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December 11, 2019

This modern classic – unchanged for 2020 – is just right for café racing

Story and Photos by: Jamie Elvidge

Back in the ’60s, the “British Invasion” forever changed popular culture as the music from bands such as the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks created a fever of excitement that spread around the globe. 

A similar sensation was happening in motorcycling during those years. Crowds of young riders in London, dubbed Rockers or Ton-up Boys (British slang at the time for riding above 100 mph) wore Brando-inspired black jeans and leather jackets as they raced across the city. Most famously, these riders dashed between London’s most popular cafés at the time – the Busy Bee in Watford and the Ace Café in Stonebridge – on stripped-down, highly personalized Triumphs, BSAs, Nortons and new-to-the-scene Japanese bikes we’d recognize as café racers today. 

This design phenomenon – light, fast singles and twins with dropped bars, swept exhaust, rear-set foot controls and minimal bodywork – as well as the rebellious lifestyle it represented, dug its hooks in motorcycle culture and never let go. 

The Anatomy of a Modern Café Racer

Yes, that’s a long-winded introduction to Kawasaki’s W800 Café, but the truth is the model wouldn’t exist today if it weren’t for London’s Ton-up Boys. By the mid-60s, Kawasaki was sneaking up on the British brands with bikes such as its BSA A7 clone – the W1, the great-grandpappy of today’s W800.

What’s in this history lesson for me is the part about how café bikes are historically related to actually having coffee, making my plans to just hang out at some cool biker cafés in Los Angeles perfectly legit instead of racking up a ton of kilometres on the W800. Because if there is one thing that’s immediately obvious about this bike, its that it’s way more trophy than traveller. 

And really, though, the W800, which has been available in Europe since 2011, is just so watchable – especially this Café version, with its tidy, retro-style headlight-mounted fairing, sparkling two-tone paint and stitched pleather saddle, black-rimmed 18-inch wire-spoke wheels and, of course, those long, slim tailpipes that end in a pair of peashooters.

The W800’s most fabulous beauty mark, however, is its bevel-driven overhead cam and exposed tower shaft situated against the two-toned retro finning of the air-cooled SOHC vertical twin, an engine with direct lineage to the original mid-1960s 650 cc W1.

Freeway Blues

When I first picked up the Café, I was faced with some interstate riding. Unfortunately, the W800 is at a real disadvantage on the super-slab – first, because the sporty “bikini” fairing does little to block the wind and, worse, the fairing sends the wind blast up to neck level so that my helmet bobbled around. The standard W800 with its higher bar might feel better at freeway speeds, especially if a nice windshield is added. 

The issue that’s more difficult to solve is vibration. While riding around town and I am all over the power band, the W feels pretty fun. But when I am running a consistent throttle, avoiding some nagging buzz is tough to do. What begins as a deep pulsation felt mostly through the bar and seat up through 4,000 rpm quickly spools up into a high-frequency vibration – imagine an electric toothbrush – above 4,000 rpm. Sadly, any sweet spot is right near the 7,000 rpm red line, when travelling at speeds in excess of 130 km/h. 

To make matters worse – at least, for me, in Southern California, where the freeways have deep squiggly “rain grooves” – the stock Dunlop 300K GP tires, which look just like old-school rubber from the 1960s, track the grooves and shimmy the bike like crazy. Some journalist friends had warned me about this, and I thought them losers for being sketched out by rain grooves. The warning turned out to be no joke, making the tires the first thing I’d change on the bike. Luckily, grooved pavement is a rarity in the provinces. 

Once in the heart of the city, I could more readily appreciate the W800 Café’s charms, including the dutiful purr slipping through its retro silencers. The bike, being so slim in stature, is easy to mount, although a lofty 790 mm seat height may limit accessibility. A hefty curb weight, listed at 222 kg, is well-centred and the bike feels light enough when I was shuffling around the parking lot. 

That cool Clubman-style bar insinuates clip-on café-racer ergos, and does create a reach for the rider. And in what feels like engineering sleight of hand, the bike’s beautiful, easy-to-read analog instrument pods are situated high in the cowling, which gave me a feeling of being in a tank-embracing crouch at all times.   

Foot pegs on the Café are high enough to feel sporty, yet were placed evenly under me, allowing my upper body to be supported – at least, partly – by my legs instead of my wrists.

Coffee Shop Racer Doesn’t Sound as Good

The first coffee shop I hit in Southern California was the famous Deus ex Machina in Venice because I knew the W800 would find some retro friends to park with. Locals just say “Deus Café” – probably because listening to everyone mispronounce “machina” is so tiresome. (Hint: it doesn’t sound like “machine-ah”). What this Latin term meant in historical Greek culture is “god from the machine,” and it refers to a plot twist in playwriting where a god is introduced into a scene – at times, actually lowered onto the stage using a cable device (that is, a “machina”) to resolve entanglements in the plot.

Already well-caffeinated, I explained…

2 Comment

  1. Good day,

    I am wondering since other reviews have mentioned limited ground clearance. How far can this bike lean as in riding in corners spiritedly. My current ride is an air cooled Bonneville (older 865 model) and I am wondering if riding twisty roads can be ridden at higher speeds or would I start grinding pegs? Thanks


  2. Hi Andrew,
    The ground clearance on the W800 Cafe was adequate for the type of riding it was designed for, including a spirited romp on twisty roads. I did scrape the peg feelers numerous times while riding aggressively in the mountains, though with zero negative effects on the chassis. Keep in mind body position and riding style have much to do with whether or how quickly your pegs touch down (someone can be much faster though a corner without employing an aggressive lean angle). Very occasionally I test a bike that does unforgivable things when ground clearance runs out and I always make sure to point that out. Otherwise, I think it can be perfectly okay to throw a few sparks from today’s folding pegs…and being comfortable doing so makes you a safer, more skilled rider.

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