing choice between brands, styles and designs. Different compounds provide you with soft or firm grips and you can even see some molded in colors or with color accents with the standard black hue. To finish off the area a set of bar-end anti-vibration weights can be attached to the openings of your chosen handlebar.

Levers used to control the brake and clutch can also be changed to better meet with your needs. It may be a case of having smaller hands that have trouble reaching the factory levers. This can usually be corrected by using a set of levers that have a different contour, bringing the surface closer to the grips for an easier squeeze. Other considerations would be for adjustability and there are several models available that can allow you to adapt the settings of the levers with a simple twist of an adjustment knob at the lever itself. Catered more for the racing world they can still be applied to machines with a more serious nature or to simply add more features to your build for the ultimate in style.

Once you’ve modified the grips and levers on your machine you might consider dressing up or replacing the factory gauges. Assuming the faces of the instruments aren’t so faded they can’t be read you can always spiff up the housings by polishing or painting the stock fixtures or replacing their bodies with OEM items. If like so many older cycles that have suffered from years of outdoor storage you can take several paths to correct that situation as well. There are gifted artisans in the world who are capable of refinishing the faces of your gauges to original levels, bringing a new order to the day. Other choices include buying modern gauge faces and swapping the old for new. There are several outfits that cater to this method and by doing so you’ll bring a fun feeling to your instruments while returning them to a functional status. Many of the same companies sell these items with colorful graphics and themes so that you can cater the change to your own tastes.

The third option would be to toss the old gear and purchase a set of high tech modern gauges. Once again there are several choices in that direction and one of the largest varieties I found was KOSO North America. Their catalog illustrates a diverse selection of arrays and something to fit nearly any need. Although there is plenty of data offered I’m not certain they will function with all of the older machines and be sure to check for proper function before you buy. The same company also carries a big selection of turn signals and related accessories although many seem to be aimed at more modern machines.

The mirrors that came on your donor bike might still be shiny on at least one side but if yours are anything like mine they could use an upgrade. Once again you’ll be faced with a myriad of choices in the mirror category but some will bring more style than others. Many different styles of mirrors are also available and of those, bar-end units harken back to the early days of the Café Racer. Within this narrow range you will still find a variety of choices but among the very best are the ones sold by Rizoma. This company carries nothing but high-end products for your motorcycle whether it’s a Café racer or not. Among their offerings of bar-end mirrors, three models stand out. The Spy Q, Reverse Retro and Classic Retro all play a significant role in keeping you safe, within legal boundaries and adding a touch of style to your machine.

Another product in their lineup is the Fluid Tanks that are formed in billet and can be had in several hues to better compliment your existing design theme. We may not think much about the places our needed fluids are held but seeing these on your cycle will make lots of people think about it while wearing smiles of admiration.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Build a Café Racer by Doug Mitchel and published by Wolfgang Publications, 2013. Buy this book in our store: How to Build a Café Racer.

  • Published on May 13, 2013
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