Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Other Teal Terror: Royal Enfield C5

By Scott Araujo

Andy and I have a lot in common: a passion for small cars, a love of good wine and beer, and wives who, as first generation Americans, don't always get their idioms right. What else? We both own tiny machines in slightly less than masculine colors that are a little underpowered and way more fun than you might expect. This is my daily ride, a 2010 Royal Enfield C5. I've got about 9,000 miles on it so far and it has certainly been an experience.

Royal Enfield has a long and rich history. Founded in 1893 in Redditch, England making bicycles, they then moned on to making quadricycles. They made their first motorcycle around 1911 1901. They made them for a few years, took a few years off, then started again around 1911 and haven't stopped making them since. That's over one hundred years of continuous production. In the mid fifties they were sending so many bikes to India for the police and military that they set up an assembly plant there so the bikes could be shipped partially disassembled. By the mid sixties, Japanese bikes and the Harley Davidson Sportster (yes, it really used to be a sport bike) had sounded the death knell of the British sporting motorcycle industry and the Redditch plant closed shop, sending all their equipment to India where they spun up full production.

The little bikes were stout and hearty for their time. They had technical innovations like the first swingarm suspension used on a production motorcycle. They did well in racing and trials in the hands of privateers, there was never a factory funded team.

Spin forward a few decades and India is still making the same bike, the Royal Enfield Bullet. And I mean the same bike. There were only very minor modifications made for nearly fifty years. You could buy a "brand new" Royal Enfield and legally race it in vintage classes, it had changed that little. You could bolt brand new parts right on to a fifties bike.

What was state of the art in the mid fifties was now showing its age. The bike had a top speed of around 60mph on a good day and any significant time spent there was tempting an engine seizure from the anemic oil pump. It still had 6V electrics, points ignition, drum brakes front and rear, and was kick-start only. It was not terribly reliable by modern standards and the emissions left a lot to be desired.

Around 2005 they created the AVL or Advanced Lean Burn engine. It replaced the iron cylinder with an alloy one and raised the compression from 5.5:1 to 8.5:1. Emissions were lowered and 12V electrics became standard, as did electric start.

The AVL didn't last long. It was still way too dirty to meet emissions in many international markets. In 2009 they introduced the UCE or Unit Construction Engine. While the AVL had been a makeover this was a fresh start. The new bike had electronic ignition, electronic fuel injection, hydraulic lifters, a hydraulic front disc brake, and unit construction. Previously, the engine and transmission had separate lubrication. With the UCE the engine and transmission shared a single oil supply.

The New Generation
While totally fresh there was a huge premium placed on tradition. The engine still has a primary chain to transfer power from the engine to the transmission instead of the more common gear drive used in most bikes today. It gives the engine the characteristic short, upright look of a true British bike. They have an undersquare 84/90mm bore/stroke to get the great low end torque and distinctive engine "thump" that aficionados prize in the original. While the front end now has a disc brake it is on the left hand side, so when the bike is parked on the side stand and leaned over it tucks nicely away and isn't too noticeable. Top speed is now about 80mph with solid oil pressure.

The bikes are still hand made and one look at the frame will prove it. These are obviously not the perfect robot welds of a superbike. Lumpy but clean and obviously done by hand. Hammers and dollies are still used on the assembly line. Several models get hand painted pinstripes as well.

There are several models to choose from. The G5 is closest to the quintessential mid sixties English single cylinder with fork gaiters and a bench seat. The C5 evokes the classic lines of the fifties with a single seat and fender struts front and rear. Both of these models are available in Deluxe trim with more chrome and a beautiful chrome and painted tank. The B5 is the Model T. It is a little less expensive and made on the older Bullet 350 frame with a more square fender than the G5. It only comes in black. Finally there are the military variants, C5s dressed in flat olive drab or dessert sand colored paint. The Indian domestic market also gets some 350cc models.

As one person I know stated, "They changed everything they needed to and nothing they didn't." The bike is thoroughly modernized but looks like it fell through a time warp to get here. The ride is distinctly vintage. It shakes a good bit when revved and the handling is solid but not state of the art. That said, it is blast to ride! This is no super smooth inline four riding appliance. It takes you back to the day when men were men and machines made noise. While it will ride along on the freeway at 65mph it's more at home and more fun on back country or winding mountain roads.

My Experience
Some vintage affectations are notably absent. I have yet to see an oil puddle on my garage floor. The build quality and overall reliability is much higher than the older models but being hand made they're not quite up to Japanese standards yet. Still, most problems are minor and easily sorted. Classic Motor Works, the U.S importer, stands behind their product with a two year unlimited mileage warranty. Being a frequent visitor to their sponsored open forums I've seen first hand the effort they put into getting problems sorted. The owner of the company posts regularly on the forums. And the factory in Chennai, India is in regular contact with him collecting feedback.

While it's only got about 20hp at the rear wheel it's surprisingly capable. The picture you see at the top is of my bike at the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco, CA. I live in Portland, OR. I made that round trip, about 1,600 miles total, on that bike and the only problem I had was the speedo cable coming loose at one point. I didn't burn down the freeway the whole way, I mostly took the back roads. My only complaint was that the seat could use some improvement.

The Next Generation
The company is planning some big things. They have been expanding at a very rapid rate over the last few years. They are in the process of setting up a new, larger factory to keep up with demand. While this qualifies as a small motorcycle here in the U.S. this is the largest engined motorcycle made in India. As in most of Asia, the majority of bikes made are smaller and made for basic transportation. Royal Enfield is actively promoting pleasure riding as an activity for a country coming into economic prosperity. Also, there is currently a twin engine in development. It will be a twin and air cooled but not many other details have been released. They have admitted that there is still a hot debate within the company as to whether it should be a parallel or v-twin.

In Conclusion...
Is this a bike for everyone? Not at all. If you want gobs of power and torque on tap look elsewhere. If you want your bike to run like a Swiss watch with just basic maintenance, pick something else. If you spend most of your time at 65mph or more, well, you'd probably be happier with something meant to do that and the RE isn't. But if you want a singularly unique motorcycling experience, if you want every ride to feel like you just stepped back in time fifty years, and if you don't mind talking to a gray haired guy and listening to him wax poetic about his old Triumph/BSA/Norton every time you park, this might be the bike for you. Oh, and those guys will never believe you when you say the bike is only a year old.

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Anonymous said...

Mild typo on the date there but not a big deal.

Royal Enfield started regular serial production of motorcycles in 1901.

Ducati Scotty said...

No typo, honest mistake. I was focusing on the beginning year of continuous production. I have ammended things above. Thanks for pointing that out.

Royal Enfiled Beasts said...

We are great fan of RE and we really liked the write up here on RE. Thanks for the valuable input :)

Ducati Scotty said...

My pleasure. Now, off to ride to work :)