It couldn’t have happened any other way I thought for here I was hustling the biggest bore single ever made by Royal Enfield on the cobbly B-roads from London on to the hallowed banked circuit at Brooklands for a press conference to herald the first genuinely all-new motorcycle to sport the Royal Enfield badge. It was different to begin with but just so very apt for a new machine that combines character traits from over half a century ago with handling and performance for the present in a contemporary form that is delightful, very useable and highly enjoyable. If I have given the game and the objective away right at the very start it was unintentional because this is what the new Continental GT will do for not just an Indian but a global audience which for the most part will be all new as well as spanning the genre from classic oldies to BABs (born again bikers), from the young hot shots to the commuter-inclined, from those who love motorcycling for the joy of being one with the machine and delight in soaking up the power pulses from a large single-cylinder thumper with probably the best handling characteristics ever for a bike which made its name with the simple statement of intent: “Built like a Gun.”
The sort of launch that Royal Enfield did was right in character for a bike that was in the making for over a decade but no one quite knew that! Let me explain. Ever since Siddhartha Lal was pitched in at the deep end to head Royal Enfield after Eicher bought it over, the biggest objective was not just ensuring the marque’s survival but the way to do it. So while we have seen the quintessential Bullet get better metallurgy, more efficient manufacturing processes, improved build quality, and a subtle shift away from the dudhwala mentality, we could read that with every passing phase (both successful as well as awful as Sid and his team are the first to admit) the company was learning. From an old management to a completely new younger lot the transformation as underway, led from the front by Sid who had no hesitation in pulling in the right brains to help him on his quest to turn the firm around.
Understanding the Redditch heritage
While there were tremendous learnings coming its way the most important aspect which dawned on Sid and his band was that they had a brand that had character aplenty but more than that the brand also incidentally happens to be the oldest British motorcycle marque yet in existence in the world! This heritage and legacy is something which has been an ongoing one even after Royal Enfield ceased to exist as an entity in the UK in 1967 but the Indian arm soldiered on. Triumph may be back on the scene but this is an all-new entity with no connect to the old firm except bearing the original firm’s logo and with bikes that are well, very much contemporary ‘Japanese’ in character and configuration. There are attempts to revive Norton but yet again these are contrived and this is exactly where Royal Enfield has that vital edge. In fact if one has to make a comparison then it is only Harley-Davidson which comes close to rivalling Royal Enfield, both having started in the early years of the last century, the British marque was rolling out bikes a year earlier than its Yankee rival. Also Harley-Davidson has stayed true to its trademark vee-twin engine layout and continues in this vein to this day while having dabbled with small singles and twins over its 110 year plus history. Now if you are wondering whether Enfield India as well as Royal Enfield also did other bikes then yes it did scooters, small 125s, 150s, 175s, 200s and also 35cc, 50cc and 75cc mofas, mopeds, and scooters to boot, with such evocative names as Crusader, Prince, Mini-Bullet, Mofa, Fantabulous, Zundapp, et al. So the model mix was heady but inconsistent before the Eicher era but once Sid and his team got to grips it has been the push-rod single cylinder Bullet engine which has predominated their thoughts and redoubled their efforts to take this unit further.
Making ‘Built like a Gun” relevant in the Indian context
The team had to battle massive adversity because to begin with it just didn’t have the wherewithal to take on the engineering challenges mandated by the emission regulations. So while lean burn engine tech was the “easier” approach to keeping the old single relevant, the manufacturing process was also being given a once over. The latter took more time but what was important was while the basic building blocks were being strengthened, simultaneously the firm began to learn more and more about its place in history, its relevance among British motorcycling and also its place in the Indian psyche. From one-off nostalgic Brits taking to the Bullet to a gradually increasing bunch of bikers who thrived on unhurried classic motorcycling, the Bullet started making inroads in the minds of European, American, Australian and Japanese bikers while continuing to stay relevant in India.
From lean burn engine tech to just about make the engine emission norms for Euro III and then on to thinking about newer better versions of the original aggregates, the Bullet started getting more relevant and along sides that the firm began to think about moving away from the classic bike config. There came in the Thunderbird cruiser, obviously Harley was the inspiration, and this suddenly opened up a whole new vista for bike and its users who craved the long distance biking bug. From here on we had a five-speed gearbox and lest I forget one of the most important character detail change to date – the move away from the right foot gear shift to the universal left-foot gear actuation. This helped open a new and larger enthusiast base for Royal Enfield and when the firm began to dabble with more engineering challenges, the move to incorporate the gearbox within the engine casings resulted in the UCE or unit construction engine. The internals were revised to the extent the reciprocating masses could be without much differentiation barring better material and machining to give good balance and friction reduction. Electronic fuel injection was inevitable given even stricter emissions and suddenly we had a better Bullet, a more in sync with character British machine but conjured up in India. The Bullet Classic as this bike was badged has been one of the big block-busters for Royal Enfield and along with it came the move to an all-new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility at Oragadam near Chennai where the difference is absolutely discernable – the new Classics from here are even better made, finished and put together than what Tiruvottiyur was ever able to!
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