The Royal Enfield story began in 1893 in Redditch, a small town in central England. George Townsend & Co manufactured sewing needles, bicycles, and also produced metal parts for the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield. It’s where the Lee Enfield 0.303 rifle was manufactured. Although Redditch is a long way from Enfield, the association led to the “Enfield” brand and the slogan “made like a gun”. The “Royal” title was added soon after. Coincidentally, Royal Enfield also manufactured components for Birmingham Small Arms, who would later transform into another iconic motorcycle company - BSA.
In 1898 Royal Enfield produced their first 4-wheeled motorized vehicle, followed a year later by a tricycle, using engines from other companies. Their first 2-wheeled motorcycle appeared in 1901; a strange contraption with the engine mounted over the front wheel and a long belt driving the rear wheel.
They developed the first oil container within an engine. This proved far superior to the old external, hand-pumped oil reservoirs. Chain drive was pioneered in 1910. With another first in 1912, rubber cush drives were incorporated into the rear wheel to extend chain life. Manufacture of Royal Enfield engines began the same year. They went on to give the world dry sump lubrication and automatic oil pumps in 1913.
Royal Enfield produced V-twin military models for British War Department and the Imperial Russian Army during The Great War of 1914-1918. Over 55,000 bikes were produced during World War II (1939-45) with side-cars, machine guns, stretchers for wounded soldiers and various other designs.
The inter-war period saw many developments. In 1924, Royal Enfield produced their first 346cc engine. It seems that the company’s dedication to affordable bikes helped them survive the Wall Street collapse of 1929. The Bullet name first appeared in September 1932 on a range of bikes with an inclined engine. The Bullets we know and love today can be traced back to this period: a foot operated 4-speed gearbox bolted to the back of the engine, the external gear position indicator, a cast-in push-rod tunnel, and totally enclosed valve gears. The Model G, with its vertical cylinder, arrived in 1935.
From the very start, Royal Enfield bikes were at the forefront of technical innovation. The Bullet set new standards in road holding in 1945 with hydraulically damped telescopic front forks. This breakthrough also created the quick release front wheel. The 1947 patented neutral finder allowed riders to select neutral from 2nd, 3rd and 4th gear. 1948 saw the first rear swing-arm with oil-damped suspension; it was another revolution in comfort and handling.
Riders of our bikes would recognise many features of the 1949 model, with its 346cc engine, detachable rear mudguard, air cleaner and alloy head. With 18bhp @ 5,750rpm, the Bullet could reach 119km/h. It was applauded as a brilliant all-rounder, excelling as a road bike, trials machine, scrambler and racer.
A 500cc version was introduced in 1952, and the iconic winged tank badge was created a year after. A de-compressor lever was introduced to ease starting. In 1954, the distinctive casquette headlamp assembly housed the speedometer, ammeter and two small side lights. The front brake was also upgraded to deal with the 125 km/h top speed.
The motorcycle press praised the Bullet for its excellent handling, flexible engine and functionality. The 350cc version was preferred by expert riders and magazine editors alike. It had to be worked harder than the lazier 500cc model to reach a similar top speed of 129 km/h, but the feeling was sweeter. The Bullet soon developed a reputation for performance, reliability and ease of maintenance.
The Indian Army, at war with Pakistan, ordered 800 matt sand coloured bikes in 1954. The contract stipulated that engines had to be “sieze-proof”. Royal Enfield did the running-in, and put every bike through punishing road tests to ensure it could be ridden hard straight from the crate. The authorities were impressed by its ruggedness in the harsh conditions.
Meanwhile, the Indian government were formulating a grand manufacturing strategy to reduce the money spent on imported goods – including motorcycles. At that time, the Madras Motor Company was the sales agent for the British Enfield Cycle Company across India. A joint venture was signed in 1956 to ship in partially assembled bikes from Redditch to Madras (now Chennai). The bike selected was the 350cc version of the 1955 model.
The operation started by assembling kits of parts. Later, they manufactured frames and chassis parts. Before long, engines were being built in India. Engineers and factory workers from Madras visited the UK for training. They bought the original machines used to produce Bullets, and any other old tools they could find.
The UK motorcycle industry was in serious trouble during the 1950’s. Metals were in short supply after the war. Exports were difficult due to restrictive quotas and suffocating trade agreements. Labour issues made the headlines. Fuel rationing continued, and only low grade 75-octane petrol was available. The Suez crisis of 1956 only made matters worse. Around the same time, Lambretta scooters became practical and fashionable city runabouts. And when the Honda Dream arrived around 1960, the British fatally under-estimated the future threat of Japanese bikes.
Meanwhile in India, the government protected the Bullet from foreign competition with high import taxes. Royal Enfield cornered the market. Other companies, including BMW, tried and failed to produce larger capacity bikes in India. In a strange twist of fate, Indian-made Bullets began to be exported to the UK in 1977. Around 1986, a deal was then negotiated to produce a 500cc version in Chennai.
Some of these classic motorcycles have found their way up to Nepal; glorious 1955 technology frozen in time beneath the Himalayas. The feeling of riding these beautiful bikes, so from their spiritual home, is hard to put into words. Join us, and experience it for yourself.