This past weekend, Marnitz and I were privileged to be given the opportunity to be of the first people in Gauteng to test ride the new Royal Enfield Continental GT café racer. We attended the launch hosted by the ever friendly and enthusiastic Alan and Antoinette from Royal Enfield Germiston. This is the first occasion that we have been able to test ride one of the motorcycles that we are about to feature and we would therefore like to explain the parameters of this test. We tried to approach this motorcycle without preconceived ideas or anticipation. Neither of us has read any of the articles written by the overseas journalists. From the outset of this blog, we vowed not to feature motorcycles which we do not like or which we do not feel add value to the classic and retro custom scene. Retro Write Up is supposed to be a positive force in our world and hopefully for those who read it. The motorcycles that we feature are highly personal creations, which we as passionate but unqualified enthusiasts have no right to criticise. The fact that you are reading this article is in itself an indication that we, in our own humble opinion, believe that the Continental GT has qualities worth sharing.
I lied about the lack of anticipation! We were both excited to eventually see and ride a motorcycle which has been rumoured and shown as a prototype for several years internationally. It is possibly worth mentioning, that Marnitz and I, although we both love retro styled motorcycles, have very different expectations from our personal motorcycles. I am 51 years old, have always ridden and loved all forms of motorcycles but decided about ten years ago to trade speed in for responsibility. My daily ride is a Harley Wide Glide and I love British made singles. My 1955 Ariel 350cc is the benchmark that I use to compare other Brit made single’s performance. Those who know the British singles will hopefully agree that the British engines remained basically unchanged for decades. Marnitz on the other hand, at half my age, rides the wheels off his new generation Bonneville café racer almost every day. This being said, I thought he may be disappointed by the Continental GT’s old school, although technically improved, British single cylinder engine design’s performance.
Without turning this article into a Royal Enfield history lesson, the styling of the new Continental GT takes its heritage and looks from the original, British made 1965 Continental 250cc GT model. Royal Enfield launched this model to try and counter the ever increasing threat from the Japanese manufacturers. Although it looked the part, with its bright red painted fibreglass tank, two tone humpback seat. clip-ons, fly screen and rearset foot controls, the actual motorcycle underneath it all was still Royal Enfield’s basic 250cc model. The standard engine was tuned to produce 21hp which, via a 5 speed gearbox, made it ” the fastest 250cc motorcycle in Britain”, according to their advertisements. It was an instant success with the café racer fans and an aspiration to for learner riders to own. Even today the Continental 250 GT is a very collectable classic. Unfortunately, no matter how fancy the icing looks on a sponge cake it remains a sponge cake. The overstressed, basic 250cc engines soon leaked oil and gave problems when ridden hard. The bright red paint began to peel off the fibre glass tank. Unlike its original namesake, the new Royal Enfield Continental GT is not a decorated version of the current Bullet 500; it is a completely new model.
Royal Enfield, already a major manufacturer in its domestic Indian market, is on a quest to become a bigger player in the international market and are relying on the all new Continental GT to spearhead their efforts. Although Indian made automotive products are rapidly gaining justifiable international approval, Royal Enfield have cleverly used respected English designers and engineers on this project to boost credibility and to emphasise the originally British heritage of their product. They even launched the bike at the temple of 1960’s café racers, the Ace Café in London. The twin down tube cradle frame was designed in England by the legendary Harris Performance gurus, who have been building racing motorcycle frames for all road racing classes since 1972. The British designers, Xenophya Motorcycle Design were responsible for making this motorcycle look this good. I don’t care what your feelings are towards a Royal Enfield, if you like café racer styling, you have to agree that the styling is spot on. From the short silver ABS front mudguard with its cleverly blacked out, but practical in bad weather extension, the clip-on handle bars, the bright red racer tank through to the well finished seat and bum stop, this is a classic looking café racer. The electronic speedo and rev counter are modern in design and features but subtle looking, in line with the overall 1960’s image. Looks are important but so is the handling. The Harris frame’s rear swingarm has twin, Italian made, Paioli gas charged rear shock absorbers with preload adjustment, installed. The 41mm diameter front forks are Royal Enfield units with reworked internals to provide a more positive feel to the front end. Braking for this 184kg motorcycle is provided on the front wheel by a simple, yet effective Brembo single 300mm diameter floating disc with a two piston caliper. The single 240mm diameter rear disc with single piston caliper is a Royal Enfield design, colour coded to match the Brembo unit in front. The Excel 18” alloy spoke rims are fitted with Pirelli Sport Demon tyres. The rear 130mm wide tyre is adequately wide to match the handling and maintain the retro look of the Continental GT.
The Continental GT has a fuel injected, single cylinder, air cooled, four stroke 535cc engine which produces 29hp and 44 N.m. of torque. A Royal Enfield five speed gearbox and electric and kickstarter are standard fitment. The obviously old school but well finished and updated Royal Enfield single cylinder engine has always looked gorgeous to my biased eyes and really shows itself off beautifully in this new frame. Those anonymous people who try to spoil all our fun in the name of saving our planet, have obviously decided that the Continental GT in unsilenced form will destroy the planet instantly and have insisted on the fitment of a silencer which not only silences the motorcycle’s wonderful throbbing long stroke beat but also steals a reported 5hp from what could potentially be a 34hp output. An aftermarket exhaust and a little fuel remapping should unleash that “Made in England/Preserved by India” single cylinder sound which is my favourite soul music.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating! How does the Continental GT perform out on the road? Beautifully! The power delivery is smooth and the torque is surprising. Because my Harley has so much torque at low revs, I tend to short shift a motorcycle when I ride them for the first time, only to be quickly reminded by a sudden lack of power that most engines are designed to rev. The 535cc engine did not complain when I quickly changed through the gears at low revs and accelerated smoothly from 80kmh in fifth gear up to 120km/h. I reckon the Continental GT is good for a top speed of over 130 km/h in standard trim with the performance stifling silencer still fitted. It however sounds most comfortable between 100km/h and 120km/h. The vibration is surprisingly low for a single cylinder engine; just enough to not be over refined.The handling is light and the stopping power more than adequate. The clip-ons are mounted in a deceptively comfortable position and the single seat is plush enough, especially in café racer terms. Being tall means that I always find that rear set foot controls are a little awkward to use but this is a genetic problem and not a motorcycle design flaw. The travel on the gear lever is fairly long when changing gears but the gear changes still feel positive. The hand controls are easy to use and the gauges visible without my reading glasses. When Marnitz returned from his ride, I held my breath waiting for his response. The Continental GT is, after all on paper, no match for his twin cylinder fire-breathing Bonneville. He confirmed my sentiments by saying “I would not mind owning one.” You may ask, how we can find a basic unstressed 29hp 535cc motorcycle so appealing to ride? The reason is that a motorcycle’s overall appeal is the sum of a variety of aspects of which power and speed are just two aspects. It is the balance of all the aspects including handling, braking, rider comfort, riding dynamics etc that create the motorcycle’s overall appeal. The Continental GT instills confidence and will see most owners looking for a twisty road to test their riding skills on the way to work. This motorcycle is fun to ride without breaking the sound barrier.
Besides changing the exhaust system, we would probably remove the black bib on the front fender, definitely ditch the massive number plate holder and the centre stand together with the large lifting handle mounted on the top of the left rear shock. We noticed that this particular motorcycle had its mirrors removed. The mirrors appear to have been mounted in the standard position and not on the bar ends, as we have seen in most of the publicity shots. We hope this is just for homologation purposes and that the bar end mirrors will be installed on the stock which arrives later this month. For some reason the front triple trees are finished in a large flake metallic silver finish. Plain silver or black would be a more authentic finish. These motorcycles are only available in red and it would be good if a range of colours was made available in the future.
The Continental GT will sell for between R70 000 and R75 000. Is this good value and who do we think will buy this motorcycle? Most of those present at the launch were already proud owners of the original Bullet 500. I heard several of them state that R75 000 was too much to pay. That was until they had been for a test ride. On returning, I could see them shaking their mental piggy banks to find the money to buy a Continental GT. This is a lifestyle motorcycle. A whole range of Continental GT branded clothing, helmets, boots and accessories has been launched. There is even a Continental GT leather jacket made by Lewis Leathers. This cafe racer will sell to the older rider seeking to sample and enjoy a time when things were simpler. It will sell to the younger rider who, after being warned of the dangers of motorcycling their entire life has decided to buy a motorcycle and is looking for something cool yet unintimidating. If the dealerships can continuously get people to take this model for a test ride, we are sure that a surprising number of these people will find a place in their garage and in their hearts for the Continental GT.