x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Road Test: The Royal Enfield is regal and retro

The legacy Indian export combines retro style with modern conveniences to give an everyday ride.

The Royal Enfield looks like it came from a museum, until you notice the modern additions such as a front disc brake and updated switchgear. Antonie Robertson
The Royal Enfield looks like it came from a museum, until you notice the modern additions such as a front disc brake and updated switchgear. Antonie Robertson

In recent years, it's been hard not to notice a definite trend towards retro, throwback motorcycles. Triumph may have started it with its latest Bonneville, an updated version of its 1960s classic with the same, cafe-racer style lines. Harley-Davidson has been careful to keep its old-school look alive on all of its latest models; why, even Italian superbike maker Ducati got in the mix with its throwback Sport 1000 S.

But if you want the real deal, it's hard to get more authentic than a Royal Enfield. The Enfield motorcycle firm set up shop in Thiruvottiyur, India, in the 1950s and has been building bikes relatively unchanged since then. Their overall shape and even the sound of its single-cylinder engine have become national icons for Indians.

In fact, so much so that, when the Classic 500 was designed with a new, modular engine and transmission with fuel injection, there was a grand uproar that the company was messing with its heritage. Modernisation doesn't come easily to a company with its history tied so closely with an entire country.

But there's no need to worry; Enfield isn't straying from its roots. The fuel injection is necessary for reliability - and to make it more compliant with stricter emissions standards around the world - but it doesn't affect the retro feel of the bike at all. In fact, this new version has other modern conveniences, such as a front disc brake and electric start; things that make it much easier to have as an everyday bike.

Walk around a Royal Enfield and you'll be vexed to peg when it was built. If you ignore the modern switchgear on the handlebars, it honestly looks like it was found in a museum, carefully looked after for half a century and brought out for a historical ride. It looks so much more authentically classic than any chrome-clad Harley-Davidson ever could. And while I wasn't really a fan of the peacock blue colour, it fits with the look; but I'd take mine in the classic black with gold trim any day.

The testing of this particular bike wasn't done on a track; the only time my knee touched the tarmac was when I stopped to tie my bootlace. If you're looking for a bike that gives cold sweat-inducing performance, you should wander down to the Honda or Yamaha dealerships instead. No, a Royal Enfield is something else entirely: it's style, commuting, and simple riding pleasure.

With just 27hp, you can't really ask it to be an exciting ride. But surprisingly, you don't really miss the extra horsepower, especially when you fully grasp what the bike is all about; instead of being frustrated at a lack of power, it actually is quite relaxing. Acceleration from a stop is reasonable, especially around town, and the single cylinder supplies gads of torque. In fact, that engine supplies a fantastic "thump-thump" sound that you don't find on many bikes these days; it sounds mechanical and raw, like a motorcycle should.

Getting up to motorway speeds isn't a problem either. Twist the throttle and the bike will catch up and stay with traffic - as long as it's not going faster than 130kph. The thing is, even at these higher speeds, the engine didn't sound like it was being taxed. It keeps thumping along happily, with not a hint of over-exertion or impending cylinder explosion. And all the while, the speedometer needle is jiggling back and forth over the face like a proper old-school bike; it's quite charming, really.

Where it really shines, though, is on a tight, twisty road. This is where the lack of horsepower doesn't matter, and you can find real enjoyment in its light handling. Its suspension is firm but not uncomfortable, but it gives the bike a flickable, lithe feel that makes a rider want to lean over, over and over again.

The biggest problem I had with it was, well, it's not big. It's a rather small bike, especially for someone standing more than 1.8m, and on longer rides - especially at higher speeds, with the wind buffeting my body - I started to cramp up. But, again, it just means that you take your ride at a leisurely pace and stop every now and again for a rest.

Would I buy one? Not as my everyday bike; I'm too much a fan of modern looks and performance. But there's no denying the appeal of a Royal Enfield, and as an in-town commuter or even an occasional weekend ride, you can't get much more stylish than this Indian import. In my short time with it, I had looks, stares and thumbs up from pedestrians and other drivers - mostly Indians who really understand the brand. And you don't get that too often with any vehicle, especially at this price.