Cafe Racer Redux: Royal Enfield Continental GT Launch

Words: Alexandra Straub   Photos: Royal Enfield, unless otherwise credited
Words: Alexandra Straub Photos: Royal Enfield, unless otherwise credited

History

Cafe racers are sort of like bikesploitation films: they both came to the forefront in the 1960s, on a wave of rebelliousness, then faded into the background.

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Most of these bikes were custom efforts, assembled with an aim towards speed (take the best engine available, a Triumph, put it in the best frame available, a Norton, and presto! You’ve got a Triton. Now, go get hopped up on caffeine and hit the highway). But back in 1965, Royal Enfield (based in the UK at the time) introduced a factory-built cafe racer – the Continental GT.

Fast-forward decades later, and films with titles like “Hells Angels 69” are long gone, but cafe racers have made a comeback in popularity, mainly due to skinny-jeaned hipsters looking for other hobbies besides combing their beards.

And you know that saying, that the more things change, the more they stay the same? Well, Royal Enfield’s proving it right, by re-introducing the Continental GT. Sure, the company is based in India now, but they’ve gone to a lot of work to retain that stripped-down ’60s hot rod vibe – read on.

The Royal Enfield Continental GT is a modern-day incarnation of their original factory cafe racer.
The Royal Enfield Continental GT is a modern-day incarnation of their original factory cafe racer.

What’s New

The Continental GT is essentially an all-new model built from the ground up. In the very, very brief presentation we had on its mechanical bits, Royal Enfield said the 535cc unit construction engine (gearbox and motor in one, unlike the classic British motors) was derived from their existing 500 cc powerplant, but the rest is all new.

The Continental may hail from India, but it has plenty of English DNA, including a frame from Harris (the performance parts company, not the cranky ex-pat publisher).
The Continental may hail from India, but it has plenty of English DNA, including a frame from Harris (the performance parts company, not the cranky ex-pat publisher).

Those who want a bike inspired by an era that famed individuality and saluted rebelliousness won’t be disappointed. Simply looking at it makes tongues wag, and Miley Cyrus doesn’t even need to be around.

Royal Enfield left chassis design to Harris Performance, a company that has been at the forefront of English aftermarket speed since the 1970s. Having the UK connection with the Continental GT was a brilliant move on Royal Enfield’s part, as it should help to silence any critics who say the new bike isn’t “British” enough.

There’s no fairing on this bike, but in its nakedness, the GT has no shame, like the café racers of old. The minimalistic design means it’s easy to work on this bike yourself. If you’re handy with a wrench, Royal Enfield won’t take that away from you by covering it with fairings. Tinker to your heart’s content is what they said, though in a roundabout way.

Analogue gauges with a splash of a digital tell you the important details (speed, rpms) and let you know how far you’ve ridden.

Up front, you’ll find telescopic 41 mm forks with 110 mm of travel. In back, there are twin Paioli gas-charged shocks with adjustable preload and 80 mm of travel (looking suspiciously like Ohlins from a distance).

If you’re not a fan of the colour red, then you’ll have to learn to be. The first iteration of GT will only come in this crimson hue.

Most of Alexandra's seat time on the Continental GT was in the city; thankfully, the urban environment is the Continental GT's natural habitat.
Most of Alexandra’s seat time on the Continental GT was in the city; thankfully, the urban environment is the Continental GT’s natural habitat.

The Ride

Royal Enfield launched the new Continental GT at the Ace Café in London – a British motorcyclist’s Mecca, steeped in history. A visit to the Ace is an experience in itself, but it’s even better when the parking lot is filled with gleaming new cafe racers.

Psych! Those aren't Ohlins, they're actually gas shocks from Paioli.
Psych! Those aren’t Ohlins, they’re actually lookalike gas shocks from Paioli.

My ride time with the bike, unfortunately, wasn’t lengthy; I logged approximately 130 kilometres, give or take a bit. The bulk of it was on the highway (more on that later) and the other was spent getting up close and personal with the clutch lever and gearbox.

Saying you can’t wait to get stuck in traffic is like saying you can’t wait to go to the dentist – and at least the dentist gives you a free toothbrush. But it’s a good introduction to see this machine’s real-world characteristics.

Let’s face it, if you’re after an urban motorcycle (which the GT is), you’ll have to use it plenty in stop-and-go situations.

Thankfully, the air-cooled engine didn’t seem to mind lollygagging amongst fellow commuters. Pulling the clutch in and out left my left hand yearning for a break. It’s not as heavy as something you’d find on a large-displacement cruiser, but there’s room for improvement.

When there were opportunities to wriggle my way through the various Minis, Peugeots and Opels, you can feel the GT’s agility and ability (remember, lane-splitting is legal in the UK). It has a certain panache for easily making its way through the maze of cars without feeling like you’re riding a pancake. You can toss it around but it still maintains its form and doesn’t give up under pressure.

The bike's slim chassis made lane-splitting easy. Not, of course, that you would think of doing such an anti-social thing in Canada.
The bike’s slim chassis made lane-splitting easy. Not, of course, that you would think of doing such an anti-social thing in Canada.

Traffic did open up in some parts, allowing for some right wrist action. Don’t expect to be winning pink slips at the drag races on this bike, but there is gusto woven into its single-cylinder engine, albeit in the form of 29 horsepower and 33 lb-ft of torque. Please, try and contain your enthusiasm. The gearbox, while it could have used more feel, did what it had to do; it wasn’t Honda-smooth or Harley-rough.

Sure, the Continental GT has EFI, but they haven't forgotten to include a kickstarter.
Sure, the Continental GT has EFI, but they haven’t forgotten to include a kickstarter.

Riding on the streets of London gave me a fair bit of anxiety. Not because I’m scared of cars, but the backwards (to me) nature of their driving patterns left me second guessing where I thought I should be versus where I actually should be. If I didn’t have two near death experiences, then I wasn’t doing something right. And even through the unnerving urban haul, the bike posed no additional stress on my being. It’s easy to live with, even if your life expectancy appears short.

Whether you’re a newbie on two wheels or have been at it for years, the Continental GT is as user-friendly as they get. Its low idle, however, does require you to add some throttle when letting it out ever so slightly

On the road, I felt as though the gearbox could have had a little more weight to it. When up and downshifting, the shifter was vague but you could still feel as though you were changing gears.

The bike's a bit held back by bar buzz on the highway.
The bike’s a bit held back by bar buzz on the highway.

Highway riding is where I noted its main drawback. Those who like good vibrations will gravitate to this Continental GT – they’re inescapable, thanks to the single-cylinder motor. You notice the vibes upwards of 110 kph, primarily in the handlebars and foot pegs. I wouldn’t say it put a damper on our time together, but it’s an impression that stuck with me.

On the flip side, most people won’t be going on cross-country treks with it (though its 13.5-litre tank can allow you to free wheel for a good amount of time). Those riders wanting to go the distance can draw some inspiration from this YouTube promo from Royal Enfield.

While most modern sporty bikes have moved to a monoshock setup, the Royal Enfield’s retro dual-shock arrangement works well. Riding over the imperfect road surfaces didn’t leave me running to the chiropractor. Actually, quite the opposite. There’s a softness to it that doesn’t take away from its competency.

Here's a look at the original Continental GT. It was only a 250.
Here’s a look at the original Continental GT. It was only a 250. Photo: ManxNorton.com

In a future encounter, I’d hope to have more time on twisty roads; thanks to scheduling problems, we had to abandon our plans to zip through some mountainous areas. London’s roundabouts were a poor substitute. But it’s something, and I’m confident the GT and I will meet again.

Conclusion

When speaking with Siddhartha Lal, managing director and CEO of Eicher Motors Ltd., he mentioned to me that he doesn’t feel there’s a direct competitor for the Continental GT. In essence, he’s quite right. If you want retro flair, you can buy a Yamaha Bolt or a Harley-Davidson Sportster, and Triumph has the Thruxton and Bonneville, but in my opinion, none are as true to the café racer shape and mentality as this Royal Enfield.

If you’ve fallen in love already, let’s hope that absence will make the heart grow fonder as arrival of the GTs aren’t scheduled until early next year; estimated to be by March. No official pricing has been released either, but it’s rumoured to be under $8K.

Royal Enfield has gone all-out to promote their new bike; if this promo photo is any indication, they seem to be targeting the hipster market.
Royal Enfield has gone all-out to promote their new bike; if this promo photo is any indication, they seem to be targeting the hipster market.

It’s also worth noting that Royal Enfield has spent a ton of money on promoting this bike, with that YouTube clip we showed you earlier, lots of high-quality publicity shots with skinny models and the huge international launch in the UK.

Can this bike vault the Royal Enfield name back into competition on the world market?
Can this bike vault the Royal Enfield name back into competition on the world market?

In the past, when Royal Enfield introduced a new model, it wasn’t a big deal outside of India. This time around, they seem to want to make an impression. They’ve spent a lot of money building a new factory to shift production into overdrive, so maybe they’re hoping they can get a better return on that investment with some savvy promotion.

Is the Royal Enfield Continental GT a good looking bike? Oh yes. Does it have personality in its single-cylinderness? Indeed. Does it have the ability to win over nostalgic riders and hipsters alike? Time will tell, but on occasion, I can be a gambling woman. My money is on red.


GALLERY

Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.


SPECIFICATIONS

Bike  2014 Royal Enfield Continental GT
MSRP  n/a
Displacement  535 cc
Engine type  Four-stroke, air-cooled, single-cylinder
Power (crank)*  29.1 hp @ 5100 rpm
Torque*  32.45 ft-lb @ 4000 rpm
Tank Capacity  13.5 litre
Carburetion  EFI
Final drive  Chain
Tires, front  100/90-18
Tires, rear  130/70-18
Brakes, front  Brembo 300mm Floating disc, 2-Piston floating caliper
Brakes, rear  240mm Disc, Single piston floating caliper
Seat height  800 mm
Wheelbase  1360 mm
Wet weight*  184 Kg
Colours  Red
Warranty  n/a
* claimed  

17 thoughts on “Cafe Racer Redux: Royal Enfield Continental GT Launch”

  1. Sorry, I just can’t get past the lack of power. 35 YEARS ago Yamaha’s SR500 had more power from a smaller engine. I need to be able to pull away from a stoplight with enough acceleration to get away from the clueless idiot in the Range Rover who’s distracted on the phone before he runs me over and kills me.

    I’m not looking for an RZ500, but if it’s all chrome and no go then it’s SLOW. It may be a pleasant ride and a pretty bike but it is not a REAL cafe racer.

    1. “35 YEARS ago Yamaha’s SR500 had more power from a smaller engine.”

      That’s certainly a fair comment. I remember taking my dad’s SR out for a spin and being disappointed with the fact that it wouldn’t throttle-wheelie, as would my Daytona Special. I sold the Daytona a long time ago. I still miss it.

  2. “No official pricing has been released either, but it’s rumoured to be under $8K.”
    Knock a couple/three grand offa that price and let’s talk…

  3. Test rode the Royal Enfield at Americade , very light and nimble , but very prone to vibration over 90km , made my hands go to sleep , great city bike

  4. I’m looking to swap my ride for a lighter, nimble city bike and I have always been partial to the Royal Enfield’s looks. This might seal the deal.

  5. In the ’60s, cafe racers were FAST. You used a Triumph engine because it was the MOST powerful and a good cafe racer would do the ton. Now we have a feeble 28 HP from the Royal Enfield and only 39 from the Guzzi V7. These are all about the look and nothing about the performance. All sizzle, no steak. Posers only, please.

    At least the Triumph Thruxton has decent power, so if you’re looking for a real cafe racer that is the one that makes sense.

      1. Hey! come on and get real.
        If you wanna ride a bike like a Triumph Thruxton, then go and buy one. Such fast and furious machines are not every ones cup of tea. And most people don’t want or need to thrash their precious machines to their limits on public roads with the possibility of killing themselves and others. So don’t compare. The new Royal Enfield Continental is by far a more gentler and reliable animal which has great style that has evolved. You can call it a machine for posers that might not reach the ton, but so what!! and who gives a toss! Enjoy this new Royal Enfied innovated design and definite “head turner” that gives an enjoyable ride.

  6. “but in my opinion, none are as true to the café racer shape and mentality as this Royal Enfield.”

    Hey hey hey!!… I think Moto Guzzi might have something to say about that!!…
    Remember the Guzzi V7 racer??/ Anyone?

    Jeeeeez…

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