I have been writing a regular column for French magazine Café Racer for nearly ten years. This is the first time I've posted one of the columns. This is from a couple of months ago. It refers to the Royal Enfield Interceptor that I road test in SB35. Here goes...
As a motorcycle journalist, one whose livelihood depends, in a fairly substantial part, on advertising income perhaps I shouldn’t admit this, but it’s been a while since I’ve been excited about a new bike. At least excited enough to think seriously about buying it.
It’s not the manufacturers’ fault, really. They’re making astonishing motorcycles given everything they have to deal with. Governments, the European Union and other external forces quite rightly continue to force manufacturers to improve the environmental impact of their machines. The whole push for ABS and other rider aids is harder for me to get behind.
Of course, the best way of minimising environmental impact is to stop making new machines and concentrate on keeping the old ones running. Sure, the old bikes might pump out a few more fumes per mile than new machines, but the vast majority of their environmental impact took place mining the raw materials and shipping those materials, and the finished product, around the world after manufacturing the bike in a huge factory, but let’s not get that deeply into this argument. We’re all going to hell in a consumerist handcart and there is nothing we can do about that. I’m not about to go live in a cave and exist on what I can grow or hunt, and I wouldn’t expect you to either.
I say it’s been a while since I thought hard about buying a new motorcycle, but that changed in the last few months. I came close to buying a KTM 790 Duke, or at least as close as I’ve ever come to buying a brand new motorcycle. The reason? London is going to start charging bikes that are not EU3 compliant £12.50 (about US $16/€14) per day to enter the capital. This news so dismayed me that I decided I needed a new bike to avoid paying the tax. I distinctly remember I was on a French beach, reading motorcycle magazines as my family swam, when I made my mind up. The new Austrian parallel twin had been receiving great reviews and the price was right. It was a couple of days later that I realised I only ride into London about eight or nine times a year nowadays, yet I’d nearly convinced myself I ‘needed’ an £8000 motorcycle to avoid paying a total of about £100 per year in tolls into London. I pay nearly three times that much while driving from Calais to Biarritz and back over one weekend.
London isn’t trying to improve air quality by putting a tax on the movement of older bikes, they’re just raising revenue and covering it in a veil of environmental concern. The UK is one of the most aggressively anti-motorcycle countries in the world and this is just one more kick in the balls.
But the KTM had got me thinking about new bikes and I can’t have fully shaken the thought when I landed in California for the late-September launch of new Royal Enfield 650 Twins.
It was a lavish and large launch, from the biggest underdog in the two-wheeled world. I love that Royal Enfield are remarkably honest about their place in the pecking order. They don’t try to fool people into thinking they’re building cutting edge machines and their marketing is refreshingly honest. When they say they have the longest unbroken manufacturing record in motorcycling they’re not stretching the truth. Sure they refer to their history a lot, and perhaps place more importance on the impact of the original 1965 Continental GT than it deserves, but I believe they have earned the right. They are not one of the growing number of companies who buy an old name and rely on the former brand’s history for their ‘legacy’. Royal Enfield India was formed when Royal Enfield were still manufacturing in the UK and while ownership has changed, they have never stopped building bikes.
In the most recent financial year RE sold 820,000 motorcycles. There are no plastic 50s inflating that figure, all of the factory’s output is at least 350cc in size. Royal Enfield’s management think they’re going to sell a million bikes in a 12-month period before too long. Can you read the beginning of this paragraph again, please? That’s not a total production figure for the life of the company, or even the cumulative figure for Bullets over its 50-plus year history, that enormous figure is motorcycles built and sold in one year! 820,000. One year. 900,000 the following year, perhaps a million the year after… And still, they don’t walk around with their chests puffed out, like they own the place (when they have every right to).
The new Enfields are as simple as a 650cc twin can be in the year 2019 and still pass through the EU and DOT hoops. They have ABS, but it activates a single disc front brake with a sliding two-piston caliper. It’s like something from 1980s Commuterville! I can’t think of the last new bike I saw with a two-piston front caliper. The bike weighs 200kg and makes a claimed 47 horsepower. That might be at the crank, not the back wheel, too. I forgot to ask. What is clear is the fact that on paper the 2019 Continental GT and Interceptor are as inspiring as the dinner menu in a Mogadishu hospital. Take it off paper, and into the hills above San Jose, and the narrative changes. On the road they are a revelation. I’ve been on my fair share of bike presentations, but I’ve never heard so many journalists on a launch say they’d consider buying one, and, as a rule, those tight bastards hate buying anything. It says a lot about the pricing of the bike, and the wages of motorcycle journalists, but still, it was startling. I flew home (in Business class) thinking the whole experience offers all manufacturers a lesson in managing expectations.
Royal Enfield’s pre-launch marketing was slick, professional, inviting and a little understated, but lacking in hyperbole. They are honest enough to know they’re not reinventing any sectors, or that they’re even the most accomplished bike in the segment they’re entering, but when you take price into the equation, the 650s take some beating.
Compare Royal Enfield’s marketing to that of another 2019 bike I’ve been excited to see, the Indian FTR 1200. I’m running out of space, so let’s keep it brief. Polaris acquired the Indian brand and re-launched it in 2013 with a small range of decent cruisers and bagger tourers, taking the fight to Harley Davidson; 2017 the Indian FTR750 blitzes professional flat track racing; November 2017, the FTR1200 Concept is released and people go wild; June 2018, Indian announces they’re going to build a road going version; in their marketing they lean heavily on their flat track champion, Jared Mees, and say, implicitly, ‘ The Flat Tracker For the Street Is Coming’; Yesterday, the bike comes out it is heavier, both physically and visually, than the concept.
This is not a surprise to anyone who understands 21st century motorcycle design, which includes me, but there are plenty of loudmouths who don’t and they immediately started berating Indian. Why? Well, they think someone wants to hear their opinion, but also because the American company didn’t do a great job in managing expectations. The message was, ‘See the Concept? Add mirrors and indicators and that’s what you’re going to get…’ And it isn’t. Indian will have a success on their hands, because even if it isn’t the Concept, it’s still a good looking motorcycle. Also the keyboard warriors weren’t going to buy it anyway, whatever it looked like. Those kind of people always make an excuse. In that respect, I’m a lot like them. I’ve never bought a brand new motorcycle, and despite the midsummer blip on the Basque country beach, I don’t see that changing.