IT’S NOT often that a bike firm has a moment as big as this one. For much of the past fifty-odd years, Royal Enfield has meant a 350cc or 500cc single cylinder motor, with its roots in the 1940s, in a basic chassis, and technology that made Harley-Davidson look like HRC. The firm sold millions of bikes in the Indian home market – where a Royal Enfield was the ideal wheels for anything from climbing the Himalayas to moving your family about.
But in the UK, Europe and the US, a Bullet was a quirky niche – a living fossil in two-wheeled form. This moto-coelacanth was fun to look at, cheap to buy, and fine for a short blast. But compared with the performance of mainstream bikes in the 1990s and 2000s, it was as far away as Mumbai is from Manchester.
Changes in the past ten years have massively improved the Royal Enfield offering, and machines like the 535 Continental GT are much more suitable for our decadent Western markets. But something had to give, in a big way, if Royal Enfield was to move out of its home market with anything like serious intent.
And I’m here in California to take a look at that serious intent. It’s sat in front of a Santa Cruz beach hotel, in the form of two rather attractive retro roadsters – the Royal Enfield Interceptor 650 and Continental GT 650 twins. I’m already feeling the effects of the long flight from London and the time difference – but I’m excited about having a ride on these bikes, to see just how far the firm has come on. The last time I rode an Enfield was in the UK, on a road test from London to Brighton in about 2006. It was a Bullet 500, and I could barely believe how ropey it was in comparison to ‘normal’ bikes, with marginal brakes, 125-level performance and wobbly handling. Twelve years on, I was hoping for much, much more.
Before we ride though, we get a thorough tech briefing for most of the day. If you’ve been following the Royal Enfield story, you might know that the firm now has a massive R&D operation in the UK. Based at the Bruntingthorpe test track in Leicestershire, its multi-million pound technical centre has headhunted a slew of top bike engineers and designers from firms like Triumph, Honda, Yamaha, as well as buying up legendary chassis development firm Harris Performance. I know a few of the guys behind the scenes – test riders, and engineers, and their presence convinced me that RE was serious about this job, and was likely to be making something pretty good. The guys involved that I know wouldn’t settle for anything less.
The essence of the new bikes is still very simple though. Steel tube double cradle frames, with slender conventional forks and twin-shock rear swingarms, holding an all-new oil/air cooled parallel twin engine, and classically styled tanks and seats on top. The GT has clip-on bars and rearset footpegs for a more committed riding position, while the Interceptor has wide conventional bars and more forward pegs, for a relaxed sit-up approach. Apart from cosmetics and the bars/pegs/riding position mix, the bikes are identical – frame, suspension, wheels, engine are the same across the board.
If the design underwhelms you a little, it’s important to remember that these bikes are still most important to RE in its home market, where the firm expects to sell shedloads. They’ve got a really tricky job in fact – they have to be able to tickle the jaded funny bones of guys like me in Europe and the US, used to high-performance machinery, even in the retro class. But they also have to work well in India, where the market is very different, and the riding environment much more punishing terms of road surface, traffic conditions and stuff like heat and dust.
There’s not much heat and dust in Santa Cruz on the morning of our first ride though. The Central Californian coastline is a funny place in terms of weather – fog and mist comes off the Pacific in the morning, and the legendary PCH-1 Pacific Coast Highway is more like the A1 in Northumberland today – chilly, grey and damp. I’ve not really packed enough warm riding kit, so it’s ‘layers’ time under my Alpinestars jacket for the 12-degree start. We’re heading inland on the ride, so things warm up quickly, but the first ten miles or so is pretty chilly.
We’re on the Continental GT today, and everything is easy enough to start with. The dash is a simple twin-clocks setup, with the basic idiot lights, and a single-line LCD readout for odometer and trip meters. Speed, revs, miles, neutral, ABS, battery, oil – that’s yer wack, pretty much, which is a revelation in these days of traction control, electronic suspension, lean angle meters, Bluetooth Twitter feeds and all that other modern stuff. The Royal Enfields don’t even get a clock, which does seem like a parsimony too far though.
One other weirdness is that, despite there being tone ring wheel speed sensors on each wheel for the ABS setup, there’s also a separate speedometer sender wire on the right hand side. No-one could explain why, but I wonder if the Bosch ABS is too clever to speak to the basic dashboard instruments, making it cheaper and easier to just put another sensor on the front wheel…
Key in, ignition on, starter pushed – and the new motor thrums into life. It sounds good, though we’d discover later that it sounds better from the side of the road than from the rider’s seat. There’s a 270-degree crankshaft, that gives an offbeat firing order, and while it’s quite leisurely to pick up revs when you gun the throttle, you get the feeling there’s a pretty solid motor under you. Into gear via the slick, snickety gearshift (the engineers were proud that there’s a bearing on both ends of the shift drum), and the light clutch takes up the drive very nicely indeed.
On the road out of Santa Cruz, the GT feels pleasant enough – and not unlike something along the lines of Triumph’s smaller Bonneville 900s. There’s good torque low-down, and the fuelling is spot-on. It often seems that lower-tuned motors have better fuelling; smaller inlet ports, softer cams and the like perhaps making an engine less finicky to fuel accurately.
The RE 650 motor makes a decent-enough 47bhp, or 72bhp/litre, so is on the soft side in terms of tuning (though a bit higher than Triumph’s current 900 Bonneville Street Twin, at 61bhp/litre). It flattens out a bit through the midrange, and it’s fair to say that on the faster sections of road we ride on around Pescadero and La Honda, you’re sat at 100 per cent throttle much of the time. Top end is about 100mph on the clocks, just.
The chassis feels like it could take a bit more. Maybe not the suspension, which is basic fare, and fairly bouncy, but the steering is really quite nice indeed. You do feel connected with the front end, and once I adapted to the tall-profile 18-inch front Pirelli Phantom, I had plenty of confidence in it. That front end definitely feels a little unusual at first – a 100/90 18 isn’t something you come across often these days, and it’s also got an inner tube inside (the spoked rims need tubes, the Pirellis themselves are tubeless). Once warm though, and especially on day two when we rode a bit quicker, the tyres are one of the best parts of the performance mix.
The brakes are a little less impressive. There’s a twin piston ByBre caliper both ends, which is Brembo’s Indian sub-brand, and while the back works well, the front needs a good old tug for best results. Personally, I’d like to see another disc and caliper on the front brake.
After about 130 miles on the GT, I’m a happy man. We’ve ridden a good mix of roads, everything except motorways and hardcore urban stuff really, and the Enfield’s done well, especially considering the basic spec on paper. That engine is a good ‘un, and though it’s obviously a level below something like the Yamaha MT-07 or Kawasaki Versys 650 twins, it feels better than I was expecting.
The handling is a real treat, again, more than you (or I) might have thought. Good test riders, and the Harris Performance influence has paid off for sure, and together with those Pirelli Phantoms, you can’t fault the way the 650 responds through a twisty section. It’s also really well balanced at slow speeds – on the way back to Santa Cruz, I was able to trickle up to the millions of typical American ‘STOP’ four-way junctions at sub-walking pace with ease, and keeping your feet up for a few seconds is a breeze. Nice.
NEXT - the Interceptor 650, and our verdict on the twins.