The Royal Enfield Motorcycle:
An Open Letter Through a Time Warp
Royal Enfield Bullet in stock trim. Photo by Dave Murray.
I’m gonna get you for this! Sometime when you least expect it. You just HAD to write that article about the Royal Enfield motorcycle a few years ago, didn’t you? (http://www.chuckhawks.com/enfield_bullet.htm)
I’m sure you meant no harm, but it reached far back into the reptilian brain of an old biker. Caused no end of trouble, I can tell you!
Dad was a Brit, born and raised within a tram ride of the old Clady circuit in Northern Ireland. He was a seaman, and brought me stacks of motorcycle racing magazines from Britain. The walls of my room were covered with Nortons, Matchless, Velocette, Geoff Duke and Harold Daniell.
There was a particular section for the Norton Girls as well.
The 1950’s were a different time. Britain was the Saudi Arabia of motorcycles, having at least 50 viable marques at a time when the USA had two. The major racing classes had, for decades, been 350 and 500 cc, and the road bikes in Britain tended to be the same size.
A 500 was then a Big Bike!
There were no motorways in Britain. The usual roads were about as wide as ONE modern interstate lane, were roughly paved, usually wet, torturously twisty, and often had stone walls on both sides. There were damn few places one could go much over 70 and survive, so straight speed was secondary to handling and braking.
Brit bikes became known for excellent handling.
In the USA, the Model T replaced the motorcycle as transportation by about 1915, but higher prices and taxation in Britain rendered the automobile a luxury. A working man rode a motorcycle, right up to the advent of the Mini in the 60s. The British manufacturers were in the business of selling transportation, with ultimate performance a long way second.
All the major companies sold far more 350s than 500s, as Royal Enfield does in India today.
Racing sold bikes, but racing technology didn’t percolate down to road bikes, as the buyer didn’t want to pay for performance he couldn’t use. All the Brit racing bikes had overhead cam motors by the late 20s, but the Triumph Trident and BSA Rocket Three of the 70’s were still pushrod motors.
This was a far cry from today’s market, in which bike builders and dealers are primarily selling testosterone. Any Harley or Honda dealer is skilled at implying that, if you don’t have a big twin weighing 900 pounds, or a Rice Rocket capable of 160 MPH, well, you might just as well be wearing a gingham pinafore.
I coveted the big 500 thumpers, but could never afford one. I did cage a few rides, but I owned Hondas; 90, 250, 400cc bikes. Beautifully engineered, quick, reliable, but somehow soulless.
I never named them, and I had about the same level of emotional attachment to them as I do to my Shop-Vac.
Then I read your damn Article! The Royal Enfield was still in production! New cost, $4750!
That was like a car buff finding that a company in India was still making ’57 Chevies, and selling them for $6000, with a dealer and parts network.
I already had a bike, Sportzilla, a significantly modified Harley Sportster whose right grip will take you to 100 in well under 10 seconds. I love that bike, but that article grew in the back of my mind for years. Began daydreaming about a second bike, and how I would modify it, as that is at least half the fun for me.
I bookmarked the site of the U.S. Importer (http://www.enfieldmotorcycles.com/). I devoured the history of the company (http://www.ianchadwick.com/motorcycles/enfield/index.html).
And of the Bullet model itself (http://www.ianchadwick.com/motorcycles/enfield/india.html).
After a certain amount of whining on my part my Bride, in a weak moment, admitted that the family exchecquer might just barely cover such a purchase. I found a new, leftover ’04 for a nice discount, and had that puppy on order by day’s end!
I purchased through a dealer who treated me honestly, but we have personalities which knock sparks off each other. Most of my aftermarket purchases have been with Classic Motorworks, with whom I have been pleased and impressed. They have an amazing selection of aftermarket parts for a bike with such a small market presence (as yet).
The bike arrived after dark and I wheeled it into the shop, immediately noticing that the brake lever pulled all the way in to the grip. Spent the next couple hours doing post-dealer-prep-prep, and just admiring the bike. She has a mid-century mechanical look that is music to a gearhead. There’s little styling, other than the headlight housing (called the Casquette).
Form follows function here, and as on a Spitfire or the Flying Scotsman, the result is beautiful.
This is NOT a bike for a guy who goes to the dealer to change a lightbulb. You need the factory shop manual, and an aftermarket one written by Pete Snidal. Together, they add up to adequate.
Don’t get me wrong, the bike is built like a Bren gun and it isn’t going to fall apart, but a buyer who learned about points ignition in History class is going to have to acquire some Paleomechanical skills. We sometimes look back at earlier technology as crude, but just try to design, using the aircraft materials and engines of 1916, a better aircraft than a SPAD.
The more I went over the bike, the more impressed I became. The Enfield company was always known for innovation. They invented the rubber cush drive around 1911, and were the first production bike with swing-arm rear suspension.
The factory never supported racing, although many were raced by private entrants, and they were very successful in trials and scrambles.
I grew up with drum brakes, and they could be pretty bad, but these are double leading shoe drums. That was the pinnacle of drum technology, and very rare on a production bike. Since adjusting them and bedding them in, I’m impressed by their power and modulation. About the rear brake, the less said the better.
Fortunately, I don’t use it much, anyway. There are no frame tubes under the motor, which is a stressed member. The frame is powder-coated.
Best of all, the Mesolithic four-speed gearbox (grease lubed) has been replaced with a modern five-speed, which uses 90 wt oil. It was designed from the outset for left foot shift, and it’s quiet and smooth shifting. The gearbox is separate from the motor, but bolted to it, a technique Harley only got around to on the Twinkie 88.
Not to rag on the Motor Company, but their laced wheels have plated spokes. The Enfield’s are stainless. She comes with a spare set of cables, a pretty fair tool kit, and a spare innertube tube. Good marketing or bad omen?
Only time will tell.
The paint quality is about 85% of modern standards, and quite good at this price. The polished bits are well done, and on close inspection you can see that this is not due to modern casting techniques, but the result of extensive hand polishing.
Withal, the bike’s quality has improved substantially in the last five years. Since the company was acquired by Eicher International it has had more capital with which to work. Just as the bike was built by proud British craftsmen half a century ago, it is today built by proud Indian craftsmen, and decidedly not by a robotic production line.
The quality is far beyond good enough, but this isn’t a Brough Superior. It’s a 20,000 unit per year production model.
I was waiting for the registration documents and could not licence the bike immediately, but my property adjoins a shopping center. I rolled her out next morning and started up, then sat there laughing my head off. Out of the box, the bike chuffs.
ChuffChuffChuffChuffChuff! It’s like riding a steam motorcycle! No matter, I had ordered the British made replacement headpipe and short silencer.
I had reservations about the quoted 16 rear wheel HP, as Sportzilla puts down 75+. I needn’t have worried, Hanuman is 150 pounds lighter and doesn’t at all feel slow, even as strangled as the stock bike is. I had forgotten how much fun a light bike can be.
She corners eagerly, without feeling twitchy, and I dragged my first peg within five minutes. Those three inch tyres (Britbike, y’know) bite asphalt like a Cromwell tank!
With 20 miles on a new motor, I wasn’t about to apply full twist, but she felt qiuck and responsive. I put about ten miles on in the parking lot that day, stopping for a smoke now and then, to let her cool. I break-in the first 50 miles VERY gently.
I had a blast!
As a portent of things to come, a bunch of kids on skateboards came over to ask what a Royal Enfield was. I gave them the story about The Bike they Forgot to Stop Making, and they pronounced it Kewell!.
The bike has since drawn more attention than Lady Godiva when she got off her horse at the Pub for a pint. I pushed her across Rt. 9 to Mike’s Diner, which was a good move, as half the Berkeley Twp Police force were in there for lunch.
They all came out for a look, studiously ignoring the lack of a licence plate.
At day’s end, I noticed that the headpipe had blued for about 18 at the rear, just before the silencer. What th’ Hey? Headpipes blue from the front! Good a time as any to change the exhaust.
I found a cylindrical cat converter bodged into the back of the headpipe, cutting the cross section area by about 2/3s. That accounts for about 2 HP. There are no exhaust flanges or studs, you just line up the pipe with the port in the head, then POUND it in with a rubber mallet! The brackets hold it in place.
Simple, cheap, and it works.
Now, as I said, it’s a nice bike. But, outta th’ box, it’s got some attributes that are downright, well, dorky! So in the next few days she got, from Classic Motorworks’ Store ( http://www.royalenfieldusa.com/index.php ):
Bigger 34mm Mikuni carb with KN filter. (Stock is a 28mm Micarb, Indian made, and a bit crude.)
Freer pipes, smaller silencer, exhaust cooling flange.
Larger capacity fuel valve.
High capacity oil pumps (if they’re offered, the motor probably needs them).
Relocate horn from dorky location on downtube to below air filter.
Replace 18 vertical lollipop mirrors, so dorky I never installed them.
Replace dorky dual seat with springer (It’s a good dual seat, but, well, dorky).
Replace dorky dinner plate-size turn indicators with bullet type, relocate rears to seat mount tabs.
Get rid of Uber-Dorky huge tin box tail light mounting, replace light.
Install small windshield (Memphis Shades).
Remove emissions plumbing, gives me two huge toolboxes.
Polish everything in sight.
Royal Enfield Bullet after the above modifications. Photo by Dave Murray.
She runs much freer now, probably 5-10% quicker, and the exhaust has the classic deep, flat, stacatto bark of a Brit single. For its purpose, fun riding on secondary roads up to about 70 MPH or so, she could be left right there, but you know that ain’t my style. I’m planning:
535cc big bore alloy cylinder.
high compression piston, 8.5:1 up from 6.5 (she was designed for 75 octane).
Taller front sprocket for a bit more top end.
Modify head for dual plugs, port it out and polish the passages.
Relocate battery for a see through look.
And anything else that I happen to think of, but that’s for another letter. But I am going to get you for this, Chuck!
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