Cafe Racer Build On A Budget: 15 Tips That Won’t Break The Bank

✓ SAVINGS TIP Learn if your motorcycle insurance is too expensive!

Compare quotes to save money

Enter your zip to get started.


Motorcyclists across the globe have always been interested in cafe racer bikes. They seem to have attracted more attention than ever in recent years, and cafe racers are more frequent on the roads.

If you’re in the market to get yourself, or make yourself, a cafe racer but have a strict budget, you’ve come to the right place. While I was in college, I had to restore several motorcycles and turn them into cafe-racers. Money was tight. These are my tips for building a cafe-racer on a tight budget.

Buy A Project That’s Running

Normally I suggest someone who is interested in restoring a motorcycle to buy a project that doesn’t start. However, if you’re on a budget, I recommend you start off with something that’s already decently running.

As cafe racer builders, older motorcycles are a great choice. The easiest motorcycles to restore are generally Japanese brand motorcycles made between the late 60’s to late 80’s.  These motorcycles are simple to find and work on and they cost less than other bikes.  Click here for my complete list.

When you buy an older motorcycle that doesn’t run (but did several months prior), the usual culprit is the carburetor. However, if you’re working on a budget, it’s best to simply buy something that you know works well just in case the problem is outside of a carb issue. For tight budgets, the last thing you need is a new engine rebuilt.

Sure, you may find a better deal on something that isn’t running which can make it tempting to buy, but it’s hard to know what the issue is until you actually get to pull it apart which you can’t do until you buy it. However, if you’re mechanically inclined and can easily make fixes yourself, perhaps this rule doesn’t apply to you.

Before you start, make a plan.

It’s important to know that before you begin any cafe racer build, you need to come up with a plan first before you take anything off the bike. You’d be amazed at how much money planning can save you before you get started.

Once you have the motorcycle you know you’re going to convert to a cafe racer, take some time to thoroughly look it through and see what it needs and what you want to do with it. Sometimes I find inspiration from online pictures. You can print a photo of the item you are interested in and hang it in your office.

Once you have an idea about how the motorcycle should look, create a list. Obviously you won’t be able to jot every single thing the motorcycle needs since you’ll likely stumble upon surprises. Once you get a good idea of what the bike needs, price everything out to see how much it’ll cost. For surprises, add a few hundred dollars.

If the total comes out to something you feel you can’t afford, make some changes to your plans that’s more friendly to what you can afford. I recommend that you ignore small customizations that cost too much and are not noticeable by anyone (e.g., specific brands of tires or grips).).

Selling Old Parts

One of the basic components to a cafe racer is it’s minimalist look. If you’re buying an older motorcycle to convert into a cafe racer, you’ll likely have a lot of bulky, unwanted parts you’ll be taking off.

Don’t discount the value of these parts you shed. They can be quite valuable to you so don’t throw them out just yet. You can check online for any potential value before you decide to recycle these parts. This is an excellent way to help fund your build and you’d be surprised at how many of the parts you don’t end up using could sell for a decent amount of profit.

With most of my builds I’m able to sell about $100-$200 worth of parts. That may not seem like a whole lot, but if you’re on a budget this amount can go a long way. This is especially true if you’re good at finding deals and able to get other parts at a discounted price.

Use Salvage Yards

You might want to browse through local salvage yards during your cafe-racer restoration. These are also known by the names junkyards or wrecking yard. These are places where motorcycles and cars that have been decommissioned or destroyed can be brought to and parked.

This place allows the public to view and take apart vehicles parked there. You’ll still need to pay for the parts you take home, but the price of these are usually pennies compared to what you would pay elsewhere. Some salvage yards have even sales. So keep checking their websites or social media to stay informed.

To ensure that you find the correct size part, you might consider using a salvage yard.

You can find scrap metal in salvage yards and junkyards. When I restore a motorcycle I always end up having the seat made to my specifications. This requires me to make a seat pan. A salvage yard could be a good source of scrap metal to make such projects.

Use Local Classifieds

Everything you buy for your cafe racer doesn’t necessarily need to be brand new. It is a good idea to buy used products as often as possible. Products that are used will almost always be cheaper than new, but make sure you do your research before buying.

Local classifieds are one of my most valuable resources when I restore a motorcycle. Although classifieds are available in local magazines and newspapers, they are more commonly found online. Craigslist is a great place to start. And you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how someone randomly has a specific part you may need.

When I was rebuilding a 1980 Yamaha XS850 I discovered that the engine had blown. I assumed it was a carb problem. Lucky me, the engine I needed was being sold on the local classifieds and I was able purchase it for $200. This engine was very specific, making it an ideal exchange. It ran flawlessly and I was able build that cafe-racer.

Paint the Tank Yourself

I’m not really sure why, but there’s a lot of websites out there that discourage you from repainting the gas tank yourself. I’m living proof that painting a motorcycle gas tank yourself is completely manageable and also completely affordable.

If you already like the paint job on the tank and it doesn’t need any repairs, you can disregard this tip. If you are looking for a fresh paint job, you will find that it is possible to do it yourself using a few basic tools.

You’ll basically need some sand paper, Bondo, a Bondo scraper, primer, paint, and clear coat. Most people assume that you’ll need something like a high volume low pressure paint sprayer, but a task like this is actually completely doable with an aerosol can.

DupliColor aerosol spray painting is what I recommend. I’ve used this many times myself and it has yielded excellent results. Check out my article for more information about the type of paint I use on motorcycle gas tank and how to paint one.

Paint The Frame, but don’t remove the Engine

Unless the frame on your motorcycle is in perfect condition, you’ll probably need to give it a fresh new paint job. Many people feel anxious when they realize they have to remove the entire frame and engine to do this.

The good news is that you actually don’t need to remove the engine. My first restorations included taking out the engine. After some experiments, I realized that it was possible to achieve the same results without taking the engine apart. This saves both time and money.

To paint the frame without removing the engine, you’ll need to make sure the engine is completely covered so no over spray will get on it. Again, you don’t need to use a high volume low pressure paint sprayer to get the frame to look good. Dupli-Color aerosol spray paint worked well on my cafe racer builds.

Aerosol spray for a frame is an excellent way to save money when you’re on a budget. You can save money on hardware and tools as well as avoid costly mistakes. Click here to read more about painting a motorcycle frame using the engine removed.

Make Changes That Don’t Require Heavy Tools

I had touched up on this a little bit in a previous tip, but I’d like to go into more depth about not doing custom work or changes that require heavy tools and machinery. It’s completely possible to build a cafe racer without having to make dramatic changes to the bike’s structure.

It’s so easy to get caught up in making those custom changes that will really make the motorcycle look fantastic. But if you’re on a budget, those big changes just may not be possible yet. You might be able to save enough money in the future.

Such changes you’ll probably want to avoid include creating custom framework, custom handlebars, custom seat frames, or anything that has to do with welding. It was possible to make a lot more cafe racer builds without having to purchase any of these commodities. They turned out great. I was able only to use a basic set of tools. Click here to view the tools I used in my cafe racer builds.

Take a lot of pictures/videos

This is a tip I can’t stress enough. You will be able to save so much time, frustration, and money in future by taking lots of pictures or video of the parts you are disassembling on your cafe racing machine.

It may seem easy enough to remember where everything will go when you’re taking it apart, but I assure you that you won’t remember when it comes time to put everything back together. It’ll likely take you at least a few weeks or months to get everything done that you need to be ready to put everything back and by that time your recollection won’t be as good.

In the future, it will be difficult to take great photos and/or video. Let me show you an example. A friend of mine tried to rebuild a motorcycle into a cafe-racer. He stripped all the parts and didn’t take any videos. Then he dumped all the hardware into an empty bucket.

When he attempted to reassemble everything, the wrong screw was used in the engine. He ended up breaking it. He became so discouraged by the project, he sold the entire motorcycle for $200. This rule cost him confidence and money.

You can use some of the cheaper parts.

To anyone who is attempting to build a cafe-racer, I advise them to remember that not all parts are equal. Just because something is priced higher doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option for you and that you should buy it.

You might not get the best results if you buy the cheapest parts. There are also many cheaper parts that work just as well on a motorcycle as the most expensive. I’ve never been one to get the most expensive replacements out there and it has worked out just fine for me.

Before you buy a product for your cafe racer, take the time to research it. You can find reviews about it and read what other people have to say. You may be surprised at how good a product can be that’s well within your budget range. Click here to view my list of affordable upgrades that would be great for a cafe-racer build.

Use a stylish cover to protect your head and keep it from getting scratched

A common misconception about turning a motorcycle into cafe racing is that it requires new headers. The exhaust pipes of a motorcycle can turn yellow or blue with age and start to look kind of shabby.

Headers for motorcycles can be expensive. I recommend that you salvage any existing ones unless they are completely worn out or damaged. There are many things you can do to the headers so they look right at home on your cafe racer build.

I would suggest painting them. The best way to do this is to make sure the exhaust pipes have a smooth, paintable surface. Paint will cover any marks that have formed over time. Make sure you use a high-heat coating that can withstand extreme temperatures.

The exhaust wrap is the second recommendation. This is something I’ve done a lot on my cafe racer builds and I love the look of it. You’ve probably noticed a lot of other pictures of cafe racers that have exhaust wrap, too. This can be done easily in a few hours in your garage.

Alter Fenders Yourself

Some people prefer to avoid using fenders on their cafe-racer builds, as they can improve the overall look. For legal motorcycle riding on public roads, many states require that a motorcycle have both a front- and rear fender.

You can make your own fenders, or buy new ones. An angle grinder is one of my recommended tools (click to see it). If you need to reduce the motorcycle’s fenders, this is the tool for you. These tools can be dangerous and should only be used with care and experience.

It’s possible to do this on the front fender, but you’ll need to make the cut extremely accurate since the whole thing is exposed. I mostly recommend this process for the rear fender since you can cut off the desired amount on the side that’s hidden underneath the seat. You’ll just need to make a few new holes in it so it fastens to the frame in it’s new position.

Polishing is Easy

You might consider polishing your engine covers before you buy new ones. New engine covers are a great way to save time and look stunning. but if you’re on a tight budget then polishing the covers yourself can give you almost the same results if you’re willing to put the time in.

The side engine covers of older motorcycles need to be polished in particular. The heat can cause them to look tarnished and dirty over time. But this is usually something that some sanding and polish can’t take care of.

If you have deep scratches or chips in the engine side covers, it may be necessary to purchase replacements. These are a bit of an eye sore. Again, don’t immediately resort to buying brand new shiny ones. Purchase ones that are still in good condition but have not been tarnished. These are cheaper and can be polished with some elbow grease and time.

Use coupon codes

I ordered a lot online of replacement parts for my cafe racing car builds. It’s an excellent platform to use and will give you a slew of good prices and choices to pick from.

Any time you are buying something online, especially if it’s from a brand name store, check to see if there are any coupon codes you can use. In about half of the time, you will be able find something that could save you some money.

This can be done by doing a Google search. You can search for the tire name to find out if you are looking for a specific brand of tires. “coupon code” It will end. There are some amazing coupon codes, such as “20% off” Or “free shipping.” Others may not be as good and only saves you a few dollars, but hey, that’s a few extra dollars that stays in your pocket.

Build Your Own Battery Box

I love the mystery of where the batteries are. Many cafe racer builders make their bikes transparent, which is why they are so minimalist.

A battery can really be placed anywhere on a motorcycle as long as the wiring accommodates it’s position and it continues to be safe for the rider. It can be fun to be creative about where the battery is placed, but it might not be as easy as figuring out how you will keep it there safely.

This scenerio is why I suggest you build your own battery case. Although there are many fashionable options, they tend to be quite expensive. It is also pointless to buy a cool battery case. The purpose of the box is to conceal the battery, which will also include the battery box. No one’s going to see the expensive battery box anyway. You can find more information on hiding a motorcycle battery in my article here.

You can easily custom make a battery box using some sheet metal and some metal plumber’s tape. This allows you to create any shape or design you like for your battery.

Leave a Comment