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Top 5 factory café racers for 2018

If the recent bike shows in Birmingham and Milan are anything to go by, not to mention the burgeoning interest in the custom scene and growing popularity of venues such as The Bike Shed in London, one type of motorcycle is now more popular than ever – the café racer.

Words by: Last updated: 22nd December 2017
The original café racers came about the late ‘50s and ‘60s when disaffected British youth ‘suped-up’ their road bikes to take part in impromptu (and highly illegal and dangerous) races between the biker cafes of the era, such as London’s famous and now revived Ace Café. Apart from performance tuning, popular mods were lowered, ‘clip-on’ or ‘Ace’ handlebars and sports exhausts.

Now, with the recent revival of the custom scene, whereby a new generation of fashion-conscious ‘hipster’ bikers inspired by the likes of David Beckham have popularized retro, custom-built ‘scramblers’, ‘bobbers’ and, yes, café racers, the interest in café racers is huge once more.

What’s different this time round, however, is that you don’t need to be a customizer or mechanically adept to take part. As the recent shows have proved, the major manufacturers are increasingly producing their own retro-inspired but totally high tech and up-to-date café racers, often accompanied with a large range of custom bolt-on accessories to enable buyers to personalize their bikes.

Britain’s own reborn Triumph was actually way ahead of the game when it was the first to do exactly this with its original Thruxton – a café racer version of its popular Bonneville retro roadster – way back in 2003. However it’s the all-new 1200 version, launched in 2016, which has now really set this class alight.

German rivals BMW also discovered the popularity of the genre when its ‘Concept Ninety’ show bike, a retro café racer tribute to the 1973 R90S got such a warm reception it was turned into the production RnineT in 2014 which in turn has proved so successful it’s now spawned a whole family of retro customs, the latest being 2017’s RnineT Racer.

And now, with Ducati and others treading similar path with bikes like its Scrambler Café Racer, plus machines such as Husqvarna’s new Vitpilen, Yamaha’s XSR900 Abarth, Royal Enfield’s new Continental GT twin not to mention increasing offerings for the Japanese, it seems that, for 2018, the factory Café Racer floodgates have well and truly opened. So, with the choice of off-the-peg ‘retro racers’ wider, more mouth-watering and more baffling than ever, here’s our pick of the best ‘factory café racers’ for 2018.
Kawasaki Z900RS – the one everyone's talking about
Although Kawasaki has also launched a stupendous, 200+bhp, £20K+ supercharged sports-tourer for 2018, the H2 SX, it’s arguably been this retro restyled Z900, which has been grabbing most of the headlines – and with good reason. Available in two versions, the roadster RS and the forthcoming, café racer style RS Café, Kawasaki’s newcomer does everything right. Being based on Z900 109bhp mechanicals means it’s easily got the performance and handling to match most retro rivals. Yet its restyle is more than just skin deep, too. Inspired by the 1972 Z1 everything from the bodywork to engine cases, exhaust, wheels and twin clocks are new – and beautifully done. While the Café gets different bars, seat, paint and new headlamp cowling and all for under £10K for the RS and less than £10,500 for the Café. What’s not to like?
Ducati Scrambler Café Racer – the saucy Italian one
Ducati’s ‘Scrambler’ family offshoot of retro-styled, new rider friendly V-twins has proved a huge success since the first four models, all using the same 803cc, 75bhp twin, was introduced in 2015 – so much so that the range has now grown to include a 400cc A2-compliant version, new-for-2018 1100 versions, trail bikes roadsters and, last year, this Café Racer. With sporty 17-inch wheels, clip-on bars and ‘70s black and gold livery, it rides and looks the part, too. If you fancy a café racer and want a thoroughbred Italian, this is the one.
Suzuki SV650X – the budget middleweight one
Of the Big Four Japanese manufacturers, Suzuki have been the slowest to latch on to the retro/café racer fashion and this new-for-2018, mildly restyled version of its long-lived but worthy SV650 V-twin roadster isn’t going to grab many headlines. That said, Suzuki has a knack of producing value-packed bikes that fit a niche and it could be onto something with the X. As an affordable, versatile, ‘first big bike’ the SV650 needs no introduction and is a proven hit. The 75bhp V-twin motor is flexible and fun; its ergonomics are unthreatening and it’s an easy practical ride. Now, with the ‘X’s clip-on café racer bars, nose cowling, restyled seat and side panels and unique paint, it just about has enough to appeal to the fashionistas, too, and all for under £6K.
BMW R nineT Racer – the classy German one
BMW’s RnineT family of retro-styled boxer twins based on modern mechanicals has proved such a hit for the German firm the 2014 original has now spawned a whole family of variants ranging from the budget RnineT Pure to the RnineT Scrambler, GS-inspired RnineT Urban GS and, for 2017, this, the RnineT Racer. Characterised by its classic café racer half fairing and low slung bars, the Racer shares most of the rest of its mechanicals with its siblings, that being the ‘old’ air/oil-cooled, 1170cc, 110bhp boxer twin in a decent chassis with lots of typically BMW quality touches and all for just shy of £11K. A quality, grown-up thoroughbred among café racers.
Triumph Thruxton/R – the original (and best, arguably)
Considering the origins of the breed, for many a ‘proper’ café racer has to be British – and the original, definitive and, for many, best café racer of all is Hinckley-based Triumph’s latest, fully revitalized Thruxton 1200, preferably in top spec ‘R’ guise. Introduced as part of Triumph’s all-new Bonneville family in 2016, the Thruxton uses the larger 1200cc version of the new twin cylinder motor but tuned for a healthy 95bhp. Handling on both versions is good, as with all Triumphs, but in top spec ‘R’ form, complete with Showa USD BPF forks, Ohlins twins shocks and Brembo radial brakes, is far classier and more refined – and looks brilliant to boot. If you want a café with the right name, looks and go there can be only one!
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