Friday, June 9, 2023

Royal Enfield designed a big GT long ago

Royal Enfield Series II Interceptor Sports.
Royal Enfield imagined a twin-cylinder café racer long ago.  

About half a century before Royal Enfield of India introduced its Continental GT 650 parallel twin to the world in 2018, Royal Enfield of the UK considered producing a nearly identical looking motorcycle using a powerful 750cc parallel twin motor. 

It didn't happen. The big parallel-twin café racer of about 1968 was only a prototype. As designed it had dropped handlebars, serious rear-sets, tank indented for your knees, and a single seat, with racing "bum." 

 It looked a lot like the  Royal Enfield Continental GT 650 you find at your dealer today. 

Photographs of the prototype and other period Royal Enfield designs were added recently to the Royal Enfield Owners Club (UK) website. The original photos were collected by Reg Thomas, long-time Royal Enfield employee in the UK and eventually head of design for the company. 

"We're finally adding some of the archive material to our website," REOC archivist Bob Murdoch told me. 

"The club joined forces with Allan Hitchcock (of Hitchcocks Motorcycles) and bought the Reg Thomas Collection at auction several years ago. Allan took most of the manufacturing drawings, and we had the more historic material. It makes sense that Reg kept photos, drawings, test data and memos on projects that we know he was directly responsible for." 

Royal Enfield Interceptor Series II Sport.
What if Royal Enfield had produced a big-twin Continental GT in 1970? 

Bob explained who Reg Thomas was. 

"Reg joined the factory as a draftsman in 1945, possibly straight from college. Back then the title of draftsman usually involved a lot of design work too, at which Reg very soon proved himself. His notebooks record his work on military projects and improvements on the RE 125, but his schematic drawings of a new 500cc twin of 1946 are a work of art...

"It would seem that Reg was promoted to chief draftsman (designer) in the early 1960s and head of design at the Upper Westwood factory (now EPE, Enfield Precision Engineering) where he further improved the 750 into the Series II Interceptor." 

If produced, the big-twin prototype would have been powered by that Series II Royal Enfield Interceptor motor, a wet-sump design that was then the company's latest and biggest motor.

Royal Enfield might have been called it the Interceptor Series II Sport.

Or, perhaps the motorcycle would have inherited the "Continental GT" name from the little 250cc Royal Enfield café racer Royal Enfield had produced, the very first "factory" café racer ever.

Royal Enfield Continental GT 250 of 1966.
The little 250cc Royal Enfield Continental GT of 1966.

Whatever you called it, the Series II Sports Prototype was a dedicated café racer, a form of motorcycle invented in Britain and at the time peculiar to Britain. And that was never going to work, not in 1968.

Why? In the late 1960s the British motorcycle industry's biggest market was the United States. In that era Americans were not café racers. They preferred to sit up tall, behind raised handlebars.

The situation would have been analogous to that of the single-cylinder, 535cc Continental GT introduced by Royal Enfield of India in 2013. Brits and (by then) Americans loved the spritely new café racer that harkened back to the era of Mods and Rockers in Britain.

2014 Royal Enfield Continental GT 535.
Royal Enfield produced the 535cc Continental GT for 2014.

But Royal Enfield fans in India, the brand's modern day biggest market, didn't care for it. In India, a single-cylinder Royal Enfield meant, and still means, a sit-up-tall Bullet. The 535cc café racer lasted  only a few years.

Its replacement, the Royal Enfield Continental GT 650, finally proves the concept of a powerful twin-cylinder café racer.

That 1968 prototype belongs in a museum somewhere. I wonder if it still exists?

BUT WAIT, there's more. Royal Enfield fielded an Interceptor Series II Production Racer in the UK back in the day. It's a dead ringer for the Series II Sports Prototype. Could they have been the same motorcycle? Here's the story.

Royal Enfield 2023 Continental GT 650.
Café racer silhouette of today's Royal Enfield Continental GT 650.

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