Last September Royal Enfield Motors hosted a lavish international press launch in England for its all-new Continental GT café racer bike, which was first seen in the U.S. at the International Motorcycle Show in Long Beach, California in December 2012. The UK intro was a genuine “back to the future” experience. During the four-day itinerary, Enfield not only submersed the press in the history of the iconic brand (visits to legendary bike and motorsports museums, introductions by well-known Royal Enfield historians, even a trip to the site of Royal Enfield’s original 1907 Redditch factory), but made sure we experienced firsthand some of the magical sights, sounds and subjects that were a part of the nostalgic 1960s café racer scene in England.
That naturally included a visit to the legendary Ace Café, which Royal Enfield utilized as the launching pad for all of its festivities—and our first real look at this café racer contender. Royal Enfield’s main plan with the GT was to make sure it artfully retained the simplicity, form, function and especially the authenticity of those iconic ’60s racers—but also to mechanically bring it into the new age. Two British firms were hired by the Chennai, India-based company to do most of the GT’s development work. Harris Performance brought the bike’s road-going stature into the 21st century by engineering an all-new double-cradle frame for it instead of the Bullet’s single downtube chassis. There’s also a beefy 41mm fork, gas-charged Paoli shocks, new 18-inch Excel alloy wheels with Pirelli Sport Demon tires and Brembo disc brakes front and rear (the rear disc is also a first). Royal Enfield also worked closely with Xenophya Design of the UK on the styling of the GT, making sure its overall look, proportions, positioning and the quality of the componentry–especially the tank, seat, clip-ons and rearsets–were café racer authentic, and its weight a svelte 405 pounds with the 3.3-gallon tank 90-percent full. The company even utilized one of Royal Enfield’s past standouts–the 1965 Continental GT 250–for overall design inspiration; not a bad choice as this little 21-horsepower café-styled racer was, during its time, touted as Britain’s fastest 250cc production bike.
For power, the GT starts with Royal Enfield’s basic air-cooled 499cc OHV single used in the Bullets for generations. The old cast-iron mill was finally phased out in 2011 in favor of an all-aluminum, unit-construction engine with fuel injection, in service since 2009 and good for about 27 horsepower. Some might think the GT would have been much more desirable with a more modern engine design, but for Royal Enfield that was never in the plan. It wanted to keep the GT simple, economical, uncomplicated and authentic to the original ’60s café racer period. The GT’s current engine is, however, not a totally stock powerplant. It’s been hot-rodded ever so slightly–displacement is now 535cc, the ECU has been remapped and the flywheel lightened, all good for about a two horsepower increase over the stock engine. Here in the States an outdated 29-horsepower single probably won’t light the younger generation’s fire, but the engine’s period authentic appearance and performance might actually increase the GT’s desirability and collectability, especially among the older generation.
Physically the GT replicates the former café period bikes to a tee. It is petite, light and very slim, with a moderately racy seating position—in fact, its physical dimensions and overall weight are very similar to perhaps the most famous café platform of its day, the BSA Gold Star. So just strapping a leg over the GT and whacking the throttle a few times, listening to that muffled blat blat heartbeat of the big single, will instantly send you back in time.
Royal Enfield had prearranged a morning’s massive group test ride that launched us from the Ace Café and eventually wound us down south, about 85 miles, to the seaside town of Brighton. For the most part it was a crazy, chaotic ride as 30 of us battled to stay in a group through the choking London traffic and frequently contentious roundabouts. If anyone got separated, they would have been lost forever. The GT can, as it turns out, competently play the commuter role as its seating position isn’t overly aggressive, and I had no complaints about any of its basic mechanical functions. Clutch engagement was smooth and progressive, the action from the 5-speed gearbox was flawless, the Keihin EFI provided hiccup-free throttle response, the brakes are plenty potent, and even finding neutral at the stops was easy.
That’s all a plus, but it’s still a very low-performance powerplant and acceleration is sluggish. It takes a whole new mindset—slow down, take your time, there’s no hurry, experience the mechanical sounds and pulsations of the past—to fully enjoy riding one of these creatures. And I did have to adjust my riding style slightly in search of the best acceleration. I was originally trying to take the engine to its 5,800 rpm redline before shifting, but it turned out the hot ticket was to short shift and let the torque provide the squirt out of the corners.
I would have liked to experience the GT’s true calling by burning a few mountain roads, but unfortunately our designated route didn’t offer any. I can tell you that the GT feels easily flickable and very taut and together when flung with abandon through congested roundabouts. There’s no question in my mind that at this point in time, the GT’s chassis performance is way beyond that of the engine’s—which means you could easily ride it at ten-tenths all day long and that’s where the excitement will be. Longer distances and higher speeds do not suit the GT well, however. The big thumper is really breathing hard as it struggles to 3,800 rpm at 70 mph, and at that speed it produces some serious vibration through the handlebar and chassis that—coupled with the rather stiff suspension and a thin, mildly padded bench seat—means that short runs to the café or quick blasts up the local mountain road will still be the best way to fully enjoy this bike.
Overall, I was pretty impressed with the GT. I loved its clean and simple period-correct fit and appearance, and its overall handling takes the marque to whole new level. Of course the most important question is that, by purchasing this new GT, are you going to instantly become one of the notorious Ton Up Boys? Sorry, not quite—we could only coax it up to about 85 mph, maybe 90 downhill.
But that’s no problem, as Royal Enfield will also be offering a great selection of accessory “Burn-up Wear” to help you at least look the part. The U.S. distributor, Classic Motorworks, hopes that bikes will start reaching its dealers before the end of 2013.
2014 Royal Enfield Continental GT Specs
Base Price: $5,999
Type: Air-cooled, single cylinder, 4-stroke
Bore x Stroke: 87.0mm x 90.0mm
Compression Ratio: 8.5:1
Valve Train: OHV, 2 valves per cyl.
Fuel Delivery: Keihin EFI
Lubrication System: Wet sump
Transmission: 5-speed, constant mesh
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Ignition: Digital electronic
Battery: 12V 18AH
Frame: Twin downtube cradle frame
Wheelbase: 53.5 in.
Seat Height: 31.5 in.
Suspension, Front: 41mm stanchions, no adj., 4.3 in. travel
Rear: Paoli twin gas-charged shocks, adj. for spring preload, 3.1 in. travel
Brakes, Front: Brembo 300mm floating disc w/ 2-piston pin-slide caliper
Rear: 240mm disc, 1-piston pin-slide caliper
Tires, Front: 100/90-H18
Claimed Wet Weight (90% fuel/oil): 405 lbs.
Load Capacity: 405 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.3 gals.