It took me several years and at least two days to understand the point of café racers. They’ve always seemed more like lifestyle statements to me – primarily championed by hipsters – rather than “serious” motorcycles. Whatever that means. These sporty, minimalist bikes first came into fashion in Europe in the 1960’s and have seen a massive resurgence in popularity in recent years that’s spawned a wildly devoted sub-culture. Follow any café racer-focused Instagram account and your feed will be overflowing with artsy, vintage-tinted photos of bearded riders clad in denim jackets, scuffed leather boots, and bubble-lensed helmets.
Spending time with the new Ducati Scrambler Café Racer taught me many things, not the least of which is that my previous interpretation of these bikes can be best described as “ignorant.” Second, café racers can indeed be performance machines and a blast to ride. And finally, that some of the most skilled motorcycle builders you’ll ever find are dedicating their talents to creating stunning new interpretations of this decades old motorcycle movement.
“It started back in the 1960’s when ‘biker gangs’ were still a thing,” said Sofi Tsingos, owner of the Austin, Texas based custom motorcycle shop GT-Moto. “Boys would take mostly British bikes and remove anything that was not needed to make them as light as possible. They would race from café to café [and] the ‘Café Racer’ name was born.”
Tsingos runs GT-Moto with her father and has hand built several beautiful motorcycles, including a recently completed Ducati Sport Classic build. Proceeds from the sale of her bikes have raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity and cancer research.
“The resurgence of what was always at the core of the café racer spirit brought with it a revival in the custom bike scene, and it has extended to every facet of the motorcycle community,” writes Tsingos in an article on Progressive.com. “Not only are older riders dusting off their vintage builds and taking trips down memory lane, but the younger generations are actively participating in this rebirth, resurrecting the beauty and craft of the motorcycles of an earlier generation.”
Which brings us neatly to the Scrambler Café Racer. With this bike, Ducati has served up a charming hit of nostalgia – bobbed seat, low bars, endless classic style – with the reliability and power of modern technology, in much the same way the custom café creations rolling out of shops like GT-Moto do.
The clearest evidence of the Café Racer’s modernity is the 803cc air-cooled and fuel injected v-twin it shares with the rest of the Scrambler range. Power output is a healthy 75 horsepower and 50-pound-feet of torque. And, because the Café Racer is more than just a styling exercise, it also features stiffer suspension, larger 17” wheels, and a steeper rake than its other Scrambler brethren.
On the road those performance upgrades result in super quick steering which makes the bike incredibly easy to maneuver, with the smallest inputs producing immediate turn-in. Power delivery and fueling are smooth, the clutch is easy to modulate, and the Brembo brakes bite with reassurance. The lack of barnstorming power means the Café Racer doesn’t constantly goad you into riding like a hooligan. It’s certainly sporty, but it never feels like it wants to break lap records with every ride and that suits its character perfectly.
Visually, the Café Racer is arresting – that paint! Those mirrors! That headlight! Ducati adorned it with a host of bespoke aesthetics including gold wheels, bar end mirrors, a shortened mud guard, clip-on handlebars, special ‘Coffee Black’ paint, and a fantastic stitched leather seat. I received more compliments while riding this than any other motorcycle I’ve ever ridden. Fun fact: the number ‘54’ on either side of the bike is a tribute to Bruno Spaggiari, a factory rider for Ducati from the 1960’s. Neat!
One of my absolute favorite parts of this motorcycle is the exhaust. Thumb the starter and the twin Termignoni silencers bark to life. As the revs tumble down to idle, the engine settles into that familiar Ducati v-twin clatter. Out on the road the Termis gurgle delightfully under constant revs, and they sound particularly lovely when you chop the throttle and let the engine unwind naturally.
For me, the Café Racer is more than just cool bike – it’s the machine that changed my perspective. The moment it finally clicked was during an impromptu ride late on a Saturday night. I decided to cruise the strip in hopes of discovering what it was about these motorcycles I didn’t quite understand.
And it was out here, among the night owls downtown, under streetlights dripping their orbs of hazy yellow light, wrapped in the summer warmth of the city, that I finally understood. Café racers aren’t just lifestyle ornaments, they’re a direct connection to some of motorycling’s original roots, and are a deeply personal medium for people to express themselves in wild and wonderful ways. They also brim with more character and charm than nearly any style of motorcycle I can think of. A shift in attitude is not an easy or insignificant thing to achieve, but the Café Racer did just that.
Ducati has deftly captured the essence of thrill and adventure that defined the original café racers and the English lads who rode them with the Café Racer, and added an exciting modern flourish. Consider me converted. Just don’t ask me to be a hipster.
Many thanks and much respect to Seacoast Sport Cycle in Derry, NH for the opportunity to ride and review this bike. SSC is a full-service dealer with incredibly knowledgeable staff and a wide array of motorcycles and gear to choose from.