CON­TI­NEN­TAL GT250

A CBOTY fi­nal­ist 11 years ago, we fi­nally get to ride James Fran­cis’ lovely lit­tle En­field

Classic Bike (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: GEZ KANE. PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: SI­MON LEE

‘I STILL RIDE IT REG­U­LARLY. I LOVE IT. IT’S NEVER GIVEN ME A MO­MENT’S BOTHER’

Back in 2007, James French was get­ting ready to take his 1965 Royal En­field Con­ti­nen­tal to the Ex­cel ex­hi­bi­tion cen­tre in Lon­don. His bike had made it into the fi­nal 10 of our Clas­sic Bike of the Year (CBOTY) com­pe­ti­tion and he was pretty chuffed. He didn’t even mind when a Honda CB750 resto claimed the num­ber one spot – he was just de­lighted that his lit­tle 250cc En­field had its day in the sun. Now, 11 years later, he still owns the bike, still loves it, still rides it reg­u­larly – and now he’s in­vited CB over to his home near Ket­ter­ing to catch up with it and have a ride.

But be­fore I do, I’m keen to learn what in­spired this spe­cial bond be­tween man and ma­chine. Un­sur­pris­ingly, James goes back a long way with Royal En­fields. All the way back to trad­ing in his BSA Ban­tam D7 for an En­field Con­ti­nen­tal when he was 16 years old. But it wasn’t to prove the su­pe­rior ex­pe­ri­ence he’d ex­pected.

“I was clue­less,” James con­fesses. “I traded in the Ban­tam with a dealer in Ket­ter­ing and paid £109 for the Con­ti­nen­tal. I wanted some­thing bet­ter and faster. Well, the En­field was cer­tainly faster – for a while at least. I owned the bike for just 12 months and the engine and gear­box had to be com­pletely re­built dur­ing that time.

“I don’t think the five-speed gear­box and an ov­er­en­thu­si­as­tic 16-year-old were an ideal com­bi­na­tion,” he smiles. “It would jump out of gear or refuse to en­gage gear. I didn’t know at the time, but the prob­a­ble cause was wear to the dogs on the layshaft and the fact that the se­lec­tor mech­a­nism wasn’t set cor­rectly. The ratchet and pawl need pre­cise set­ting-up to work re­li­ably on the five-speed ’boxes. But the five-speed gear­box isn’t as ro­bust as the four­speed unit in the Cru­sader. The four­speed ’box has two sets of dogs on the layshaft, while the five-speeder only has one set of dogs for sec­ond, third and fourth gears. Also, the pin­ions are thin­ner to squeeze them into the same space in the cases as the older, four-speed gear set.”

But de­spite the me­chan­i­cal woes, that year on the five-speed Con­ti­nen­tal made a last­ing im­pres­sion on James. “I just went ev­ery­where on it,” he re­mem­bers. “I lived in the same vil­lage as I do now and I must have cov­ered ev­ery inch of Northamp­ton­shire on that bike. I passed my test on it and es­tab­lished my love of bikes; I’ve never been with­out a bike on the road since then.” As well as own­ing a Norvil Com­mando for 44 years, James also had a few other Royal En­fields along the way: “A 1962 Con­ti­nen­tal, a 1966 Con­ti­nen­tal GT and a 1956 350cc Clip­per. I’ve al­ways loved En­fields and when I saw this 1965 Con­ti­nen­tal – in blue, just like my first one – ad­ver­tised in the own­ers club mag­a­zine in 2005, I de­cided to re-visit my youth.”

The restora­tion of the bike over a 14-month pe­riod was out­lined in our 2007 CBOTY is­sue. To re­cap,

James paid £550 for a com­plete but sad and rusty ma­chine. “The good news was that it had only had three own­ers from new and it was low mileage,” James re­calls. “The owner had laid the bike up for 33 years; he hadn’t rid­den it since 1972. Amaz­ingly, it did run, but the tank was hand-painted and dented, it had a pair of al­loy mud­guards fit­ted and the seat was torn. I wanted to keep as many orig­i­nal parts as pos­si­ble – I even patched the seat cover rather than buy a new one, though since the orig­i­nal restora­tion the foam has col­lapsed so I had to re­place the seat. I’ve kept the old one, though.”

Mar­que spe­cial­ist Ray Tew re­built the engine in 2006 and clearly did a mar­vel­lous job. “When Ray stripped it, he found it was still on the stan­dard bore,” James re­veals. “It still is. But he com­pletely re­built it with all new bear­ings and seals and he got the gear­box and gearchange mech­a­nism set up per­fectly. That’s the se­cret to get­ting the best out of the five-speed ’box. They’ve got a bit of a bad rep­u­ta­tion, but I’ve put 12,000 miles on it with­out any trou­ble. You’ll see when you ride it.”

James re­mem­bers that the sin­gle most ex­pen­sive part of the restora­tion process was the paint­work and chroming. “Lewis Tem­ple­ton (02476 305884) in Coven­try han­dled that for me,” says James. “It cost £700 back then, but it was money well spent. They did a great job. I got the frame sprayed, but I painted the rest of the black parts my­self and to­tally rewired the bike. I did have to buy a new Amal Monobloc to get it run­ning right, but I’d still say that 95% of the bike is orig­i­nal.” The plan was al­ways to end up with a bike that looked good, but that James wouldn’t be afraid to ride and park up. So, how has that worked out? “I still ride it reg­u­larly and love it,” says James. “It’s only ever needed ser­vic­ing and a few con­sum­ables like rear wheel bear­ings, chain and a tyre. I’ve fit­ted a mod­ern, solid­state reg­u­la­tor/rec­ti­fier and LED bulbs. They’re brighter and I can run with the side light on with­out drain­ing the bat­tery. I tend to stick fairly lo­cal – it’s only a 250 af­ter all. A typ­i­cal ride for me would be about 30 miles;

I steer clear of ma­jor roads and I don’t tear along.

I never rev it be­yond 6500rpm and it’s never given

me a mo­ment’s bother since I re­stored it. I go to a few of the lo­cal clas­sic events on it and it still turns heads.”

I bet it does. That Poly­chro­matic Hi-fi Blue paint­work still daz­zles in the sum­mer sun­shine as I climb aboard. A prod on the stubby kick­start lever brings it to life, and once I’ve man­aged to wig­gle my size nines be­tween the gear­lever and ex­haust pipe, hook­ing the lever up to en­gage first gear is a noise­less af­fair. A hand­ful of revs and I’m off. Chang­ing up on the down-for-up pedal is slick and quick and, once I’ve got the knack, down­changes are equally smooth. On the move, the Con­ti­nen­tal is a lit­tle bun­dle of fun. It feels tiny and it’s so easy to flick from side to side on sin­u­ous Northamp­ton­shire B-roads. The sus­pen­sion feels joy­ously un­der-damped, bounc­ing hap­pily around the lanes, but the bike is so light, com­pact and con­trol­lable that things never get out of con­trol.

The engine is sur­pris­ingly lively too, as long as I keep the revs up. In top gear, the nee­dles of the Smiths speedo and rev counter swing round in par­al­lel and 60mph comes up at 6000rpm – leav­ing an­other 1500rpm to play with be­fore peak power comes in at a heady 7500rpm. I’m stick­ing to James’ 6500rpm limit, but even so, 50-60mph cruis­ing is easy to main­tain.

James feels the front drum is a lit­tle oval and I’d have to agree. But there’s still more than enough stop­ping power from the 7in unit – es­pe­cially when used in con­junc­tion with the rear. That long brake pedal gives plenty of lever­age, and the 6in SLS drum is al­most overkill on the lightweight sin­gle. That touch of oval­ity on the front brake, the slightly frisky sus­pen­sion and a rid­ing po­si­tion com­pro­mised by clip-ons, but no cor­re­spond­ing rearsets, are about the only nits I can pick – not bad for an 11-year-old restora­tion. There’s noth­ing to dis­tract me from the sheer fun of rid­ing this de­light­ful 250.

Here’s a bike that just keeps on de­liv­er­ing plea­sure to its owner – and what more can you ask of any clas­sic ma­chine? But what does the fu­ture hold for James’ Con­ti­nen­tal? “Well, I’ll keep on rid­ing and en­joy­ing it for as long as I can,” says James. “But I’ve promised the bike to my el­dest son, Christo­pher, when I call time on rid­ing. He’s 26 and has de­vel­oped a real in­ter­est in the bike. It’ll stay in the fam­ily and re­main in good hands.”

That’s no more than this lovely lit­tle bike de­serves.

‘THE ENGINE IS SUR­PRIS­INGLY LIVELY, AS LONG AS I KEEP THE REVS UP’

Seven-inch sls front brake, but it gives plenty of stop­ping power Speedo and rev counter nee­dles syn­chro­nise in top gear Clip-ons but no rearsets makes for an un­usual rid­ing po­si­tion Engine was re­built in 2006 and is still on the stan­dard bore

RIGHT: James bought the Conti in 2005. It’s like the bike he had as a youth (but bet­ter) BE­LOW: Eleven years af­ter James re­stored his Royal En­field, it still looks a hand­some beast

48 For­get Brexit, we go Con­ti­nen­tal

James tells Gez that he can’t take it home and keep it Orig­i­nal tax disc from the bike’s first year on the road Rear brake is a six-incher. It’s quite enough

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