THE ROYAL ENFIELD BULLET

Really, this belongs under the country-by-country heading for India, but I love Enfields so much that I wanted to publicize them for nothing. They are, after all, one of the most persuasive arguments for going to India: classic British motorcycles, half a century out of time, still being made brand-new in Thiruvottiyur just north of Madras. There are few greater pleasures in motorcycling than chugging along on a gleaming Enfield, lord of all you survey -- and knowing that on rough surfaces or tight bends, you are going to have to try quite hard if you want to fall off.

It looks stunning, and it sounds like a motorcycle should: a four-stroke big single. There have been a few concessions to modernity -- electrics are now 12 volt, with an alternator, instead of 6 volt with a dynamo, the tool box is lockable, and the front brake is quite a bit bigger at 7 x 1-3/8 inches, 178x38mm, instead of 6 x 1 inch, 153x25mm -- but there is nothing that detracts from its classic looks, sound and performance.

Bullets require quite a lot of maintenance, as vintage vehicles did: a check-up (including checking the tappet clearance) every 800 km (500 miles), a minor service every 3000 km (1750 miles), and a major service (repacking the hubs, changing the clutch oil, and so forth) every 5000 km (3000 miles). But it's all easy DIY stuff, and in India, you can have it done for next to nothing anyway, along with any other work you need done.

An example makes it clear. I needed the clutch thrust bearing replaced on an Enfield. While it was in for the work, I asked the mechanic to do a 3000 km service at the same time. I picked the bike up a few hours later. I've forgotten exactly what it cost, but I remember that it was about one-twentieth of what I had paid, a few weeks before, for a new clutch thrust bearing to be fitted to my BMW in England. Without a service.

Overwhelmingly the most common version of the Bullet is the 70x90mm 350, though there's also a big-bore (but still undersquare, 84x90mm) 500cc version with a compression ratio of just 6.5:1. Indian petrol is about the same octane as cough syrup. The power outputs are a searing 18 bhp (at 5625 rpm) for the 350 and 22 bhp (at 5400 rpm) for the 500. They are dry-sump engines with push-rod operated valves and built-up crankshafts, and they will both pull perfectly happily in top gear at speeds below 40 km/h (25 mph) on a flat road.

The top speed of the 350 is over 100 km/h -- in fact, you can fairly easily top 70 mph (110 km/h) if there's a long enough, straight enough, empty enough road -- and the 500 is faster, but speed isn't what they are about. If you want speed, there's an Egli-modified version, with more horsepower, but I've never ridden one. Nor would I particularly want to. Though I was intrigued when (at the factory) I rode an overhead-cam 250cc prototype, and the managing director told me with an evil grin that they could apply the same technology to a 500cc 4-valve.

What Bullets are really about, though, is transport. These are not toys: they are everyday vehicles, for going to work and buying the groceries. The greatest number of people I have ever seen on one Enfield was five. Father was driving; small son was on the tank in front of him; mother was sitting side-saddle behind him, holding the baby; and the teenage daughter was sitting on the luggage rack behind her. Admittedly five is unusual, but four is not uncommon and three is commonplace. With that sort of loading, you need imperturbable handling -- and you have it. You have to set them up in advance for a corner, like a Norton, but if you do, it is amazing what they will do.

Although they are heavy and low-powered for their capacity, they are still quite light motorcycles: 163 kg (359 lb) for the 350, 168 kg (370 lb) for the 500. There is an electric-start option, and indicators are now fitted pretty much as standard. The non-unit gearbox is driven by a duplex primary chain, and the gears are on the right: one up, three down, and an extra, heel-operated 'neutral finder' (a traditional Enfield feature) so you can go straight to neutral from second, third or fourth.

Anyone who is paying close attention will have noticed that this is the opposite side from most modern motorcycles (where the gear lever is normally on the left, and the brake on the right), and operating in the reverse direction (up for down, instead of down for down). This can make riding interesting at first, or when you get back onto another bike. But you can get used to it.

The very first day after we collected 'our' Bullet from the factory, we saw just how good its stability was. I misjudged some overtaking, and hit a pot-hole the size of a young swimming pool. I really thought it was going to be goodbye, cruel world, because neither of us was wearing a helmet. The bike didn't even twitch. It just sailed across.

And then, the very last day before we returned it, we had an even more impressive demonstration. I was grievously carved up by a bus: I made the stupid mistake of not accelerating and getting out of his way when I had the chance. He clipped my rear-view mirror, so hard that he spun the stem round and partially unscrewed it (I was braking quite hard at the time). When I stopped, shaking, Frances said, " That was a bit close. He nearly hit us." She did not realize, until I told her and showed her the unscrewed mirror, that he actually had hit us.

In between, there was very little in the way of similar excitement (fortunately) though we did fall off once on soft sand that had blown across the road. We were going very slowly -- probably less than 10 km/h, little more than a walking pace -- and we wouldn't have been hurt at all if my elbow hadn't found the one sharp stone in the whole patch. But I rode that bike on the beach, and across dried-up rice paddies, and across all sorts of terrain that no-one should expect a laden touring motorcycle to cross, and it behaved perfectly.

I have never understood why Harley-Davidson dealers don't sell Bullets as a second line: the two marques have much of the same vintage charm, though the Bullet is fundamentally a more modern machine, with its roots in the 1950s instead of the 1930s. Quite honestly, I'd rather have a Bullet. The handling is a lot sweeter.

Perhaps it's an old man's bike: there are plenty of modern machines of smaller capacity that are lighter, more powerful and faster. But that is missing the point. Until you have ridden an old-fashioned, ultra-flexible big single, you can't really imagine why it is so enjoyable. Ever since I first rode one, when I was in my early 30s, I've dreamed of buying one just to keep in India. Recently, I've been dreaming about buying one as a second bike to use in France, when I don't need the speed of the BMW. And for somewhere like Malta or Greece, where the roads are really awful, a Bullet would be the perfect bike -- though it would be a long, slow, dull ride to get there. It would probably be a 350, because they are a lot easier to start, and besides, I don't need an extra 4 bhp all that much. Dream on: maybe one day...

Click for the Royal Enfield website

DISCLAIMER

This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.

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last updated: 14/12/03

© 2003 Roger W. Hicks