How To Build A Cafe Racer

Last updated on 11/13/2014. This is still a work in progress. 

I’ve received a number of requests about how to get started building a Cafe Racer, and so I’ve dedicated a page to what I’ve experienced so far.  These opinions come from the perspective of one with limited space, little free time ( by choice ), and a budget that has to stretch to include a number of hobbies.

I’ve also received a lot of input from other Cafe enthusiasts on the Utah Cafe Racer Facebook page  .  I post a lot of pictures on Facebook, and I find it easier to connect with the motorcycle community locally and abroad in more ‘real time’.

If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to comment below, or let me know via the Contact Form , .

**Note:  Take the time to read all manufacturer’s recommendations and warnings on any tools or parts you purchase.  And don’t ever forget eye protection! **

So how about a little history before we begin?  Here is the Wikipedia link on the Origins of the Cafe Racer  up to what is going on with them today.  It’s a quick read, and I really enjoyed it.

I’ve heard a lot of different opinions about ‘what is’ and ‘what isn’t’ a Cafe Racer. If you follow tradition, it’s removing as much unnecessary weight as possible while optimizing performance and handling. On the other hand, some people ( including myself ) are more interested in the look of a Cafe and getting the opportunity to experience new things that we normally don’t get to.  Ultimately, the only thing that matters is that you have fun.

So here we go, and thanks for stopping by! –

The first most important step for those with significant others –

The first most important step I believe for those of you who have significant others and care about how they feel is get their buy in .  Why?

  1. Because you are going to be spending a lot of time on this no matter how simple the modifications are.  Once you start, it is really really hard to stop doing the ‘just one more thing’ thing.
  2. Because you are going to clutter up space no matter how hard you try not to.  And  that clutter may sit for long periods of time. If your space is limited this will become an issue.
  3. Because it’s gonna cost money.
  4. Because inevitably you’re going to break something or screw something up and get pissed about it.
  5. Because once you have it finished you’re gonna want to ride it, and it’s gonna take time away from them.
  6. Because they might dig your project enough that they want one as well.  JOY. A t least in my mind :)

The PERFECT bike for building a Cafe Racer –

So what is the ‘perfect’ bike to build a Cafe Racer with?  Here is my criteria:

  • When you look at it, you can see it as a Cafe. You can make practically ANY bike into a Cafe.  The most recent I’ve seen that really surprised me is the Yamaha Virago.  It’s got a funky frame, and built kinda chopper cruiser-ish.  But sure enough there are some bad ass configurations coming out.  A good example is the cover photo of Cafe Racer Magazine issue #19 
  • You can actually find a bike. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what you want, your options are limited.  Here in the States, you’re gonna have an easier time finding a Japanese bike than you are a British or European one  you’re probably gonna find it cheaper to get your hands on a Japanese bike than a British or European one.  In my searches I ended up staying away from Ebay when looking for a complete bike regardless of whether it was running or not.  Bids always kept going up and up. was good, and I was able to search not only Utah but the surrounding states quite easily.  I just was turned on to this site  recently, and I may use it in the future.You can check online newspapers too.  I even sent out a mass email at work asking if anyone had or knew of anyone that had a bike they were looking to sell.  After I purchased my current ride I got an offer from a guy ( a friend of a friend at work ) that I hope to be able to take up once my current project is finished. Another place to look if you’re really intent on a particular bike are forums dedicated to that particular platform.  This can be a plus because the person selling it might have a better idea of it’s history and if they communicate a lot you on the forum you can get an idea of whether they might be a bullshitter or not.  Always remember, if it ain’t local you’re either going to have to go pick it up or get it shipped to you, and either way it’s gonna cost you.
  • You can get parts for it still. Although you can build a cafe out of anything,  the older you go the harder it will be to find parts.  A great place to look for parts is Ebay.  Do searches for the bike model and include things like brake pads, wiring harness, pistons, etc.  This will give you an idea what you’re going to be looking at down the road.  There are places that specialize in parts for particular models like  or Carpy’s  .
  • Want more ideas?  Checkout what our readers have built  .

Okay, I found a bike, so what now?

First off, does the current owner have a clear title?  If not, you need to get the serial number run through your local police department to see if the bike has been reported stolen.  If the bike is hot, they take it away and you don’t get squat.

If the bike still runs and you are getting ready to pick it up, I HIGHLY recommend you take a couple minutes and read the forum thread ‘So you just acquired a triple ‘ found at the  .  This is invaluable info on what to do when you get ANY previously owned bike.

An excellent article published on Bike EXIF called How To Build A Cafe Racer  some general guidelines on how to get that Cafe look and feel. It’s a great read and gave me a lot of ideas for future builds. Again, this is just someone’s opinion.

Common Modifications

The most common modifications I’ve seen for transforming a bike into a work of Cafe awesomeness are:

Seat –

Most seats are made out of fiberglass nowadays. Typically the seat will either be completely flat, or have a hump behind the rider where a passenger would sit.  The extra space provided by this hump is most commonly used to relocate electrical wiring and/or a battery if the bike requires one.  Cafe seats are not commonly know to be comfortable, but I’d bet the above pictured would be nice.  I highly recommend that you contact the seller and make sure that what you are looking to purchase is compatible with your bike.  If you’re looking to make one yourself, do a search via Google, DuckDuckGo, or on YouTube for inspiration and or instruction.  You can also find people via Ebay that will make you a seat to your specs.

Handlebars –



Some people will take their existing handlebars and just flip them upside down.  But your other option is to look into a Clubman bar or Clip-ons.

The advantages to the Clubman are lower cost and they are simple to install.  The downside is if you want to lower the front end of your bike without changing the fork springs you’ll need to loosen up the triple tree ( what the front shocks mount to ) and slide it down.  Most handlebars will limit how far you can take it down.  Make sure you get the same diameter of tubing that your current handle bars are.

With Clip-ons you have the option to adjust the height as well as the horizontal angle.  Some are designed with extensions where you can have them raised to the same height as where handlebars would reside.  The downside is cost.  They’re a lot more expensive.  But you can find them on Ebay or at salvage yards for cheaper.  Make sure that the clip portion will accommodate the diameter of the fork tube. And if you are going to use the existing controls, throttle, etc.  make sure the tubing is the same diameter as your existing setup.

I asked on the Facebook  page what people prefer, and unanimously it was clip-ons.  Everyone with Clubman experience either found them to be uncomfortable or to not work well with a bikes original mounting options.

Gas Tank –

I’ve seen a number of different styles of tanks, but the most notable alterations are side indents at the end of the tank

and indents in the front of the tank

The indents closer to the rider were made to help a one

bring their legs closer together creating less wind drag.  The ones near the front of the bike are for accommodating the closer and more swept back bars, which allow the rider to be able to turn the bike like normal.  There is a lot of history behind the different designs and I haven’t spent much time researching them.  But, if you decide to go with a different tank make sure that is it approved for street use.  There are fiberglass and metal options available, and it’s typically the fiberglass ones you need to be careful with.

If you stick with your original tank, take the time to get some rust remover and sealant.  Most automotive shops have these chemicals available.  The product most recommended by our readers on Facebook is Kreem –  .  Just a note on using any product; read everything in the instructions.  My first experience with the sealing chemical from Kreem ended up ruining my paint job.  It was taking longer than I expected for the liquid to dry, so I turned it upside down over a bucket to let it drain out and when I came back 15 minutes later I found that it had come into contact with the paint.  Here was the result –

Fortunately my good friend and now sponsor Adam Paul of Time Warp Custom Paint fixed everything and then some.  Check out the new do –

For more pictures of his process check out this post on the blog – Paint Job of Awesomeness

You should also check the petcocks for proper function and if necessary give ’em a good cleaning.

petcock – the valve that lets gas out of your gas tank

What are petcocks? Petcocks are the valves that control the flow of gasoline out of your tank and into your carburetor(s).  Some tanks will only have one Petcock, and some have two.  If you’ve got two, then one is used typically as the main source of fuel, while the other is used as a reserve for when you’re close to running out of gas.

Carburetors –

Carburetors are what control the flow of gasoline and air into the combustion chamber of your engine.  Here’s a great video on how a typical carburetor works:

Rebuild kits are common to purchase for most makes and models, and chances are if your bike needs any major work done to it, you might want to consider at least cleaning them up.  Refer to your manual for suggestions on how to best to proceed.  A site I used for rebuild kits and jets is Jets R Us  .  For tuning and syncing, especially if you have multiple carburetors, checkout Factory Pro – Tune Like A Star In 4 Easy Steps  for suggestions.

Instruments –

speedometer on the left, tachometer on the right

If your motorcycle was ever street legal it will at least have a speedometer for indicating how fast you are going, and some will include a tachometer to tell you how fast the engine is turning over.

For a more streamlined look, you can try replacing these with miniature versions.

Controls –

Brakes and brake lines –

Exhaust –

Lighting –

Wiring –

If you’re rebuilding a vintage bike, say 25+ years old, the wiring harness may need some attention.  The wiring harness is what makes up the majority of electrical connections on a bike; from turn signals to relays.  There are some bikes that have a large enough following that you can buy a new harness that is identical to what the factory made, but most don’t.

On my bike I am using a simplified wiring harness from our sponsor C5 Performance  .

Instead of fuses they use self-resetting solid state relays.  There are only a couple wires instead of the mess you get from a traditional wiring harness.  I’m absolutely thrilled with this, as well as my new ignition system which I’ll talk about next.

Ignition System –

An ignition system is what ignites the gas-air mixture as it enters your engine through the carburetor(s) to make your engine run.  For gasoline engines you’ll have a setup which times the charging of electrical ignition coils to fire a spark plug at the top of the engine cylinder near the valves.  Old setups vary from mechanical points to solid state systems, but there is always the problem with wear and heat causing these old timing systems to deteriorate over time.

Technology has come a very long way over the past 30 years, and chances are there are now better options available.  Our sponsor C5 Performance  makes kits for the optical ignition systems they sell which include mounting hardware, electronics, and coil wires.  I was fortunate to have the resources available to create the prototype kit for my Yamaha XS750SE.  Here’s a video of the first time we fired my bike up after completing a rebuild of the top end, carburetors, and installing this system –

— Manual Tools —

For a simple build, meaning changing out only a couple things and some maintenance, you only need a few.  I haven’t as of yet come across a manufactures tool kit that is worth a crap, but I’m only messing with old bikes so my opinion is biased.  To again quote the forum –

You will NOT use a crescent wrench, ever, on your vintage motorcycle. You wll not use standard allen or box wrenches on your metric cap and hex screws. You will not use standard screwdrivers on philips or allen screws. You will get the RIGHT tool of the right size for removing and reinstalling anything. The time and money you save shortcutting proper tools will be lost many times over removing and replacing stuff you buggered up.

If bike requires metric then get metric tools.  If you’re bike requires standard, then get standard.  A full set of combo box/open end wrenches AND sockets AND allen wrenches they will cover just about everything.  Here is what has covered 99% of what I needed –

I also received this Craftsman 260 pc set as a Christmas present –

– but to be honest, I’ve only used the largest socket wrench and socket.   Everything else is collecting a little dust at the moment.

If you start getting a bit deeper into your project, you will also need a good torque wrench, feeler gauges ( for checking clearances ), and an electrical connection tester.

You’ll also probably come across some tools that are not very common or well known.  Check out this post  on my trying to locate a ‘pin spanner’.  Just about all the shops I went to locally, including the Yamaha dealerships themselves, didn’t have a clue what I was looking  for.  I did fortunately find a shop that had just what I needed and was willing to let me rent one from them for a couple days.  The forums dedicated to your particular platform should be able to direct you to where you need to go for unique items.

— Power Tools —

Reciprocating Saw –

If you’re going a bit further and really want that lean Cafe look you’re gonna need to invest in some power tools.

Reciprocating Saw

A Reciprocating Saw was my first power tool purchase, and for what I’m wanting to accomplish with my build it wasn’t completely necessary.  I used this for cutting the ends of my frame off that had the turn signal mounts, as well as most of the mounts for the battery cage.  I’ve seen these saws used by others to cut the frame near the head tube so they can adjust the steering head angle. For more info on frame geometry check out Wikipedia’s Bicycle and Motorcycle Geometry  .

Hand held grinder –

I’ve used one of these much more often than the reciprocating saw.  The brand I have currently is a Ryobi angle grinder ( pictured below ) which also has a rotating handle.  It came with a couple different disks to give the options for cutting, grinding, or sanding.  I’ve used the sanding disks most often, and with good use you’ll be needing to buy new ones regularly.

— Welding —

When I first started my build I thought that a MIG welder was going to be able to do it all, and for the most part it has.  But, as we’ve gotten into thin sheet metal this has proven to not be the case.  Here is a brief video from an on-line expert on three of the most commonly used welders; TIG, MIG, and ARC or Stick.

— Fabrication vs. Metal Shaping —

So what is the difference between metal fabrication and metal shaping?  Fabrication is typically where you cut up pieces of metal and weld them together.  Shaping on the other hand is where you are hand forming some from just a basic piece of metal, utilizing hand and power tools to bring your creation to life.

A great forum on the subject of metal shaping is  .


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