by Victor Wanchena
The Royal Enfield is a bike with heritage. Its story goes back over a hundred years. In the 1890’s, Enfield was formed as a manufacturing company. They produced many items, including gun parts. At the turn of the century they began building motorcycles, the product for which their name became synonymous. Their history making firearms was inspiration for the slogan, “Built like a gun.”
Now, fast-forward to 1949, Redditch, England. Royal Enfield introduces a redesigned model they call the Bullet. It features a stout 350cc single cylinder motor and swing arm rear suspension; a rather exotic feature for its time. The Bullet was well suited to observed trials and developed a reputation as a rugged machine. This reputation reached the ears of the Indian government. In 1954, they ordered 800 Bullets for Border Patrol duty along the rough, Pakistani border. The original order of Bullets performed well in India, and the Indian government placed orders for more in 1955 and ’56. But this order taxed the Redditch factory’s ability to keep up with production. So Royal Enfield decided to set up a factory in India to keep up with demand. By 1956, a factory had been set up and the workers starting producing Bullets modeled around 1955 specs. And they never stopped. For the last 52, years the factory in India has been producing essentially the same machine, much longer than it was made in England.
As the years have gone on, the Bullet has seen improvements in materials used, and upgrades in components. This month’s road tester, the Bullet Electra, is Royal Enfield’s latest and greatest incantation of the Bullet formula. The basic 500cc motor is still there, but it has seen some upgrades including an alloy barrel. The continual improvements have led to greater reliability and improved emissions from the motor, but the basic architecture has remained the same. It is a big lumpy single with all the charm and character of a 50-year old British single. The long stroke motor revs slowly and builds respectable torque despite a 6.5 to 1 compression ratio. The horsepower is a claimed 19.1 to the pavement. Our demo model had received a few mods and power was pumped up to 22.3 at the ground.
Starting the Electra wasn’t difficult, thanks to the modern convenience of an electric starter. I was pleased to see that a kick-starter was still included and kicking the big single to life wasn’t that difficult. For some romantic or foolish reason, I liked kicking the Electra to life. A compression release lever mounted to the bars eased the effort needed. Once running, it reminded me why four-stroke singles are know as “Thumpers”. I could feel the ground next to the bike shaking as the piston rose and fell; thump, thump, thump. After running on the enrichener for a few seconds the bike can be left to idle on its own, occasional throttle blips helped the warm up. This was after dialing the idle speed up a little.
The clutch required a strong hand and had a most decidedly vintage feel. No engagement point to speak of; just on and off. The Electra boasts Enfield’s new five-speed transmission. I really expected it to be clunky and hard shifting, but was surprised to find it worked quite nicely. Neutral was tough to find when stopped though. It was always best to click into neutral before you stopped.
Visually, the Electra is a bike tough not to like. The lines are clean and simple. The bike looks steeped in tradition because it is. The stout engine dominates the bike and lends to a solid look. The fit and finish was good, and in reality was probably better than the original British made Bullets. Our tester was delivered with non-stock clubman bars and tiny mirrors. Attractive, no doubt, but in practice I was a bit cramped for a rider my size and the mirrors were less than adequate.
Given its British lineage, I wasn’t surprised that the motor wasn’t oil tight. A small drip or two was the usual after a good ride. Also with the heavy vibration of the Electra’s motor it wasn’t uncommon to find a few loose nuts and bolts. A wrench and little Locktite always did the trick. The other routine maintenance on the bike is simple and easily performed by the owner.
The compact dimension of the frame gave the Electra quick and nimble handling. It was very easy to point and go, not what I expected from a 50-year old chassis design. The only limits on the handling were the foot pegs, which touched down too quickly. The suspension was fine for smooth country lanes, but got a little jagged on rough pavement. The addition of a disc front brake was nice, and braking power was sufficient for our Indian Bullet.
On the road, I enjoyed the beat of the engine, which seemed really happy exploring country roads at 50 mph. When I found myself on the freeway, the Electra easily kept up with traffic. I even found a sweet spot a little over 60 mph where most of the vibration disappeared.
The Electra was just plain a fun bike. I tried to resist the romantic musings of yesteryears but ended up dusting off my open face helmet and goggles. It isn’t the only bike I’d own, but it would certainly satisfy the urge to own a vintage bike. The extensive range of accessories and kits allows Enfield owners a universe of possibilities for making theirs unique. It is not a motorcycle for those who don’t enjoy a little basic wrenching. Buyers needing to avoid that should look elsewhere. The Electra is one of several models Royal Enfield offers. My favorite is the Military. You can see their complete line at www.enfieldmotorcycles.com or locally at Twin City Custom Cycle.
by Sev Pearman
The Royal Enfield Bullet is a modern classic. A motorcycle that doesn’t only look vintage, but embodies it in a design unchanged for many years. Our tester was a Bullet Electra; Royal Enfield’s newest model, but still steeped heavily in its British and Indian heritage.
The Enfield Bullet has been continually updated to keep it competitive. Stronger US sales have called for a host of improvements. Alternator and electronic ignition replace magneto and points. The 12-volt negative earth wiring fires a modern quartz halogen headlight. All US-spec Bullets get better switchgear. Best of all, you now have a stone-reliable Denso electric starter.
Also new for the Electra, is a single front disc with a 2-piston caliper. I cranked out many hard stops and came away content. The disc never locked, nor did it fade. A 6” drum dutifully grabs the rear. The brakes are more than fine for this machine and quite capable in commuter traffic. Yes, I rode the Bullet Electra to work.
Both the fork, and piggyback gas rear shocks, are under-sprung and over-damped for my 1/8th of a ton. I experienced front-end dive under braking and hobby horsing over highway expansion joints. Annoying? Mildly. A problem? I don’t think so. It simply demonstrates how compliant current sportbike suspensions are.
The 500cc 4-stroke pushrod single is an anachronism. Made since the early 1950s, it spins two cams and pushrods. Stock Bullets crank out 19.1 bhp at the rear wheel, and 24.7 ft-lbs of torque. Our tester was running a performance carb, pipe and air cleaner which boosted these rear-wheel numbers to 22.3 bhp and 25.4 ft-lbs
The motor is tractable with a flat torque curve. You can wind the sturdy single out to redline or plod along in any gear at 2,000 rpm. It feels most at home when running on lesser-traveled road, i.e. between 40 – 60 mph. I averaged 50 mpg with a combination of spirited cruising and outright flogging. I would expect to see higher numbers after break-in and with a lighter throttle hand and/or rider aboard.
The new 5-speed gearbox is a mixed bag. Full of false neutrals, you have to concentrate and remember which ratio you are in. The fifth cog nicely lowers the engine speed when running between 50 and 70 mph. Shifting requires a deliberate technique and cannot be rushed. Neutral is best found early, as it can be tricky to find once stopped.
Couple this with a sometimes-draggy clutch and you have the potential for drama when stopped at a light. There were a few times I simply gave up and shut off the engine. Once free of the clutch, I could easily grab neutral and restart. All of this will be minimized with a combination of engine break-in and rider technique.
Fit and finish are mixed, too. The stout Bullet 500 is largely oil-tight. I saw a slight weep at the head after my hardest ride, but no oil drips soiled my swank garage/karaoke lounge. Sustained high-speed running can force oil out the crankcase vent/breather a la some H-D models. The non-locking gas cap is old school. Fuel can escape onto the tank unless you leave a gap below the bottom of the filler neck. Switchgear performed perfectly, but didn’t have the “feel” of top shelf components.
The silver paint on our bike was beautiful and received several compliments. Some riders thought that the hand polished engine cases looked cobby but I disagree. All surfaces are machined flat and sealed with modern gaskets. I like their substantial appearance. The chrome is lustrous and shines better than the crap-o chrome on my Czech-made Velorex sidecar.
Taking a page from our cruiser friends, Enfield offers hundreds of parts and accessories. The US importer, Classic Motorworks, of Faribault, MN, outfitted our test bike with many goodies. In addition to the performance parts, our Electra sports ace bars, a Euro dual seat and different mirrors. You can choose from 170 pages of seats, fenders, lights, and chrome and performance parts. All items are available through your Enfield dealer.
The European-market seat was uncomfortable. Wishing for firmer foam, I found myself squirming after 30 to 45 minutes. If I were to keep the racer-crouch ace bars, I’d also go for the available rear sets; otherwise I’d install a low, straight handlebar.
I’d definitely keep the air cleaner, carb and pipe set-up. I liked the power increase as well as the exhaust note. [Someone notify ABATE. Ed.] I’d bin the headlight nacelle and install one of the 7-inch headlight kits. The coffee mug-sized blinkers would be replaced with smaller units. Then there would be lighter blade fenders, an LED taillight, and a different seat. It is easy to transform a Bullet Electra into whatever you can imagine.
We did experience a few problems. The taillight bulb, shift lever and aftermarket pod air cleaner loosened. I had to repeatedly adjust the clutch cable in order to reduce clutch drag. I don’t know if this would disappear after break-in or would be an ongoing problem. All were fixed in minutes using simple hand tools and a bottle of threadlock.
If you can’t be bothered with maintenance, if you always burn at 80 mph, or if you have to have whatever is the latest, the Enfield Bullet is not your ride. If, however, you are able to accept this bike for what it is, you will enjoy her excellent back roads ability.
Here is the big question: who is this bike for? Maybe you like street singles. The $5,195 MSRP would net you a mint Yamaha SRX 600 or Honda GB-500. These are arguably more refined than the Bullet, but do not have its Continental style.
If you are into older British bikes, that same nut could get you a tidy, running BSA, Norton or Triumph twin. The downside here is a 30-year old machine with unknown history or maintenance, and no warranty.
Royal Enfield is banking that there are enough riders who can appreciate the light weight, simplicity, flexibility and undeniable style of their Bullet Electra. Whether you want to charge corners or simply go for a ride, the Bullet is a willing companion that can carry you wherever you want to go, so long as it is not pushed too hard.
Wife’s First Reaction®: “(It has) great lines — I like it.”
• Superb front disc.
• The rorty exhaust note, especially on the overrun.
• E-start and 5-speed bring the Bullet into the 1980s.
• Neutral found everywhere but between 1st and 2nd.
• Reduced ground clearance on the left side.
• Where’s the tachometer?
Like the Russian Ural, the Royal Enfield Bullet has no competition. It is in a class by itself.