To start with, there’s a few things that you ought to know about the Royal Enfield motorcycle company. The first is that they produce the number one selling motorcycle in the world. You don’t hear about that in America, because, well, because Harley. They’re also the oldest motorcycle company in the world; the company predates the 1900’s, and the first motorcycle rolled off their UK lines in 1901. However, after the Second World War, the fortunes of Royal Enfield in the UK fell on hard times; the locals in Chennai bought the local factory and have been producing the same basic motorcycle since the late 1950’s. They’ve only upgraded componentry on the bike as environmental regulations have forced them to – they didn’t even switch the bikes to a 12-volt electrical system until the late 80’s. Nowadays, that sort of thing is part of their retro charm – Royal Enfield absolutely hasn’t changed anything that they didn’t have to change.
As much as I wanted to, I had no knowledgeable way to evaluate this bike. My previous reviews have been of the 1290 Superduke and the 2014 Concours. I didn’t even know where to start with this. So I called for help. For this type of work you need someone who thinks fondly on machinery of the 1950’s, so I dragged out the youngest old codger I know, my pal Beezer. Beezer rides and wrenches on his 1973 BMW /5, as well as being elbow-deep into his BSA Lightning. This is a man who looks with suspicion on disc brakes and water cooling; He may even still have a landline. But his expertise is perfect – a deep knowledge of retro-grouchiness is required to comprehend what I’m looking at.
Motorcycles are occasionally judged on their aesthetics by their look-back factor. You pull into your driveway. You dismount and start to walk in the house. You turn around and look back at the motorcycle. Does it still look good? Yes? You bought the right one, then. Royal Enfields do not lack in that department. They are truly beautiful pieces of machinery – the metal has a fine, bright polish and the colors are deep and lustrous. The two-tones are quite complimentary, and the lettering isn’t o’ermuch. You subtly note that it’s a Royal Enfield, instead of having ‘HD’ or ‘Triumph’ stamped on ridiculous places like the footpegs. Quite honestly, these Royal Enfields are gorgeous. The color tones are well-painted and thoughtfully planned out. Some of them are produced with true craftsmanship.
I sorely doubt there’s a mass-produced Japanese equivalent to that level of hand-painting. Watch that video carefully – there is no paint on the guy’s shirt, or on his hands. He does it cleanly, in single passes, in a loud, distracting environment. And that grin when he’s done. That’s a pro, right there, people.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the designers of the Royal Enfield left the bodywork and appearance as untouched as possible from its earliest ancestors. This led to why I brought Beezer along. Why is the front fender triple-strutted to the front hub, instead of simply being attached to the front forks? Beezer Josh: – because that’s the way the old- school bikes are.
If you are into stuff that looks old, then Royal Enfield is for you. Even their clothing line, has been declared by my fashionista girlfriend (who is not Beezer, to be clear, NTTAWTT) looks to be thoughtful, classic, and well designed. Stuff that actual people would wear and not look like pirates or power rangers.
When you hit the starter or the kick-starter, you are rewarded with the pleasant plonk-plonk-plonk of an un-counterbalanced single. But unlike some Harleys which are known to wiggle off their kickstands, the Enfield burbles quietly. The sound, at least on the Classic 500 is distinctive but unassuming. You will not set off any car alarms, and neither Screaming Eagle or Vance & Hines want to try to put lipstick on a hipster.
The engine itself is as reliable as a boat anchor. After over 100 years of virtually unchanged production, that engine is stone reliable. It does not matter what other systems on the motorcycle you strip away – that engine will still start. The engine is the same across all of Enfield’s product lines. They’ve changed some performance characteristics with clever EFI tricks and peripherals, but the soul is the same. And the parts of the bike that Royal Enfield has paid close attention to upgrading has benefitted from that attention. When equipped with disc brakes, those brakes are Brembo (some Enfields still have drum brakes, more on that in a minute). The EFI is from Keihin. And on some models, the suspension is from Paoli. All quality stuff. The trouble is, the things that Enfield has upgraded are a bit hit-or-miss.
As you work your way from the engine to the outward edges of the bike, the bike’s retro ‘quality’ starts to shine through. And I’m using the word quality in this hipster sense – that is to say, ironically. The electrical system, quite plainly, is nearly useless. Because the engine is an un-counterbalanced single, the whole machine shakes so much that the stock mirrors are completely useless. It’s that weird stuff that makes the Enfield seem a bit unfinished. The great thing is, all the old tricks that worked on bikes on previous generations, will apparently work on Royal Enfields; Beezer says that the old bikes shook like that, and the solution was to load the ends of the handlebars with lead shot to take up the vibration.
Beezer & I were given reins on a gorgeous tan & maroon Classic 500, and cafe racer style Continetal GT in Yeehaw Yellow. We took off, rode to lunch, swapped bikes, and rode back.
The Classic 500 has a riding position that’s….odd. The springing on the rear seat and the peg-forward position mean that during the Classic’s moderate acceleration, you feel like you’re being tipped backwards. You’re not going to slip off the beautiful back fender, though; considering the Classic is going to take twelve seconds to get to 60 mph;, but however, you still might end up smearing a skid mark on the rear fender unless you followed your momma’s advice, and you have on clean underpants. Ah, poop jokes. The refuge of the crappy writer.
The power band is sharply defined – there’s a definite shove forward when you give it the business in second gear, but that shove sharply slopes off and no matter how much you flog it more, the engine will not produce any more torque in that gear. It’s time to shift. Honestly, it’s not like anything I’ve ever ridden, but Beezer says it reminds him a lot of a 1967 BSA B40. This is the sort of thing is what I brought him along for, so I better make sure that stuff like that makes it into this review.
If you’re coming from anything made in the 21st century, the lack of power at the top end of a gear will surprise you. And this is one reason that Enfields have a hard time in countries with fast-moving highways. The only thing you are going to overtake while aboard an Enfield is the drunk guy on a DUI moped. And that gets to be downright dangerous in any exurb where you have to mix it up with fast moving trucks on your commute.
Cornering isn’t the Classic’s strong suit, either. This is not a bike you want to take on the Stelvio Pass. The bike’s cushy, rolling feel through turns that isn’t confidence inspiring. Going into a turn at a relative speed feels like falling into your great-aunt’s overstuffed 1970’s couch – you don’t exactly know when the lateral cornering motion stops, and everything’s very soft. It doesn’t turn in sharply.
And softness also characterizes the Classic’s back brake – it’s an extremely mushy drum brake. You might as well try to stop yourself by slathering the back wheel in mashed potatoes as you roll up to a stop sign. The real answer is to simply grab the front (disc) brake. Unlike modern performance bikes, where you can grab both brakes at once to shorten the wheelbase a little and make the bike crouch, Classic braking is real old-school braking – rear to slow down, front to stop.
But despite all that, it’s when you are burbling along a two-lane macadam somewhere in the countryside, that the bike suddenly sorts itself out and you discover that you are having a tremendous amount of fun. Between 30 & 50 mph, the bike becomes smooth and stable. The single sorts itself out from a teeth-rattling shake to a smooth purr. You realize that pedestrians are watching you go past, and they’re envious. The exhaust has just enough snap to make sure that you know you’re riding a motorcycle, but you’re not going to get any fists shaken at you for being too loud. You are free to rediscover the gentle pleasure of riding a motorcycle. And that is where the Classic 500 is supposed to be used.
You don’t ride the GT because you like comfort. The riding position is exceedingly uncomfortable. You don’t ride the GT because you like performance. It has the same engine as the Classic – just tuned up, This means 11.5 seconds to 60 mph instead of 12. You don’t ride either bike because you the reliability of the peripheral systems. On our tester model, which was brand new, the neutral light only occasionally worked and the battery light stayed on despite several battery swaps.
Beezer: “Well, who cares, it’s a kickstart; we don’t need a battery.”
You ride this bike for cheap exclusivity, and style. Nobody else you know is going to have a retro bike that cool-looking, or with that name or history.
But bodily, unless you are a yoga instructor, you are going to pay for that exclusivity. This is not a bike that’s going to be easy to live with as a daily rider. Your legs are really curled up underneath you, and your arms are really stretched out, and you are leaning really far forward with no tank of any size to lean on. I’m a big, old guy, and this bike was uncomfortable to ride in almost every situation. Stop and go traffic sucked. Straight lines sucked. Suck suck suck.
It was in a moderate set of twisties, however, that everything came together on the GT. The transformation was pretty amazing. While testing this motorcycle, I was taking notes in my mind, that read something like, “This sucks, that sucks, this hurts, this other thing is wacky.” Then, as the twisties set in. “SWEET MOTHER OF PEARL THIS IS FUN!” If I lived back home in the foothills of North Carolina, this is what I would buy. This is exactly what the machine was made for. This ride hearkens back to a cafe racer’s true roots – not the straight-line ton-up motorway blasting that you find in the UK, but flogging the twisty mountains of Italy. That is where this machine’s soul lives. The bike is not going to go fast enough to get you in any trouble with Johnny Law, but you are going to have a heck of a lot of fun pretending that you are.
Everything that Royal Enfield has paid close attention on these bikes is amazing. The suspension? Great. Engine? Rock-solid simple. And everything that Royal Enfield has left alone will make no sense until you remember that these bikes are not made to appear retro – they are retro. This is how you reconcile a motorcycle that has fuel injection, but also comes equipped with a catalytic converter that weighs forty pounds.
You haven’t heard of these bikes for a couple of reasons. For one thing, most pro motorcycle reviewers are spoiled brats who hate low performance bikes. They want to ride the H2R, not a Bullet Five Hunnert. So the job of reviewing these bikes is left to n00b reporters and women, which is bullcrap. Given the rising power of hipsters, these bikes should be given honest reviews, not crappy ones from authors who are known to make midget fisting jokes**. Another reason you might not have heard of these bikes is because their gutlessness means that on American interstates, their low top speed and lack of midrange power makes them borderline unsafe. If you take a Royal Enfield on I-40, you will get run over.
The owner of the shop we got our testers from gave us some clue as to who’s buying this bike. Half of the buyers are old coots who have ridden everything under the sun. They have been up to triple digits fearlessly, and heeled over to a full 67 degrees of lean in the turns. They’ve done continental crossings and dragged elbows. Now, in their dotage, they want something simple and fun that will still leave some bank for the kids. The other half of these buyers are art school hipster kids from 18-26 years old who are too poor to buy Bonnevilles and don’t care about going fast anyway.
The suits are at Royal Enfield are working hard to break into the holy grail of the motorcycle industry, the good ole US of A. For example, Siddartha Lal, the CEO, has bought a house in California, and is known for going on test rides with motorcycle journos. This is a CEO of the largest motorcycle company in the world (plus they make heavy trucks). You don’t get that level of attention from the guy who runs Yamaha. Royal Enfield has also recently appointed an American COO, instead of just shipping things in through a distributor. Enfield is also well-positioned; they don’t have to sell bikes in the US to make sure the company survives, they just want to, because they can make money here. And a lot of motorcyclists are really in love with the retro thing right now, so there’s that. But there are two things that re going to shoot Royal Enfield in the foot, and the first one of those is price.
Despite their low price tag, Royal Enfield is trying to make a play for the US market at a bad time. Why would you buy a Royal Enfield for between $5,000 & $6,000 when an entry into the Ducati world through the Scrambler will only cost you about $8K? Yamaha’s SR400, which could be a real sleeper hit if they put an electric start on it, will cost you $5500 and then you get that whole Jjapanese reliability thing along with your ride (plus if you’re willing to shop overseas, you can get some awesome retro aftermarket parts for the SR in places like Australia). Royal Enfield already knocked a cool thou off their MSRP in 2014, and their selling pace hasn’t yet picked up. Fortunately, Royal Enfield is a big enough company that they can take those risks.
The second is quality – if this bike were half the cost of what it is now, the level of quality that you get in the peripherals would be commensurate with the price. But it isn’t. If you buy a Jap bike, you know it will run, run completely, run perfectly and run perfectly forever. You can be sure that the engine on the Royal Enfield will be one you can hand down to your grandkids, but you will have to change just about everything else. It’s not that Enfields are bad quality- they aren’t. The problem is that the bar is so astronomically high for customer satisfaction right now that Royal Enfield isn’t close to matching it.
But quality isn’t why you should buy it, as ridiculous as that sounds. There are two reasons you will enjoy riding a Royal Enfield. Either you’re a retro-grouch like Beezer, who is used to an old-fashioned riding experience but doesn’t want to consort with other retro-grouches at bike swaps for parts; if you’ve made a bike for over a hundred years, parts availability is not going to be a problem. You can get them anywhere.
The other reason you will enjoy this bike is because you are a trust-fund art school kid on a fixed income, who can’t afford to take time away from your history of basketweaving class to fix up an old BSA. But your Westchester parents give you enough money every month to buy a Royal Enfield. You can ride that Royal Enfield every week to the artisanal beer meet, where other art school kids will ooh and aah from their out-of-fad-fixie bikes at your authenticity.
** – I am going to milk that joke until I am dead, or until I get a raise. Whichever comes first. (Ed: The raise will not be first.)