Talk about Royal Enfield and two things come to my mind - classic looks and a low-paced engine thump. Royal Enfield is an iconic Indian motorcycle manufacturer, which started off as a British company way back in the early 20th century. The original design of the bikes (Bullet) that we know of today, dates back to late 1940s. The bikes were sold virtually unchanged until the beginning of 21st century, which meant the appeal was limited, thanks to all their quirks. Firstly, it was utilitarian, the gears were on the wrong side, the engine leaked and it required a Schwarzenegger to kick start the engine.
But in the late 2009, Royal Enfield changed all these by bringing their design up-to-date and launched Classic 350 and 500. By then, they had also fixed many of the niggles - the old engine and gearbox was replaced with a unit construction engine with gears on the correct side. The self-start and electronic ignition made starting less of a challenge. And finally, they cleaned up the lines, introduced gas shocks, radial tyres and excellent paint schemes to make the bike more appealing and popular to the masses.
In fact, they were so popular that the waiting period surged to beyond 6 months after its launch. This long waiting period, along with a slipshod attitude of the salesmen meant I walked out of the showroom without signing the check. But the passion for RE didn't die and the feeling of missing something remained in me ever since. So to put this feeling to rest, I went to a nearby RE showroom to test-ride all of their bikes.
I started off my test drive with the latest and greatest the Royal Enfield has produced - the 535cc Continental GT. I firstly went round the bike taking a good look at the bike's elegant lines and the massive single cylinder block. As I sat on the yellow bike, the difference of moving from a small scooter to a café racer was very apparent. It felt instantly sporty but the crouched position was a little unnatural for me. I cranked the engine and the familiar thump greeted me. I gave it a couple of revs and reversed it to the road. I laid down power gently and tested the brakes before giving it some beans. Once I got used to the bike and the riding position, I opened the full throttle to have some fun. The pickup was brisk and the bike handled quite well but as I neared 3000rpm, the entire bike vibrated heavily. The handle bars were moving an inch or two fore-and-aft and felt very uncomfortable. The engine clearly is an old horse and can't quite match with the modern chassis.
Look at the bike as a vintage racer with updated chassis and brakes, to make it that little bit safer and it is a good proposition. But for me, every time I get on the bike, the looks and the riding position begs me to rev the engine but the engine will disappointment me every time.
Originally, it was the Classic 350 that drove me to the showroom, so I tried this bike next. The bikes are a common sight on Indian roads, so I didn't spend too much time gazing at this silver metal. I took the bike out and immediately it felt more comfortable than the GT. I sat high on the saddle with the arms stretched out which gave that king-of-the-road feeling. The engine too felt smoother compared to the GT. Although beyond certain rpm there were still vibrations, the relaxed riding position encourages it to be taken easy and enjoy the thump. The chassis and the engine complement well and the bike has an old world charm to fall for. The one disappointment was the seat - it was quite high and not very comfortable. I would have liked a stepped seat like the one on the Electra or the Thunderbird, which would have helped me connect with the bike better.
As the Classic left me a little disappointed, I hopped on to a matte-black Thunderbird to try out the more comfortable and lower seat. The chassis and engine are the same as the Classic, but in a more modern package consisting of a rev counter, digital odometer and a rear disc. The ride is quite similar to the Classic and is best enjoyed in a relaxed manner. The one niggle was that the handle bar was a little too far for my frame of 170cm. Unsurprisingly, the bike never felt intimate and didn't seem like the one for me.
If the Classic had a stepped seat, it would have been my perfect Bullet. But I think that's an issue that can be addressed easily. So, my heart says go buy one but my mind is not convinced to invest a lakh and a half for something recreational!
I guess, that feeling of missing something is here to stay for some more time!