To most, the late '60s and '70s were the glory days of motorcycle design. America made muscle and the Japanese took over the industry with attractive, simple, reliable machines of all engine sizes. While Triumph's Bonneville and Honda's new CB1100 offer something vaguely akin to the aesthetic of this sought-after era, no modern motorcycle makers have been able to capture the feeling quite like Royal Enfield's recently released 535cc Continental GT. Drawing inspiration from the brand's own 1965 café racer release of the same name, the single-cylinder contemporary iteration is lightweight, responsive and handsome as hell.
Founded in 1901, Royal Enfield stands as the world's oldest motorcycle brand in continuous production—beating out Harley Davidson by a mere two years. Though the British-born, now Indian-operated brand is essentially synonymous with the word "motorcycle" in India, it's largely unknown in North America. The Continental GT may very well change this. After making its European debut last fall at London's famed Ace Cafe, we recently had a chance to experience the bike stateside on some choice Californian roads.
While many wish their favorite brands would simply reissue bikes of bygone eras, Royal Enfield—along with British studio Xenophya Design, who helped develop the GT's overall aesthetic—understands what we really want is a modern bike that captures a respectable feeling of nostalgia. "When you romanticize those things, you actually forget that a lot of the machines of the '60s and '70s didn't actually work very well at all," Eicher Motors Limited (Royal Enfield's parent company) CEO Siddhartha Lal tells CH. "People today expect something to work brilliantly, so we have to make sure that our production standards, quality, testing, validation is absolutely top notch. But the idea of purity and simplicity—if that's what they're asking for, that's what we'll make for them."
There's no doubt the bike is attractive—but more importantly, it rides well (at moderate speeds, at least). This is actually the bike's calling card: an old school motorcycle best enjoyed at 50-60mph on city streets and side roads. In this way, the Continental GT is counter to the power-driven bikes currently being pumped out by most all America, Japanese and European brands.
At just over 405 pounds dry, the single-cylinder, four-stroke, air-cooled GT weighs well over a 100 pounds less than Honda's comparable 2014 CB1100. And on the mountain rounds between LA and San Diego, its low profile, rigid frame shone. Clip-on bars mounted above the forks, a fuel tank with recessed knee indents and flat racing seat with bump stop achieve an attractive café racer look that promotes an enthusiastic riding style. Sticking mainly between second and third gear for the majority of our 100+ mile ride, we felt the 535cc bike perform well on tight switch backs, swooping curves and even the highway, though we wouldn't suggest bringing one onto I-5.
By specifically catering to city dwellers looking for a fun, reasonably-priced ride with plenty of pick up and go, Royal Enfield (who posted a 50% growth each of last three years) is poised to become a major player in the global mid-size motorcycle market. For more information on the all new Continental GT, which sells for $5,999, visit Royal Enfield online.
Lead and action images by Jake Garrett and Jake Hanson, gauge image by Kevin Wing Photo, all others by Graham Hiemstra