A cafe racer is a standard motorcycle that’s heavily modified to go faster and handle nimbly on paved urban roads on a crouched riding position, emphasizing sport bike performance with short bursts of acceleration, aggressive cornering ability, and capable braking.
In contrast, a scrambler is a modified standard motorcycle to go off-road with upgraded taller and stiffer suspension, dual-sport tires, and enduro/cross handlebars for an upright and versatile riding stance. A bobber motorcycle—characterized by its stripped-down cruiser design—is light and nimble for both on- and off-road with forward set footrests and controls for a dominating laid-back riding position.
Despite their distinct characteristics, all three types embody the essence of custom motorcycles, as articulated by Robert Hoekman Jr. in his authoritative eBook ‘The Build: How the Masters Design Custom Motorcycles.’
“The captivating world of cafe racers, bobbers, and scramblers’ custom motorcycle design, with its artistry and engineering, unites to create one-of-a-kind masterpieces that reflect individuality, passion, and the pursuit of perfection.”
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Now, how do cafe racer, bobber and scrambler, each emphasizing the epitome of custom motorcycles, compare?
Bobber vs. Cafe Racer vs. Scrambler – Which Custom Style Is Right for You?
|History||Originated in the Post-War United States, 1945-1968||Originated in 1950s London||Early 1900s in England|
|Original Purpose||Faster and more nimble than the stock option||Drag Racing||Practical go-anywhere motorcycle|
|Base Model||Classic heavyweight cruiser motorcycle||Classic lightweight standard motorcycle||Classic lightweight standard motorcycle|
|Appearance||Emphatic diagonal through steering joint, seat and rear hub||Distinctive horizontal backbone line with rear tail hump with cowl and sportbike flare||Horizontal backbone similar to cafe racers but without the hump or pronounced tank arch|
|Intended Use||Elaborate designs for great looks and moderate speed||Designed for speed and performance on paved roads||Designed for on- and off-road riding|
|Prioritization||Appearance||Quick acceleration and high speeds||Torque and low-end power for better off-road performance|
|Modification Goals||Simplicity, style, better handling, and lightness||Speed and agility||Handling better on and off-road|
|Riding Stance||More or less vertical with mid or forward set footpegs for a dominant riding stance||Low, streamlined body with clip-on handlebars, crouching chin-to-tank position||Higher, more upright riding position with wide handlebars and ability to shift body position and stance as needed|
|Comfort for Long Rides||Uncomfortable due to stiff rear end||Uncomfortable due to tucked-in riding position||Comfortable for all terrain and longer rides with plush seat and suspension|
|Aesthetic||Minimalist aesthetic, with a focus on maintaining an authentic bobber look||Flashy sportbike vibe with menacing display of brutal speed and aggressiveness||Design elements that emphasize the bike’s adventurous nature, such as knobby tires and wire-spoke wheels|
|Best Base Models||Harley-Davidson Fat Bob 114, Kawasaki Vulcan S, Honda Rebel 1100, Indian Chief Bobber Dark Horse, Triumph Bonneville Bobber, Triumph Rocket 3 R||Royal Enfield Continental GT 650, Triumph Thruxton R, Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer, Moto Guzzi V7 III Racer, BMW R NineT Racer S, Honda Hawk 11, Norton Commando 961 CR||Indian FTR1200 Rally, Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE, Husqvarna Svartpilen 401, Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled, Royal Enfield Scram 411, Yamaha XSR900|
Granted, Cafe Racer vs. Scrambler vs. Bobber Motorcycles Have Four Similarities
Despite their diverse origin stories and evolution over the years, bobbers, cafe racers, and scramblers are heavily customizable for performance and style, and so, understandably, you take a deeper look, and the lines separating each type of build start to blur.
1. Made to Do More With Major Performance Upgrades
Unlike today when we make them just to look cool, the original brainchild of these designs customized their bikes not for looks but because manufacturers were not churning out anything faster than ordinary back in the day.
Back to the future, we now have manufacturers supplying custom motorcycle builders with all manner of parts from air intakes to stiffer suspension and performance pipes, which barely meet ECE-R47 or the EPA Tier 1 Exhaust Emission Standards – and certain to wake the neighborhood with removal of the dB killer, which is ridiculously easy to lose.
2. Need to go Lean and Mean
Most of the modifications for cafe racers and scramblers in 1960s England involved chopping off some “excess baggage” to remain with the bare minimum and win actual races or shutter speed records. Similarly, “bobbing” was born when ex-soldiers retired from the battlefields of Europe and found Harleys cumbersome and needlessly bulky, as they had grown fond of nimbler and faster European makes. Fenders were a liability where speed and agility were concerned and had to go.
Even today, the less-is-more design concept guides bobber, cafe racer, and scrambler development teams. A great example is the fierce Triumph Scrambler 1200 rocking that formidable parallel double-puncher and premium Brembo brakes despite being significantly lighter than the base model, the Bonneville T1200. Even the latest Harley-Davidson Street Bob is not buried behind a heap of chrome appendages.
Of course, Honda still had a few leftover parts from the 1992 Honda NX650 Dominator and just had to come up with the latest Honda Dominator Scrambler. And did the Kawasaki W1 go to the gym? Because the new 2023 Kawasaki W800 sure looks familiar!
3. Altered Frame Geometries
If you think about it, the chassis makes the foundation of the motorcycle or vehicle, for that matter. It affects the wheelbase and trail, suspension attachment points and orientation, engine mounting and servicing options, weight distribution, rigidity, and flexibility, the riding stance, rider feedback, and comfort. All the above define the form and function of the motorcycle, and when the goal is to go faster, then they surely matter.
Yet, there’s more to it. The motorcycle’s final profile significantly contributes to its aesthetics, and the selection of various motorcycle frame styles—such as trellis, perimeter, backbone, and twin-spar frames, or the choice between hidden and exposed frames—bestows each modification with its unique visual characteristics.
Cafe racers and scramblers are meant to be sportier and share a silhouette with horizontal backbone. You can draw an imaginary line through the headlight, steering head, through the tank, and over the rear seat forming a backbone of sorts. They even have similar sized tires for front and back; hence, most non-bikers cannot tell them apart easily.
Bobbers, just like cafe racers, receive frame customization, including stiffer suspension and often hardtail rear ends for authenticity and pronounced rake for aesthetics and stability. The seat is often solo, just as is the case with the first two, and the frame may be exposed purely for aesthetics.
4. All Can Be Made Street Legal
You may be wondering whether a bobber, cafe racer, or scrambler motorcycle build can be road-legal, and the answer is yes. To make your custom motorcycle road legal, you need to obtain its title as proof of ownership and register with local DMV or equivalent bodies to get a new VIN or verify your existing one when heavy customization is involved.
Then, you need to ensure compliance with regulations on mirrors, lights, and turn signals, brakes, horns in order to pass the safety inspection with the relevant authorities. A VIN inspection may be needed depending on where you live, but either way, ensure that your custom bike has one, usually retained on the original motorcycle frame.
Need I say that locally bought scramblers, cafe racers, and bobbers are almost guaranteed to be street-legal in your state? Of course, it’s your responsibility to find out what is allowable and comply.
Let’s Explore Scrambler vs. Bobber vs. Cafe Racer Differences in Detail
|Handlebars||Drooping clip-on handlebars||Ape hanger handlebars||Enduro/cross handlebars|
|Footpegs & Controls||Rear-set footpegs||Mid or forward-set footpegs and controls||Mid-set footpegs and controls|
|Seat||Narrow, bench-like with thin padding and a hump||Spring mounted solo seat||Bench type, horizontal, more room, softer padding|
|Gas Tank||Relatively larger, swooping arc upwards||Balanced size, style, and function sitting high on backbone||Smaller, less pronounced curvature|
|Tires||Thick street tires of the same diameter||Knobby dual-sport tires, similar dimensions||Dual-sport tires with knobby tread patterns|
|Suspension||Upgraded to stiff shocks for sharp handling||Rigid suspension for stability and style||Soft suspension with ample travel for softer landings|
|Exhaust||Low-mounted exhausts for performance||Retains stock exhaust, uses slip-on mufflers or straight pipes.||Dual-sport exhaust, high mounting for clearance|
|Riding Stance||Chin-to-tank, aggressive||Versatile, mid-forward set, dominant||Relaxed, mid-forward set, versatile|
|Ride Comfort||Less comfortable over long distances||More comfortable, suitable for longer rides||Relaxed riding stance, plush seat, suitable for long rides|
|Frame Height||Shorter, stable for acceleration||Triangular, taller front and shorter back||Taller seat height, dirt bike stance for terrain|
|Customization||Street bike base, minimalist accessories||Cruiser base, customized for style||Standard motorcycle base, adapted for off-road|
|Purpose||Street performance, drag racing||Comfortable faster cruises||Balanced on- and off-road performance|
Bobbers are unique, born from cruiser-type frames with minimal modifications, while cafe racers and scramblers often start as standard or sport bikes. They’re mainly standard motorcycles and select sport bikes. Here goes the 8 key differences:
1. The Differences Start With the Origin Story of Each Style
Cafe racers emerged from the 1950s and 60s in London and were primarily British mods with a minimalist style and a sport bike flair, blending style and speed for street racing. Scramblers came into being around the same time and for very similar reasons: to go faster, yet they were capable of crossing rough terrain and rivers to complete informal enduro races.
As for bobbers, they were in no particular hurry, but their owners still felt that the US-made Harleys of the day needed a tweak to reduce weight, make them faster, and improve handling.
2. The Rise And Sweep of the Handlebars Determine Handling
Cafe racers sport clip-on handlebars with a low mounting position and great pullback put you in a crouching position, akin to their sport bike idols, while scramblers come with compact lane splitter drag bars for a more relaxed riding position, just like on a dirt bike, so you can see further down the trail. Bobbers may use a variant of compact lane splitter handlebars or ape hanger bars for a dominant laid-back riding stance.
3. Footpegs and Controls Dictate the Stance and Rider Comfort
Footpegs on cafe racers are rear-set in order to anchor the rider on the bike when they are pulling away at speed. They also aid with the tucked-in riding position. The controls are also considerably far back just like on a sport bike. For scramblers, we see mainly mid-set footpegs and controls, allowing for that upright riding position and even occasionally standing up or assuming the attack position.
And lastly, bobbers have mid-to-forward set footpegs that allow you to sit back and still dominate the motorcycle as you cruise.
4. Seats Make All the Difference for Longer Riders
Scramblers have a long bench-like seat, which allows you to shift your weight on the motorcycle by literally sitting further back or closer to the tank as required to retain traction, which is scarce off-road. The narrower seat and tank combo also allows you to extend your leg forward to counterbalance, leaning through corners in true motocross fashion.
Bobbers and cafe racers, on the other hand, tend to always strap a solo seat, which is usually thinly padded and mostly uncomfortable for longer rides. For the cafes, the seat has a unique back rest at the rear hump called a bum stop to keep the rider on the bike when under intense acceleration, while bobber seats may be spring mounted to compensate for the stiffness of the rear suspension or complete lack in authentic 1930s bobber fashion.
5. The Right Tires Keep You Shiny Side Up
Cafe racers come with wide street or track tires for aggressive riding on the street and sticking to the pavement. Bobbers and scramblers rock the same kind of tires for on-and-off road performance.
For instance, the MT60RS dual sport tires, developed with Pirelli’s extensive knowledge of racing tires, come stock on both the Indian Scout Bobber and the Ducati Scrambler lineup. If you are going to be riding exclusively on the pavement, you may consider changing to Michelin Road 3’s, which feel firmly adhered to the pavement, allowing you to lean and brake with confidence.
Bobbers have stiffer shocks and often are hard-tailed, lacking any suspension in the rear to remain authentic. Well, cafe racers receive upgrades to stiffer suspension kits for different reasons; stability when cornering, leaning, and braking aggressively on the track, just like with sport bikes.
In contrast, scramblers have soft plush suspension with long travel to absorb bumps and jumps off-road. It helps if the damping on the springs is adjustable so that you can prepare your bike for how much air you are going to be grabbing.
7. Gas Tanks for Purely for Style
The cafe racer’s large gas tank is stylistic rather than functional given that the modification is meant for short-distance races. The classic cafe look emphasizes dynamic lines with a larger imaginary arc that swoops over the gas tank and down the hump in the rear. Scramblers have a less curved tank in comparison, and the size depends on the bike in question made to match the other components of the bike. Bobber tanks are simple, sleek, and often “Frisco Style” or “Sportster Style” with shallow tunnels to let the tank seat higher on the backbone.
8. Exhausts Help the Engine Exhale
One clear distinction between the cafe racer and scrambler mod styles is the characteristic cafe racer tail cowl, which is not present on the latter. The scrambler style features a higher-mounted upswept dual-sport exhaust, whereas the cafe racer typically has a low-mounted performance exhaust. In the case of bobbers, they retain their stock exhaust, although some builders opt for aftermarket mufflers or straight pipes to enhance both the ‘bark’ and performance.
Michael’s Summary and Conclusion
Bobber vs. cafe racer vs. scrambler: Both bobbers and cafe racers represent unique facets of custom motorcycle culture, each with its distinct characteristics and origins. While they share some similarities, they also possess key differences.
Bobbers originated in the United States during the 1930s and 40s, while cafe racers found their roots in the United Kingdom and France during the 1950s and 60s. Bobbers typically sport a stripped-down, shorter appearance. In contrast, cafe racers lean more towards a racing-oriented style, resembling street versions of Grand Prix bikes. They feature a crouched riding position, clip-on handlebars, and rear sets for a sportier feel.
While there’s significant overlap between cafe racers and bobbers in terms of style, scramblers stand out due to their off-road capabilities, or at least their cosmetic appearance suggesting off-road readiness.
In my personal opinion, bobbers primarily prioritize aesthetics as artistic expressions of cultural form. While they can be ridden on the road, their main focus is on visual style rather than everyday functionality.
Cafe racers, on the other hand, offer a broader spectrum. They can be creative works of art like bobbers, but they also have the potential to be more practical and versatile for everyday riding. This diversity allows cafe racers to encompass a wider range of styles and functionalities compared to most bobbers.
Scramblers are designed to evoke the classic enduro racers of the 1960s and 70s. They incorporate elements suitable for both street and off-road riding. This includes high-mounted exhaust pipes, longer-travel suspension for off-road use, and tires that can handle both on and off-road terrain. The seating position on scramblers is typically more upright compared to cafe racers or bobbers. This practicality and versatility arise from their riding position, ground clearance, and a design that prioritizes functionality over pure aesthetics.
I've diligently categorized my motorcycle gear recommendations into all available categories, with the aim of providing you with a comprehensive analysis that showcases the absolute best options for all your needs. These items are the culmination of in-depth research, extensive testing, and personal use throughout my vast experience of 50+ years in the world of motorcycling. Besides being a passionate rider, I've held leadership positions and offered consultancy services to reputable companies in over 25 countries. To See Top Picks and the Best Prices & Places to Buy: Click Here!
Information for this article was partially sourced and researched from the following authoritative government, educational, corporate, and non-profit organizations: