THE TERM ‘café racer’ has been with us since the 1950s, when the music of Eddie Cockrane and Bo Diddley spun on jukeboxes in transport cafés, and Ton-up Boys began making headlines with their leather-clad look, sat astride stripped-back bike customisations. A new motorcycle culture had been born, as the bikes morphed into lean, mean machines with their single racer seats and low clip-on bars, racing petrol tanks, cone megaphone mufflers and swept-back exhaust pipes.
With home-made hybridisations continuing to flourish, specialist manufacturers jostled for space alongside those renowned manufacturers eager to grab a piece of the action, developing a new breed of café racer for the retro market.
Moving from Essex to the Isle of Wight aged five, Ian Saxcoburg grew up with bikes. Originally trained as a mechanical engineer, he admits to probably spending too many years on the drawing board and on 3D CAD systems, all the while thinking, tinkering or building bikes.
In 2011 he happened upon an American television programme called Café Racer, where a guy had customised a machine based on a Honda CX500. “I thought it was really good and told myself that I was going to make one similar,” he recalls. “As my principal idea behind customisations had been to use older, cheaper and readily available motorcycles, I knew the CX would be ideal. Browsing the local free ads, there was almost always one listed, unused and unloved, and normally stashed in a shed or backyard. I managed to find one for £100, so I bought it. When I arrived to collect it, the bike was leant up against a garage behind a hedge in the garden.
As a youngster it had been possible to get almost anything made, but times changed, with people no longer having easy access to fabricators. As a result it became really hard to get even the simplest of things made. So I decided that while I was building this bike, I would draw everything I made and then make two of them, so that if someone else wanted to build a similar bike, they could buy the parts from me. My thinking was that the parts were not like vegetables, they would not go off, and therefore they could sit on the shelf until such time as they were needed.”
With the customisation complete, in 2012 Ian and his wife Tracey launched Café Racer Kits, and took space at the Classic Motorcycle Mechanics show in Shepton Mallet, along with a batch of CX500 parts. Ian simply wanted to gauge interest. He hadn’t expected the parts to sell out within a matter of weeks. Alongside the kit, they developed and produced a working manual, enabling even the most inexperienced of café racer enthusiast to have a go at a conversion themselves. CRK realised they were on to a winner.
“When we first launched the CX500 kit, I thought people might think we were wrecking all these bikes, but the first person on the stand at Shepton Mallet said it was great, because otherwise the bikes would end up in landfill,” says Ian. “We were going to keep more bikes on the road by doing kits, because whilst the bikes were not worth the money to complete a full restoration, it made sense to convert them. As a result, CX prices have reflected that, because no longer can they be picked up for £100.” CRK’s 250/400 Café Racer kit went on to transform the Honda CB250N or CB400N into a stand-out old school racer, thanks to clip-on handlebars and a single seat, coupled with stainless steel instruments and bates-style headlamp adding to the cool retro look.
After years of restoring classics and building specials, and keen to share his experience and expertise, in 2014 Ian began his next project – a kit for the Honda Superdream. Based on the Honda CB250N and CB400N Superdreams made from 1978 to 1984, the kit modules were to provide all the major parts and instructions required to transform a donor bike into a café racer. With their revvy four-stroke motors and good handling, the bikes made a great basis for a special, retaining the practical features that made the Superdreams a favourite, including electric start, centre stand, disc brakes, easy maintenance and electronic ignition. With the removal of ‘excess baggage’ from the machine, the bike’s character would be transformed, improving performance and boosting riding fun. Despite their strong engines and reliability, the fact that Superdreams are not yet considered ‘classic’ in the secondhand market makes great news for specials builders, and whilst the CRK kit did not set the world alight, donor bikes turn up to this day, and the kit is still readily available.
Ian then turned his attention to the early bulletproof Hinckley triples, with their great engine and solid chassis, but again weighed down by excess baggage. The first CRK Triumph kit was unveiled in February 2015, designed for the T300 series of 750 and 900 triples, built from 1992 to 1996, and which includes the Trophy, Trident, Sprint, Daytona and Speed Triple, but not the Tiger, Thunderbird or Adventurer. The kit proved a phenomenal success, with 240 to date sold throughout the world, many having gone into Europe. One kit is in Iceland, another in Peru, sold simply through the power of the Internet. “We advise people that if they already have a really good Triumph or CX500, for example, as there are so many tatty ones out there, they should source one of those rather than convert their pride and joy,” says Ian.
“Building a café racer is about doing something of your own; it is a bit like Airfix kits. Some customers are much more interested in building something to ride, whilst others will build a bike and then almost immediately sell it because they want to build something else. There are those riders that have built bikes that are very well used, whilst others want something that is individual; a bike that they have put their stamp on; something to admire.”
With strong engines, good spares availability and proven reliability, the early Hinckley Triumphs are deservedly gaining classic status. However, with prices of scruffy bikes suitable for conversion still very affordable, that can be nothing but good news for specials builders, plus having the word Triumph emblazoned on the tank makes it just that little bit more special. Riding on the success of the Triumph T300 Series kit, CRK’s attention next turned to the Triumph Sprint ST 955, which was manufactured for six years from 1998.
With every kit, each aspect of the CRK process is repeated dozens of times and is fully documented, so owners can be confident that the parts will fit properly in accordance with the comprehensive project manual. Builders can also watch videos, guiding them through the build process. A CRK kit is pretty straightforward, essentially requiring the removal of the original rear subframe, and bolting all the new bits together, with a typical transformation taking anywhere from 50 to 100 hours to complete, depending on the builder’s previous experience and how radical the overhaul is. Even so, as Ian happily points out, CRK has had several customers who before they build a bike have had to go and buy themselves a set of spanners because they have never worked on anything like it before.
“We put a lot of effort into the instructions, on the premise that the more information we give, the fewer questions will be asked, and that has paid off,” says Ian. “Most people will follow the manual, but if people get stuck or if they want a bit of advice, we are always here for them. We do try and converse by email because it gives us time to think of an answer rather than simply speaking on the telephone. It is surprising when no questions come back! Often we send the kit off and then wonder what has happened to it, and the next thing you know we are sent a picture of the completed bike. We encourage people always to tell us how they get on.”
Ian continues to handle all the design and prototype work, but because everything is designed using CAD, after the prototype stage he will rely on the expertise of others. “We try to use local people if we can for at least 80 per cent of the parts, then we build in small batches. With the fibreglass, that is done by someone else, although I would make the original shape, then use that for the mouldings to be made. Some of the simpler metalwork is done by myself in-house, as that doesn’t take up too much time. In the end it is a question of mixing and matching to get the desired look. That really is our while mantra.
“When you think back to the era of the Triton, it was more DIY, and we try to do that with CRK. In order to achieve that, the donor bike has to be a good bike and also very affordable. It also has to be a little bit tatty, perhaps with broken plastic, that sort of thing, a bike that is not worth rebuilding, but is worthy of customisation.”
With the current café race revival, CRK are riding the crest of the wave alongside big-name manufacturers such as Triumph with their new Thruxton R, manufacturers that know the demand is there, and are appealing to the more mature customer with cash in their pocket, willing to pay out for a bike that perhaps reminds them of their youth. “We, too, are mostly dealing with a more mature clientele,” says Ian, “older guys who may have a bit more time and enjoy being in their workshop. Having said that, we have customers in their 30s that want to end up with something that is theirs. Whilst we produce a kit, the customer can put their twist on it so they end up with a bike that is not like anyone other.
“You also have to consider that the younger kit builders probably cannot afford to spend over £10,000 for a bike like the Thruxton, but they can buy a donor bike. It’s quite cool in a way, because buying a Thruxton is one thing, but when you say ‘I made this’, that is a very different thing altogether. Most people seem to like the hands-on approach. They take pride in the work. Café racers have become a genre again, with a lot of customers having had a café racer background, or are aware of the tradition through their families. One chap who bought a kit from us converted a bike as a tribute to his father, with the same colour scheme. It is all about nostalgia at the end of the day.”
Ian remains conscious that the bubble eventually may burst as far as the trend in café racers is concerned. “Some manufacturers have done a fantastic job in getting on the bandwagon, and probably saw it coming five years ago, but it is like fashion, in that there will be a hit and then people will move on to something else. Take the Triumph Trident for example. There was a period when you could buy one for next to nothing, and then all of a sudden they became really desirable. From our point of view, we will always stick to our original idea, which is that the donor bike has to be cheap, the build has got to be fun, and it is something you do, not particularly because the bike is going to be worth a fortune or esoteric. For a niche market like ours, hopefully people will continue to want to do that.”
The best way to think of a CRK bike is by way of comparison to a restoration, in as much as with the latter you are going to have to do the whole bike if you want to do a nice job, but with a conversion you do not have to source the original parts. Some people may prefer to buy and convert an old naked bike because it is possible to see more of the original engine at point of purchase. Remove a fairing, however, and although the bike may be clean underneath, it can be badly corroded because of having been ridden through the winter. Road dirt could have made its way underneath the powder coating, causing it to peel off. The suspension linkage may have corroded, and the seals may have all gone. Despite being well engineered, the back can still be a vulnerable area. By this stage you would be committed to doing it all.
Such has been the popularity of CRK over the past few years, that a number of people have opted to convert more than one bike. Whereby some have built the same kit again, others have gone for something different. One man in Finland built two identical Triumphs – one for his wife and the other for himself to enjoy.
If you fancy transforming an unwanted Yamaha Fazer 600 into a stunning pocket rocket TZ lookalike, then CRK can help here too, as they have just launched a prototype FZS600 kit. “When we began with the CX and the Superdream, they were simpler kits, particularly the CX, being the first one,” says Ian. “The thing with those bikes now is that they are so old, 40 years old, so even if you buy one now it is still an old bike. The reason for opting to do a Faser kit was that being slightly more modern, in a way the bike acts as a replacement for both the CX and the Superdream. It still has carburettors, and is quite a simple bike to work on. With the Triumph we had to move away from the original shape of the bike, which meant making our own fuel tank and subframe, whereas the Fazer is different, and it was simply a question of chopping the end of the frame off and keeping the fuel tank, so it should be an easier build. With a café racer everything is about the line of the stock frame, and how your eye follows it. Unless you are making a frame from scratch, there is a compromise to be made.
“We try to choose donor bikes that are reasonably priced in the secondhand market so that your project won’t break the bank,” says Ian. “Then we build prototype bikes to get the look just right. During the design we use a mixture of experience, craft and modern techniques such as 3D CAD to specify the parts. We work out all the headaches such as load stresses, wiring modifications, fasteners and clearances for tyres.” Once the prototyping is complete, CRK concentrate on making all the engineered parts that are required for the conversion, before producing the parts in small batches to keep the cost competitive and the quality high. Ian then builds a second pre-production prototype and uses that to write the comprehensive instructions that are included with each kit.
As much as CRK components are built locally, it remains clear that Ian Saxcoburg is happy to roll up his sleeves, hammering, filing, shaving, bending, drilling, polishing, painting and deburring machined components to his heart’s content, because it is all part and parcel towards helping big ideas to be created in small sheds.
CRK currently provide kits for the Yamaha FZS600, Triumph T300, Triumph Sprint 595, Honda CX500 Café Racer, Honda CX500 Roadster, and Honda Superdream kit. Whichever you fancy, bear in mind that not everything for your finished bike is included, with parts such as silencers, indicators and tyres being of your own choice, thereby allowing you to customise the build. Similarly, the tank and mudguards are supplied bare for you to paint in your own personal scheme. Each kit is made up of ‘modules’, giving you the choice of buying the complete kit or individual modules.
Anyone who has attempted to build a café racer from scratch knows how much time and money it takes. Thanks to Ian and Tracey Saxcoburg and CRK, the process and cost have been simplified, thereby allowing the average bike enthusiast to create a seriously cool café racer of their own.