As Royal Enfield unveil their most significant new bike in 70 years we go for a ride with the company boss, starting from their new technical centre in Leicestershire.
It’s a crisp autumn morning in Leicestershire, with blue skies and bright sunshine, but the trees are bare, there are damp patches on the shaded tarmac and it’s a bit parky. These are nice roads though. Typical English undulations with a mix of open corners and blind bends that follow routes fashioned by footpaths and field enclosures hundreds of years ago.
Mud on critical apexes suggests local farmers are still struggling with road:field differentiation though. We’re ten minutes into a ride with Royal Enfield boss Siddhartha Lal aboard a pair of the company’s new 650 twins that were launched in California last month. They’re agile, flexible and engaging bikes that arc effortlessly into the corners and blatter along the straights. These roads could have been made for them. Though of course the reality is the other way around. They might be manufactured in India, but the new twins were developed at the company’s new £60 million tech centre at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, from where we started our ride.
They have already been exhaustively tested on Leicestershire tarmac. Back at the Tech Centre we saw several bikes with odometer readings heading towards 20,000 that will shortly be stripped for high mileage inspection, to find out how they’re faring before customers start clocking up big miles. Royal Enfield’s recent success is built on the time served 350 and 500cc single-cylinder Bullet models that have been in production, first in Redditch, Worcestershire, then Chennai, India since 1948.
The new bikes are a real milestone for the company, and one that’s been a long time coming. ‘The twins have been on our horizon for a long time.’ Siddhartha explained before we set off. ‘We didn’t have the capability ten years ago, but it was something that we always wanted to do. Around five years ago we said, we’re ready. We know how to do a chassis, we’d done the 535 Continental GT and the Himalayan. Of course doing the chassis isn’t just the design part, it’s manufacturing and sourcing too. And then for the engine we were also confident in our capabilities. That is when we said, for sure, we can do it.’
At that point RE started taking a serious look at the competition. ‘Minus five years from launch you start thinking a lot about the product and you do a lot of riding for benchmarking. For any new product you are benchmarking 10-15 other motorcycles. We’ll have a route of say 15 miles in the country, on highways, in cities, and on bad roads. And we’ll ride exactly the same route with all the different motorcycles and a variety of riders. We are not catering to the 0.1% of riders, but to all riders.’ On the evidence of this ride, a brisk meander along A and B-roads, slowing up to pass through picturesque English villages, RE have succeeded in making a bike for all comers. The new 650 Interceptor is engaging and entertaining, but neutral and easy to ride.
Swapping bikes proves the same is true for the sportier Continental GT too. Siddhartha’s riding kit, scuffed Royal Enfield branded textile suit, Gerbing heated gloves and well-used Arai, are evidence that he was heavily involved in that testing process. His views on motorcycling conveniently match the values of the Royal Enfield brand too. ‘Motorcycling isn’t always about speed. For me it is meditative, rhythmic. There is no-one to talk to and it’s simple. We want our bikes to be enjoyable at regular speeds.
At 40/80/120kph they must be fun. I ride a lot of bikes, but many of them force you to go fast. We want a bike to be enjoyable for real world riding.’ Siddhartha has been running Royal Enfield since 2001, taking over the reins when he was just 26 years old. In that time production and sales have grown relentlessly from 51,000 in 2000 to over 800,000 expected for 2018. That is a result of product refinement, manufacturing and supply chain efficiency, brand development and commercial nous. But were bikes always a thing for him, or is this just business?
A pause at the Grey Goose in Gilmorton allows the conversation to continue. ‘In 1991 the Eicher business (they’re truck makers – ed), which was run by my father, bought 50% of Royal Enfield, so my father started to bring bikes home. I was 18 years old, so I used to ride a red 350 Bullet to college and that was my introduction to motorcycling. I guess that 95% of the miles I’ve done since have been on Bullets. Also, I think that riding Bullets got me super fascinated in how things work.
‘In 1994 I borrowed a bike from the UK importer and did 4000 miles around Europe with just a tent and a sleeping bag. I had no problems till I was nearly back at Calais and I fell off at a roundabout and got trapped under the bike which was leaking petrol onto me. I was there for ages until some kids stopped their car and came rushing to help me pick the bike up, and they were all smoking cigarettes. I signalled to them to stop, but they thought I wanted a cigarette too. That was scary for a moment.
‘I spent three to four months working with Fritz Egli (legendary tuner and chassis engineer – ed) in Switzerland. He was tuning Bullets, enlarging the engine to 624cc, modifying chassis and also fitting turbochargers to Yamaha V-Maxes. That was my first taste of fast bikes. We would take the V-Maxes to Germany and test them on the autobahns by riding as fast as we could go and still Being ‘super curious about how things work’ led to a change of academic direction too. After studying economics at university at home in India, Siddhartha came to the UK in 1996 to do a graduate diploma in engineering at Cranfield University, and then an MSc in automotive engineering at Leeds. In 1999 he went back home to work for Royal Enfield. Two years later he was the boss.
The sheer scale of the Indian market is hard for UK and European riders to comprehend. ‘20 million new bikes sold every year, mostly for commuting. 80 million riders, maybe more and three million Royal Enfields on the road.’ According to Siddhartha. That leads to benefits. ‘So because we intend to make at scale, we can negotiate with our suppliers which means many thousands a month as opposed to hundreds.’ Getting full advantage of that scale is one reason why the 650s are being produced to the same specification across all markets, with ABS and emissions efficiency whether they’re legally required in that market or not.
There are further benefits to the Indian connection too. ‘Over there a chap is spending 10-15% of their salary on fuel, so you get the relevance of fuel efficiency in India. It’s not just a number. So we want to run our engines at the most efficient point rather than the most powerful point. That means 2-5000rpm, so all the torque is at that level.’ That should mean that the 650s have an impressively parsimonious consumption.
Time to head back to the Tech Centre, and another opportunity to ride the bikes, and these roads. Well, you’ve got to take advantage of autumn sunshine when you can. And when will customers be able to enjoy the bikes? ‘To be honest we’ve decided that we are going to fill our stores in India first, because this is peak buying season in India whereas here it’s not.
‘We have 850 stores in India, they each need four bikes to start with, so that’s 3000 bikes right there. We have Eicma at the start of November, and then the Indian press launch 14 November. We need the bikes there and in stores the next day. So by December we start shipping around the world, so yes,’ he laughs, ‘in early January, when it’s freezing cold, there will be bikes in UK stores.’ Despite the weather, if they’re priced competitively they won’t be in shops for long.
Royal Enfield finally announced UK prices for the new twins at EICMA, which came after our ride with Siddhartha. Prior to the announcement speculation considered the possibility of a sub five grand number. At, say, £4995 it would have been a revelation. The reality is different but, it has to be said, not by much – the standard Interceptor 650 will be £5500 on the road, while the standard Continental GT will be £200 more at £5700, otr. Prices rise through the range to a top end £6200 for the Continental GT Chrome. Middleweight sector pricing has been creeping up for years and hopefully Enfield’s aggressive numbers will attract new UK customers.