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 -- or even updated much.
So, you can buy a brand, spanking new 1955 Royal Enfield for next to nothing with a 12-month, 9000-mile warranty included. With the exception of relocating the shifter to the left side of the motorcycle, only minor modifications have been made to meet U.S. vehicle requirements. Three 500cc Bullet models are available for 2000: the Classic ($3995), Deluxe ($4495) and hugely popular Military version ($4495). A 1999-model-year bike (same dang thing) runs approximately $200 to $600 less.
We had an opportunity to ride one of these surprisingly handsome vintage tidbits courtesy of Royal Enfield's American Distributor, Classic Motorworks of Minnesota. And during our short-term relationship with the new/old singles we discovered a couple of things. First, we live more like George Jetson than we think we do. Second, we're pretty happy about that.
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. (This motorcycle represents the state of the art at bit more than halfway through the motorcycle's march to the present.)
Kick-starting a motorcycle is a lost art. And that's OK. We could ignite the big single without terrible effort though (mild compression is part of the reason, we suspect), 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 attempting 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. And the basic design is built to stand up to almost anything. Consider the 5.5:1 compression ratio, for example. But it must be massaged a bit to keep all the parts working cooperatively. We've 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 motorcycle that 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 single-cylinder 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 kickstand side. The drum brakes seemed adequate in the sense that you did, eventually, stop. (There is a disc-brake kit available.) 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 (claimed top speed is a bit under 80 mph) 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. And yes, there is a racing support program.
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:
9 Third St. NW
Faribault, MN 55021
Royal Enfield Bullet Deluxe
Suggested base price: $4495
Standard colors: Black, red or blue
Type: Air-cooled, four-stroke OHV single
Displacement, bore x stroke: 499cc, 84 x 90mm
Compression (?) ratio: 5.5:1
Claimed Horsepower: 22 bhp @ 5400 rpm
Transmission: Wet clutch, 4 speeds
Final drive: Chain
Lubrication: Dry sump
Front suspension: Telescopic/hydraulic
Rear suspension: Dual dampers, adjustable for preload
Brakes: Drum; 7-in. front, 6-in. rear (Disc brakes optional)
Fuel capacity: 3.8 gal.
Wheelbase: 53.5 in.
Seat height: 30.0 in.
Weight 370 lb. dry (claimed)