PIPEBURN EXCLUSIVE: A Behind The Scenes Look At Royal Enfield’s New 650 Twins
Written by Andrew Jones
It’s September 26th, 2017. Through a series of events I still don’t quite understand, I’m sitting in the boardroom of the new Royal Enfield Technical Centre at Bruntingthorpe, near Leicester in the UK. Next to me is Siddharth Lal who’s the son of Vikram Lal, one of India’s richest men. ‘Sid’, as he’s called, is the CEO of Royal Enfield. Also here is Englishman Mark Wells who is their design guru and American Paul Ventura who does the thinking behind the company’s new products. Their mood is upbeat and I’m about to find out why.
A special rear-projection screen that’s big enough to show a rendered motorcycle at 100% scale is turned on. Before I really know what’s happening, we see a beautiful, orange-tanked roadster with twin exhausts appear as if it’s right there in the room with us. ‘We’ve been working on this for almost 10 years,” says Sid without taking his eyes off of the bike. My jaw drops.
The team’s distraction morphs to excitement as they tell us all about what they have been keeping secret for so long. Next we see a render of their new engine. It’s a 650 parallel twin and boy does it look good. Hell, it looks almost archetypal – like it belongs in a museum or an art gallery. Different to the thumping Royal Enfield singles we’ve seen before, it’s much more jaunty and forward-leaning with polished side covers big enough to check your new leather boots in.
All the while, Mark and Paul are like two excited peas in a pod. With a combination of youthful exuberance and top-shelf skills, they are clearly a powerhouse team that are leading the way for the rest of the company. Besides that, they are just great fun to be around. I immediately want to be best mates with both of them.
Another click of the laptop and we’re now playing dress-ups with the Continental GT. Superficially it resembles the older 535 model but the more we look, the more we realise that it too is brand spanking new. Mouses are clicked and a range of accessories are added and removed. Unable to hold back my urges, I get them to strip an Interceptor of all its factory mirrors, fenders and indicators. It looks amazing. If only we could see it in the flesh…
Bruntingthorpe Test Track, September 27th, 2017
I’m at the private circuit located a few hundred metres from the Tech Centre. Every minute or so, a Triumph rider doing high-speed testing passes our position going flat-out. Next to us is Aussie legend and Enfield test rider Paul ‘Youngy’ Young. “Bloody watch yourself,” he says in his thick accent. “If he comes off at that speed, he’ll clean you up.” His message is simple; this is where the big boys play. We watch out, lest we be killed by an experimental Triumph doing an impression of a suicidal olympic gymnast.
Youngy mounts an ‘Alpha’ test bike and starts it up while a boffin plays with the lasers and loggers mounted to the bike’s rear. They’re recording masses of info from the bike, including lean angles and mucho engine data. The bike seems about a million kilometres old. If they’d told us that it’d been around the globe twice, we’d believe it.
We finish the day by sneaking into a derelict 747 that’s parked here while slowly being dismantled for scrap. It’s so old, it’s covered in moss. After eyeing it off for days, we finally build up the courage to climb the old ladder piercing its belly. Confident that we’ll be kicked out by security and/or shouted at by Royal Enfield, one of us keeps watch while the others clamber inside. It reeks of mouldy upholstery and old pot smoke from the local kids getting high. We enter the cockpit to randomly press buttons, throw levers and yell ‘MAYDAY! MAYDAY!’ at the imaginary control tower. We see Youngy off in the distance still doing test laps of the track. Thank god one of us is committed to their job.
Chennai, October 6th, 2017
We’re about 50 kilometres south of the city on a rural backroad. There’s no wind at all and the phone in my sweaty, sunburnt hand says it’s 42 degrees centigrade. Copping the full anger of the midday sun are two of the local Enfield testers who are safely dressed up in black leather from head to toe. Despite their acclimatisation to the weather, they look ready to pass out.
They are on ‘Beta’ bikes; they’re more finished-looking than Youngy’s Alpha, but still a world away from the showroom. I break every rule in the book by jumping on one and tearing off down the road. This is probably the very first time that anyone outside of Royal Enfield has ridden the bikes. I accelerate hard up through the gears until I’m having trouble seeing thanks to the oven-like gust of hot wind in my face. The bike has balls. Not 200 horsepower sportsbike balls, but bigger balls than any other Enfield I’ve ridden. And the acceleration doesn’t stop at freeway speeds. With no helmet, I wind things back at around 130 km/h with plenty of oomph left to go.
Sydney, June 21st, 2018
News comes through from Bruntingthorpe. Like a bolt from the blue, we are told that Paul Ventura has been killed while riding home from work the previous evening. We’re stunned. Hoping someone’s made a horrible mistake, we soon find out that it’s all too real. He’s gone, leaving behind two young boys and a grieving widow. The Bruntingthorpe team are inconsolable. I’m tearing up now just thinking about it. May he rest in peace.
Oragadam Test Track, July 22nd, 2018
With Paul’s loss still on our minds, we arrive at Enfield’s local test track west of Chennai. While the location looks a lot like any other test track, in typical Indian style it seems to be a little more relaxed than you’d expect. “Dodging stray bloody dogs that wander onto the track when you’re going flat-out is real fun,” says a sarcastic Youngy.
The bikes themselves have now transformed into pre-production models. It’s also the first time we get to see the new Interceptor in the flesh. No offence to the GT, but this roadster is the one everyone seems to like. It has a kind of hotrod-ish look that allows it to be both sporty and comfortable. And that orange tank…
Youngy makes a spontaneous and insane offer. “What about you shoot me and Paco from the middle of the high-speed corner? We can ride past you flat-out, one bloke on each side.” Feeling like naughty school kids discussing whether or not to start a fire in the local park, we stupidly agree. The brutal reality of it all doesn’t really dawn on us until we see the two bikes coming straight at us doing 180 km/h.
Extreme excitement mixes abruptly with shit-your-pants fear as 400 kilos of angry metal screams past us. It’s so fast and so close that we instantly regret doing it. The fact that the bikes are barely a meter or two apart and are laid over at an unexpectedly sharp angle means there’s mere centimetres between us. Life lessons are quickly learned: (1) Youngy and Paco are gun test riders with absolutely no fear, (2) we are way too keen to risk our lives for cool shots, and (3) we’re now uniquely qualified to tell you that the bikes are rock steady through a full speed corner.
California, August 14th, 2018
Royal Enfield’s vision of surf culture being as important to the Interceptor as cafe racing is to the GT sees us visit California. Half way between the beaches of Ventura and the legendary dry lakes of Maricopa to the north, we hang out in the town of Ojai. It’s pretty much a desert itself, with locals still talking about the deadly bushfires of 2017.
Now consummate professionals at borrowing bikes from unsuspecting manufacturers, we nick the wheels that will soon be used for the global press launch on these very roads. We are told that they are pretty much identical to the bikes you or I would be buying from our local dealers. With nothing to do but waste a day causing trouble on some of America’s best roads, we pass countless rows of local orange trees while heading north on the 33.
We ride through the oasis-like Wheeler Springs before climbing up into the mountains south of Dry Lake ridge. Empty roads combine with spectacular views and hundreds of deftly cambered corners to create a genuine bucket-list ride. The bikes never scream for our attention or demand to have their hands held. Instead they are just there, enjoying the ride and working with you to get the most out of the road. As we move north, the treeless foothills give way to Los Padres National Park that’s full of pines, Yogie Bear-esque log cabins and postcard rock formations. Then, just as you’re getting an urge to book a ski lodge and hunt some grizzlies, the rocks part to reveal the surreal Maricopa desert.
And yes, I have been avoiding the technical details of the bikes. While we waited for years to have the bikes’ finals specs revealed, you’ll probably know most of them already. But just in case you don’t, the air and oil-cooled 648cc parallel twin with a rumbling 270˚crank puts out 50-odd horses and 52 Newton metres of torque into a six-speed gearbox that feels remarkably slick. Shocks are from the Italian manufacturer Paioli, while the brakes are from ByBre, Brembo’s budget line. The well-adjusted fuel injection is by Bosch and the factory rubber is the capable Pirelli Phantom Sport. While not overly impressive on paper, the 198 kilo (or 436 pound) bikes do go harder and feel lighter than you’d expect.
Sydney, February 8th, 2019
A guest of Royal Enfield Australia for their local Twins launch, I’m now approaching Sydney’s famous ‘Nasho’ – more formally known as the ‘Royal National Park.’ Bounded by the Pacific ocean on its eastern side, the 140-year-old park’s most picturesque parts are its dense rainforests, sparkling waterfalls and untouched white beaches. If there’s one road in the world I can truly say I know, it’s this one. Hell, I literally grew up here.
With the road a very pleasant but foregone conclusion, I can finally draw some of my own conclusions on these new bikes. As you’ve probably guessed, I think that they are really very good. No, they aren’t going to blow you away with their arm-snapping acceleration, razor-sharp handling or spectacular equipment levels, but for these roads they are pretty much spot-on. Everything works well, they go and stop better than you’d expect them to and they more than look the part. What Royal Enfield have here is a world-class, credible, capable and fun bike that shows an implicit understanding of what makes us riders happy. They feel like a truly global offering that signifies a new era for an old brand that’s no longer satisfied relying on the Indian market to pay the bills.
Of course, we can’t have an honest discussion about Royal Enfield bikes without touching on the bike’s reliability. And while I do think that it’s too early to put my hand on my heart quality-wise, what I can say is that I have witnessed first hand the incredible efforts they have gone to for the 650 twins. While your average Bullet or Classic are built in a remarkably similar fashion to how they were 50 years ago, the twins are very different. They built a megabuck Tech Centre in the heartland of their ancestors and hired some of the world’s best engineers to staff it. Their engines are assembled by the same robotic machines that BMW, Triumph and Yamaha are using. Japanese quality assurance experts have been hired and listened to. 1200 point quality checks are now conducted on each and every bike that rolls off their brand new production lines.
You’d be right in pointing out that I couldn’t have gone through all of this while remaining unbiased, but I’d have to be deaf not to hear what many of my contemporaries – custom builders included – are saying. Royal Enfield have reinvented themselves to make this a reality and the end result are bikes that defy you to not buy them. They’re great fun and great value-for-money without feeling cheap or compromised. They’re modern bikes but with some real heritage to their name. They do everything you’d need without any noticeable flaws and remarkably, they bridge the gap between beginner and experienced riders by being ‘proper’ enough to satisfy both camps. I think Royal Enfield have a hit on their hands; the only thing that’s more exciting than riding them will be finding out what other new models they have up their sleeves for 2020.