At some point in a life spent muscling around two-wheeled machinery, you learn to hold certain truths to be self-evident.
With a Boss Hoss BHC ZZ4, for example, you brace for big-block excess with triple-digit horsepower and automotive rubber... and the not-so-subtle handling that combination brings.
Ducati Streetfighter? A clack-clacking dry clutch, eye-piercing design and probably a Sweet Young Thing’s phone number at some point during the ride. A Harley-Davidson Street Glide lets you experience stump-pulling torque, chrome for days, and probably the ceremonial donning of a black T-shirt.
With a Royal Enfield Bullet G5, expect none of the above.
A quick gander at the Indian firm’s bikes—any one of them—reveals a simple air-cooled single bracketed by spoked wheels, a bare minimum of bodywork and a head lamp the size of Jay Leno’s chin (more on that later). Some models even have a kickstarter dangling off the side. This is a retro motorcycle design at its finest—right?
Except the 2011 Royal Enfield Bullet G5 Deluxe is a current model that has borne the same lines for over 50 years. In fact, Enfield’s entire 2011 lineup can be traced straight back to 1955—when the Indian military decided that the Bullet would be perfect for shuttling its army and police units around. Madras Motors of India purchased the right to use the Royal Enfield name, and by 1962, was churning out complete models. In 1971, Royal Enfield of England went bust, leaving Enfield of India to carry on the brand. The single-cylinder Bullet soldiered on unchanged for the next five decades, and with continuous production from 1955 until just a few years ago, became the longest running production bike in history.
But change had to come at some point, and in 2009, ever-tightening emissions regulations forced the company to adopt fuel injection along with an entirely new unit-constructed engine (UCE) and a five-speed gearbox. You couldn’t just flush half a century of accumulated heritage down the drain though, so the G5’s new-ish engine is still an air-cooled thumper, displacing 500cc.
But could a 50-year old, classically styled, low-horsepower, single-cylinder motorcycle be as fun to ride as a modern rig? I recently had the chance to sink my teeth into one and find out firsthand.
Justin Fisher at Classic Scooter & Cycle in Portland, Ore, hooked me up with two models from the current lineup to give me a better angle on the new Enfields. Both the Bullet G5 Deluxe and the Bullet Classic C5 still retain the stylish cues and no-nonsense demeanor of their forebears, and both share the same running gear and powerplant, with the new unit construction design of the engine incorporating both the external clutch and gearbox. That pushrod motor shares virtually no parts with the previous 1950s unit. The electronics and battery are now tucked into sidecases that blend into the frame, and out back, a gas canister piggybacks on the shocks. And there’s no missing that other concession to modernity—a 280mm front brake disc.
At 412 pounds full of fuel, the Bullet G5 Deluxe is a breeze to manage, and a 31.5-inch seat height (28 inches on the Classic) only streamlines the process. 1950s cues abound, including thigh pads on the teardrop-style tank, extended fenders, and the chromed muffler. The body work is all metal too—not plastic. The Deluxe bears a long bench saddle and fork gaiters, while the Classic rocks covered forks and a solo seat with dual springs underneath.
An easy step into the saddle, and you settle into a head up/back straight/arms slightly extended riding position. The narrow gas tank doesn’t splay your legs apart, and with the air filter, fuse relays and tool kit now integrated into the frame, leg movement isn’t restricted either.
Glancing down into the cockpit of either machine reveals Spartan instrumentation. There are no distracting LED readouts or high-zoot backlighting—you’ve got a speedometer, odometer, ignition slot, and a low fuel warning light clustered onto the headlight nacelle. That’s it. Fortunately, an EFI enrichment lever on the bar helps kick in the 02 sensor on cold mornings. Switchgear seems to be classic Japanese, but otherwise, this machine is all about simplicity.
After Fisher gave me a few pointers on the subtleties of the improved Bullet, I soon had it cranked over and onto the roadway. That 500cc motor might feature modern electronic fuel injection, but once underway, I realized that I shouldn’t expect thoroughly modern performance. The thumper pulse was blissfully raw and mechanical, but with a claimed 27.2 horsepower, the newest Bullets aren’t exactly a thrasher’s dream. Still, if you’re a member of the It’s More Fun to Ride a Slow Bike Fast club, then you’ll be firmly in your element. The alloy-construction engine revs better than older Enfields (redline is 5500rpm), and you’ll find the G5 Deluxe to be happiest using low and mid range torque. That means a 65mph cruise is probably the sweetest spot; be prepared for noticeably more vibes above 75mph. I found the Deluxe topping out at about 85mph—downhill, with a brisk wind at my back—but with an under-stressed 8.5:1 compression ratio, the slappity-slapping thumper didn’t seem to sweat if I wound it up. The Bullets make handfuls of torque right from the start, in a lumpy way that can only make you grin. The new Enfield tranny has an easy clutch pull, and shifts are generally predictable (though we experienced one or two false Neutrals). Just be prepared to stir the cogs often, and push the engine to keep up with modern American traffic flow.
With a friendly 54-inch wheelbase, either Bullet is more than happy to sway back and forth from corner to corner. Handling on the Deluxe is not exactly what you’d call sharp, but if you use the wide, flat pullback bars smoothly, the taller Bullet carries itself through the turns respectably on its old-style 19-inch tires. The Bullet Classic is even more impressive, and with its smaller diameter, thicker tires and different rake, offers up a different feel with surprising nimbleness. Its rollicking willingness to descend down through the twisty bits of the Historic Columbia River Highway seemed perfectly matched to the pace of this old, narrow road. Because seat height is lower on the Classic, it’s also more confidence-inspiring for beginning riders.
As you’d expect from a decades-old design, suspension quality is merely adequate, and you’d better brace for potholes. The fork is under-sprung and overdamped, while the twin gas shocks are a touch bouncy (though you can adjust for preload). The springs under the solo saddle of the Classic make for even more plush ride quality, but both seats are comfortable, even after an hour. Braking is adequate, mostly because you’re not going that fast. The front 280mm disc and rear drum brake are up to the task bringing the speeding Bullet to a relatively quick halt.
The Bullets offer a couple of handy maintenance features as well, like an oil sight glass on the crankcase to allow for fast checks. Oil and air filters are easily accessed with tools from the included toolkit, and all Bullets come with an easy-to-use centerstand. Royal Enfield also offers the NField Gear parts and accessories line, should you want to customize your Bullet further.
Neither Bullet model is overly expensive; they cost less than a pseudo-classic like the Triumph Bonneville, but they give it back in their (comparatively) diminished performance. The Bullets are however, true descendants of period Brit steel, and probably the most authentic way to reap the classic biking experience (read: slow and simple) on a brand new machine, with gobs of retro style to boot. Everywhere we went, onlookers eyeballed what they thought was a carefully restored vintage bike.
No matter how you slice it, the Bullets —either G5 Deluxe or the Classic—deliver classic vintage cachet (and upward of 50 mpg) without the collectible price. Just ask Jay Leno; the renowned bike buff recently took delivery of a Bullet G5 Deluxe for his personal collection. CR
2011 Royal Enfield Bullet G5 Deluxe (Bullet Classic C5)
|Base Price||$6,195 ($6,395)|
|Colors||Black/ Black, Royal Maroon, Classic Green|
|Warranty||2 years, unlimited mileage|
|Type||Air-cooled single cylinder|
Bore X Stroke
|499cc, 84.0 x 90.0mm|
|Valve Train||OHV, pushrod-operated; 2 valves/ cylinder|
|Fuel System||electronic fuel injection|
|Transmission||5-speed, constant mesh; wet multi-plate clutch|
|Overall Length||87 in.|
|Wet Weight||412 lbs.|
|Seat Height||32 in. (31 in.)|
|Rake/ Trail||25 degrees/ 2.95 in.|
(26 degrees/ 2.83 in.)
|Front Tire||90/90-19 (18 inches for Classic)|
|Rear Tire||110/ 80-19 (110/ 90-18)|
|Front Brake||280mm disc, twin-piston caliper|
|Rear Brake||152mm drum|
|Front Suspension||35mm telescopic fork;|
5.1 in. travel
|Rear Suspension||Gas shock;|
3.1 in. travel
|Fuel Capacity||3.2 gal|