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:
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In Summary, Here Is a Simple Table on Cafe Racer vs. Scrambler:
|History||Originated in 1950s London||Early 1900s in Europe|
|Intended Use||Designed for speed and performance on paved roads||Designed for on- and off-road riding|
|Prioritization||Quick acceleration and high speeds||Torque and low-end power for better off-road performance|
|Riding Style||Low, streamlined body with clip-on handlebars||Higher, more upright riding position with wide handlebars|
|Seat Design||Single, long seat for the rider and sometimes a passenger||Shorter seat and a more retro-style look|
|Aesthetic||Minimalist aesthetic, with a focus on function over form||Design elements that emphasize the bike’s adventurous nature, such as knobby tires and wire-spoke wheels|
|Best Models||Royal Enfield Continental GT 650, Triumph Thruxton R, Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer, Moto Guzzi V7 III Racer, BMW R NineT Racer S||Indian 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
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
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.
Less Is More Design Philosophy
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.
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
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
|Handlebars||Drooping clip-on handlebars||Lane splitter compact drag bars|
|Footpegs and Controls||Rear-set footpegs||Mid or set footpegs and controls|
|Seat||Narrow, bench-like thinly padded seats with a characteristic hump in the rear||Also bench type and horizontal but with softer padding and a bit more room minus the bum stop|
|Gas Tank||Relatively larger gas tanks that arc upwards to form the swoop continued at the bum stop||Less pronounced curvature of the tank|
|Tires||Features slim street tires of the same diameter||May have knobby dual-sport tires, also of similar dimensions|
|Suspension||Upgrades to stiffer aftermarket shocks for enhanced track performance with strong acceleration and aggressive cornering||Soft plush suspension with greater travel for better handling off-road.|
|Exhaust||Upgraded and tuned low-mounted exhausts for enhanced performance||Upgrades to a dual-sport exhaust with high mounting position for off-road performance.|
It’s in the Purpose of Each Build
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.
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.
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
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. But here are the merits and demerits of each build to help you make up your mind:
|Exudes style and confidence||Don’t suit tall riders||A street bike with off-road-worthy features||Difficult to rider on icy roads|
|Nimble handling characteristics with maximum leaning angles||Intimidating riding stance and seat height||More comfortable seat, suspension and riding stance||Taller stance can be disadvantageous for shorter riders|
|Mid-range engine size with a good top speed||Vintage motorcycles can be unreliable||Responsive ride capable of off-road non-ABS riding||Typically requires more maintenance|
|Simplistic and inexpensive build||Built for racing, uncomfortable for longer rides||Easier to build than cafe racers||Can be an expensive build or purchase|
|It’s possible to bring a passenger on the flat bench-like seat||Lacks luggage rack||Has more room for pillion, luggage, and fuel bladder onboard for longer trips||A 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.
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:
- Motorcycle Accident Resource
- Triumph Motorcycles
- BMW Motorcycles
- Husqvarna Motorcycles
- Royal Enfield