The road is straight cast, wind’s in my eyes, the engine roars between my thighs…” sang Judas Priest back in 1981. It’s a picture of the all-American two-wheeled dream, that has been romanticised by Hollywood over and over again. A biker astride a big raked out cruiser with a V-twin lump on a straight highway that disappears into the horizon. While the vast majority of cine goers will love the romance of an open road, that scene will split a biker bar smack down the middle. One set will love it for the freedom it embodies while the other will hate it because, well, straight roads are just boring and cruisers are rubbish around turns. It should therefore be fair to assume that you will either hate the American kind of motorcycling or you will love it. But fact is, there really is an alternate form of motorcycling that has always been a part of the American two-wheeled dream. Niche and low key, but an integral part no doubt. Say hello to the Royal Enfield Interceptor and Triumph Bonneville Speedmaster.
Europe (primarily the UK) had already had its brush with one of the most lasting motorcycling cultures of all time – the café racer. And Japan had moved beyond the realm of commuters and was already rising rapidly in the glamorous world of leisure motorcycling. The Swinging Sixties were about to hand the baton over to the Seventies, with Hendrix weaving a purple haze around the world and Morrison encouraging people to break on through to the other side. In short, it was a time of looking beyond established boundaries. A time that encouraged a small bunch of American motorcycle enthusiasts to get hooked onto the roadster. Sitting comfortably upright on motorcycles that were neither raked-out cruisers nor café racers that packed you into a race crouch, this bunch of young Americans were living an alternate dream on two wheels. A dream that did not conform to the classic American idea of cruising down a straight highway. A dream that was riding on the back of naked motorcycles with round headlamps and twin pod instrument clusters, flat seats and upright riding postures, chief among them the Royal Enfield Interceptor. That was from the 1960s through to the 1970s.
“The Swinging Sixties were about to hand the baton over to the Seventies, with Hendrix weaving a purple haze around the world and Morrison encouraging people to break on through to the other side”
Now, cut to the present day, the world is full of haze, purple or not, and this time it’s driven by technology that the geeks use to push the boundaries of imagination as they try and break on through to the other side of the cloud or big data or what have you. Unfortunately, all of this is in the virtual world with little, if any, real experience to offer. Even in the very real world of motorcycles, the game today is being controlled more by a chip in an ECU than a rider’s hand really. Yet, just like before, we have a small but determined group of people in the land of Uncle Sam who are willing to break with convention and ride the virtual storm in search of real experiences. And what do they fall back on to ride this storm? The classic British roadster of course, among them the brand new Royal Enfield Interceptor.
Now you might argue that the Interceptor, or any Royal Enfield for that matter, is as much British as some people’s accents. While you wouldn’t be far from the truth if you did say that, there is no denying the fact that the Interceptor is in fact British in its lineage, its predecessor having been born at Redditch, England in the dying days of the brand long before it became a naturalised Indian citizen. Besides, the new Interceptor was indeed born in England, having been conceived and developed at RE’s research and development centre in the UK.
The conceived-in-Britain, made-in-India Interceptor however isn’t the only case of British lineage chasing dreams in America. While Royal Enfield has its eyes firmly on the niche, roadster-loving gang, Triumph Motorcycles is targeting the more mainstream cruiser market with the Triumph Bonneville Speedmaster. In fact, the lure of the American market is such for both the brands as far as these two motorcycles are concerned that the first media experience of both motorcycles was done in the US: the Triumph Bonneville Speedmaster’s a couple of years ago, while the Interceptor in more recent times. What is most important for us, the Indian motorcycle enthusiast, is that with the availability of these two motorcycles, we now have access to these machines that offer a very American riding experience but with a distinctly British flavour.
“The legacy of the quintessential British motorcycle is built on the bedrock of the parallel twin.”
And it all starts with both motorcycles being built around the parallel twin engine. In the case of the Interceptor, it’s a modest 648cc air-cooled unit, while in the case of the Speedmaster you’re looking at a burly 1200cc liquid-cooled unit. Both units use eight valves, four per cylinder, in conjunction with SOHC. In fact, they even share the firing order, a 270-degree crank, for the same stated reason – a particular engine beat and smooth linear delivery of power. Now why, you ask, are these technical details so important to what is ostensibly a feature story revolving around a relatively esoteric notion of motorcycling? Because the legacy of the quintessential British motorcycle is built on the bedrock of the parallel twin. While Britain produced a variety of motorcycles powered by single- and twin-cylindered engines, it was the parallel twin that would come to signify the iconic Brit bike. So, be it Triumph, Norton, or the very Indian Royal Enfield, if you’re resurrecting a British classic or making a new one, it has to be around this engine configuration. V-twins are far too American, the L-twin the domain of the Italians, while the Boxer the realm of the Germans.
The other distinctive thing about both these motorcycles are their frames. Both use tubular steel cradles, eschewing more modern frame designs like the trellis or any other frame architecture. Beyond the technical advantage or disadvantages of different frames, it is the tubular cradle frame that will get you closest to the experience that riders were enjoying astride British machines in the glory days of the island nation’s motorcycle manufacturing history. Where the Royal Enfield and the Triumph move away from each other, the former staying closer to the authentic Brit bike philosophy while the latter choosing to be a bit more contemporary, is in the suspension department. While both bikes feature conventional 41mm forks up front, the Interceptor gets twin gas-charged shock absorbers at the rear and the Triumph Bonneville Speedmaster uses a single KYB monoshock.
“The Americans are far less goal-oriented when it comes to biking and their idea of motorcycling nirvana is of a more easy going, carefree and fun-loving nature”
So far so good. We are all firmly in the centre of British legacy. Now to explore the idea of American motorcycling. What exactly is it? Thanks to the way roads developed in America with her vast open spaces, the notion of motorcycling pleasure across the Atlantic is very different from the corner chasing sport that it came to be in Europe. The Americans are far less goal-oriented when it comes to biking and their idea of motorcycling nirvana is of a more easy going, carefree and fun-loving nature, where speed and performance are incidental, really. What the Royal Enfield and the Triumph do in their respective spheres, is bring the two worlds together where the easy going, carefree and fun-loving nature of American motorcycling is merged seamlessly with the desire for capability. Just because it’s easy going shouldn’t mean that you can’t go quickly around a corner on it when you want to.
The moment you’ve swung your leg over the Interceptor, you feel at home. Sure, you could drop those wide handlebars a bit and bring them closer or fiddle around with the rear suspension mount in a bid to make it comfier, but truth be told, it all works just fine even in its stock form. From the silhouette it cuts on the sky, to the twin clocks with just enough info, the Royal Enfield Interceptor is the very embodiment of simplicity. It harks back to an age when phones couldn’t be carried in your pockets and when bikers were rarely seen being social with the world at large. In many ways, it’s a misfit in today’s world and that’s precisely why you love it so much. It doesn’t scream its presence and honestly I don’t think it cares. It only wants to connect with the riders who are looking for a good time in an old school way. The deep burble at idling is inviting and before you know it, you’re on the road.
“There’s a sense of exhilaration born of the sheer thrill of acceleration, combined with a bassy rumble that has replaced the old burble.”
The grunt is where it should be, down at the bottom and spread right through the centre. As a matter of fact, as much as 80 per cent of the Interceptor’s 52Nm of peak twist is available from as low as 2500 revs of the forged and counterbalanced crankshaft. Roll open the throttle and the feeling is glorious. The pull won’t wrench your arms out of their sockets but there’s a sense of exhilaration born of the sheer thrill of acceleration, combined with a bassy rumble that has replaced the old burble. Delivery is linear and thanks to the character of the engine you can ride this motorcycle any way you like. Slow and relaxed if you’re in no great hurry to reach anywhere, and then fast if you want to chase down a set of corners that have just popped up on the horizon. And believe you me, you will want to chase those corners for the Interceptor really is up there with the best when it comes to handling.
Visually, the Speedmaster comes from an even earlier era with its small headlamp and bicycle-esque wide and swept back handlebar. Head on, this machine wouldn’t be out of place even in the pre-War era. Until of course you notice the LED daytime runners in the headlamp. The kicked out (but not too much) pegs ensure a feet forward Yankee riding posture yet not quite, as you’re upright enough to have the leverage to have fun on those switchbacks and fast-flowing sweepers. Tipping her in takes more effort than you would ever use on the RE but then again, the Speedmaster is closer to a classic cruiser and is significantly heavier. Yet, for her size, she’s far nimbler than you would have expected. Fleet-footed almost as you waltz with her through the turns.
The only impediment, her ground clearance, or lack thereof, as you’ll worry about grounding things out if you lean her too much. Well, it’s an impediment everywhere because you keep scraping her belly over anything but the tiniest of speedbreakers, and it’s a horrible feeling when you get that echoing c-r-r-a-a-c-k inside the helmet of yet another kiss between tarmac and bike. The pull from that high torque engine is fantastic and can actually wrench those limbs out of place if you’re more aggressive than you should be with your right hand. Where the Triumph feels similar to the much smaller and incomparable RE is in its demeanour.
Like the Interceptor, the Speedmaster too can be ridden as leisurely as it can be ridden hard. In either case, it is equally rewarding. And that, my friend, is what is so unique about these two very different, yet similar, machines. For both the Royal Enfield Interceptor and the Triumph Bonneville Speedmaster offer the perfect amalgamation of two highly influential notions of motorcycling, effectively bringing the best of two worlds in two lovely two-wheeled packages. Talk about parallel lives.