“I say, that’s a nice-looking bike,” exclaimed the immaculately dressed 60-something as he emerged from the post office in the heart of the Warwickshire countryside and approached me just as I was straddling the Royal Enfield Continental GT. “It looks very much like the Royal Enfield I used to ride back in my own motorbiking days, long ago. But that’s a new registration mark you’ve got on the number plate, isn’t it? Do they still make these over in Redditch, like they used to do back when I bought mine?”
Well… yes, sir – and no, sir. For while this particular bike is indeed a direct descendant of the Royal Enfields of yesteryear, its journey to here, a dozen miles from Enfield’s old Redditch factory southwest of Birmingham where the company was founded back in 1898, started out in Chennai (aka Madras), India.
For that’s where all Royal Enfields have been made since the parent company closed its doors in 1967, after making a brave, but ultimately futile attempt to stave off insolvency with the introduction two years earlier of the 250cc Continental GT café racer – a sporty little single complete with flyscreen that looked like it was doing 100 mph just standing still. And that’s the bike that this new much larger-capacity 535cc model is ultimately based on, at least visually, as the first step in the plans of Royal Enfield’s parent company Eicher Motors (the large Indian commercial vehicle manufacturer which has owned RE since 1996) to transform the world’s oldest motorcycle company in continuous existence into a global player by investing in a raft of new models. And this one was the first – straight out of the new factory outside Chennai at Oragadam.
The 49.3-acre new state-of-the-art facility has the capacity to allow Eicher to eventually produce 500,000 motorcycles a year between this and its venerable old Chennai plant, and indeed Royal Enfield is on schedule to build 175,000 motorcycles in 2013, says Eicher’s MD/CEO Siddhartha Lal. That’s a big step up from the 50,000 RE units built in 2010, but the company has already begun work on the second phase of expansion at the new plant, which will further increase production capacity to 250,000 motorcycles in 2014.
“We’re already the leader of the 250-750cc midsize motorcycle market in India, where there’s a seven-month waiting list for our models,” says Lal. “Despite experiencing a difficult period 15 years ago, we stuck to our guns, and whatever it takes to be a global leader in this midsize sector, we’ll do it. The Continental GT is the first fruit of the major $22 million investment in our new plant that’s resulting in a better than 50 percent growth in deliveries year-on-year, and is allowing us to put a dent in that waiting list in our home market, as well as to substantially increase export sales.”
Royal Enfields are currently exported to 54 countries around the globe, with the U.S. presently the largest customer for these evocative examples of history on wheels, with 3500 bikes sold there in 2012.
So the debut of the Continental GT marks a key step in the evolution of what has for many years been the prestige brand in the world’s second largest motorcycle market, via the range of 350/500cc OHV pushrod singles in the Bullet family. But Eicher is now set on growing Royal Enfield into a true world brand and the Continental GT represents a considerable step up from anything RE has previously offered in terms of quality, engineering, styling, and finish – the latter facilitated by the brand-new machinery at Oragadam (including robot welders and an automated paint shop) that the bikes are now built with.
To read more of the Royal Enfield Continental GT first ride in this week’s Cycle News, click here