The greatness of the Royal Enfield Continental GT is a matter of perspective
We attend a lot of motorcycle launches, both national and international, but the Royal Enfield Continental GT launch in London was very interesting for a number of reasons. First, it was an Indian product seeing the light of day in its ancestral home. And you can well imagine the strength of that proposition in terms of the nostalgic link. Second, it was a modern-day cafe racer being launched in the spiritual home of the cafe racer, another strongly historical link.
Royal Enfield Continental GTs parked outside Ace Cafe London
But what truly drew and held my attention was the group of journalists that arrived to test the motorcycle and their reactions to the motorcycle.
If you take the average Royal Enfield out for a road test and then strip away all the historical context, the design's age and all that... If you test it in the cold, harsh light of a motorcycle test at its objective best what do you think will happen?
I think what will happen is an instant realisation that the motorcycle doesn't really stand up very well to the standards of a modern-day motorcycle on many counts. Compare the average Royal Enfield to, say, a Honda Shine, and you will discover that the latter is smaller and cheaper (obviously), but in many ways better built. And over an extended period of ownership, the odds are that the Shine will prove vastly more reliable. The Shine might prove to be slower around corners because its engine can only propel the motorcycle so hard, but the Shine will be the better, more confident handler, it will ride vastly better, and so forth. Stripped of its history, most Royal Enfield motorcycles will reveal themselves as motorcycles that require a tremendous amount of engineering and effort to bring them up to modern-day standards.
Royal Enfield has created a brand new platform in association with Harris Engineering
There is a flip side if Royal Enfield were to go through the effort of all that engineering too. If you do all that work and end up with a motorcycle that feels like a Honda, you've lost all the Royal Enfield-ness of the motorcycle. That is a lose-lose proposition for the company as well as for its loyal fans. The context of the Royal Enfield is vital to its proposition as an involving, emotionally intense motorcycle. And its actual performance, ride or handling, to that extent is not.
But the Continental GT, I thought, shouldn't have to rely on its context, right? After all, Royal Enfield has created a brand new platform in association with Harris Engineering, worked with UK design house Xenophiya to get the cafe racer look and all that. But evidently, I'm the king of my castle and its only subject too.
Allow me to explain. I was speaking to an Australian motorcycle journalist on the bus back from Brighton after our ride, and he absolutely, thoroughly loved the motorcycle.
For a little background, Grant Roff is the editor of Motorcycle Trader, Australia's biggest motorcycle publication. He looks as old as the mountains, had a beard that Moses would be proud of and in his eyes the eternal motorcyclist sparkles through as bright as the sun. As the Australians are apparently wont to do, Roff likes a big hearty laugh and, it turns out, old motorcycles. He very generously offered me a ride on all of his 15-odd motorcycles before chuckling and pointing that all of them put together would net less than AU$500 which means they are all from another time and some of them are still in the process of becoming road worthy.
So Grant loved the idea of the Continental GT. He said more or less that it was fun to ride a motorcycle that didn't promise to do 300kmph in a situation where that speed is wildly, career-endingly illegal. As in a real world motorcycle that only exceeds the speed limit by a margin that a policeman would rather laugh at than prosecute. More importantly, he enjoyed the thrill of riding a motorcycle to its 145kmph top speed. He enjoyed having it at the limit without the limit being ridiculous. He enjoyed the fact that the Royal Enfield held flat-out down the motorway was a laugh rather than scary.
And Grant was not alone. The more international journalists I spoke to, the more it became clear. The Continental GT's slow handling - in terms of turn in, for example, was a non-issue. Similarly, the ride quality, which was slightly vague in the sense that it managed to absorb bumps with a sporty feel but you never got the sense of precise wheel control. The Continental GT was not being judged as a modern motorcycle but as a modern old motorcycle.
On the one hand, the Continental GT is clearly better than all of the Royal Enfields on sale today. The engine definitely breathes better and revs quicker. The chassis does feel more composed than before. Around corners, this is the quickest Royal Enfield there is by some margin. Ride quality is distinctly stiffer and is perhaps the only area where I'm not confident of the Continental GT being an improvement over its stablemates. Finish, design, build, you name it and the Continental GT has it.
But not as good as current motorcycles. Siddartha Lal, speaking to me later, explained that Royal Enfield as a brand has a distinct identity and building a motorcycle as effortless as a Honda simply isn't in the plan.
And I believe that while motorcyclists who prefer modern motorcycles to old ones will not appreciate it, Royal Enfield have struck philosophical gold. They've gone through their phases of modernization, and despite the attempts being hamstrung by the (then) low budgets, they've returned to their honest, original home ground. I further believe that if Royal Enfield sticks to their guns and builds these evocative, nostalgic motorcycles, it will be good for business.
This doesn't mean they all have to be flawed. Some of the edges of the coloured panel on the back of the seat on my bike was imperfect, many bikes at the launch stalled a bit more than needed and so forth. And Royal Enfield must move steadily and as quickly as possible where the little niggles aren't there; where the distinct impression is that Royal Enfield is able to distill into their bikes the best flavours of the heyday of British bikes without all the attendant problems.
Now here is the issue I'm grappling with. The Continental GT is a strongly divisive product. Buying one, or choosing not to buy one, is going to make you take a stand. The question you have to answer is whether you want a real-world, useable motorcycle that sings songs from another time. Or do you want the latest and greatest you can for the money.
If Royal Enfield is to meet its stated intention of being the biggest player in the middle-weight motorcycle market it is going to need less divisive products. Especially here in India, its biggest market.
The reason is simple. Grant and the other international motorcycle journalists have the luxury of having all kinds of motorcycles in their history, in their lives and on sale in their countries. So they can think of the Royal Enfield Continental GT as a brilliant counterpoint to the trend of fast, effortless motorcycles, the cream of which require a racetrack and extreme skill to use fully.
India, on the other hand, is a huge, huge motorcycle market, but the large majority of the motorcycle sales are at the appliance level - people need the bikes to get to places and enjoyment isn't really a need. Take these people away from the whole pie and you're left with a small market with not very many options for the enthusiast. And if the enthusiast hasn't ever seen a 50PS motorcycle, what do you think holds the greater fascination for him, an expensive 29PS bike of great pedigree or a bike that offers cutting edge technology? To return to the charm of the old, I think you need to go through the new first, right?
The answer to that question, honestly, determines whether you will buy a Continental GT or not. Personally? I haven't even seen fully all the new stuff, so the question of the old doesn't arise yet.