In 2009 Alex and I went to the Long Beach Motorcycle show. We spent a few hours looking at all of the bikes on display from $2000 scooters to $40,000 Harley-Davidsons.
The bike that spoke to me that evening was far from the most expensive and nowhere near the best handling or most comfortable bike. The Royal Enfield Classic was newly redesigned and available in America. Its 500cc single cylinder engine was old looking but used modern fuel-injection to introduce gas into the combustion chamber and electronic ignition to energize the spark plug. The engine was of a unit-design in which the engine and transmission share a common aluminum case rather than the previous design that kept the engine and transmission separate but linked together by a multi-row primary chain.
English production of Royal Enfield motorcycles dates back to 1893 with the formation of the Enfield Cycle Company. Early models included bicycles, true motorcycles and powered four-wheel carriages. Motorcycle evolution occurred regularly and through 1920s and 1930s and Royal Enfield was as contemporary to England as Harley-Davidson and Indian were to the United States. In the 1950s Madras Motors in India bought tooling and manufacturing rights to produce Royal Enfield motorcycles domestically.
Some models were imported into the US in small numbers over the years. The lack of an American importer and distribution and service network limited the number of bikes on the road here. In 2007 a major revamping of the Enfield line resulted in new models that appeared to be of an old design but used the modern unit engine and updated components.
I had decided that I wanted to buy a Royal Enfield C5 (solo seat) model. None of the Enfields are particularly expensive but in some cases build quality was suspect. In my last six years I rotated through the V-Strom, the Voyager 1700 and the Gold Wing. The thought of getting a Royal Enfield was always there but kept being pushed into the background. I recently made the final payment on my Gold Wing and the time seemed right to get an Enfield. In addition, Royal Enfield had made strides in improving quality control and a number of improvements have been implemented into the new models so that reliability is no longer a concern. The bikes still require more attention than a modern Japanese motorcycle, but its use as a second motorcycle would allow for low accumulated mileage and plenty of time to maintain it.
I won’t go into a ton of detail about the sales experience other than to say that I first attempted to buy a C5 from Route 66 motorcycles in Marina Del Rey and the experience was very poor….very reminiscent of a used car buying experience from an independent lot in the 70s. On the other hand, I ended up buying mine from Southern California Motorcycles in Brea, CA. Their dealership is run like a very good car dealership is run. I was happy with the buying experience and feel I got a very good price from them.
The model I bought is the C5 Chrome model in burgundy. The base C5 models come in a number of colors including black, tan, maroon, and blue. They are also available in “military models” that come finished in matte paint schemes of olive drab or sand tan. I really like the military models but did not want the matte paint finish. Had I had a choice of the entire color palette, I would have chosen the Lagoon Blue – a great color that brings to mind motorcycles produced in the 1930s and 1940s.
No one had blue. The one I didn’t want, based on pictures I had seen, was the Chrome model. In pictures it appeared to be almost all chrome…too much splash, too much “look at me” for my taste. Blue was my first choice, black second, tan third. Until I saw the Chrome in person.
At Route 66 a Chrome Black model was available for sale and in person it looked much better than in the pictures on the website. The tank is mostly chrome and a number of other items are as well, but it looks much more balanced in person. Route 66 had a tan and a Chrome black model available. I tried to make a deal on the Chrome black model but it didn’t work out with them. So Cal Motorcycles in Brea had two Chrome maroon models available. They, too, are much better looking in person than in any picture I’ve seen. I bought a Chrome maroon 2015 C5.
My Gold Wing is the best bike I’ve ever owned and I have no interest in getting rid of it. On the other hand, it is a handful when running quick errands, isn’t the best bike to ride at slower speeds when Kayln and I ride together, and isn’t fun to just putt around on. The Enfield is.
The 500cc single cylinder engine is fuel-injected and has a modern electronic ignition system and wiring harness. The seating position is relaxed and comfortable. It is light and handles surprisingly well for something that appears to have been built 50 or 60 years ago. It has enough power to maneuver in and out of traffic and can be ridden on the freeway but is most comfortable below 65 mph. It is capable of more but isn’t happy going much faster.
The new C5s are known for having a few weaknesses that I wanted to fix soon after purchase. I replaced the wet battery with a modern Shorai Lithium-Iron battery – yes, Iron, not Ion. The battery terminals are reputed to be paper thin and promise to break the first time the rider gets more than 30 or 40 miles from home. The terminals were replaced with power terminals designed for high quality automotive stereo equipment. In addition, the terminal ends were installed on the battery so that they were not stressed in their attached state to prevent engine vibrations from inducing cracking or breaking. They were also taped in place on the battery so that any movement of the battery cable would be in the flexible portion of the cable and not on the terminal.
A few smaller modifications were performed and engine break-in was started. The engines are set up very tight from the factory. Apparently, as I learned, while Indian culture easily accepts the normal top end engine noises produced by the valve train, piston slap is not tolerated. Therefore, the piston to bore clearance is very tight. Other machining processes are cruder than state of the art Japanese machining and many parts have to “wear in” to each other. Operating the engine in a way that produced any higher than normal heat during the first 500 miles or so can result in abnormal wear, a scuffed piston or cylinder bore, or rings that never seat satisfactorily. Fortunately I bought the bike in early January and have had cool weather to break-in my engine.
I rode the bike around the neighborhood for several days to allow for minimal heat build-up over the first 20 miles. Then, I rode the bike to Long Beach for breakfast and then back to allow the engine to come operating temperature then have a cool down cycle before coming home. I followed that up with a number of ten mile trips in the Westminster area until I reached 100 miles. At 100 miles I performed my first oil and filter change.
I expected there to be quite a bit of “stuff” stuck to the magnets on the drain plugs after 100 miles but I found there to be just a little. The oil was not excessively dirty and did not glitter when set in the sun – a good sign that there was not a lot of microscopic metallic particles suspended in the oil. The filter did not look excessively dirty. The break in was going well.
In the beginning I noticed that when I turned off the engine, the piston would stop very quickly in its bore. As the break-in has proceeded the fit has seemed less and less tight. In addition, the engine runs freer and seems happier to be running.
I posted something relatively bland on a Royal Enfield forum just to get a first post going and introduce myself. Forum member “Scotty Brown” responded to my post with a personal message. He was, he said, another C5 owner – a 2013 – that he’d ridden his bike 8500 miles without any real trouble and that he hasn’t run into another Royal Enfield rider yet. He said he lived in South Orange County and wondered if I’d like to get together for a ride. That sounded great to me.
I was on vacation for a week and would be in town for most of the time so Scotty and I arranged to meet on a Wednesday and go for a half day ride. We were weathered out on Wednesday so we pushed the ride back a single day to Thursday. We planned on meeting at the Silverado Canyon café and would get to know each other over breakfast.
I didn’t have enough miles on my C5 to feel comfortable riding to Silverado Canyon on the 22 freeway so I used surface streets past Disneyland and Angel Stadium and thumped along to the Irvine Lake area. I was early but Scotty was already there. He walked out to the road edge and directed me into the parking lot in the spot right next to his bike.
“I could hear you coming,” he said. Two Harley Davidson Glide models of some type were parked nearby.
We shook hands and both took a few minutes to look at each other’s bikes. He has already performed a number of modifications to better suit his bike to him. The large stock silencer was replaced with a stock HD Sportster muffler. The uncomfortable solo seat was replaced with a larger, tractor-style seat – much more comfortable he assured me. He had recently replaced the stock Avon tires with Dunlop K70 tires – a more period correct set of tires with a universal tread pattern and taller sidewalls.
I had eaten breakfast with Alex and Kayln and wasn’t really hungry. I did want a cup of coffee, though. Scotty ordered coffee, too, and we sat down and talked. He told me he was 78 years old and had been riding for a long time. He took some years off from riding but then took it back up again and has been enjoying his Royal Enfield. He bought his for the same reason I bought mine – the character, the look, the lazy riding experience. He also mentioned he had raced motorcycles earlier in his life.
He asked how many miles I wanted to go on our ride and I told him I’d like to go about 100 miles or so. He agreed we would minimize any freeway miles and suggested we take the back way to Corona, then down to Lake Elsinore on the canyon road and finally the Ortega Highway. It sounded good to me.
When we had finished our coffee we walked back out to the bikes. Scotty noticed that I changed the lenses on the pilot lights, two small white lights above the headlamp, a Royal Enfield feature from long ago, to red for the port side and green for the starboard. He had done the same thing. I said I had changed them to reflect a past in aviation and sailing. He said he changed his because of his experience in the Merchant Marines. Then he mentioned that he use to fly as well and listed off two Cessna and a Mooney that he had owned in the past.
We left the restaurant parking lot and rode the two lane road back to the Orange area. We motored around on city streets that ran approximately parallel to the 55 freeway, then the 91 freeway. We ran out of road at the Gypsum Canyon road intersection and entered the 91 freeway for a three minute cruise at 55 mph to the Green River exit. My Enfield happily thumped along.
At Green River we cut through neighborhoods and travelled up boulevards, ending up on Temescal Canyon road. Eventually we reached the base of the Ortega Highway and began the climb out of the Lake Elsinore area. The pace was spirited but not dangerous and we rode faster than I expected a 78 year old man riding an old fashioned motorcycle to ride. Scotty handled the curves with ease and seemed to choose clean lines. Our torquey singles easily pulled us up the hill. The light weight of the Enfield and good natural ground clearance allowed us to quickly lean over into turns and just as quickly right ourselves for the following straight.
We stopped at the Lookout Café for a break, to grab some lunch, and allow my bike to cool as it had run for about 60 minutes without stopping. Only a handful of people were there – a few cars, a few motorcycles. The two Enfield motorcycles attracted attention and before we had our helmets off two bikers walked over and began asking questions.
I’d only owned my bike for a couple weeks and already had experienced some of the attention the bike gets. Scotty mentioned that I had better be ready to have conversations with people everywhere – gas stations, at red lights, in parking lots. People want to know more about these old looking bikes.
I still wasn’t hungry but could use something to drink. Scotty ordered lunch. I got a cold drink. We walked out onto the patio and found a seat in the shade. It was a beautiful day – cool, about 70 degrees – a little breezy, a day similar to the one that I had when sailing the Excalibur back to Long Beach from South Coast Shipyards. Most of the rest of the country was experiencing cold weather, rain or snow. It was perfect in Southern California.
We exchanged stories about riding and flying. We talked about previous bikes we’ve owned. I told him I enjoyed shooting with my Dad and kids and he pulled out a business card he had used while offering shooting instruction and so we talked about guns. We both agreed that .22s are a great diversion and found we own some of the same guns. It was a good talk. We spent about an hour on the patio and then decided to get back on the road.
The Enfields were still being looked at, this time by another pair of riders, and we geared up and cruised further up the hill. The Lookout Café is near the summit and in only a few minutes we were heading downhill on the backside. The ride continued to be fantastic. On the way down, Scotty and I maintained a quick pace once again. I noticed this time, however, that he did not brake going downhill and entered his turns from just inside the center line to the apex very cleanly, curve after curve. We could have ridden faster, but this pace just felt very fluid, very natural. It didn’t take very much time until we neared the end of the Ortega Highway and took Antonio Parkway to Crown Valley Parkway where we planned on ending our ride at Pacific Coast Highway. Scotty would head home, I’d head north on PCH back to Westminster.
We took a few pictures and decided to get together again for another ride. I reflected on the Enfield as a bike while riding home. The bike itself is great. The chassis handles respectably, the engine develops just enough power to be fun, the gearbox shifts up and down better than expected, the brakes are adequate, the seat is tortuous. I will be addressing the seat in the future. I really enjoyed the ride and the bike seemed perfect for this type of ride. It cannot replace the Gold Wing. It doesn’t have to.
When I got home I looked over the bike. Other than a small amount of oil on the engine case below the countershaft sprocket, everything looked good. The ride hadn’t strained the engine and it seemed the further into the ride I got, the better the engine ran. It was breaking-in, loosening up nicely, and felt smoother and ran quieter.
I got an e-mail that night from Scotty. He said he enjoyed the ride and looked forward to doing another one. His e-mail included the pictures below. Each was captioned.:
WINNING THUNDERBIRD 100 MILE AT WESTWOOD BRITISH COLUMBIA 1965
LEADING THE MAIN EVENT WOODENVILLE WASH. FLAT TRACK 1963
EVERY NOW AND THEN I WOULD FALL ON MY ASS —MADE IT THROUGH THE FENCE THAT NIGHT
PACIFIC RACEWAYS KENT WASH 1964 —WINNING LIGHTWEIGHT MAIN IN THE RAIN
When he mentioned that he had done some racing at Ascot Park, it didn’t mean much to me. I’d been to Ascot and seen car races there. I knew that they held countless amateur events there and figured Scotty had entered some. It was not unlike the racing I used to do. I, and a group of friends, would sign up and race in Beginner and Novice class motocross racing at Glen Helen Raceway or at De Anza when it was still open. For me racing meant trucking in the same bike I used to ride trails and race against other novices like myself. It was fun and I expected, and usually accomplished, finishing mid-pack. I’d load my bike into the back of my truck at the end of the day and go back to being a mechanic on Monday.
Scotty had actually raced in feature races on dirt and road racing circuits. His ability to ride cleanly, quickly, and with minimal braking, into corners made much better sense now. It wasn’t dumb luck I was witnessing. I was riding with someone who was skilled.
We’ll likely ride again soon. I’d like to take the Ortega Highway from San Juan Capistrano to Palm Springs and back. The two lane serpentine road that links the two cities seems ideal for a bike like the Enfield and Scotty proved to be a great riding companion.