I haven’t written a motorcycle post in a while. So, sounds about right for me to write a post that is going to
get flamed hard spark good discussion eh?
First off, let me make something perfectly clear. I’m talking about ACTUAL cafe racers. NOT new bikes styled to look like them (triumphs scambler and thruxton come to mind)
So, first off. What IS a cafe racer. Let go why wikipedias definition, shall we?
A café racer (/ˈkæf reɪsər/ kaf-ray-sər or less commonly /ˈkæfi ˌreɪsər/ ka-fi-ray-sər) is a light-weight, lightly-powered motorcycle optimized for speed and handling rather than comfort — and optimized for quick rides over short distances. With bodywork and control layout recalling early 1960's Grand Prix road racing motorcycles, café racers are noted for their low slung racing handlebars, prominent seat cowling and elongated fuel tanks, often with indentations to allow the rider’s knees to grip the tank
So, in a nutshell, they are bikes made to race between coffee shops. Usually look something like this:
Before we even begin, I just want to say anything with the word “Race” in its name is probably a bad beginners bike.
So, let me start off with what make these attractive to new riders.
Everyone knows that you dont start on a big bike. The best starter bikes are all sub 500 CCs. and back in the old days, no one NEEDED more. a 750CC bike was considered BIG. So lots of companies made bikes in such a way that there was almost always something offered in 100cc increments. EG. Honda made the CB 350 and the CB 450 and 550. Kawasaki made the KZ 440. I think Yamaha had a 400CC. point is, if you really wanted to, you could step up from bike to bike VERY incrementally. and this choice of small sizes makes these bikes VERY appealing.
This is another BIG plus for these bikes. Because they had small CC motors, they didnt need huge frames or beefy gear boxes to handle them. this led to some lightweight (ish) bikes. Of course, they also had lower tech, so the frames were made of steel, so the difference might not be as much as you would think.
There was a BIG cafe racer bubble a little while a ago, but it seems to have died down now. this means you can pick up a decent, running cafe racer for ~2000 if you know where to look. 2K for a running, driving motorcycle thats NOT the usual beaten up ninja250/cbr250? Sign me up.
While this really depends on opinion, cafe racers are undeniably cool. MUCH cooler then a beaten up ninja 250. and there is less body work to fix when we drop it right? win win for all!
So. with all of those plus points, why are they bad motorcycle to start learning on?
Biggest thing. The brakes are from the last century. I dont care if it was the top of the line super bike from 30 years ago, brakes have come a LONG way since and even the tiny-teeny brakes off a CBR 125 will be better then those. And I’m not just speaking in terms of out-right stopping power. Old brakes feel very numb and funny in comparison to new brakes. It is FAR easier to lock up the brakes on an older bike simply because the brakes aren’t as communicative with you. And this is assuming the brakes are in 100% perfect condition. Who knows what 20/30/40 years have done to those things. OH, not to mention, on a brand new CBR300R, you can get ABS. Good luck finding a bike made in the 80's with that.
For a more experienced rider, this isn’t a problem. You have the mileage and know how to compensate for it. For a new rider, it could spell disaster.
The above bike has drums on the front. Far inferior to the disks on modern machines
To further compound the braking issue, we have the chassis (frame) of the bike. Decades old designs and technology will not turn in as fast or as nicely as something made this side of the 21st century. Again, this is before we even talk about how old the bike is and what time has done to those parts. The suspension is also a BIG point. Even modern bikes sometimes have problems with incorrectly set up shocks. How about one that’s 30 years old? How worn out is the suspension? Does it need a rebuild? Which leads nicely to our next point...
So, you bought that awesome rat-bike CB350. Nice. But you dropped it on the ground and found out the hard way that the starter has seen some better days. So, you go online to order a starter. If this was a newer bike, it would be 10 minutes on the commuter, 3 days waiting for it to arrive. On an older bike, it more like 3 days on the computer, trying to find that god forsaken part, then finding threads about how you can ‘upgrade’ it to the starter off a CB550, and then spend 2 days trying to find THAT starter, then find one you need, buying it, waiting for 4 weeks while it makes its way over from Asia, only to find out that its for a 83 Honda and you have a 82 Honda. and its back to the start. Not fun. And in the end, you sell that CB350 as a “project bike” on craigslist and buy another one.
ALSO. Remember how I said there were less body panels to break? yea, if you end up breaking one, you are SCREWED when it comes to finding replacements. And getting them repair aint cheap, as they are metal pieces, not plastic.
Yes, these motor have less HP then their modern counter parts, but how do they act? The power and torque curves are very peaky. Not only that, but in the morning, when its cold, I can walk into my garage, turn the key on my SV650, hit the starter, and the bike will fire right up and warm its self up. No struggling to start a old carb’ed machine and waiting for it to warm up and fiddling with chokes for me. I just get on and ride. Fuel injection also means I dont have to take apart the carbs and re-tune it every time the season changes.
And old cafe racer is just that. Old. What could have POSSIBLY happened to that bike in those 30 years? How many times has it been down? Taken apart and not put back together right? Lots of cafe racers COME from crashed bikes because it was cheaper to rebuilt it as a cafe racer then the bike it was before the crash.
While the head light on a starter bike doesn’t really get much attention as your not riding at night, your tail light DOES get a lot of attention, Cafe racers usually have incredibly small or dim lights, sometimes even off set to one side, so you cant see it from the other.
Turn signals is another thing you may forget. Lots of cafe racers DO NOT have turn signals! Very VERY few of them do. Depending on your state/local laws, you are able to get away with just arm signals.
Again, for an older guy with more experience, this may not pose much of a problem. For someone who is just learning how to ride, taking your hands off the handle bars for ANY reason while riding is, well, moronic at best.
So, there you have it. I maintain that a good starter bike would be something from this list right here.
Lots of bikes to choose for many different styles, and you will not run into any of the situations here.
OH, and before this starts:
“But Peter, if I know the brakes are bad, I’ll just take it easy!”
No. no no no no NO. The how point of learning to ride is just that. LEARNING TO RIDE. You dont need ANY more dangers/distractions from something that, as a beginner, is a relatively dangerous task. Once you have a few years behind you, sure, go right ahead. But to start off, you want to minimize the danger as much as possible when learning to ride.
And please don’t tell me “then don’t ride at all, its not safe”. If that what you think, then this article CLEARLY isnt for you.
And as always, dont forget to wear the proper gear, and keep the shiney side up and the rubber side down!
Photo cred: Wikipedia
Photo cred: Flatout.com
Photo cred: cafe racer web shop
Photo cred: cafe racers united