When Brit-born motorcycle producer Royal Enfield set up shop in Madras, India, in 1955, it was simply a matter of efficiency. The Indian government had a voracious appetite for the then world-renowned 500cc Bullet, which it used to supplement defenses along the Pakistani border. Native workers were sent to England to learn the art of Enfield. In another decade, cost-effective Japanese competition had all but driven British firms such as Enfield, Norton and Triumph underground. The plant in India, however, was rescued by its resident partner and continues to flourish, producing up to 25,000 bikes a year. Workers simply continued to build what they were trained to--a 1955 Bullet. And they've never stopped.
Really, riding the Bullet did rekindle our sense of wonderment at all things modern...such as electric starters and disc brakes. But also it put into perspective the heritage of motorcycling and the hardiness of the people who had a hand in its evolution.
Kick starting a motorcycle is a lost art. And that's OK. We could ignite the big single without terrible effort though, once we gave in to the drill. Use of the handlebar-mounted compression release was essential for a smooth, quick start. Those of us likewise vintage in years, or ones with a dirt bike background, had the easiest go of it. What was far more distressing than manually starting the Bullet was being able to shift the deal, especially from first to second gear. In fact, we couldn't shift it with the toes of our boots, and instead had to reach around the shifter with our boot heels in order to give it a more effective yank.
Now we've heard "modern" Enfields vary more than a bit from one to the next. So while some have this unbearable tightness in the shift linkage, some simply don't. Also our bike was fresh out of the box and some stiffness was expected, especially around town with no breeze to cool the works. The beauty of the Bullet's simple design is that there isn't a single component that can't be tinkered with or trained into obedience. We've also heard complaints about the clutch, carburetor and electrics during break-in. Basically, you can expect a bugaboo or two--and we expect that's part of the draw.
Vintage motorcycle enthusiasts have a basic desire to nurture, and this new/old Enfield demands it. It's a special motorcycle suited for a special owner. Admire it from a distance if you don't like to get your hands dirty.
When our Bullet was moving we enjoyed the sound and effortless maneuverability. The rear suspension was especially harsh, but the modern compound Avon tires gripped pretty well for their limited width, and offered more stick than the bike did ground clearance--at least on the kick stand side. The drum brakes seemed adequate in the sense that you did, eventually, stop. Actually, compared to drum units of the day, these are quite strong. On the right side of the motor is a funny little lever touted as a neutral finder. It allows you to shift into neutral from any gear with your heel...or so we've heard.
It's a finicky machine, to say the least, but is it fun? Definitely. There's nothing like it. And reliable? Well, as long as you have basic mechanical wits and patience for endless roadside fiddling, an Enfield will take you anywhere. In fact, there are Bullet clubs all over the world whose enthusiastic members relish flogging the bikes to unlikely destinations. Enfields are accepted on tracks around the world as a valid vintage racebike also. Actually, the bike performed better at high speeds than we expected--a bit twitchy and smothered in vibration, but certainly capable of American freeway speeds. There's a Super Bullet kit available to increase horsepower and additional options to convert the Classic into a cafe racer.
How do you tell if you're right for a Royal Enfield Bullet? Well, do you like to camp or stay in hotels? Fix the sink or call the plumber? There is a basic difference. We loved the Bullet's charm and minimalism. We also loved knowing our historic and honorable Bullet would wind up enriching someone else's motorcycle collection. Maybe it's yours.
For more information about Enfield motorcycles, or to locate a dealer near you, contact Classic Motorworks.
Photography by Kevin Win...