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