Royal Enfield Bullet 2011

Kevin Ash

Pictures: Chris Pearson


There`s still something about fifties and sixties motorcycles which makes them the benchmark for how a real motorcycle ought to look.

There`s an honest simplicity to them combined with dependable functionality, all laid out in full view, that really appeals even to those brought up in the computer age. This is not some vague writing licence either, several manufacturers are reporting a surprise interest in retro machines such as the Triumph Bonneville, Kawasaki W800, BMW R1200R Classic and the like from younger people, as well as the more obvious older customers who might have ridden the originals.

Royal Enfield meanwhile has been quietly supplying originals right into the 21st century. The Bullet has been in production in India since the end of the 1960s, when the entire production line was moved from Redditch in Worcestershire to Chennai (formerly Madras). Enfield had been supplying many bikes to the Indian army at the time, and when the Bullet was being phased out of production, it made sense for spares and complete bike production to continue nearer to the only remaining major customer.

The bikes proved very well suited to the Indian market too, being frugal with fuel and if not especially reliable, certainly very easy to fix and keep going with the basic tools and skills available. Performance in western terms was poor but irrelevant, while the low cost, helped greatly by the addition of cheap local labour, all mattered a great deal, and the bikes kept being sold to the public for decades after.

They were also exported, and successfully too with some irony to the UK, where the old world charm and undoubted authenticity still appealed to many. Production has grown significantly in recent years: the factory in 2010 built 70,000 bikes, more than any year since the first Enfield Bullets were built in England in 1955.

By the mid-2000s though the old Redditch engine was struggling to meet modern emissions regulations even after a series of upgrades, and the current Royal Enfield Bullets have an entirely new power plant, introduced two years ago complete with fuel injection. It`s faithful to the original in several respects, and not just the look, which is close enough to fool most people. The bore and stroke at 84 x 90mm are the same as the old bike`s very unfashionable long stroke dimensions, and sure enough when you fire up the motor (using the electric start, or if you prefer, the traditional kick starter) it settles down into the slow and steady duff-duff idle you`d associate with an old British single.

The transmission though is a contemporary five speed design, as is the wet, multiplate clutch, with modern convention, left-side gear changing. So snick it into first, pull away and enjoy the thudding exhaust note as the bike chugs along. There`s more torque than from the original engine, it`s smoother too and these new engines are proving far more robust when asked to keep up with modern traffic. Sustain a motorway speed with the old one and it wouldn`t last long, but the new Bullet can be treated like any other modern, bowling along at 70-80mph (120kph) for as long as you like.

It`s not built like a Yamaha so expect some corrosion and rust and a few faults along the way too, but you could still use one as an everyday, get-to-work machine, and you`d be rewarded with an old-fashioned economy figure of more than 80mpg (28.3km/l, 3.5l/100km, 66.6mpg US), all of a sudden a very modern attraction.

Indeed, one of the main raisons d`être of this new Bullet is a return to low prices, after a range of models introduced in the last few years - all creations of the UK importer rather than the factory directly - brought the Bullet close to the cost of more typical modern middleweights. But at less than £4,000 new, this back-to-basics Bullet is the same price as or less than many scooters, yet it`s a far more charismatic way of getting to work and it uses less fuel than most of them too.

As a riding experience this modern Bullet does still demand you make allowances. If you`re in a hurry and want to rev it, you`ll get little satisfaction as it feels strangled and its 27bhp (27.3PS, 20.1kW) won`t shred the rear tyre either. But sit back (or upright) and enjoy the scenery along with the sound and feel of the bike and you`ll likely be utterly charmed by it.

No need to feel too compromised by the dynamics though, the front disc brake might not have much feel but it`s strong enough to stop the bike convincingly, unlike the old drums, while the handling is secure and steady, even if the suspension can feel crude on bumpy roads.

For many riders the performance and capability of the Bullet is as much as they want anyway. The surprise is only that it`s being delivered by a package with this bike`s history, style and character rather than some bland scooter or commuter bike.

Price: £3,995
Available: now
Engine: Single-cylinder four stroke, air cooled, ohv 2v, 499cc
Power: 27bhp (27.3PS, 20.1kW) @ 5,250rpm
Torque: 30lb.ft (40.7Nm, 4.14kgm) @ 4,000rpm
Economy: 80mpg (28.3km/l, 3.5l/100km, 66.6mpg US)
Tank: 3.2 gallons (14.5 litres)
Transmission: Five gears, wet clutch, chain final drive
Chassis: Tubular steel
Seat height: 32.3in (820mm)
Wheelbase: 53.9in (1370mm)
Rake/trail: 25 °/ 2.95in (75mm)
Weight: 404lb (183kg) (kerb, full tank)

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