Ask anyone over a certain age about the halcyon days of British Motorcycle manufacturing and you’ll find the same names cropping up over and over again. B.S.A, Triumph, Norton, A.J.S and Matchless. The big boys with their mighty singles and twin cylinder machines dominating the home and world markets and cleaning up in the early days of Motorcycle Grand Prix racing. Black and white images of bikes leaving the factories and being bought up by a post war population desperate for their own transport and excitement. And then we had the war baby generation. The all new teenager with a little spare cash of their own and a desire to experience speed, the ton up boys were born, cafe racers thrashing their aging British machines up and down the local dual carriageways scaring their parents with a blatant disregard for personal safety and the rules that had so far governed British society.
But whilst we remember those iconic British motorcycles and associated images it’s rare that that love extends to the venerable Royal Enfield outside of their owners. It’s the prettier Triumph twins that grab the attention, the racing heritage behind B.S.A’s Grand Prix derived singles, the off road American racing success enjoyed by Matchless, sadly it appears that the immense heritage that Royal Enfield enjoys is only known to a select few.
A little history first I think. In 1909 Royal Enfield rather amazed the motorcycling world by introducing a small Motorcycle with a 2 ¼ HP V twin Motosacoche engine of Swiss origin before developing their next model in 1911 which was powered by a 2 ¾ HP engine and included the well known Enfield 2-speed gearbox. Development of new models continued apace as in 1912 came the JAP 6 HP 770 CC V twin, this time with a sidecar combination. 1914 saw the 3 HP motorcycles this time with Enfield’s own engine which now had the standardised Enfield paint scheme of black enamelled parts and green tank with gold trim, a design which is still recognisable on Enfield’s machines today.
Rather than lose ourselves in the rather fascinating topic of Royal Enfield’s incredible history, it’s time to forward wind a few decades to perhaps the most important decision that Enfield’s management made. A decision that meant that whilst we’ve witnessed the slow decline and eventual death of the once world beating British Motorcycle industry, (the reborn Triumph and Norton excepted) Enfield motorcycles have continued to be built and exported across the globe with last years output totalling around 400,000 units. But we’re getting rather ahead of ourselves here.
I’ll let Royal Enfield themselves take up the story from here: In 1955, the Indian government started looking for a suitable motorcycle for its police forces and the army for patrolling duties on the country’s border. The Bullet 350 was chosen as the most suitable bike for the job. The Indian government ordered 800 of these 350 cc motorcycles, an enormous order for that time. Thus In 1955, the Redditch Company partnered with Madras Motors in India to form what was called ‘Enfield India’ to assemble these 350 cc Bullet motorcycle under licence in erstwhile madras (Now called Chennai). As per their agreement Madras Motors owned the majority (over 50%) of shares in the company. In 1957 tooling equipment was also sold to Enfield India so that they could manufacture components and start full-fledged production. The Enfield Bullet dominated the Indian highways and with each passing year its popularity kept rising.
Hitting fast forward again and we see that UK production of Royal Enfields finally ceased in 1970 with the company being dissolved in 1971 and adding another headstone into the graveyard of once great British manufacturing brands. The thing is, Enfield India just, sort of, carried on making the Bullet in both 350 and 500cc form, improving it as they went along with their Bullet 500 now including a unit construction gearbox and a thoroughly modern, complete redesign of the venerable single cylinder engine, including electronic fuel injection as standard and putting the gear lever and brake on the correct sides at last, whilst not forgetting fully working indicators of course.
Which brings me rather nicely onto this weeks review of the Royal Enfield Bullet 500 EFI, a 27hp powerhouse of a motorcycle. Actually that’s terribly unfair and a way of looking at the Bullet that needs to be changed as you almost need to forget what you already know about riding motorcycles and adapt to the Enfield and it’s general outlook on life. It’s fair to say that although the Bullet is a comprehensively reworked motorbike, very different from the original 1950s model, compared to a Japanese single cylinder such as the Yamaha SR, it could be said to have taken a rather leisurely approach to development.
The thing is though, once you’re sat on the Bullet and reach forward to the perfectly positioned bars in front of you, it just feels right. Surprisingly for some, starting is a simple affair consisting of pressing the starter button whilst holding just a hint of throttle, and letting the EFI get on with doing what it does best rewarding you with a steady single cylinder Braap braap braap from the ever so slightly louder exhaust of this test machine. There is a kickstart for those wishing to undertake the full 1950s experience but you know what, MotorMartin isn’t one of them. For riders of more modern machinery, all other machinery, the riding position will be a little unusual as your feet are placed further in front than most other bikes, other than cruisers, whilst you reach forward to the comfortably set bars. Imagine sitting bolt upright on your favourite armchair and reaching forward for the remote and you get the idea. All joking aside, you soon get used to where to put your feet and it becomes an extremely comfortable way to ride the Bullet through the highways and byways of this green and pleasant land of ours.
Once under way you’ll be surprised at how easy the Enfield is to ride, the gearbox, although a little less slick than a modern machine, responds well to a positive movement of the left boot and clicks the next gear into place with a feeling of solidity that is most welcome in this digital age. With a relatively light clutch and short throttle action, the Bullet moves forward with enough acceleration to allow you to keep up with all but the most enthusiastically driven cars up to an indicated 50-55mph as any faster and the expected vibration begins to be felt through the pegs and bars but anyone with even an ounce of mechanical sympathy will realise that speed is not what this motorcycle is all about.
And once you realise that fact, you start to tune in to the Royal Enfield Bullet 500 EFI and get what it is all about. You’ve got to slow down, feel the engine and what it wants to do, feel the pulses from that 500cc single cylinder as it powers (sic) you along, realise that it’s not always about top speeds and knee down action but chilling out and enjoying the bend swinging and sensations achieved at a third of the speed.
MotorMartin is extremely happy to note that Royal Enfield are continuing to grow, and grow at a quite astonishing rate both in India and across the globe with new models being designed and planned for whilst the Bullet 500 and it’s derivatives are becoming more and more popular here in the U.K. as motorcyclists are becoming aware of the charm that this efficient and ‘bullet’ proof Motor can offer. I love it. It’s the perfect antidote to this increasingly hectic life.
Where will you go?