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    Royal Enfield 700 twin

    Tuesday, October 13, 2009

    Back in the early sixties, when I was still a teenager, Royal Enfield launched the world's biggest vertical twin, the 692cc Connie. I was completely infatuated with this machine. I stood in awe in front of the showroom, bathing in the reflected glint of its chrome, alloy and paint. It seemed so much more rugged than the big Nortons and Triumphs of the day. I wanted one but all my pocket money would run to was a tatty bicycle...

    By 1992 I'd run through the whole gamut of motorcycles - from nasty British thumpers, through interesting twins to top of the range Japanese fours, but I'd never actually owned a Royal Enfield motorcycle, though I never forgot the impression that first Connie made. I had a laugh over the Indian Enfield 350, though I should probably have cried!

    One really hot summer's day, I decided to visit the Motorcycle Museum in Brum, from my home in London. No problem for the fine CBR600. The only hassle with modern bikes like the Honda is that they make 100mph feel like 60mph on the motorway; hence loads of interest from the police. That was the only excitement I got out of riding the CBR, dodging the plod!

    Parking up at the museum, the ground seemed to shake and the air tremble. My god, an earthquake in Birmingham? Nope, half a dozen or so Royal Enfield twins! Fate had finally caught up with me. And there she was, a bit worn around the edges, dribbling oil on to the car park like a good 'un and making enough noise to cause a breach of peace! A 1962 700 Connie!

    The owner seemed a little taken aback by the enthusiasm of a panting replica rider. I was all over the machine like a fourteen year old virgin over the school scrubber! Even though I would probably have swapped the Honda for it, he didn't want to sell but telephone numbers were exchanged.

    That was bad enough. But the museum itself was replete with hundreds of old British bikes, perhaps a bit too well restored for the liking of real enthusiasts, but nevertheless evoking memories and plain outright lust. Amazingly, the security there is very minimal despite the massive temptation put before visitors to leap on the bike of their dreams and ride right out of the window, like a poor man's James Bond!

    The poor old Honda, the total epitome of modern technology, was slaughtered on the way home out of utter animal frustration! Almost a year went by before I was able to buy the RE. I'd gone to see several other Brit's but somehow they didn't make it. I paid £2000 for the bike, which despite the oil leaks had a proper engine rebuild - the only time Enfields don't leak oil is when there ain't any in them! The owner could have ripped me off but he was more concerned that the bike go to a good home than with extracting the maximum amount of dosh from me. This happens quite a lot in British bike circles!

    I kept the Honda, as I use a bike for commuting, day in, day out, and I figured a 32 year old motorcycle might object to such continuous use. Even if the Enfield was quite advanced for its day. For instance, there wasn't an oil tank as such - the crankcase had a separate oil compartment, though it still worked like a dry sump engine rather than the Jap's wet sump set-up. The good thing about this was the lack of oil lines to break and oil tanks to fracture.

    Similarly, the engine wasn't unit construction but neither did it have a totally separate gearbox. The Albion four speeder was bolted up to the back of the crankcases. This meant the frame could be relatively minimal, the combined crankcases/gearbox part of its structure.

    Dry mass was around 410lbs, power was 51 horses at just over 6000 revs, top speed 115mph and fuel around 50mpg - according to the magazines of the day. As well as being a big vertical twin, it's a long stroke one with a bore and stroke of 70x90mm. What this means effectively is that you don't rev a Connie over five grand for more than briefest of moments when caught up in a necessary bit of acceleration!

    The reason you don't take a big Enfield above those revs isn't that it's going to explode into a million pieces (though it sounds and feels like it) but that the amount of vibration it puts out tends to wreck most of the cycle parts and leave the poor old rider in a terrible shaking fit. Even the compliant testers of the day complained of disintegrating exhausts and panels when it was speed tested!

    Enfield went on to increase the engine size to 750cc, but along the way they learnt a lot about dynamically balancing the crankshaft and toughening up the main bearings so that they could withstand the onslaught. The 700 came with an 8:1 compression ratio and twin Amal Monobloc carbs, a specification that was considered hot for the day but didn't do any harm to the amount of torque the long stroke twin put out below 5000 revs.

    When I had my first real ride on the bike I was mightily impressed by the way it'd pull off on a whiff of throttle and seem to thump down the road with implacable energy, giving the impression of being able to ride straight through erring cages! I had a taste of the vibration when I mucked up the gearchange (everything's the wrong way round), but second and then the upper ratios were eventually attained. The gearbox more precise than the Honda but having a long throw and heavy feel that would destroy trainers.

    There's something majestic about sitting on a big British twin in a tall gear, slowly opening the throttle and letting the torque flow in abundantly. In terms of the stopwatch, acceleration's pretty pathetic but in terms of the excess of sensations it's well mean! It might seem odd, if not downright insane, to suggest that a 50hp twin can make a 100hp four feel bland, but that's what it does!

    There's a great difference between leisure rides on sunny days and doing long distance touring or even the daily commute. Even below 5000 revs the Enfield's never smooth and remote, which in small doses is all part of its charm, but a hundred miles, or so, left me cursing rather than praising the bike and wishing I'd done the run on my Honda.

    No more and no less, it was simply that the vibes had ground their way into my body, leaving fingers, feet and butt in a rather bad way. Rather a large number of bolts had also come loose. No doubt, if I hadn't been seduced by Japanese technology along the way, my body would eventually have adapted to the pleasures of big twin vibration. I think I'm too old to change, now.

    As to the handling, that was also a rather mixed bag. Smooth roads with some curves in them were a real pleasure. The suspension was tauter than the Honda's, the bike securely planted on the road, with a better riding position for sub-80mph speeds! Whilst one was instantly at home on the CBR, it took a little time to gain confidence in the Enfield, but that effort made, the reward was some exhilarating journeys through the British landscape. There was a lovely feeling of blurring the space between rider and his environment which had absolutely nothing to do with the vibration (it was just as well that the bike couldn't be ridden at crazy velocities because above 70mph the mirrors blurred into uselessness).

    The picture changed rapidly when the road surface turned rough. I'd been spoilt by the sophistication of the Honda, and suddenly finding my spine and arms viciously attacked by what I'd thought were previously benign roads was a bit of a shock to the system, though the excellence of its riding position allowed me to absorb more of the forces than I would have thought possible.

    Not only did I get a battering but the chassis took on an hinged in the middle feel, causing the bike to weave and waver all over the shop whenever I tried some spirited cornering. By the way, having become used to riding the Honda on the edge of its tyres, this ain't something that should be repeated on an old Brit because the thing will fall right off the edge without any warning. I nearly came a big cropper when I got carried away.

    In some ways I preferred the Connie in the wet! Just using minor revs in a tall gear and a light hand on the controls gave it a more settled feel than the Honda, which was either too bland at the lower end of the rev range or far too acid in its laying down of power higher up the range. The Enfield's engine braking was also powerful and progressive in the wet.

    Just as well, as the wholly inadequate drums filled up with water at an alarming rate and refused to work altogether in heavy rain! That's what I thought at first, but just like the old disc brakes with their lag, the way around it was to gently pump the levers all the time to clear the water out! The previous owner had warned me about the brakes, reckoned there was an art to looking ahead that would soon be learnt! Most of the hard boys in the sixties soon upgraded to TLS brakes, some of them almost taking up the whole space in the wheel!

    I soon got used to the muscle needed on the Enfield's brakes in the dry but sometimes forgot myself on the Honda, whose twin discs reacted to a full fist's worth of effort by howling and going into stoppie mode! It was amazing to leap on the Honda after the Connie, to be cossetted by its sheer sophistication (in ride and lack of vibes) and the lightness of its controls.

    It's undoubtedly unfair to compare these two bikes, but interesting nevertheless. Though huge strides have been made in design, reliability, top speed and handling, something seems to be have been lost along the way. The difference being that the Honda's only kicks come from power, from the maximum use of its speed and handling; a brilliant, leading edge concoction, but one that for most of the time's severely limited by the laws of the land.

    And then we have the Enfield. Its primitive design and subsequent vibration in reality limit it to a maximum speed of 90mph, though it feels much happier at 70 to 75mph. And yet such is its harmony at such low velocities that it impinges, communicates its ease, with the rider, who suddenly finds no need to go wicked on the throttle. The Connie feels totally at home riding sedately and securely through our countryside, as long as motorways are avoided.

    The other thing is, the most curious sign of negative progress, the Connie turns in 65 to 70mpg when treated with respect, doesn't seem to wear any of its consumables and can be fettled in an hour with the bare minimum of tools. And it's well made enough to survive another 30 years, doubtless with a few rebuilds along the way. A rather serious but fun bike!

    Riders' Report-J.D.

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