British Racing Green with Envy: Royal Enfield Continental GT

By Surj Gish, with An DeYoung
Photography: Angelica Rubalcaba
Rider: An DeYoung

The Continental’s secret weapon isn’t killer suspension, or the perfect powerband. It’s surprise.

If you know anything about Royal Enfield motorcycles, you know the formerly-British (looong ago) brand builds motorcycles in India and is known for inexpensive machines that haven’t changed much in decades. Like Yamaha with its SR400, Enfields aren’t retro-styled bikes tarted up for a dress code-centric charity ride. These are essentially continually-produced new old stock.

The Continental GT is an honest-to-God newer model designed in collaboration with Harris Performance and Xenophya Design, both UK companies. The GT’s 535cc engine is a punched-out version of the Bullet’s veteran single, but not much else is shared—it’s definitely no “let’s put some low bars on the standard model” creation.

The surprise? Despite our universally low expectations—we expected the GT to be fun in an uncomfortable, shitty-handling, nostalgia sort of way, like an old bike—we all dug the GT like presidents dig porn stars.

Ok, just this president, but whatever.

It’s not just the elegantly-executed aesthetics—though the Conti deftly avoids the clumsiness in styling that bedevils many modern classics and is arguably on the same high level as Triumph in the area of authentic and “correct” styling. It’s a goddamn fine-looking motorcycle, and it looks right.

But despite off-the-line acceleration that Max described as “almost Grom-like,” it’s a blast to ride. It has an “At this price point? No way!” Brembo front brake, a two-piston front caliper and 300mm floating disc, complemented by a no-name 240mm single-piston arrangement out back. The preload-adjustable Paoli shocks and 41mm non-adjustable telescoping fork work well until you (eventually) get to race pace. This all combines for a reasonably competent and very rideable package, especially considering the bike’s $5,999 price.

Even better, the ergos are actually pretty humane. You get the look of a café racer with a more neutral, dare I say comfortable riding position.  No suffering for beauty here.

To be fair, Max’s description of the bike’s initial acceleration is a little harsh. It’s not fast off the line, at least compared to… well… motorcycles. But its claimed 29.1 horses and 32 ft-lbs of torque are more than sufficient for good times. In fact, while bombing around West Oakland, I was setting a pace—and perhaps a level of crazy—that was enough for Max to give up and just join me later at our destination. The 53” wheelbase and relatively light 405-pound claimed wet weight make for quick turns, and the suspension and brakes are willing to play along if you’re willing to keep your spurs in the little bike’s sides.

It’s not without quirks. The diesel-low redline takes some getting used to, though once you’re accustomed I wager you’ll find the engine suitably engaging. The choke, or fast idle, or whatever that lever on the left bar is didn’t do much, if anything. An claimed that by holding it really cranked, she noticed a difference, but I didn’t witness this. It has a kickstarter, but between the issues with the choke and our general laziness, we didn’t use it. It’s charming, but there’s a start button, and the Wrecking Crew cares precious little for the perceived authenticity of fogging up a pair of retro-chic goggles kicking a bike to life in front of a coffee shop. We’d rather just ride away.

The bike won’t start on the sidestand. At all. Doesn’t matter if you’re in neutral with the clutch in and your mom is praying for you. Ain’t gonna happen, and this is by design. It will start on the centerstand.

There’s also a switch on the right control pod that doesn’t do anything—lighting or some such for other markets. We could complain, but hey, you gotta pay more if you don’t want unused switches on your bike.

Thousands more, actually. There’s nothing with this level of cool for six grand new, other than perhaps a Rebel 500. If you like the café style but look down your nose at the notion of riding an Indian-made “British” bike, go get yourself a Street Twin for nine grand, or a V7 Racer for ten.

Yeah, both of those are “better” bikes, maybe, but the potential use cases for a genuinely good-looking authenti-bike in this price range are many:

  • Have a bunch of motorcycles and some spare cash, and just want something fun for round-town? Get a Continental GT.
  • Want to learn to ride, but don’t like the looks of 300-class sportbikes? Get a Continental GT.
  • Like legit café style but prefer to buy rather than build? Get a Continental GT.
  • Like motorcycles? Get a Continental GT. 

The only downside is that you’ll get the Dangerfield treatment from the self-absorbed, fashion-conscious “real British” café crew: no respect. I nodded at some overstyled, open face helmet and ridiculous scarf-wearing wannabe t-shirt model on a new Bonneville at a stop light in Oakland. He wasn’t having any of my café camaraderie, even though I tried to point out the Continental’s funkily authentic electrics and kickstarter.

I think he was trying to get the holeshot, but once I wrung the Continental GT’s neck past the first second of sluggishness, I left him sucking his own cloud of smug. Surprise, surprise.

An: “I’ll Allow It”

Editor Hot Topic knows my affinity for all things “hipster,” so when anything approximating a “café racer” appears in the garage at World Headquarters, the keys inevitably end up on my desk. Royal Enfield’s little green beauty, the Continental GT, is such a machine. I decided to show up for work and take her for a spin around the bowels of East Oakland, because that’s what the Wrecking Crew does.

Actually, I’m beginning to wonder if it’s just me, because the photos of the guys tend to be all racy-hooligan, tearing through twisty roads on one wheel, with the place where their hair used to be on fire, but whatever…

We pulled the Royal out of the “authentic bikes only” bay at the back of the garage at World Headquarters, and Editor Trashtalk-isti started showing me around the bike. He man-pressed the start button to warm her up—as if I don’t know how to do that myself—and after some fussing with the apparently fake choke and side stand, remembered the bike won’t start on the sidestand—no doubt to allow for extra moments of street cred demonstration, revving the bike on the centerstand in front of your favorite micro-artisan-whatever joint, before burning out and taking off which is another thing the Wrecking Crew does.

Well, except for me. I’m more known for letting the bike warm up in front of a café, smoking out the patrons with my overly rich mixture, punctuating my presence with occasional backfires and flames shot from the exhaust, until an elderly gentleman—other than Editor Greybeard—complains and asks me to move along.

Anyway, the GT sounded good to me, which as a connoisseur of badass exhaust notes, is high praise, if I do say so myself. It was also surprisingly comfortable. I’m tall, so I pushed myself all the way back on the seat as I normally would, and the bars felt too far away. Confused, I settled on the middle of the seat and mostly stayed there.

I wasn’t expecting too much power from the Continental’s 500 single, and it gave me no guff when I gave it the gas, pretty much just surprisingly smooth acceleration. Shifting was also smooth-ish, with a notable lack of clunking.

I did notice some pretty major vibration in the bars at about 4k, and by the time we made it to our first stop, between the abandoned gas station and the other abandoned gas station, I’d pretty much decided I would make up excuses to avoid riding the bike back to The Sac. I think my arms would go numb.

Back on the road, I intentionally headed for the seemingly endless potholes pockmarking Oakland’s “roads,” and alternated between testing the brakes and the suspension—both things I’ve been disappointed with on other “retro” bikes. Again, the Enfield surprised me, offering plenty of stopping power for my subdued (relative to the rest of the Wrecking Crew, anyway) speeds. And when Editor Bra Check asked how that one big bump on 580 felt, I thought I’d missed it. Nope, still there. I rode right over it, and all my parts were still contained.

I tend look at these “retro” bikes sideways, suspicious-like, but I liked the Enfield. Easy to handle, smooth-riding, with big KMH numbers on the speedo to make me feel fast. It didn’t die on me, and nothing fell off (of me or the bike). It definitely looks the part, though I don’t think I’ll be going ton-up on it.

Editor Surj doesn’t have a curly moustache or a puddin’ bowl helmet, but he feels pretty damn authentic about his racing from café to café on the Continental GT, and finds that near-aneurysm levels of caffeine substantially enhance the riding experience.

This story originally appeared in our June 2018 issue, which you can read in all its glory here.