August 7, 2011

Royal Enfield a retro ride with modern practicality

As the pavement ahead transitions from a fairly straight rural road to a series of gently curving bends, the motorcycle beneath me responds appreciatively. It flows smoothly from curve to curve, like a pet snake coiling around its owner's arm.

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The Classic Chrome C5 Royal Enfield motorcycle offers classic styling, modern engineering and affordable pricing while getting 70 miles a gallon.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The Electra Deluxe G5 differs from the Classic Chrome in seat style, tire size and frame size.

Unlike other bikes I've ridden, this one doesn't demand the full and undivided attention of its operator at all times. The bike, a Royal Enfield, is so laid back and effortless to operate that I have time to contemplate its origins while enjoying its ride.

According to its maker, the bike I was riding traces its heritage to a fishhook and needle manufacturing company started in England in 1851. That company was making bicycles and had evolved into Royal Enfield by 1893. By 1900, it was producing motorized tricycles and quadricycles, and is generally credited with producing its first motorcycle in 1901.

That would make Royal Enfield the oldest motorcycle brand in the world (Harley Davidson didn't produce its first true motorcycle until 1904), although it is now manufactured in India rather than its native England.

After a long hiatus Royal Enfield returned to the U.S. market in 1995. The dealer network really began to grow under current U.S. importer/distributer, Classic Motor Works, and now numbers nearly 100.

I recently rode two different Royal Enfield models. The first was a 2010 Electra Deluxe with a dual-passenger saddle. The second was a 2011 Classic Chrome model with a spring-cushioned solo seat.

Like the other two Royal Enfield models sold in the U.S., the two test bikes rely on most of the same mechanical components. That means a 500 cc single-cylinder engine with electronic fuel injection, a five-speed gearbox and front-disc/rear drum brake.

Since the 2009 model year, all Royal Enfield models sold in the U.S. also have had electronic fuel injection, electric pushbutton starters and a one-piece Unit Construction Engineering engine/transmission.

According to Ron Greene, vice president of sales and dealer development for Royal Enfield, they also have a two-year/unlimited mileage warranty and an importer "that really bends over backwards to make the customer happy."

Greene had less conviction about Royal Enfield's model designations, which I find confusing. The product brochure shows five models, but Greene says one is unavailable in the U.S. The Available models available are designated Classic Chrome, Classic, Bullet 500 and Electra Deluxe in the brochure but differently on the website.

Greene uses different designations for what can all collectively be called Bullets. He said the Classic and Classic Chrome are C5 models, the Bullet 500 is a B5 model, and the Electra Deluxe is a G5.

The only significant differences between the models are seat style, tire size and frame size. The C5 Classic Chrome model I rode had a smaller frame and 18-inch wheels and Avon tires instead of the 19-inch wheels tires on the G5 Electra Deluxe.

The C5 I tested was equipped with an optional, upswept exhaust that Greene said delivers three more horsepower than the stock pipe. That might not sound like much until you consider that Royal Enfield rates its engine's output at just over 27 horsepower. A three-horsepower bump would be about an 11 percent increase.

Since I didn't subject either motorcycle to the stopwatch or a dynamometer, I can only go by my seat-of-the-pants diagnostic gear. Using that equipment, the C5 felt a bit quicker off the line. On the other hand, the 27-horsepower G5 felt plenty quick to me, and I've owned bikes rated at over 100 horsepower.

I was particularly impressed with the G5's ability to reach and then cruise at 72 mph (according to its speedometer) on the interstate. It also had commendable low-end thrust while ambling around town. The Bullets deliver that kind of pep will producing fuel economy of up to 70 miles per gallon, according to Greene.

Not bad considering how much fun you can have on one of these new Royal Enfield scoots. Both test bikes felt light and maneuverable, initiated turns quickly, and clung tenaciously to the tightest curves.

As the current owner of two BMW motorcycles, I was surprised at how refined they felt. I had to occasionally hunt for neutral, but all the other gear changes occurred smoothly. The brakes are powerful and predictable. The ride is pleasant on all but the roughest roads, and the solo spring seat even kept things pretty comfy on those.

What surprised me the most about these Royal Enfields, however, was how they transported me back 40 years to my first motorcycling experiences. These bikes not only have retro styling that everyone -- even Harley owners -- seem to love, but also deliver a riding experience to match.

And at list prices ranging from around $5,500 to $6,700, it's an ownership experience many motorcycle lovers should be able to afford.

Scott Wasser is executive editor of MaineToday Media. He writes a weekly auto column for the Sunday Telegram and other newspapers. He can be reached at

swasser@pressherald.com.

 

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