Royal Enfield bikes have been constantly evolving throughout their history. When production first started in India, it was the 1955 model that rolled off the line. Kick starting was the only way to get the engine running. The gear shifter was at the right foot, with the back brake on the left. Drum brakes didn’t work very well, but top speed was only about 100km/h. The heavy crank, although slower to rev up, was beautifully smooth and creamy once rolling. A series of gears controlled ignition timing; a coil and mechanical “points” generated the spark. The whole combination gave a wonderful feel and a rich, deep sound. For us, this is what defines Bullets.
Bullet design has continued to change in many ways, but there’s a lot of debate about whether it has been for the good. Japanese bikes dictated that “standard” place for the gear lever should be on the left. Royal Enfield swapped the foot controls to appeal to younger buyers, and introduced 5-speed gearboxes.
Petrol consumption and emissions have been reduced with lean burn engines, fuel injection, and lighter cranks and flywheels. The new bikes rev up more quickly, but the trademark bom-bom-bom sound and old-school feeling have sadly been lost. A front disk brake seems to have been developed for advertising reasons, rather than improved performance; it lacks feel and progression. And the electric start is so bad that many owners remove it before it breaks. If we wanted all that modern stuff, we’d buy a Honda instead!
In recent years, the factory introduced a bewildering range of new models. The Thunderbird appears to be an attempt at a Harley-Davidson style cruiser for the Indian market. It’s got high handlebars, a raised tank, shiny things, and bits of cosmetic chromo-plastic filling in the holes. Released in 2001, it was the first model with a left-side gear shifter. Some people with moustaches love them, others just shake their heads. It didn’t do well in export markets. The Machismo is a Thunderbird on the inside, but looks like an original Bullet on the outside. The Lightning sparked brightly and disappeared in a flash. With a 535cc engine and a 5-speed left-side gear change, it’s unclear why it was a commercial flop.
The Electra is a classic 350cc bike with electric start. Released in 2003, it had a new ignition system for better starting, acceleration and fuel economy. The 5S, a 5-speed variant came later, as did the 500cc Electra-X 500cc for export markets. Twin Spark engines feature in a few bikes. It has a second spark plug where the old de-compressor used to be. The idea is to get better combustion, and hence more power.
The new Classic model, released in 2009, causes a lot of confusion because the original 1955 right-shift Bullet is also referred to as the classic. The new bike is pretty, with obvious design cues from the past, but many enthusiasts are sad that the Bullet’s legendary sound and feel have been lost.
Royal Enfield has expanded into foreign markets. The strategy seems to draw on the brand heritage, with classic style bikes at semi-budget prices. However, the technical requirements for export get tighter every year, and this has led to another round of technical fixes. Talented riders, purist designers, and quality engineers all seem to have been absent from the development meetings. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.
Many of the major bike manufacturers are cashing in on the demand for retro-styled bikes. Triumph, for example, is a legendary brand with gorgeous faux vintage bikes, and quality standards to match any Japanese factory.
We’re proud to be Bullet riders, and wish Royal Enfield success, but people buy bikes with their head as well as their heart. The new bikes are relatively expensive for the level of quality on offer. They’re nowhere near as good as modern alternatives, and a reputation for being unreliable is hard to overcome. Brand history is great, but a new €5000 bike should have a maintenance-free future as well.
The 500cc Bullet was launched in the UK during 1952, and was very well received. However, the motorcycle newspapers of the time, and many famous riders, actually preferred the 350cc version. It had to be worked harder, but handled better and was more rewarding in the right hands. The same is true today; a good rider on a 350 can see off a 500.
There are other cases of less being more. Track riders often comment that it’s not a bike’s power that matters. Its how the power is delivered, how much you can push through the tyres, and what you feel through the chassis and suspension. The Ducati 916 is a perfect example. It’s arguably the most beautiful bike ever made, but many connoisseurs think the 748 was actually the finer machine.
We find the 350 smooth and well balanced, with an ideal match of engine to chassis. It’s far more reliable than its big brother and, when 350s die, they fade out gradually with some warning. Spare parts are easier to find, too.
The 500 feels lumpy and agricultural by comparison. It has more power and torque but the bottom-end and drive train suffer under the stress. Soon after that nasty grinding and knocking sound appears, the 500 just falls apart. The extra torque creates other problems. Less skilled riders tend to fight the bike through the bend, and then twist the throttle harder on the exit. It’s not how Bullets like to be ridden. And because the 500 can pull more weight, people tend to overload them. It’s a recipe for mechanical failure.
Are Bullets reliable? Will it get me around India without breaking down? Will it get me home? Is it the best bike for the trip? Does it have a guarantee? No, no, no, no and no. But that’s not the point. Bullets are like an elderly relative. Apparently she was great in her day, but she’s getting old. There always seems to be something wrong with her now, and she pisses herself once in a while. But you love her anyway. Buy a Bullet, and you get to be a better mechanic for free.
Why are they so unreliable? The problems start at the factory. Back in the 1950’s, the engineers in Redditch were at the forefront of innovation. The Bullet was revolutionary, but the design was basically sound. However, bike design and manufacturing processes have been totally transformed since then. The quality goalposts have been moved.
Unfortunately, the Indian factory has failed to keep pace. The bikes are an engineer’s nightmare, or comedy, depending on your point of view. Things break, fall off, or just stop working for no apparent reason. Export models are slightly better, but do they just put the good parts on export bikes, and bad parts on domestic ones? A new Bajaj Pulsar comes with a 5 year guarantee, so there’s really no excuse.
Overloading is the major cause of breakdowns. This usually takes 2 forms; carrying too much weight, and thrashing the engine. Bullets were designed for English gentlemen on country roads. They were not designed to carry a rider, their passenger, metal luggage racks, 2 rucksacks, tools and equipment across India. The factory says a Bullet can carry up to 172kg, but we think 120kg is more realistic in the mountains of Nepal.
New riders go slow through the corners and fast on the straights. It puts the engine under a lot of stress. Experienced riders, especially of modern bikes, blow engines all the time. The Bullet needs to be ridden on its torque, not the top-end power. A smooth riding style, carrying higher corner speeds in higher gears, massively improves reliability. We can show you how with our Level 2 training.
Bullet ownership is a labour of love. Unfortunately, we see an incredible number of bikes that just haven’t been serviced properly. You can follow a few simple tips to avoid crying at the side of the road:
Hitchcock’s Motorcycles sell accessories and performance parts for the Royal Enfield Bullet. Based in Solihull, England, they are real experts with an extensive catalogue, superb service, and reliable delivery. Highly recommended!
Royal Enfield doesn’t need much introduction.