Cafe Racer vs. Scrambler Motorcycles: Riding Through Time in 2024

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Cafe racers, with a sport bike flair, have street tires and sleek, lower-mounted aftermarket pipes for boosted track performance, whereas scramblers feature versatile dual-sport tires and signature higher-mounted exhausts, ideal for on- and off-road adventures, all while sharing a mean and lean character.

Besides, scramblers provide a more comfortable ride than cafe racers, yet each custom style offers a thrilling experience on the road and can be street-legal. And no, scramblers aren’t dike bikes, which have a sole purpose of off-road use and lack street-legal features like headlights, turn signals, and rear-view mirrors:

Upgrade Your Cafe Racer or Scrambler for a Smooth and Stylish Ride with These Top  Accessories

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In Summary, Here Is a Simple Table on Cafe Racer vs. Scrambler:

CriteriaCafe RacerScrambler
HistoryOriginated in 1950s LondonEarly 1900s in Europe
Intended UseDesigned for speed and performance on paved roadsDesigned for on- and off-road riding
PrioritizationQuick acceleration and high speedsTorque and low-end power for better off-road performance
Riding StyleLow, streamlined body with clip-on handlebarsHigher, more upright riding position with wide handlebars
Seat DesignSingle, long seat for the rider and sometimes a passengerShorter seat and a more retro-style look
AestheticMinimalist aesthetic, with a focus on function over formDesign elements that emphasize the bike's adventurous nature, such as knobby tires and wire-spoke wheels
Best ModelsRoyal Enfield Continental GT 650, Triumph Thruxton R, Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer, Moto Guzzi V7 III Racer, BMW R NineT Racer SIndian FTR1200 Rally, Triumph Scrambler 1200 XE, Husqvarna Svartpilen 401, Ducati Scrambler Desert Sled, Royal Enfield Scram 411

Granted, Cafe Racer vs. Scrambler Motorcycles Have Three Crucial Similarities

The OEM version of the new Ducati Scrambler Nightshift in nebula blue, black and a brown leather seat.
The OEM version of the new Ducati Scrambler Nightshift in nebula blue, black, and a brown leather seat.

Despite their distinct builds, people also often mistake scramblers for cafe racers and vice versa. And rightfully so, because the duo also have the following in common:

Customized for More Power and Agility

Right profile of the BMW R NineT Racer (2017– 2019) with Beemer red, blue, and white and its classic headlight cowl modeled after their 1970s racing heritage.
Right profile of the BMW R NineT Racer (2017– 2019) with Beemer red, blue, and white and its classic headlight cowl modeled after their 1970s racing heritage.

Originally, cafe racers and scramblers were made not just for looks but for actual races. Legend has it that the original cafe racers and scramblers were intended to race between different cafes around 1950s London, but while cafe racers took the paved route, scramblers, well, scrambled through all manner of terrain and trenches to get there via the shortest route.

Oh, those were the years, and those were the men, but nowadays almost anything goes–you can even buy a fully “customized” cafe racer right off the production line!

True cafe racers receive performance-oriented upgrades ranging from aftermarket air intakes to exhaust pipes. Scramblers on their part are designed to perform on- and off-road, getting dual-sport tires, a nifty suspension, a high seat height, and clearance the signature high-set exhaust for water crossings. Both custom jobs should ideally result in a more powerful and maneuverable ride.

Tools & Supplies

The motorcycle tools and supplies I recommend provide a perfect balance of affordability and unwavering quality, ensuring the utmost value for your investment. These are items I've become well-acquainted with during my more than 50 years of motorcycling experience, where I've led and consulted for reputable companies in over 25 countries, in addition to being an avid rider.

Less Is More Design Philosophy

A gray and black Triumph Thruxton RS Cafe Racer sporting a 1,200 cc high-power parallel tin and premium Brembo M50 brakes.
A gray and black Triumph Thruxton RS Cafe Racer sporting a 1,200 cc high-power parallel tin and premium Brembo M50 brakes.

The minimalist design language that goes into both custom motorcycle types is strikingly similar. Even today, factory models like the Triumph Scrambler 1200 shed considerable size and weight compared to the base model Bonneville T120. Similarly, the 2023 Kawasaki W800 Cafe looks like a 1960s legendary Kawi W1 that went to the gym.

Not only did it shed some considerable weight but also received a kicking vertical twin powerplant, providing boatloads of torque in the low-to-mid range, much like the sharp street scrambler 2023 Honda Dominator, which is a transformation from a bone stock 1992 Honda NX650 Dominator.

Similar Geometries

Come to think of it, the real reason most people can’t tell a cafe racer from a scrambler is that they have very similar silhouettes with a horizontal backbone running through the headlight. The front and rear wheels are of equal diameter and similar width. The seat follows the same bench-like contour. Notably, the scrambler doesn't have the bum-stop, but the seat is slightly raised at the back.

And In Case You Are Wondering Both Can Be Street Legal

No, scramblers are not dirt bikes! Like cafe racers, with proper build certification or if factory-made, scramblers can have all the features that make them allowable on the streets, including mirrors, head lights, turn signals, and license plate holders.

A Fork in the Road: Scramblers Lose the Bum Stop and Clip-on Handlebars in Favor of a Relaxed Riding Stance

While their R NineT Racer was discontinued, the BMW R NineT Scrambler is available now, with the option to customize features to make more of your own.
While their R NineT Racer was discontinued, the BMW R NineT Scrambler is available now, with the option to customize features to make more of your own.

Whether you’re building a cafe racer or scrambler, you’ll likely start with the same base type of sled, a standard motorcycle. But while cafe racers get a booster shot of performance and generous splash of sportiness and urbane style, it’s their scrambler alter ego that is more rideable for longer trips and off the beaten path. And thereof comes the following differences between the two custom styles:

Distinct Customization Preferences for Cafe Racer vs. Scrambler Build Project

DifferencesCafe RacerScrambler
HandlebarsDrooping clip-on handlebarsLane splitter compact drag bars
Footpegs and ControlsRear-set footpegsMid or set footpegs and controls
SeatNarrow, bench-like thinly padded seats with a characteristic hump in the rearAlso bench type and horizontal but with softer padding and a bit more room minus the bum stop
Gas TankRelatively larger gas tanks that arc upwards to form the swoop continued at the bum stopLess pronounced curvature of the tank
TiresFeatures slim street tires of the same diameterMay have knobby dual-sport tires, also of similar dimensions
SuspensionUpgrades to stiffer aftermarket shocks for enhanced track performance with strong acceleration and aggressive corneringSoft plush suspension with greater travel for better handling off-road.
ExhaustUpgraded and tuned low-mounted exhausts for enhanced performanceUpgrades to a dual-sport exhaust with high mounting position for off-road performance.

It's in the Purpose of Each Build

A closeup of the up-swept dual exhaust new Triumph Scrambler 900. It features a distinct bench seat, chunky gas tank, tall suspension, and spoked wheels.
A closeup of the up-swept dual exhaust new Triumph Scrambler 900. It features a distinct bench seat, chunky gas tank, tall suspension, and spoked wheels.

Cafe racers, are and were always intended to be, street versions of MotoGP bikes for drag racing, hence the rear-set footpegs to properly anchor the rider for the short bursts of insane acceleration and a bum stop to do just as it says, “keep the rider on the motorcycle.”

In contrast, a scrambler was always meant to be a go-anywhere dual-sport ride designed for comfortable rides over rough terrain. You’ll recognize one by the dual-purpose tires and greater clearance to go over obstacles.

Riding Stance and Comfort

Both rides can cause severe saddle soreness over long-distance rides, but the scrambler is a tad more comfortable with a relaxed riding stance compared to the tuck-and-roll position assumed by cafe racers. You also get a softer, roomier seat, and wider responsive handlebars.

The Height of the Bikes

Cafe racers have shorter, extremely light frames to keep them stable during high acceleration, whereas scramblers have a much taller seat height so that you can ride in a dirt bike stance. What the scrambler lacks in the mind-boggling acceleration of a cafe racer, it makes up for with the thrill of a responsive, taller thumper that delivers torque-y long strokes to shred the dirt.

Seat

Cafe racer seats are some of the meanest and leanest unforgiving motorcycle saddles you can ever seat on. A cafe racer is comfortable when you use it in the racing context but not much more. The bum stop, which integrates with the rear fender eliminator, is a definitive feature of the style as it continues the imaginary arc from the steering head and over the gas tank.

Scramblers are more generous in terms of real estate for your rear end and will have less butt-ache after miles of riding.

Tires

At the risk of repetition, cafe racers sport a fresh pair of street tires, whereas scramblers have knobby dual-sport tires for on-and-off-road shows. Cafe racer tires are also likely to have thinner profiles, which improves street handling quite a bit. Scramblers evolved through off-road races, and it's not extreme if you fit enduro tires there, but perhaps it's best to keep it two edged if you are building.

And the Suspension

Typical cafe racer body upgrade kits include stiffer shocks to handle better under heavy acceleration. Early builds would cross parts from different models to achieve optimal stability and rigidity because manufacturers had not yet jumped on the custom bandwagon and started churning out parts to customize their own stock bikes.

On the other hand, scramblers have softer suspension for the front and rear with plenty of travel to glide over rocks and ruts on goat trails. This and the taller build make them quite intimidating to riders both on- and off-road.

Cafe Racer vs. Scrambler Build: Pros and Cons to Help You Choose the Right Style for Your Motorcycle Project

Two custom BMW motorcycles, a cafe racer (top) and scrambler (bottom). The cafe racer has street tires and a humped seat, whereas scramblers come with off-road worthy tires.
Two custom BMW motorcycles, a cafe racer (top) and scrambler (bottom). The cafe racer has street tires and a humped seat, whereas scramblers come with off-road worthy tires.

With the right choice of the base model, a little elbow grease, and a decent number of hours, you can convert just about any motorcycle into a cafe racer or scrambler. Take your time to do research and know which motorcycle is best suited for you. And as always, it’s cheaper and way easier to start with a ready to ride motorcycle.

If you’re a busy bum like me, you can just get a factory made retro styled bike and add a touch of style to it. But all things considered, making a cafe racer is much more involved than making a scrambler. Here are the merits and demerits of each build to help you make up your mind:

Cafe Racer ProsConsScrambler ProsCons
Exudes style and confidenceDon’t suit tall ridersA street bike with off-road-worthy featuresDifficult to rider on icy roads
Nimble handling characteristics with maximum leaning anglesIntimidating riding stance and seat heightMore comfortable seat, suspension and riding stanceTaller stance can be disadvantageous for shorter riders
Mid-range engine size with a good top speedVintage motorcycles can be unreliableResponsive ride capable of off-road non-ABS ridingTypically requires more maintenance
Simplistic and inexpensive buildBuilt for racing, uncomfortable for longer ridesEasier to build than cafe racersCan be an expensive build or purchase
It’s possible to bring a passenger on the flat bench-like seatLacks luggage rackHas more room for pillion, luggage, and fuel bladder onboard for longer tripsA custom build can be a time consuming affair

Whichever you pick, the road will not be easy, but you will earn a lot of experience and a sense of accomplishment having built a motorcycle that is truly your own.

AGVSPORT Knee and Body Armor

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:

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About the Author:

Michael Parrotte started his career in the motorcycle industry by importing AGV Helmets into the North American market. He was then appointed the Vice President of AGV Helmets America. In total, he worked with AGV Helmets for 25 years. He has also served as a consultant for KBC Helmets, Vemar Helmets, Suomy Helmets, Marushin Helmets, KYT Helmets, and Sparx Helmets.

In 1985, he founded AGV Sports Group, Inc. with AGV Helmets in Valenza, Italy. For over 38 years now, the company has quietly delivered some of the best protective gear for motorcyclists in the world.

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