Hammering up Fish Hill, a glorious snaking ascent on the A44 east of Evesham in Worcestershire, I overtake a slow, fuming coach and stay in the right lane to crank past a coupe of cars on a sweeping left-hand hairpin.
After holding third almost to the point of cruelty, I change to top and mentally urge on the slogging engine as it gradually picks up pace against the steepening hill.
As we thud past a 30mph advisory sign on the entry to a sharp right-hander, I glance at the speedo. We’re doing 60mph and are not in anyone’s way. this is fun!
It’s funny how a set of drop handlebars can fuel speed fantasies, even on an Indian-built Royal Enfield, a classic fifties 500cc single more suited to 40mph commuting.
The bike I’m on is a cosmetically modified year 2000 Bullet converted to Clubman trim by importer Watsonian-Squire and the ride is a lot more sporty and enjoyable than I had expected.
If you venture out with ace bars, a big alloy racing tank, humped seat and a rorty swept back exhaust, you are going to look pretty silly being overtaken by everything except cyclists and horses. But the mild power of the Bullet 500S Clubman. roughly 22bhp. encourages you to ride smoothly and thoughtfully rather than frantically, not losing momentum through unnecessary braking or clumsy gear changes.
A reasonable power-to-weight ratio lets you draw away from most cars and vans on minor roads and the Enfield’s chassis, rolling on steel-rimmed 19 inch wheels shod with the Clubman’s optional Dunlop TT100 tyres, feels sound when cornering.
Though basic, the suspension does not jolt or jar and the forks prove commendably clunk-free when speed bumps are attacked at higher-than-sensible speed. Braking power from the twin-leading-shoe front drum and single-leader rear is up to the job, only occasionally being stretched as, for example, when I met an articulated truck on a single carriageway country lane.
As you’d expect with a low compression single, the Bullet engine is flexible and will chug along obligingly in the top of four ratios, even in 30mph limits. Cruising at 55-60mph is effortless, with some acceleration left if you want it. The best seen on the speedometer, calibrated in both mph and kph, was a fraction over 80mph on a slightly downhill straight.
At the other end of the scale, you can plod at trials pace through busy streets, as I had to when negotiating Cotswold villages swarming with sightseers.
There is a big leap from third to top gear and it was avoiding an embarrassing sudden loss of acceleration that had made me feel so triumphal about storming up Fish Hill and leaving cars behind.
After some earlier troublesome changes with the engine under load, I made an effort to be deliberate with the pedal, mounted on the right in traditional Brit style. Although employing a linkage, it retains the standard up-for-down shift pattern. Neutral is not easy to find. it helps to snick out of gear while you’re still rolling. This stiffness in the box may be due to the low mileage of the test bike.
The neutral finder pedal that was long a trademark of Royal Enfield and Indian Enfields is not provided.
You still see classic singles that need several kicks to fire up, but the Bullet is a sure one-swing starter. The tiny 28mm Mikcarb (Indian made Mikuni) carburetor has a cold-start lever mounted on it, which is easy to reach on the move. A traditional Enfield decompressor valve in the cylinder head is operated by a lever on the left bar control cluster.
This is helpful for reliable kick starting, though 6.5:1 compression is hardly daunting.
The Bullet’s 12v battery/coil ignition system has been improved by the introduction of a bearing instead of plain bush to support the points cam and auto advance mechanism. Current for the 12v system is generated by an Indian made alternator and regulated by an electronic unit.
The updated controls incorporate dogleg clutch and brake levers, a cutout switch on the right, and lighting, horn and indicator switches on the left.
More period looking are the instruments built into the headlamp nacelle (casquette in RE terminology) with large 100mph/160kph speedo and ammeter with pleasing green and red colouring for the charge and discharge calibrations. The nacelle also carries the key operated switch for the coil ignition and two discreet pilot lamps for dubious practicality.
Devise by Watsonian-Squire in collaboration with parts specialist Norman Hyde, the mostly UK-made 500S Clubman kit comprises the following parts:
– Dropped handlebars. I found these a little too wide and flat, although shortening and rotating the bars slightly in their mounts could rectify this.
– A 41/2-gallon (inc half-gallon reserve) alloy tank with flip-up Monza cap made by Don Woodward, sheet metal wizard to the Seventies Triumph works racing team.
– Comfy single seat by PP Seating, a traditional UK industry supplier, plus air filter shroud beneath it.
– Swept back exhaust pipe with Toga BSA Gold Star pattern silencer emitting an authentic ‘twitter’ on the overrun. A separate screwin baffle is being available for those who want a more subdued exhaust note.
– Plated steel rear set footrest assemblies and foot controls, including gearchange linkage.
– Plated sports mudguards.
– Direction indicators (optional chromed type are on the test bike) of overseas origin.
– New rear lamp unit.
– Alternative gearbox sprocket to raise overall gearing by 8 per cent (optional).
– Glass fibre faired covers to leading edges of tool and air-filter boxes
Extras include chromed indicators, Dunlop TT100 (rather than Avon Speedmaster) tyres plus a side stand. Watsonian-Squire aims to steadily add to this list.
Apart from a little extra snap from the much restricted exhaust and the benefit of raised gearing (not provided on the test machine), the S version is not tuned in anyway. Indian Bullet tuning expertise exists in the UK and in Switzerland where Fritz Egli makes his costly factory approved 45bhp 624cc Bullet Clubman but owners tweaking new standard or S models will sacrifice their one-year/12000km warranty.
Perhaps not a styling masterpiece, the 500S nevertheless has tidy, purposeful looks, which attracted favourable attention wherever it was parked. As we thumped discreetly though Chipping Campden I saw the facial expression of an elderly man, waiting as his partner peered at a thatched cottage, change from blank boredom to alert fascination at the sight of the Bullet. Not surprisingly, several people thought it was a freshly restored Redditch build Royal Enfield of the past and were bemused to learn of its Eastern origins.
On arrival back at Watsonian-Squire’s HQ at Northwick Business Park, a 1940s estate of single storey brick buildings near Blockley, Gloucestershire, I jumped on a bullet 500 Deluxe to take a quick spin for comparison.
Apart from its more subdued exhaust note, the most noticeable difference is the riding position, which feels very ‘laid back’ and made a relaxing change from the S model. The restrictive standard silencer makes the engine feel more docile, but this softer nature is in keeping with the riding position and emphasizes the Bullet’s strong Fifties character.
That must be the Bullet’s unique selling point: where else can you buy a brand new authentic classic, surely the longest surviving model of any marque?
The old Redditch Royal Enfield factory (only 30 miles from Watsonian-Squire) launched the original 500cc Bullet in the mid-Thirties and commenced postwar production of the 350cc Bullet roadster with a swinging arm frame for 1949, adding the 500 version in 1953. Redditch discontinued the Bullets in the early Sixties, but from 1956 350 Bullets based on the 1955 UK model were made under license by the newly formed Enfield India. Apart from stoppages due to industrial disputes and natural causes, output has been continuous, with the big bore 500 version being exported from India since 1990.
Since 1994, Royal Enfield Motors in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, India has been owned by the large Eicher automotive group, which has invested in improving build quality and design detail. The range is expanding too with a Custom style Bullet and a lean-burn engined Bullet Machismo available on the home market. A five-speed gearbox is under development in the UK, meanwhile electric starting may be the next major step.
Thirty percent of production is for export markets in 20 countries.
Apart from classic authenticity, what are the other attractions of the new Bullet 500S Clubman? Well, it is frugal on fuel, covering up to 80 miles on a gallon of unleaded. Maintenance is easy, even for a novice mechanic and spares availability is total.
For some riders the exclusivity of the 500S could be a virtue in itself, given the faddish nature of the current UK bike scene.
Owners are guaranteed constant stream of people asking, â€œWhat is it?â€ What the Bullet 500S is not is a modern sports single. Half a dozen makers offer 500-650cc thumpers priced between 4000-500 pounds that are light years on performance and materials technology. But the Bullet 500S is a 1955 motorbike with some updated details which can provide miles of fun at real-life speeds. It’s available at 3995 pounds including one year’s road tax and 12000km/12month warranty.
Details of your nearest dealer from Royal Enfield Motorcycles, 70 Northwick Business Centre, Blockley, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire GL56 9RF. 01386 770907. Fax 700738.
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- Classic Bike News – June 2011.
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