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How to Build a Harley-Davidson Sportster Cafe Racer on a Budget

May 16, 2019

A used Harley-Davidson Sportster is a great platform for building a café racer. What exactly do we mean by café racer?

Let's start with a definition: "A café racer is a lightweight, powerful motorcycle optimized for speed and handling rather than comfort – and for quick rides over short distances. With bodywork and control layout recalling early-1960's Grand Prix road racing motorcycles, café racers are noted for their visual minimalism, featuring low-mounted handlebars, prominent seat cowling and elongated fuel tank." Thanks, Wikipedia.

This whole thing started by asking a friend, "Hey what's under that tarp?" To my surprise it was a gently used 2003 100th anniversary Harley-Davidson Sportster 883. Just like many garage tales, this bike was bought, ridden a few times and left as a permanent display. I get it, life happens and I wanted to help by offering to sell it. The damn thing had only 75 miles on it and it is an anniversary model, so it was easy to assume we could sell this to a collector and laugh all the way to the bank. Well, if you know anything about the used Harley market, especially Sportsters, you know that this bike is worth $3,000 to $4,000, depending on the buyer, time and place.

A stock 2003 883 with a large windshield and crash bars. Luckily it was well taken care of while stored.

Instead of licking our wounds, we decided to build a badass custom. You can find Sportsters all over the classifieds at reasonable prices, and you don't have to settle for stock or another rattle can custom. You can build a custom bike in your garage without breaking the bank and I decided to take on this '03 Sportster to show you how. J&P Cycles has already shown you how to build a budget-friendly street tracker, and I wanted to do the same, only this time let's dust off the racing leathers and build a cafe racer.

Part 1: Looking Good and Feeling Good

Our first task was to tackle the style of this stock Sportster. This model happened to be a Hugger, so we had to deal with the solo seat/fender combo and the enormous buckhorn handlebars. While at it, we decided to update the style and lighting to really make this thing pop. "Less is more."

  • Handlebars- This is one of the first things you can do to get you close to that Cafe style. Cafe bars are meant to be low, offering you more road feel and a more aggressive stance. You can choose to do a clip-on, which is the lowest, or a zero-rise drag bar for a bit more comfort but same low profile. We used the Biltwell 0" Zero Drag Bar and Slimline Shorty Risers combined with some odi Vans Grips to keep the cockpit clean and mean.

Biltwell Drag Bars are meant for high speed and low drag.

  • Gauges- Because the H-D gauge cluster stands so tall, it will negate any changes we do to lower the front end profile. Luckily, RSD has a killer billet gauge cluster with all new LED indicators to radically clean up the front.
  • Lighting- One way to keep this build from being "budget" is to throw a bunch of fancy LED lighting at it. I wanted to keep the front end as clean as possible by getting rid of the large, stock turn signals, all while keeping this thing legal and safe for everyday riding. I also wanted to give this bike a "modern-retro" feel, meaning I wanted to mix old school style with new technology.  In order to do this, I was able to keep the budget low and update to a modern LED headlamp from Cyron, giving me way more light. To keep this thing legal, I threw on some Drag Specialties LED Turn Signals that disappear under the hand controls.

Cyron LED Headlight, Drag Specialties Turn signals and Todd's Cycle Shooter Mirrors clean up the front.

Now that we lowered the profile of the front, it was imperative that we did the rear. I wanted this bike to have that iconic cafe solo tail and hidden lighting. Here is how we did it:

  • Seat/Frame- We came to the point of no return in this build and to make this bike Kustom with a "k" sacrifices must be made. Bye-bye rear fender and struts, hello cafe tail and lighting.

Struts removed. Burly Brand offers an all-in-one package with their Cafe Seat/Tail section.

The Burly Brand Cafe Seat/Tail section is all we needed to clean up the rear and give us our desired look. But first, we needed to cut the struts just behind the shock mounts so that we do not have an extra foot of frame sticking out behind the seat. Mark your lines, take your time with a cutting wheel/hacksaw and leave a clean-looking finished product.

  • Stoplight/Tail light- Everything to this point has been a bolt-on part, or came with instructions. Since I wanted a certain look (a "stop" lamp like old cars used to use) and wanted it hidden under the seat, there wasn't an easy "bolt-on" option. So we had to get creative and what I came up with was a mount under the seat for the TC Bros stop lamp and both turn signals.

Old School "STOP" light compliments of TC Bros.

  • Suspension- I know this could fall under the "performance" category and I believe it does. But I also know that upgrading your suspension can give you a better feel and with a 3+ inch taller shock, better look. To be honest, I needed to mount the shocks so that I could have a rolling chassis again and complete part 1. Progressive Suspension offers easy to order, high-performance suspension and components that are affordable. So I threw on a set of 13" 412 Series Black Shocks to help raise up the rear end to be level with the front.

13" Progressive 412 Black Series Shock.

  • Foot Controls- To keep this affordable and to get ride of the chunky rubber footpegs, I decided to throw a pair of Biltwell Mushman Footpegs on to give the bike a clean look and a wider platform to plant your foot.

Biltwell Mushman Footpegs offer a wide base and custom look.

Part 2: Going Fast and Kicking Ass

So now that our bike "looks" like a café racer we can talk the talk. But can we walk the walk? We needed to open this Sporty up, and throwing on the must-have exhaust, air cleaner and jet kit was going to wake up the sleeping 883 motor and allow us to represent that café life.

  • Exhaust- J&P Cycles has a ton of options for new exhausts, and I knew I had to be careful of my budget as I had already spent half updating the look of this bike. I wanted a 2-into-1 high flowing exhaust and most of the well-known names offer them for around $800. That doesn't fall under the term "budget" and it most certainly would have exhausted mine (pun intended). Luckily, J&P offers a 2-into-1 exhaust, and it only costs $290 freaking dollars! Thank you Danmoto. Knowing that I was choosing a price point exhaust, I was expecting that I would have to deburr, bend and swear a lot to get it to fit. To my surprise, it bolted together effortlessly, looked good and sounded great. I think the cost savings are on the finish and the powder coat itself as it did scratch easily and I don't know how long it will last over time. Luckily, ceramic paint is easy to purchase and touch up, leaving me with little to no worries about it.

Two-into-one exhaust system.

  • Air/Fuel- Now that this Sporty has some braap, I needed to get more air and fuel into it. The hardest part of this build for me was deciding on an air cleaner. I wanted the most minimalist design I could find, high flow and inexpensive. I ended up choosing the Kuryakyn Velociraptor Air Cleaner Kit as I knew it would look great and not cost me a ton. I also knew that this air cleaner was not going to give me the same performance as some of the other brands we offer, but the price is right, the size is perfect and the performance of this kit is much better than stock. Dynojet made rejetting the carb easy with step-by-step instructions and all the hardware I needed, including the drill bit.

Kuryakyn Velociraptor

  • Tires- Yes, tires count as performance. In the video I showed two options: the Continental Tour and Continental Twins Classic. The Tour, despite its name, offers great all-around sport performance that'll keep you connected on whatever you throw at this Sportster. The Twins Classic are more for style than performance. I had a long, hard think on this but ended up going with the classic styled hoops as they look so good and kept me in that modern retro styling.

Hopefully you can use this article and set of videos for inspiration. There are a ton of bikes out there that are affordable and building your own custom bike is well within reach. Find a bike, make a plan, build it and have fun.

The Harley-Davidson Sportster is a great platform to work with as it can be transformed into almost anything. Building a "custom" bike can be whatever you want it to be, and don't fall for that trap of thinking the more money you spend the cooler it is. Your creativity, your passion for the build and the time you spend busting knuckles and spinning wrenches is what makes it cool