Nice resto, mate!” “How long it take ya?” “What year’s the old girl?” “Cool bike. Wanna come back to my place?” Ok, ok, I made up that last one, but if I had a dollar for every comment, head nod, thumbs up and smile this sparkling red Royal Enfield received I’d be a very rich man.
Fact is, you don’t need to be a rich man to afford the Continental GT, despite its restored-classic looks. Less than 10 grand covers it ($8695 plus on-road costs), which is a comparatively modest amount that buys you a hell of lot of attention. Never before has a new bike sparked so much conversation, and that includes the Triumph Bonneville and Kawasaki W800 ridden together.
On the basis of kudos alone, you’re getting one hell of a bargain. This is going to be good.
IF LOOKS COULD THRILL
Prior to throwing a leg over anything and blasting off, I try to savour the moment and take in each bike’s detail. With the Continental GT, I lost track of time. It follows the good, clean design of original café racers of the 1950s and ’60s, which you’ll at least subconsciously take in if you look past the necessary, off-the-shelf jewellery. By that we mean the clip-ons, bar-end mirrors, rearsets, 18-inch spoked wheels, Brembo brakes, a lovely, classically shaped clubman tank, chrome ‘Monza’ fuel cap, solo seat and cowl. It’s all there.
The most dominant – and crucial – design theme of a café racer is the uninterrupted waistline. Tick. The Enfield’s cuts a neat horizontal line from beneath the tank, seat and through to the seat cowl. Then there are the all-important short front and rear overhangs; an uninterrupted ‘swoop’ from the top of the tank over to the rear cowl with preferably little else above it around the front end and a deliberate parallel theme throughout. Visual weight is centred around the minimalist engine, too.
This is all the work of Xenophya Design, a UK design firm that specialises in motorcycles with an extensive client list including Triumph and Yamaha. And to think Royal Enfield itself touts this as a ‘blank canvas’; a basis limited only by your imagination.
Then there’s the 535cc single-cylinder engine that’s traditional in configuration and appearance, as well as classic analogue gauges, a kickstarter, hidden electrics and period-looking, polished primary covers. The only concessions to modernity are disc brakes, contemporary suspension, an electric start and EFI, which is a bit of a shame because an Amal carb would look right at home.
Even the few available accessories are a bargain: a better-breathing and lovely sounding exhaust costs $295 and the bar-end mirrors cost $249.
There are a few letdowns, however, which is when you need to remind yourself about its sub-$10,000 price tag.
The tank, at 13.5 litres, is actually a hell of a lot smaller than it looks, those clip-ons have more bar length than a skin flick, the speedo cable is long and sloppy, the top clamp could have a nicer finish and the pair of large horns should be tucked up out of sight instead of stealing attention from the engine.
I’m not too keen on the exposed rear hoop either, which MT’s older, wiser staffers assure me is period correct. The rationale is to accommodate the optional two-up seat ($240 including ’pegs) but it errs on looking ungainly to these young, enthusiastic eyes. The solution could have been to lengthen the standard solo seat cowl, but I get that it’d probably spoil the look of the short rear overhang.
THE REAL McCOY
Make no mistake, the Continental GT is the real deal. Where other ‘retro’ bikes are large, caricature-like, refined and reliable, Royal Enfield engineers have successfully built in authenticity – warts and all.
Our example of the big single didn’t fire up in the morning on the first go… nor the second, third or fourth, and it needs some throttle input despite being fuel injected. In fairness, though, it took a while to learn that the bike won’t start with the kickstand down, which is a bit of a nuisance while you’re gearing up or finishing your cuppa or ciggie. At least the standard centrestand solves this. Conversely, the engine shuts off when you drop the kickstand, too. Our test bike left no trace of incontinence either, contrary to traditional expectations.
These minor criticisms blow away with the autumn breeze as you happily putt down the leafy road and take in the generous serving of charm and nostalgia. Just try not to smile.
Royal Enfield claims the GT is the lightest, fastest and most powerful single it’s ever produced in its 121-year history, but that’s coming from a fairly low base when you can measure its siblings’ acceleration times with a calendar.
The red thumper is no rocket either, but it was never intended to blow the plastic off modern mosquitos. Instead, every experience aboard the Continental GT is a relaxed one, including acceleration, which teaches you the meaning of patience but still manages to keep well ahead of the traffic when ridden with enthusiasm. Highway overtakes call for planning. Spannerman reckons the GT is good for a top speed of 145km/h downhill and lying flat on the tank, but pushing anything beyond 120km/h just feels cruel.
The bike’s handling, meanwhile, is a highlight thanks to the work of Harris Performance. The UK-based engineering firm is synonymous with creating razor-sharp racers including the Suzuki-powered F1 bikes of the Island Classic earlier this year. Just ask Cam Donald.
The classic double-cradle frame is suspended by 41mm forks and twin gas-charged Paioli rear spring-and-damper units that mimic Öhlins kit. The result is a rigid chassis with a short rake and trail and sharp steering which, along with the Pirelli Sport Demon rubber, inspires plenty of cornering confidence whatever the road quality. This is where the GT shines, much like a modestly powered, but well-setup hillclimb car. Its handling feels easy, familiar, comfortable and surprisingly playful, and proves you don’t need the neddies to have pure, unadulterated fun. There’s a good lesson there for speed freaks.
The riding position is more akin to classic British bikes with a sensible dash of caffeine than the wrist-heavy, racy stuff that today’s cool kids embrace. The ’bars put you in a broad, roomy stance, the seat is plush enough and the rearsets aren’t far-fetched so day-long rides are as comfy as they are sporty. The GT is surprisingly taller in the metal, too, which bodes well for long-legged folk.
It’s easy to write it off for lacking power but, in some respects, that would be missing the point. Sure, a bit more wouldn’t go astray but, for similar reasons why many of us enjoy old bikes, there’s something honest and endearing about putting along at a more relaxed pace, taking it all in with the sun on your back.
The Continental GT – and the entire Royal Enfield range for that matter – unashamedly isn’t for everybody. You either get it or you don’t. If you do, it’s a rich experience and one to be embraced. You can’t help but smile.
SPEX | Royal Enfield Continental GT
Type: Air-cooled, four-stroke, single cylinder
Bore & stroke: 87mm x 90mm
Compression ratio: 8.5:1
Fuel system: Keihin EFI
Type: Five-speed constant mesh
Final drive: Chain
Power: 37kW (50hp) at 6200rpm
Torque: 60Nm at 2800rpm
CHASSIS & RUNNING GEAR:
Frame: Harris Performance twin downtube cradle
Front suspension: 41mm telescopic forks, non-adjustable with 110mm travel
Rear suspension: Twin Paioli shocks with piggyback reservoirs, fully adjustable
Front brake: Brembo 300mm floating disc with twin-piston floating calliper
Rear brake: 240mm disc with single-piston floating calliper
WHEELS & TYRES:
Front: 18-inch wire-spoke wheel with 100/90 R18 56H with Pirelli Sport Demon tyre
Rear: 18-inch wire-spoke wheel with 130/70-18 63H with Pirelli Sport Demon tyre
DIMENSIONS & CAPACITIES:
Dry weight: 184kg (wet)
Seat height: 800mm
Fuel capacity: 13.5 litres
Price: $8695 (plus on-road costs)
Warranty: Two years/24,000km
Bike supplied by: Royal Enfield Australia
Attention-grabbing, period styling
Could do with more power
Won’t start with kickstand down
Article by Chris Harris aka ‘CHarris’
**Special thanks to Wayne Rushton and the MG Car Club Victoria for letting us use Australia’s oldest purpose-built hillclimb circuit, the Rob Roy Hillclimb, in outer Melbourne. Visit www.RobRoyHillclimb.com.au