Biting the Bullet – the Enfield one, I mean
By Ian Chadwick, former (Royal) Enfield Bullet 500 rider, Collingwood, Ontario, Canada.
Last updated May 24, 2003.
Later, I thought I must have been crazy. I had traded in a loud 500-pound chrome and steel powerhouse – my Yamaha Virago, a machine of superb engineering, ergonomics and style – for a lightweight, puttering thumper with stiff gears, low power, a quiet exhaust and a hard, high seat. Yes, I had become the owner of a ‘new’ Enfield Bullet, 500cc deluxe model.
And for some strange reason, I found I really enjoyed myself on it.
I first saw the Bullet in the early 1990s at the International Motorcycle Show in Toronto (North America’s largest motorcycle show). I loved it at first sight. It’s quintessentially British in everything, from the hand-painting, to the drum brakes to the Avon Speedmaster tires and Lucas coil.
I had to own one, but it took a couple of years to get around to it. When I did, I managed to get the deluxe model: a bright China red with a chrome gas tank and fenders (plus rubber knee grips), like an old BSA Star, but there are several colour choices available (including a beautiful hunter green).
Canadian motorcyclist Don Detlor first saw the Bullet while on holidays in India, many years back. He joined fellow motorcyclist Terry Smith to create T D Impex, of Niagara Falls, to import them into Canada. They told me it wasn’t easy.
It took the two men five or so years to get the Indian company to manufacture the bikes to meet Canadian standards and design – like moving the shifter to the left side – and to get the glacial Canadian bureaucracy to approve them for import. Even then the bikes suffered from initial problems with regulators and electrics that had to be worked out the hard way (the regulator is now replaced with a reliable American-made one).
Their first shipment of bikes arrived in October 1993 and quickly sold out. T D brought in both 350 and 500cc models, with some variations in paint and chrome, plus an India Army version which looks like a WWII bike with its metal carriers, single seat and olive-green paint. The parent company is working with Swiss Engineer Fritz Egli to make more powerful models, including a 535cc and a 650cc engine, as well as a sport racer, but don’t expect them on the North American market any time soon.
The 500cc Bullet pushes a meagre 22 bhp (18 for the 350). It’s no crotch rocket, but it’s a reasonably torquey little bike with that one cylinder and generally a pleasant ride at unhurried speeds. At first, the shifter is stiff and sluggish, and it’s not always evident the gear has taken until you release the clutch. Have patience: I found it improves noticeably with use, becoming quite smooth after the first 500-1,000 kms of break-in.
However, the space between gears is smaller than on most bikes, so it takes some getting used to.
You can’t upshift from 1st to neutral, but you can easily downshift into neutral between 2nd and 4th gear by pumping a small neutral finder on the right side of the gear box. Very nifty, that! Although the manual doesn’t tell you, Terry taught me you can upshift from 1st by simply holding the clutch, leaning down and pulling the neutral finder up a notch.
Inelegant, but a simple solution.
Acceleration is modest. During the break-in period, take it easy as the manual recommends, but it won’t be long before you can open it up. or as much as it allows! The speedo promises 160 kmh, but 120 is really the max (it’s 90-100 on the 350 I’m told). It’s hard to measure accurately, because the needle tends to swing wildly about a lot after 100 kmh.
Using a pace car for a test, I found the speedo on my machine was overly optimistic by about 10-15 kmh in the upper ranges.
At about 350 pounds, she’s a fairly agile bike, and easy to flick into corners and around curves (although watch for those extended foot pegs!). And she gets an estimated 75 mpg!
The front and back leading-shoe drum brakes (twin shoes on the front, an improvement introduced by Madras in 1990) work fine given the Bullet’s power, but they’re a bit mushy and I wouldn’t want to depend on their sudden stopping ability. The Bullet encourages careful riding.
The bench seat is a weakness. It was probably designed by the Spanish Inquisition: firm doesn’t begin to describe it. You become accustomed to it, although it never feels comfy and I shifted around a lot on longer rides.
At about 30-31 inches high, it feels like I’m a long way from the pavement compared to cruisers I’ve owned. You can always remove some of the seat foam to lower it, or even splurge on a custom seat.
I installed the single saddle seat (the old fashioned one), but took it off immediately: it adds several more inches of height on an unstable-looking bracket supported by stiff chromed springs. My biggest concern with it, however, was that it exposed the electrical components to the environment (like rain). At least the bench favours a good, upright riding position. Terry has customized his single seat, lowering it a couple of inches, but it’s still a bit higher than I like.
However, it really adds to the vintage look. And Terry promises it’s a softer ride than the bench. There are other seats available: a Clubman (sports) seat and several other designs are available from England.
I changed the stock knobby rubber handgrips for standard cushion style grips, because I prefer the larger, softer grip. Aside from the usual difficulty of removing grips, the throttle-side grip gave me a problem when I accidentally twisted too hard on a small switch/connector and broke it, disabling my brake light (it was soldered, not screwed on). Terry sent me a replacement immediately, so it told me getting parts is not likely going to be a problem.
Since then I’ve ordered several items and received them quickly. That’s one major advantage over many vintage bikes: all of the parts are still being manufactured byt the original company.
The Bullet uses a kickstart, but a decompression lever and ammeter make it relatively easy to turn over after a few tries. The kicker can throw you if you don’t do it by the books, but the process is simple (ask your dealer to show you how – the owner’s manual is confusing). Most cold mornings it takes five or six kicks to get started: once it’s warm one or two is the norm.
I recommend letting her warm up five or six minutes before riding away, to give the engine time to settle in properly. If you give her the time and patience, she’s a reliable, sturdy ride. Note: although the recommended position for starting is standing on the right, with the bike on the centrestand, I did learn to kick her over while sitting on the seat at a stop sign.
The 28mm Mikuni carb is small, but British riders can purchase a kit and 34mm carb to improve power and, with a slightly rebored port, get another estimated 6 bhp from the beast. Terry installed the kit on his bike last spring, but was still working out the optimum carb jetting for it. Various dealers have recommended upgrading the carb jet to a 135 or even 160 (the slot-type for a VM28), for better performance.
But the needle position will require adjusting too, to prevent overly-rich running. One Brit magazine recommends a 125 jet. other mechanics tell me less (it’s a 110, so I tend to think about 120 is tops).
The long stock peashooter muffler chuffs very quietly, but I installed a shorter, slightly louder slip-on pipe available as an accessory (re-jetting was not required to change pipes). One online Enfield rider suggests an open pipe for better performance, but it may be a trifle loud. Terry uses a Goldstar slip-on that makes a nice chugging, slightly metallic sound.
The accessory silencers should provide modestly improved performance, but you can get a bit more by replacing the stock felt air filter with a more porous paper air filter (I bought an auto 3.5 filter and hand-fashioned it to fit). Another mod you can consider is a Boyer Bransden electronic ignition (recommended in several Brit bike publications).
Despite some claims that the Bullet leaks oil, mine proved pretty oil tight around most gaskets and seams. There is sometimes a small seepage when the engine’s been running a lot (nothing significant, given the bike’s heritage) around the access port on the chain side, caused by flailing oil in the case at high speed, no doubt. There’s also sometimes a bit around the neutral finder, but hardly more than a few drops.
I’ve seen a lot more oil seep out of some modern American bikes (described euphemistically by owners as ‘marking their spots’).
Given she’s a ‘thumper,’ with a solid-mount engine, vibration was another initial concern, but I was surprised at how smooth the Bullet is, especially at high revs. I can actually see in the mirrors at high speed (much clearer than on my Harley!). At low revs, it’s more evident, and the mirrors are hard to read.
At idle it’s very noticeable, but I’ve become accustomed to it. On long rides, the vibration may prove tiring.
There are several accessories available: some bits of chrome, a seven-inch headlight kit (stock is six but the seven has the original look); mufflers, clubman and single seats, chrome horn, grab rail, panniers and other items. More accessories are coming, including crash bars and extra chrome, as well as performance modifications. The bike invites tinkering and customizing.
The large cowling size and distance from the handlebars means many windshields won’t fit, but I found a Slipstreamer, designed for a Harley, that worked fine (although its design is not vintage). Some generic, commercial bags are suitable, with a bit of tinkering. Bullet-specific fairings are available in the UK.
The Bullet has two small metal toolboxes and comes with tool kit, spare tube, clutch and brake cable. Add the usual spare spark plug, fuse, spoke tool and mini-ratchet wrench (you’ll need both metric and imperial sizes) and you’ll have almost everything you need.
While it doesn’t snort and thunder down the street like a Harley Davidson, the Bullet draws its fair share of appreciative looks. People think it’s a vintage bike and they approached me with questions about it, surprised to learn it’s actually new. Even Harley riders who look down their noses at Japanese bikes give curt condescension to the Bullet because it’s so British (and reminds many of the bikes they began riding on).
And pricewise, the Bullet is a steal: mine was under $5,300 Cdn. list for the deluxe or army model, under $4,500 Cdn. for the basic 350.
I came late to motorcycling, getting my licence when I turned 40. I was attracted to the cruisers for their style, power and feel. After some initial trepidation about the Enfield, I rethought the entire motorcycle metaphor in terms of its history and heritage, rather than power and speed.
I’m riding on almost a century of tradition, not simply the latest bit of engineering or the loudest, baddest bike. I’ve grown to love the Bullet for its unique qualities and undeniable charm: it harkens back to simpler, less complicated days – times when there were still mountains left to climb and places left to explore.
As a runabout in town or along the smaller two-lane highways and roads it’s ideal (we have some great, twisty riding around Blue Mountain-Georgian Bay where the Bullet excels). In towns, it turns heads, generates conversations, sparks old memories and brings more smiles per mile than most bikes. It’s very maneuverable and light, and fares well in urban traffic too, although I wouldn’t feel comfortable on a six-lane highway (I hesitate to ride them on any bike, really).
My thanks to Terry Smith and Don Detlor of TD Impex for their patience, understanding and unhesitating support. Since this review was written, circumstances required that me to sell my Bullet and TD Impex has closed. Several years have passed and I am again trying to find one.
Please contact me if you have one for sale.
Ian Chadwick. Comments, changes and questions welcome: please post them on my forum .
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