Retro Cool: (Royal Enfield Continental GT)
The Royal Enfield Continental GT has perhaps been the company’s worst kept secret. Ever since the café racer concept was revealed to adoring Enfieldistas, both at home and abroad at the 2012 Auto Expo, internet whispers and numerous sightings had sustained the hype around this motorcycle. We knew it would have a 535cc mill, we knew it wouldn’t have Ohlins doing damping duty; we knew it would feature a twin downtube cradle chassis crafted by Harris Performance, that Royal Enfield would tip their hat to their past, specifically the 1965 Continental GT 250cc, and we knew it would be red. But, and this was the big question, we had no idea how it would be to ride
In a masterstroke, and a nod to their English heritage, Royal Enfield decided to launch the Continental GT at the legendary Ace Café, the spiritual home of the ton-up rockers on the North Circular Road in northwest London. And so it was that on a brisk English morning we found ourselves on the forecourt of the Ace faced with a sea of luscious red and winking chrome. Forty spanking new Continental GTs were laid out for a boat-load of international journalists – journalists of all hues and shapes, many bleary-eyed after flying 30 hours the day before. The nattiest were the trim-waisted Japanese in their vintage leathers and pudding bowl helmets, goggles dangling nonchalantly from their hand.
Liveried in the heritage GT red body paint the Continental GT looks like a million dollars and Royal Enfield has nailed the retro racer look perfectly with the low-and-long fuel tank with knee recesses, clip-on bars, solo seat complete with a cowl, chrome engine and upswept exhaust providing a pleasing contrast. The twin-cradle frame is book-ended by a conventional 41mm fork and a pair of preload adjustable Paioli gas-charged shocks at the rear. The 18-inch Excel aluminium wheels wear Pirelli Sport Demons that have a period-correct look, sized 110/90-18 up front and 130/70-18 at the rear. Up front, two-piston Brembo calipers pinch a 300mm floating disc, while at the rear a 240mm disc, single piston floating caliper help to haul down the bike from speed.
There are a few things more mechanically satisfying in this world than kick starting a motorcycle to life (electric start is there, if you must, but remember this is the Ace Cafe) and hearing the purr of a well-tuned single. First stop on the ride is Brooklands, the first purpose-built banked motor race circuit in the world that opened in 1907 when the speed limit in Britain was a blanket 32kmph on public roads. The track has fallen into disrepair long ago but is regarded as the birthplace of British motorsport, and aviation, and the site of many engineering and technological achievements. Today the Brookland Museum displays a wide range of Brooklands-related motoring and aviation exhibits. A few minutes into my 35km ride, I had already developed a great appreciation for the Continental GT’s air-cooled, 535cc engine and with the excellent Keihin-FI injection system. Nowhere in the rev range did I find a hint of hesitation or sign of a stumble, just precise fuelling. The comfortable seat isn’t too high (or too low) for my 30-inch in-seam, allowing my boots to be firmly planted at the stops. The smallish bar-end mirrors offer an excellent rear view (and will be optional extras when the bike goes on sale), while the twin clocks provide just the pertinent information via a pair of analog gauges and a small LCD display. The reach to the clip-on bars has my torso fairly upright over the tank but the relaxed yet not-too-lazy slightly sporty rearsets allow me to tuck in my elbows and hunker down at higher speeds. Around town, the GT carries its claimed 185kg kerb weight well, providing agile handling. The bite of the front brakes, as well as the feel, is excellent and I felt little need to feather the rear disc even in the stop-and-go London traffic. A few runs on the short useable part of the Brooklands banked circuit and we are off to Brighton with the promise of 90km of twisties and flat-out motorway sections.
The Continental GT’s engine has a flat torque curve almost right off idle and carries through the mid-range that allows an easy modulation of the throttle giving the bike an easy to ride character. On top, the GT’s peak 29.1bhp at 5100rpm isn’t staggering, but fun. Displacing 535cc the Continental GT is Royal Enfield’s most powerful model and a lighter flywheel, larger inlet valve and throttle body, and remapped ECU endow it with snappier acceleration quite unlike its predecessors. On the faster sections vibrations kick in at speeds above 110kmph and gets fairly alarming by 125kmph, which is anyway faster than you’ll want to go on this motorcycle until you find a windscreen or some lower bars to relieve the wind blast on your retro pudding-basin helmet. The braveheart Aussies saw a claimed
145kmph on their speedos but one of us joined the ton-up rockers club, an English ton being 100mph (160kmph).
The rear dual shocks serve up just over three inches of wheel travel, and you can adjust preload. Overall it’s quite good at soaking up small bumps, but big bumps and quick changes of direction remind you why
single-shock rears with more travel and progressive linkages killed off the dinosaurs.However for 95 per cent of street duty, the GT’s suspension is settled and well damped. Once the pace is picked up on a twisty road, the narrow tyre choices make sense. Turn-in is light and predictable while mid-corner stability is the best I’ve seen on a Royal Enfield. Getting the GT through a turn doesn’t take much effort or thought; it’s just natural, like riding a bicycle. In fact in terms of ride and handling, the Continental GT is undoubtedly the best Royal Enfield ever. On the highway, the seat is capable of fairly long rides without numbness or discomfort to your backside.
Every ride is too short when the bike is good, right? Well, I can’t complain, because my small taste of the Continental GT left me with a very positive first impression. Very few bikes have felt as familiar instantly after such a short ride and the fully-modern yet authentically-nostalgic cool is just the icing on a very tempting cake. Royal Enfield’s modern take on its original ’65 Continental GT 250 isn’t incredibly fast, terribly sporty or amazingly cutting-edge: the new GT is a bike you just swing a leg over, especially when you’ve got no particular place to go. Nostalgic it might be and a feast for most eyes, but it’s also a super-functional, easy-to ride motorcycle. There is character and you get it without all that character building in the garage. Royal Enfield has delivered. The café racer is back.
Engine Single-cylinder, 535cc, air-cooled
Power 29.1bhp @ 5100rpm
Torque 44Nm @ 4000rpm
0-100kmph 12.0 seconds (est)
Top speed 145kmph (claimed)
Royal Enfield makes an emotional bid for your retro-modern heart with the Continental GT