If you’re like most people, you probably think of motorcycles as being strictly a modern phenomenon. But in reality, the first motorcycles were built back in the 1860s. And for many years after that, they remained a relatively rare sight on the roads.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that motorcycles really started to take off in popularity. This was thanks in part to the rise of custom culture, which saw people modifying their bikes to make them look and feel more unique.
If you want to have some fun with a motorbike and make it into a time machine, you came to the right place. Read about cafe racers and scramblers here.
Cafe racers are motorcycles that are designed for speed and agility. They typically have lightweight frames and engines, and they’re usually stripped down to the essentials, with no fairings or windscreens. In essence, they are literally a pain to ride because they are stripped down to the bare essentials with no creature comforts; however, if you’re here for the 60s vintage bike look, you’ll definitely want soft leather under your rump, a bit of fairing, and a windscreen in front of your eyes. Most cafe racers use either clip-ons or clubman handlebars that make you curl up against the tank, as well as rear-set footpegs and shifters for a better riding position.
Scramblers are another popular style of custom motorcycle, and the scramblers of the past are the grandfathers of today’s dirt bikes. Unlike cafe racers, which are designed purely for speed and agility, scramblers are meant to be versatile bikes that can be ridden on both paved roads and off-road trails. Some of the identifying features of scramblers include higher handlebars (which are easier to hold while standing up), thigh-level exhaust pipes (which give you a deeper wading capacity), knobby tires (which give you more grip on mud and sand), and beefy, long-travel shocks (which turn jump impacts into soft nudges). Many scrambler owners skip the fenders, but if you don’t want a mud bath on the trail, you should get one. You may also want a skid plate, which keeps your engine safe from hard impacts in exchange for some added weight.
Now that you have an idea of what you want, here’s what you need to do.
1. Choose the right motorcycle.
Depending on what bike you choose, you may have an easier or harder time. You can use any motorcycle as a starting point for a build; it may just take more work to convert them. Here’s a quick guide.
Choosing a Cafe Racer Base Bike
Cafe racers are typically based on older motorcycles, like the Honda CB750 or Triumph Bonneville. If you don’t choose a standard backbone naked bike, you’ll need to do a lot of grinding, cutting, and welding if the chassis of your bike. This is especially true if it isn’t close to the smooth, streamlined shape that cafe racers usually have. Sportsbikes like the Yamaha R1 and the Honda CBR1000RR have been turned into cafe racers, and that makes sense—cafe racers were used for racing. However, making them look like classic 60s bikes will take more work, and usually, owners end up building them into streetfighters (the spiritual children of cafe racers).
Just keep in mind that lighter bikes will be easier to flick, so if you’re not an experienced rider, you might want to start with something on the lighter side. One of the most popular and reliable base bikes for cafe racers in the US is the Honda CG125. There are a lot of these on sale online. The best things about these bikes are that they’re light, agile, easy to source parts for, and easy to maintain.
Choosing a Scrambler Base Bike
Like cafe racers, scramblers are typically based on older motorcycles. But because they need to be able to handle both paved roads and off-road trails, they tend to be beefier bikes than cafe racers—think something like the BMW R80G/S or Ducati Scrambler 1100cc. Again, though, you can really use any motorcycle as a starting point for a scrambler build; it just needs to be able to take some punishment without falling apart. If you really want something you built, not bought, start with a dirtbike like the Honda CRF150 or the Kawasaki KLX300R. With these bikes, you already have long suspension travel, large clearances for your choice of chunky tires, knee-high exhausts, sturdy handlebars, and comfy seats. You can also start with a Honda CB750 or CG125 if you want a more authentic build since scramblers of the past were just built from standard naked bikes; after all, they gave birth to dirtbikes, not the other way around.
2. Strip it down.
Once you’ve chosen your motorcycle, it’s time to start stripping it down to the essentials. Remove any fairings or windscreens, and get rid of anything that’s not absolutely essential. The goal is to make your bike as light and agile as possible.
3. Make your modifications.
Now is the hardest part. You’ll have to make different changes depending on what type of classic bike you want. Here’s a quick crash course.
Making Your Bike a Cafe Racer
To turn your motorcycle into a true cafe racer, you’ll need to add some performance-oriented parts. Things like lighter wheels, upgraded suspension, and larger brakes will all help improve your bike’s performance on the road. You might also want to consider installing a racing exhaust system to really let your engine breathe. You may also even need a different ECU or ECM (engine control unit or module) for better performance. This is mostly true if you started with a standard naked bike. Get a rear set and some clip-ons or clubmans, too; you want to be fully folded into that tank while riding, like the daredevils of 60s London were. For a finishing touch, get bar-end mirrors.
If you started with a sports bike, the performance should already be great, but you’ll have to make changes to its looks. You want a straight body line that’s parallel to the ground, and try to find fairing that is very rounded to conjure a 60s vibe. Use circular headlights, and if you want, place an X on it using electric tape. If you ever choose to get fairing, get a a half-cowl or a full cowl, and aim for the iconic look of the Yamaha TD250 or the Honda RC110. Once you’re done grinding and welding, try to capture the signature wannabe-racer look of the 60s rockers by getting a circular metal plate with your racing number, placed over your airbox or under your turn signals. You can use elliptical stainless steel stencils, or you can use tape and spray paint. You can even have your chosen number printed out digitally—just use a vintage racing font FTY Speedy Casual. Remember to include racing pinstripes in your design, too.
Making Your Bike a Scrambler
Making a scrambler is thankfully very easy compared to making a cafe racer, especially if you’re starting from a dirtbike. You’ll only need to change the tank, headlights, turn signals, brake light, mirrors, and seat cover. Get a tank that looks like a standard bike, like the Bonneville’s. Then, get wider, chunky, off-road tires. Get classic circular headlights and mirrors (if you do decide to get mirrors to keep your bike road-legal). Get classic brake lights and turn signals, too. Then, replace the grips with diamond-pattern grips, and choose a matching leather seat cover. You basically want a standard naked bike with thick forks, thick tires, thick handlebars, thigh-high exhaust manifold, and a torquey engine.
If you want a more authentic scrambler, start with a bike like the Honda CB750 or CG125 like the grease monkeys of old, then replace the forks, tires, seats, and exhaust manifold. Then, do some tinkering with the carbs, engine, transmission, and sprockets to improve power.
If you’re looking for design inspiration, look no further than the Triumph Scrambler 900. Triumph’s bikes were a favorite for modders of old, and they hit the nail on the head with this production bike.
Now, you have a retro custom bike! All that’s left is for you to suit up—preferably in classy, period-appropriate gear—and ride out. Remember that it’s all about personal preference, so have fun with it! Be creative and let your personality shine through in your bike’s modifications. Happy modding, and have a smooth ride!