After years of hankering after a classic British bike, and years of procrastination, I finally bit the bullet, and bought a Royal Enfield Bullet. Not an old one mind, but a brand spanking new 350cc Royal Enfield ‘Euro Classic’ Bullet, made in Chennai, India. Now this may upset the die hard traditionalists who will insist this isn’t a ‘proper’ British bike. True, it may not be built in Britain any more, but it was certainly designed here, and can trace it’s lineage right back to Redditch in the 1950’s. One look at the engine of an Indian built Enfield, and a Redditch built Enfield, and they are strikingly similar, all that is missing is a big lump behind the cylinder where the Magneto lived, thankfully replaced, very sensibly, by a 12 volt alternator. Progress over the last 50 years has been tortoise like slow, but in my book, that is a positive not a negative.
The history of the Indian Enfield is well documented. The Indian Army approached Royal Enfield to supply a bike for military use. Royal Enfield supplied their single cylinder utility Bullet for trials. The Indian Army were impressed and placed orders, which Royal Enfield struggled to fulfil. To satisfy the demand, they sent engineers over to India to set up a satellite factory in 1955 to build the bike locally. That factory has been churning out that very same bike ever since, largely unforgotten, even when the Redditch factory finally closed it’s doors in 1970.
The bikes re-appeared in the UK in the late 1980’s when they were imported by Banavar Products. The first one’s were shockingly poor quality. However, since 1997, when the Enfield factory was taken over by Eicher, a major industrial player in the Indian Subcontinent, there have been numerous quality improvements. The Indian Enfield’s you buy today are actually pretty good, not up to modern Japanese & European standards mind, but not bad. The Export models destined for the UK are built to far higher standards than the domestic home market models, better paint and chrome and better quality components. Watsonian-Squire, the UK importers of Royal Enfield’s add their own improvements too (decent tyres for starters). I got a brand new base level model for £1,995 on the road (although they have gone up a few hundred quid since then though). To a Yorkshireman like me, that’s music to the ears.
So, what’s it like to ride ? God awful to start off with if I’m brutally honest. Having never ridden a classic ‘British’ bike, it was a hell of a culture shock. I was told by the dealer that it is a bit agricultural. No problem I thought, I’ve got a Harley, I know a thing or two about Massey Ferguson motorcycles (sorry Mutch !!!). However, I now know the true meaning of agricultural. Two things exasperated this: firstly, having never ridden a bike with a right hand gear change and a one up, three down configuration, this was all a bit alien and took some getting used to; secondly, the bike was brand new, and they do take a fair bit of careful and painful running in.
However, the more you ride it, the more you bond with it and the better it becomes. As more miles were put on the bike, everything started freeing up nicely, particularly the gearbox and the three neutrals the bike used to have, have largely disappeared (note the use of the word ‘largely’ !!!).
With the bike nicely run in, it was time to start modifying it. Out went the restrictive, ridiculously long standard silencer, asthmatic air filter set up and bizarre 'Pulse Air Valve' Euro 2 emissions bodge. In came a traditional 1950's silencer, S&B free flow air filter and corresponding carb jet upgrades. The results were pretty impressive and the performance is now much less laboured. Now don't get me wrong, the bike will seriously struggle to out perform a modern 125 (my old Honda CG125 would have given it a run for it's money) and top speed is at best 65MPH. However, that isn't what this bike is all about. With the standard silencer binned, the bike now sounds like a traditional British thumper should do and it makes all the right noises as they say (it is louder than my Harley with it's Stage 1 tune, but since when is that a bad thing?).
I've also treated the bike to a private registration, so it now sports an original 1963 'A' reg number, as a modern number on a bike like this just doesn't look right.
At the back of your mind, despite the fact it may be new, you always need to bear in mind that you are riding what is effectively a 50 year old bike. Things were very different 50 years ago, brakes, suspension, handling, engines, tyres, the works. Take it nice and steady, treat her with respect, don’t overstress it, keep to the back roads (motorways are best avoided) and you have have a thoroughly entertaining mount (as bikes were referred to back in the 50’s). It is a lovely looking bike, a 'proper' bike if I dare say it, and it attracts an enormous amount of attention, particularly from misty eyed flat capped wearing gentlemen of a certain vintage.
These bikes have a huge world wide following, not just in the UK, but the US, Australia, Africa, Asia, and our course the Indian Subcontinent. Owners forums abound on the Internet, which are incredibly useful for hints, tips, technical expertise and news and views. One of the best i've found is Hitchcock's motorcycles own forum (www.hitchcocksmotorcycles.co.uk). The Hitchcock's Royal Enfield Bullet parts and accessories catalogue is huge and everything is so cheap for these bikes. The same accessory for a Harley is probably three to four times the price.
Has it been reliable ? Well, mostly. It has had a couple of 'incidents' where it has dumped oil everywhere. However, a quick check on the owners forums, and a fix was quickly found. The bikes do have their idiosyncrasies but that is part of the appeal of ownership. If you are looking for a low maintenance classic new bike, buy a Hinkley Bonneville.
Unfortunately, the cast iron barrelled, classic engined Bullet (and lean burn Electra), in continuous production now for over 60 years, will be no longer available new in the UK at the end of 2008. Euro3 European emissions regulations have finally killed it off, despite the fact that it can return over 100 miles to the gallon. Even when ridden hard, the consumption doesn't dip below 80 MPG. However, an updated Bullet, with a newly developed unit construction EFI engine will be available, so the name and the bikes most certainly aren't going to die out.
So, if you are in the market for a most appealing and traditional 'period piece', complete with 1950's maintenance requirements and idiosyncrasies, you could do a lot worse than a classic Bullet. Just get your skates on if you want a new 'original' one.