There is a certain undeniable, immediate poetry to riding a motorcycle.
On a perfect sunny afternoon, on a properly twisted road, dancing with the double yellow line is so completely immersive that it becomes meditative – one can achieve a state of grace where nothing else in your life or even in an increasingly distracted and distracting world can possibly intrude.
There is a certain type of motorcycle that is, at least in my eye, most appropriate to this kind of mission. That motorcycle, first, must itself not be trying to distract the rider from their attainment of backroad enlightenment. All you rides with 11 inch LCDs in the instrument panel with SatNav, trip computers, Bluetooth music and Apple Car Play, kindly exit here. Supersports, GT Sports Tourers, and Brobdingnagian Adventure bikes are encouraged to follow.
What I’m talking about here are elemental, essential motorcycles. Two wheels, an engine, and a place to hang on. Everything the rider needs, and absolutely nothing they do not. If that motorcycle is narrow, light and allows one to see light through the frame, so much the better.
Bikes like this used to be everywhere – the CB450 Honda, the later CB350s, Norton Commandos, Triumph Bonnevilles. If you’re looking for such a motorcycle nowadays, there is very little made out there that will catch your eye.
Royal Enfield Motorcycles – of Chennai, India – wants to change all that.
Royal Enfield’s INT 650 – which is called the Interceptor in the rest of the world, but not in the US, because Honda of America owns the trademark, despite RE having produced their first Interceptor in 1962 – and its close cousin, the café styled Continental GT 650 – are classically styled, affordable middleweight motorcycles that want to put a generation of new riders on motorcycles that capture that essence of the ride.
Royal Enfield began – in 1901 — as one of the foundational British motorcycle manufacturers. After a massive order from the Indian Government for police and military bikes in the early 1950s, Enfield UK authorized an Indian licensee to assemble the machines, and then to manufacture components. By 1962, there was no more UK Enfield, and all of the motorcycles were built and assembled in Chennai. Royal Enfield can accurately claim to be the oldest motorcycle company to be in continuous production.
Royal Enfield in India built two motorcycle lines – The Enfield Bullet in both 350 and 500 cc displacements. The bikes came in various states of equipment – olive drab military models, classic models with lots of chrome and pinstripes, everyday rider standards – and sold by the hundreds of thousands if not the millions in India.
The Bullets, though, were somehow strangely stranded in time – they were travelers from the 1930-1950s high point of the British Single – that had somehow avoided being changed. Royal Enfield, though, with some new ownership, investment and management, began to position itself to move quickly ahead. First the powerplant of the Bullets was updated – going to unit construction and implementing electronic fuel injection. Then, RE worked on a special project with England’s Harris Performance – who have been designing custom racing frames and complete motorcycles – including Yamaha’s Factory GP Bikes — since the early 1970s – to design a more capable motorcycle around one of their new Unit Singles. That motorcycle became the RE Continental GT 535 – a bike that RE appreciated so much that they then purchased Harris Performance.
The last missing piece needed to produce a thoroughly modern motorcycle– from an engineering standpoint – was a new engine. And the result of RE’s first twin engine design project since the company left England – a 650cc, single overhead cam, 4 valve per cylinder, air and oil-cooled vertical twin – is nothing less than a stunning achievement. The 650 twin, which is slighty undersquare at 78 mm x 67.8 mm, uses a 270 degree crank and counterbalancers to deliver good strong torque right in the middle of the rev range — which makes the engine’s 47 horsepower and 38 foot pounds of torque feel a lot quicker than the brain says it ought to. The engine’s 270 degree crank makes power delivery mimic that of a V-twin – with uneven spacing of power pulses — with the engine revving quickly and providing a great exhaust sound, even on the OEM exhaust system. The 650’s engine design has yielded an engine with genuinely attractive character – smooth at high rpm, with just the right amount of vibration designed in, and punchy and quick to rev on the throttle. Every time I hit a corner exit all I wanted to do was roll the throttle wide open.
The air-cooled engine should be both well-understressed and easy to maintain – it uses screw and locknut valve adjusters – and there is clearly way more power potential in the motor than is provided in stock tune. The engine’s output of 47 hp was specifically chosen to allow the bike to qualify for the lowest tier in several countries’ tiered motorcycle licensing schemes. RE has already supported a team that went out to Bonneville in September, and ran a modified 650 up to a new class record at a tick over 150 miles an hour. So if you’re the type of guy or gal that wants to do some hot-rodding, this engine will welcome it.
The INT 650’s Harris-designed chassis uses the Continental GT 535’s design as the starting point – wheelbase is about 30 mm longer – but the general concept is the same – a modern, enhanced execution of the famous Featherbed dual downtube steel tubular chassis. The INT’s mid mount footpegs hang off a steel fixture that is designed to be swapped for one which supports the Continental GT’s rearsets – one mounting point – two different ergonomic setups. Steering head angle is a quick-steering 24 degrees, with 18 inch tires at both ends – a 100/90 in front and a 130/70 at the rear – sporting Pirelli Phantom SportsComp tires and built around Excel alloy rims. Front and rear suspension is by Gabriel, with 4.3 inches of fork travel and 3.5 in the rear. The only suspension adjustment is for rear preload.
Brakes are provided by Brembo’s Indian subsidiary — ByBre. All brake lines are braided stainless steel with a twin piston caliper with 320mm disk up front, and single piston caliper with a 240 mm disk up front, managed by a Bosch AntiLock Braking system. Both calipers are finished in the attractive gold paint that Brembo used on their sport bike calipers back in the early 2000s, paint which is also echoed on the rear shock gas reservoirs – providing a little moto jewelry for those after-ride bike gazing sessions.
Fit and finish and appearance of the motorcycle are really world class – our test unit was finished in a bright orange paint RE calls “Orange Crush” – the paint is deep and lustrous with no orange peel. The bike sports a reproduction of the RD tank badge that dates back to their Constellation model of 1959, if not further. Chromed parts are bright, and cycle parts are painted with either a black or light grey tough enamel finish. With the exception of the fenders, there is very little plastic anywhere. The narrow, flat bench saddle is finished off with a diamond pleat pattern. Instrumentation is limited to the essentials – analog tach and speedo, a very small LCD fuel bar gauge, with indicators for neutral, oil, highbeam, charging and ABS. Were I was to take one of these motorcycles home with me, I would spend a few more dollars for the optional chromed fuel tank – which takes the INT from merely very attractive to out-of-the-box Vintage Bike Show winner look alike.
Classic bike analogies stop the minute one thumbs the electric starter, however. The 650 mill fires on the third compression stroke every time, no matter how cold the weather may be, and settles immediately into a high idle with no noise from the valve train and just a hint of fuel injector whine. Blips of the throttle produce instant response, with a bassy exhaust note that pushes all the right biker buttons. Pulling in the cable operated, slipper clutch and toeing the gear driven 6 speed transmission down into first reveals a positively shifting, short throw gearbox – I had no missed shifts or false neutrals in an extended time testing the motorcycle.
And on the gas, the 650 is a flexible, torquey, good sounding motor with a broad spread of power – usable power starts at around 3000 rpm and gets genuinely grin producing at around 4500 before starting to trail off at about 6000. In our time with the INT it spent most of its time happily spinning around 5000 rpm which produces instant throttle response and seems to bother the engine not one whit. On the highway, the INT is easily able to cruise at 75 or 80 in top gear with passing power available. During our test we averaged a bit above 50 miles per gallon average.
The bike’s brakes are absolutely stellar – the front single disk has great feel, terrific power and is easily modulated. I was able to get the front tire right up to howling in simulated panic stops without triggering the ABS – there if you need it, but the master cylinder, braided lines and caliper make all of the setup’s power available and easily controlled. The rear brake is something I barely used – the bike’s slipper clutch allowed me to engine brake into hot corners without being concerned about rev matching or braking loose the rear on corner entrances.
The INT’s cornering manners took me a little while to come to terms with. Call it a character flaw that I respect and do not want to crash other people’s motorcycles. Riding conservatively, on smooth pavement the INT was close to magical – easy to turn-in, and held a line well. On some rougher, tighter, country roads, the bike’s fork and shocks seemed a tad overdamped – transmitting some road irregularities to the rider and occasionally prone to being knocked a little off the intended line. My inner lightbulb came on brightly when I ratcheted up the aggression level, and started to really give the twin the full berries — Harris Performance’s racing pedigree was on full display here – absolutely wail on the bike, and it settles down completely. Apex late, turn in harder, open the throttle more and sooner and the INT comes into its own, able to adjust and even tighten up lines mid-corner with no drama. I had underestimated this motorcycle, and it taught me something.
With its single cylinder Bullets, Royal Enfield had been strictly a niche manufacturer in the United States motorcycle market. In a market characterized by an explosion of motorcycle categories, and preoccupations with engine displacement, irrational speed and electronic gadgets, their humble singles were a truly an almost eccentric acquired taste. The Royal Enfield INT 650, though, is a complete departure from RE’s prior US offerings.
Completely ignoring RE’s long heritage and prior offerings, and evaluated on its own merits, the RE INT 650 is simply an elemental, classic motorcycle that uses a bare minimum of modern engineering and technology to produce a bike that captures the essence of motorcycling. I can hardly recall a motorcycle that has been as much fun to ride as the INT. Every time I have taken this bike for a ride I’ve been smiling ear to ear every charge I took up though the gears, every time I braked hard to setup for a corner, and every time I came back after a blast around the valley.
The Royal Enfield INT 650 looks great, sounds great, and is an unadulterated blast to ride. At an MSRP of $5799 – including a three year, unlimited mileage warrantee, including roadside assistance – the only question might be why you haven’t got one yet.
Portions of this story originally appeared in the January/February 2019 Issue of Motorcycle Times. All rights reserved.