Normally I can’t get excited about reviving the past, but that’s not what this Royal Enfield Continental GT 650 is. It is actually an entirely modern motorcycle made in the shape of a classic.

The original Royal Enfield 500 Twin came into being in England in 1948 as yet another British export twin. Like Edward Turner's 1937 Triumph Speed Twin, the Royal Enfield was a parallel twin with 360-degree firing order (both pistons moving, and therefore vibrating, together) and only two rolling-element main bearings. This was a pushrods and rockers engine whose crankcase was vertically split like that of a single. To reduce shaking force, like Turner's Triumph, it was given lightweight aluminum connecting rods, at first running directly on the crankpins, and later on bearing shell inserts. A separate four-speed gearbox was bolted to the back of the crankcase, driven in English fashion by a primary chain enclosed in a chaincase.

Enfield enlarged and updated this engine over the years, ending with a 71.0 x 93.0mm bore and stroke producing 736cc. Although some models were exported to the US, numbers were small and marketing lacked oomph. I saw lots of Triumphs and BSAs in the 1960s, plus a few Nortons, but very few Enfields.

air-cooled parallel twin
Retailing for $5,999 with a three-year unlimited-mileage warranty, the 2019 Royal Enfield Continental 650 is powered by an air-cooled parallel twin. The fuel-injected engine comes with Bosch ECU and ABS. Emissions are claimed to meet EPA and Euro 5 standards.Courtesy of Royal Enfield

What a contrast, therefore, to learn that the new machines from India are completely different save in appearance. The attractive, well-braced crankcase is horizontally split, allowing use of a forged, one-piece 270-degree crossplane crankshaft, all of whose journals turn on rugged, long-lived plain bearings. The new crank has three main bearings, which prevent the whipping that made the two-bearing design of British Royal Enfields vulnerable to bending.

That 270-degree crank places the left piston at 90 degrees BTDC when the right piston is at TDC, giving the same syncopated exhaust note as a Ducati. Resolving the resulting shaking and rocking couples is an up-to-date gear-driven balance shaft ahead of the crank. Bore and stroke are now 78.0 x 67.8mm for 648cc.

Traditional Harris-made tubular steel chassis
Traditional Harris-made tubular steel chassis gives a 55.1-inch wheelbase and incorporates modern steering geometry—24 degrees rake and 4.1 inches trail. A conventional 41mm fork delivers a claimed 110mm of front travel, while twin shocks provide 3.5 inches of rear travel.Courtesy of Royal Enfield

This is a unit-construction engine, meaning the six-speed gearbox shares the same case as the engine. The clutch is multi-plate and is built in modern slipper-plus-assist style. There is not a separate gearcase, bolted on or held in 1930s-style engine plates. A large alternator mounts on the left-hand end of the crank, carrying a starter ring gear driven by an electric starter behind the cylinders (kickstarting is also possible).

"Come dressed just as you are; this isn’t cosplay, just motorcycling."

And now, the cylinder head: This is a modern four-valves-per-cylinder design with a chain-driven SOHC acting through roller rocker arms with service made easy by screw-and-nut clearance adjusters. But this modern mechanism does not interfere with the appearance of this clearly air-cooled engine (yes, there is an oil cooler). Claimed power is 47 hp at 7,250 rpm. Peak torque is 38 pound-feet at 5,250 rpm but is said to be no less than 80 percent of that figure from 2,500 up, making this a torque-rich engine—twist the throttle and go—over a wide range of rpm. This engine makes power that is appropriate for air-cooling (that’s why the compression ratio is a moderate 9.5:1).

This is what I will call “a regular motorcycle.” It will give performance similar to that enjoyed by millions of riders of the “40-inchers” of the past (that’s what 650s are) but without the thudding vibration. It is not a rocket ship or a Patagonia probe. Come dressed just as you are; this isn’t cosplay, just motorcycling.

I read recently that India’s annual GDP growth is now 8 percent, and that fast-expanding manufacturing plus a strong software industry have lifted 270 million people out of a past of hard circumstances. India has become a fast-arriving economic powerhouse. Royal Enfield CEO Siddhartha Lal says he plans to sell a million bikes.