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Royal Enfield Continental GT: Saddle time with CEO Siddhartha Lal

By Richard Backus

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Royal Enfield’s Siddhartha Lal

Royal Enfield’s Siddhartha Lal on the new Continental GT. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Wing.)

Is Royal Enfield boss Siddhartha Lal simply a wealthy heir to industry who’s risen to his position by dint of birth? Or is he a true visionary and motorcycle enthusiast bent on reviving a once noble brand? There’s no question but that Lal was born into wealth. Dad Vikram Mal founded Royal Enfield parent company Eicher Motors in 1982 and Eicher, which has a foot in numerous businesses including a joint venture with Volvo trucks, had gross sales in 2013 approaching $325 million. There’s also no question he’s a motorcycle enthusiast – Lal eschewed the traditional horse in favor of a red Royal Enfield Bullet to lead his wedding procession. And he loves life on two wheels, a fact amply supported during an all-day romp Lal made with journalists aboard new Royal Enfield Continental GTs in the hills south of Temecula, California, this past May.

Royal Enfield’s Siddhartha Lal

Royal Enfield’s Siddhartha Lal (center) is last in for a lunch stop during a day’s ride aboard Continental GTs.

Lal's involvement in Royal Enfield goes back to 2000, when the then 26-year-old took the reins of the company. Royal Enfield, which became part of Eicher Motors in 1994, was faring poorly. Eicher’s board of directors was pushing to either sell or shut down Royal Enfield. The story goes that Lal convinced the board to give him a two-year grace period to turn Royal Enfield around: He proceeded to do just that. In 2000, RE was producing an estimated 2,000 bikes a month in a factory designed to build 6,000. In 2013, RE put the finishing touches on a new, state of the art factory on a 50-acre lot in Chennai, the capital of India’s auto industry. Production capacity? 200,000.

Royal Enfield’s Siddhartha Lal

Siddhartha Lal talks motorcycles during a coffee stop after riding to the top of California’s Mt. Palomar.

We’ve been watching Royal Enfield up its game ever since the first RE we sampled back in 2005. That bike, a 500cc Bullet, was lovely to look at and fun to ride, but to own? Not so much. Problems in the first 500 miles included carburetion woes, loosening exhaust system, and a failed sprag clutch for the starter. Twice. In 2010 we sampled the newest RE, the fuel-injected unit-construction Bullet Classic C5. While it looked much the same, it was a totally new bike, and in 200 miles of riding it didn’t so much as hiccup. We were impressed.

Royal Enfield’s Siddhartha Lal

Herding cats: Photographer Brian Nelson tries to get riders lined out for a photo shoot.

Lal says quality control at the new factory is even better thanks to new equipment and production methods. 2013 production was just over 178,000 units, and Lal has increased capacity for 2014. Yet so far, very little of that production heads our way. Total exports for 2014 were around 4,200, and only 600 of those Royal Enfields came to the U.S. Yet despite the small numbers, Lal clearly believes that success here – and in the U.K. – will drive success elsewhere.

Royal Enfield’s Siddhartha Lal

New Royal Enfield Continental GTs outside Mother’s Kitchen at the summit of Mt. Palomar.

Lal’s belief in the importance of the export market is why I found myself with a dozen or so other journalists romping around the California countryside on brand new Royal Enfield Continental GTs. We were there so Lal could personally introduce us to the newest RE. Unlike a lot of corporate types, he wasn’t just going to hype the bike – which he did during a presentation at L.A.’s trendy SmogShoppe, a former smog check station turned sustainable banquet center (gotta love the irony, right?) – he was going to ride it. With us.

Royal Enfield’s Siddhartha Lal

Editor Richard Backus puts the new Royal Enfield Continental GT through its paces. (Photo courtesy of Kevin Wing.)

Turns out Lal does a lot of this sort of thing. The week before our late May ride, Lal was in the U.K. for a “Top to Tip” ride replicating the 952-mile run from John O’ Groats in the northern-most part of the U.K. to Land’s End in the extreme southwest, made by Royal Enfield in 1964 to publicize the original 250cc Continental GT, the bike that inspired Lal’s new retro café racer.

Now he was in Southern California, swinging a leg over a new Continental GT with the rest of us for a day’s flog in the hills south of Temecula. And flog we did. While nobody in the group pushed to anything approaching extreme, the riding was spirited, with just a touch of competitive edge showing from time to time as riders set themselves up for a seemingly never-ending series of blind and occasional decreasing radius turns.

While the new Continental GT will never be mistaken for a race bike it was utterly at home in the back hills, where its comparatively light weight (approximately 400 pounds with fuel and oil), excellent Brembo brakes and responsive chassis (designed by legendary frame builder Les Harris and Harris Performance) let it shine. Power from the 535cc fuel-injected single is hardly overwhelming, but on the secondary roads we plied, the bike’s claimed 29 horsepower was more than adequate, letting you focus on entry and exit strategies instead of power management.

The best part of the ride was at the end when, thanks to running over schedule, the larger part of the group turned into home base while the rest of us – including Lal – continued on for a run to the top of Mt. Palomar. By this time it was late afternoon and temps were dropping rapidly as we made the final approximately 9-mile climb through encroaching fog to the summit of Mt. Palomar. Lal was clearly having a blast, throwing his yellow Continental GT into the switchbacks and jumping on the throttle for the short blasts between turns.

As we gathered at the summit inside Mother’s Kitchen Restaurant (normally closed on Tuesday; wealth has its privileges) for much-needed hot coffee and donuts, Lal expressed his love for the California hills while similarly enthusing about the previous week’s Top to Tip ride. Lal clearly loves motorcycling. He has a rider’s enthusiasm for the open road, and when he’s not paying attention to who’s watching, his smile – unarmed and unaffected – says it all: At that moment, he’s exactly where he wants to be.

Whether Royal Enfield will hit its lofty goals – production capacity for 2014 has been increased to 280,000 units – remains to be seen. Traditionalists might decry Lal’s embracement of technology, yet the product is unquestionably better than it’s ever been -- and it’s cheaper. A bigger, better factory has allowed Lal to lower prices for 2014, with the C5 Classic Special priced at $5,499 – $1,000 less than in 2013 – and the Continental GT priced at $5,999.

That bodes well for Lal and Royal Enfield, and if the new product is as good as it seems – not one of the 16-odd bikes in our Southern California ride so much as sneezed – we expect RE to go from strength to strength. As to just who Lal really is, we’ll leave the question of "visionary (he’s involved in a multitude of urban initiatives designed to improve life for pedestrians and city dwellers) to others. But after our 150-mile ride, we can unequivocally call him a true motorcycle enthusiast. – Richard Backus