Royal Enfield has introduced a new motorcycle and an old, iconic culture to India. Is it going to work?

The thing with some cultures is that they never die. They may fade out for a while, and the followers may dwindle down to insignificant numbers, but they come back when someone makes a concerted effort to revive them. The Café Racing culture is one of them.

When it started off in the post-war era, it saw young English men and women clad in leather jackets, helmets with goggles over them and boots hunched over quick and fast motorcycles, racing each other. These young Brits, who called themselves Rockers, and rode machines called Café Racers, did exactly what the name suggested – raced from one café to another.

It gave the world two things – a new subculture and a new genre of motorcycling. Motorcycles from Triumph and Norton with low slung handlebars, long fuel tanks and big motors with quick acceleration became the to-have machines. Their amalgamations, the famed Tritons, also became very popular. Royal Enfield too had a 250cc machine called the Continental GT, which was also used by the manufacturer at racing events.

From that namesake, the new Royal Enfield Continental GT has arisen. Sure, it has a lot of history riding on its shoulders, but it also has two challenges to face. One, to make a motorcycle for the enthusiast with a touch of new-age practicality, and two, to introduce this product as not just a motorcycle, but as a lifestyle, to a country like India which has never seen much of leather-clad ton-up Rockers or the Café Racers.

Design and styling

The new Royal Enfield Continental GT has got everything in terms of styling to be called a proper Café Racer. And the designers have added their bits of practicality as well. Right out at the front is the round headlamp with a 55W lamp, sitting in front of low-slung clip-on handlebars. These handlebars are adjustable and can be fitted with optional bar-end rear-view mirrors, which not just add to the styling but are also way better than the stock mirrors (more on that in a bit).

The long tank is well sculpted to lean over as you shoot off the block, and has recesses to tuck your knees in. The footpegs and gear and brake levers too have been pushed back to give a proper sporty stance. And to accommodate that ride posture, the Continental GT has been fitted with a narrow, sculpted seat with a bum-rest. The seat actually looks very authentic, and the curved bit of plastic at the end adds a very sporty touch to the motorcycle. The Continental GT is mainly intended for solo riding, and if you need a pillion seat, you’ll have to shell out more money.

There’s a lot of chrome and brushed metal thrown around as well. The exhaust pipe, headlamp and the lining on the twin-pod analogue-digital console are bits that shine in the sunlight. The frame is a twin downtube-cradle unit, which is painted all black. The cropped fenders at the front are a nice touch, and come in shiny grey. The aluminium spoke wheels don’t just add the retro touch to the bike but also shed weight.

But the best part about the overall scheme of design is the paint-job. The gleaming red paint on the motorcycle is very well finished, and the overall styling makes the Continental GT a guaranteed head-turner. Moreover, it just feels good to ride around the city on a machine that is so well crafted.

Engine and specs

Royal Enfield has always received mixed responses for the Unit Construction Engine (UCE) block. Some fans like it and some don’t. It’s as simple as that. The UCE block has had its quirks, and is infamous for sending serious vibrations up to the rider on high speeds. Mostly, it is notoriously heavy, and many riders feel that the EFI system isn’t as refined as it should be.

Nevertheless, the Continental GT uses an air-cooled, fuel-injected 535cc motor which can churn out a maximum power of 29.1 bhp (21.4 kW) @ 5,100 rpm and manages a peak torque of 44 Nm which kicks in at a decent 4,000 rpm. The ECU has been remapped and for better performance, a Keihin Electronic Fuel Injector delivers smooth fuelling based on throttle input and other parameters.

This motor is mated to a 5-speed gearbox, which has good ratios for both city and a bit of cruising. But the gearbox has a few problems, mainly with slotting between 2{+n}{+d} and 3{+r}{+d} gears, and there’s the usual fumble with finding the neutral.

As for the exhaust note, yes, you can still hear underlying notes of the old sounds of the Bullet, but what the Continental GT sounds like can be best describes as a throaty, angry grunt. There is none of the good old thumping and thudding that Royal Enfields have always been associated with.

And though Royal Enfield’s claim about the Continental GT being their lightest and most powerful motorcycle in production is true by sheer numbers, this Café Racer is still a bit heavy. The Continental GT weighs 184 kilos at the kerb, with a near full tank of fuel and oil.

Ride and performance

But the thing with this motorcycle is that by the time you go over specs and admire the craftsmanship, you’re just a tad bit impatient to get on the bike and take it for a spin. And when you do, you won’t be disappointed, much. For one, the ride has a lot of drama to it.

When you lean over the tank, push your bottom to the seat’s end and gun the throttle, a grin comes automatically to your face. Because that’s when you leave everything behind in a blur. Quite literally. Because one, the motorcycle is quick, and two, the handlebar vibrations make the stock mirror absolutely useless. But, there is no transfer of vibes to the footpegs or the tail.

And it’s very nimble too. You could be going really fast and yet you’ll find enough footing around corners. The Pirelli Sport Demon tires and very centralised weight distribution make sure of that. But there’s one problem – once in a while downshifting can cause a slight drift. There’s massive stopping power with 300mm Brembo discs in the front and 240mm at the rear.

The Paioli Twin gas charged shock absorbers at the rear come with adjustable preload and have 80mm travel, and combined with the front 41mm telescopes, the bumps are taken care of. But it’s not the bumps that bother so much as the vibration from the machine itself. Although the Continental GT has a lighter flywheel and stronger valves and springs, the engine is still not as refined as you’d expect it to be. While riding in the city, where you’re already bothered by the traffic, these vibrations add to the agony. But they tend to disappear once you start cruising along. But don’t expect to do more than 120 kmph and not be thoroughly shaken. The vibration starts getting harsh once the needle is past the 4,000 rpm mark.

As you might have guessed, the ride posture is a bent-forward, foot-back type, so it’s not very ideal for very long rides. The seat is narrow but comfortable nonetheless. But heat dissipation is a matter of concern. Apart from giving your feet a heat massage, the bend at the exhaust pipe may also burn your shoes (or feet if you’re wearing open footwear).

Bottomline

The new Royal Enfield Continental GT, even with all of its quirks, is a fun motorcycle. It’s pure joy to ride, that’s what it is. It has its own set of problems, as with every Royal Enfield motorcycle. The engine needs more work on refinement, and the gearbox isn’t the best in town. But then again, if you’re a Royal Enfield loyalist, you’ll learn to live with these quirks.

But keeping the riding part aside, what Royal Enfield has done is introduce a lifestyle product in the form of a motorcycle. It offers some really authentic merchandise, such as Rocker jackets, boots, helmets and a lot of other accessories, which are of premium quality. Sure, at first you might look a bit out of place, as this side of motorcycling hasn’t caught up in India. But you’ll feel good nonetheless, as you soak up an iconic bit of motorcycling history. There are other motorcycles which offer more power, stability and finesse, but none that offer what the Continental GT does. Heritage. The Royal Enfield Continental GT is available for Rs 2.05 lakh (on-road, Delhi).

sabyasachi.b@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on December 17, 2013)
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