You all know the story: Royal Enfield began making motorcycles not long after the horse was invented. (Well, almost that long ago!). They were one of the first manufacturers of motorcycles in Britain. Before that, they were a manufacturer of firearms: you might have heard of the Enfield rifle? That probably explains the motto, “Built like a gun”. (I suppose it explains the “Bullet” name too). It continued as a prominent brand during the halcyon days of the British motorcycle industry. In 1955 they established an agreement with Madras Motors in India to assemble bikes there from imported parts. In 1957 Madras Motors purchased the machinery needed to make all components on-site in India. By 1962, sales in Britain had fallen and production ceased. From then on, all Royal Enfields were made in India. Not a lot changed after that really; for a long time anyway. They just kept on building them and people kept on buying them. In the early 1990s, Eicher Motors took over the business. However, by the early 2000s sales had fallen and they considered closing it down. Instead, they decided to modernise. They changed their engines to unitary-construction, did a few other modernisations, and suddenly the Royal Enfield was a viable proposition again. An iconic bike that was now a lot more reliable and easier to live with. So popularity rose. And they even began to export again, with Australia being one of the markets to get the bikes – conveniently changed from the British set-up of gear-lever on the right and brake-lever on the left, to what we are more used to. There are three basic models available. Some of the models are available in a choice of colours too, so you get quite a lot of choice, especially for what is a small-volume seller here. The line-up starts with what they refer to as their “Standard” bike, which is the Bullet 500. This is the heaviest and least powerful model sold here. It’s also the cheapest, with a ride-away price of just $7,490. As you go further up the range each model gets lighter and more powerful: although the differences are only small. The Bullet is the only model that retains the old carburetor. It’s available in a choice of green or black. Next up the line is their “Retro” range. “But they’re all retro!” I hear you say. Yes, indeed they are, but I suppose they reckon some are more retro than others. Anyway, this “Retro” range has four models which they call “Classic”, and which differ just in paint and trim on the tank. Oh, and one model, the Classic 500, has a swoopy exhaust, rather than the straight pea-shooter style of the others. With these you get the old sprung-saddle type seat. It’s solo only, although pillion foot-rests are still fitted. (I guess you can get a pillion seat to bolt on). These all run fuel-injection, which produces about 1Nm more torque, and just under 1kW more power. More significantly, they are about 6kg lighter. Also, the front wheel is mounted on the bottom of the fork leg, not ahead of it as with the Bullet. This shortens the wheelbase by 10mm. The four “Retro” models comprise the Classic 500, which is available in black, blue or tan; the Classic Desert Storm, painted in a rather yucky matte-finish tan; the Classic Battle Green, which is the same thing painted in a very military-looking matte green; and the Classic Chrome, which gives you shiny paint and lots of chrome, including on the sides of the tank. It is available in red or black. Prices vary slightly, but they’re about $500 more than the Bullet. It’s this range that Royal Enfield sees as being the most popular. Of the Classic 500 they say, “Armed with a potent fuel-injected 500cc engine and clothed in a disarmingly appealing post war styling, this promises to be the most coveted Royal Enfield in history.” Hang on, hang on, “potent 500cc engine?” They’re kidding, right? With a power output of just on 20kW, this is hardly “potent”! It’s the sort of power you’d expect from a 250! But the “disarmingly appealing post-war styling” bit is probably right, well, for those “of a certain age” anyway. Top of the range is the “Café Racer” model, the Continental GT. This model they say is, “The lightest, fastest, most powerful Royal Enfield in production.” It achieves this “most powerful” status by adding a further 35cc to the engine capacity, resulting in an increase of a further 1kW (wow!!), and just over 2 Nm of torque. And it’s 3kg lighter. No, in terms of engine specs, hardly a “racer” is it, but it looks cool! With the thinly padded seat, rear cowl, low-set clip-ons, and Ohlins-look-alike rear suspension, this does do the café-racer look very well. I reckon it looks great! You’ll pay an extra grand over the basic Bullet for this one though. I’d been wanting to ride one of these iconic old bikes for a long time, but availability of bikes and availability of my time to ride one didn’t line up. As a salesman at the local dealer said, “People tend to know they want one or know they don’t want one. If they want one, they don’t bother with a test-ride, they just buy one.” So they generally don’t keep a demo model in stock. But I got the chance to take one for a spin when Royal Enfield Australia decided to hold a demo / test-ride day. Unlike most makes though, they didn’t supply a test-fleet, they just let every dealer sort out some test-bikes themselves. My local dealer borrowed a couple of current models from a local hire company – thus you’ll see a “Rewind Motorcycles” sticker on the side of the bikes. I missed the scheduled ride day, but went in a couple of days later and took one out for a short ride before they were returned to the hire company. I had the choice of the Continental GT or the Classic Chrome. The Continental GT was very appealing, but I wanted to experience the more traditional Royal Enfield, so I chose the Classic Chrome.
IN THE DRIVEWAY
The appealing thing about these bikes is that they’re like time-travel – stepping back to bikes of the 1950s, without the effort of kick-starting and fiddling around with a choke. (A kick-start is still fitted, in case you want to really experience the 1950s!). And its appeal lies in that – the time-travel look and feel of a bike crafted in the 1950s. But the unique thing about the Royal Enfield is that it’s not a retro bike: it’s not a bike designed and built today to look like an old bike, it’s a genuine old bike with a few modernisations to make it viable for the 2000s. The metal guards, with the stays coming out from the front forks, the spoked wheels, the engine that looks even older than the 1950s, and the old-style seat; it all screams “Brit bike from the 50s!” But it’s not just pretending to be one, it is one! The little hood over the headlight adds to the look; perhaps acting as a tribute to its use as a military motorcycle. The first thing you notice when sitting on the bike is that it is comfortable. The sprung seat – which is leather – feels soft and comfy. The riding-position is upright and feels very natural. The bars feel good; they’re well placed, quite wide, and again, feel very natural. (By the way, in case you think I'm riding without gloves, I'm not - I just took them off to get my camera out). Worth noting is that the bike is fitted with a centre-stand as well as the usual side-stand. Very handy! The instruments run to a big analogue speedo and a bunch of lights. The controls are easy to get at and easy to use. The switch-blocks look and feel very Japanese. (I wonder if they are imported, or made in India?). The warning-lights on the speedo face – for neutral and blinkers – are impossible to read in bright daylight: so you don’t know if they’re on or off. Coming from India, you do have to wonder about quality. And those doubts were perhaps justified when I noticed significant corrosion on the right-side mirror stalk. I’ve heard a couple of troublesome stories, but over-all their reputation seems to be okay.
OUT ON THE ROAD
Start up the big 500cc single and there is some vibration of course: the vibes that you’d expect from a big single-pot engine. It’s characteristic rather than unpleasant. And it smoothes out as revs rise; to a certain point anyway, then the vibes come back: the strong tingly vibes that tell you the engine is starting to become unhappy revving that hard. The bike is very easy and natural to ride. Initially you feel the effects of the 19” front wheel, but once you get used to that (which doesn’t take long), it is very easy to ride. The other thing you have to get used to, or remember, is that this is basically 1950s technology; albeit reworked slightly for the modern age. So there’s not much power there. And there’s a fair amount of weight to haul around; so performance is, to say the least, rather leisurely. Give the right hand a big twist and the bike gets faster, but the acceleration is hardly brisk. Big long-stroke singles tend to produce good low-end torque, and that helps. I didn’t encounter any hills on my ride, but I imagine it would hold its speed up hills a bit better than you might expect. What you also get is the typical sounds of a big-bore single: the unmistakable thumping sound, together with the occasional pop and bang on the over-run. It sounds good, and is another throw-back to the 1950s. You can imagine the cool young blokes swooping into the Ace Café with the exhaust popping and crackling as they pull into the parking area. Dismount, throw the gloves on the seat, flick the scarf over the shoulder, and survey the other machines as the cooling exhaust ticks in the background. There’s no tacho, so I don’t know how fast the engine is revving for any given road speed, but it feels low-geared in the lower gears. 1st gear is feeling a bit strained by 30kph and 2nd is at the “change-up-now-please” stage by 50kph. In practice though, you change before it gets to these speeds, so there’s a fair bit of cog-swapping around town. The higher gears, by contrast, feel quite high-geared – especially top, which needs the bike to be clear of the city-limits to really feel comfortable. That’s useful though, as it gives the bike an ability to cruise at a reasonable speed on the highway – which it wouldn’t do if the gearing was lower. Changing gear is no hard task though. The clutch is easy to use and works well. The gear-change is smooth, even if it has an old-style feel. It’s not knife-through-butter, but there’s no clunk; it just changes and away you go in the next gear. I mentioned the vibes from the engine – the typical thumpy vibes at idle and low revs, and the tingly vibes at higher revs. Those tingles get a bit unpleasant if you persist with the high revs, even getting through the rubber footrests and boots to tingle your feet. In between these extremes though is a sweet-spot where vibration is minimal and the whole show is smooth and just loping along in a very pleasant manner. In top gear that’s about 90 – 100kph. It’ll cruise at 110kph, which is as fast as I went, but those tingles are starting to set in. There’s another thing that becomes a bit unpleasant as you get around 100kph and over, and that’s the seat. Oh it’s perfectly comfortable, but being hinged at the front, what happens is that the wind against your chest translates to extra weight on the seat, which causes it to compress at the back (where the springs are), resulting in it sloping backwards. At lower speeds it’s level, but at higher speeds you start to feel like you might slide off the back if you go any faster. I mentioned the feel of the 19” front wheel earlier. As I said, you soon get used to that, and then the bike actually handles pretty well. In a 1950s sort of way perhaps. I wasn’t flip-flopping it through twisties, but then you wouldn’t on a bike like this, would you! But at normal speeds you just pick your line through a corner, turn in and it goes just where you want it to. It’s very stable too, even at low speeds. Maybe the bigger front wheel helps here, but feet-up U-turns were no problem. The brakes were fine during my test-ride. Sure, they don’t bite like a good triple-disc sports-bike, but then you wouldn’t want them to. Two people – the salesman and a customer who was awaiting delivery of his Classic Military Green – commented that the brakes “don’t stop like a modern bike”, but then they probably don’t stop like an old bike either! With a disc up front I reckon it’d be a decent improvement on the typical 1950s drum front brake. So there you have it. It’s very much an old-style bike: performance is marginal, and it looks like it’s come straight from the 1950s. If sports-riding is your thing, definitely look elsewhere. This is for loping along in classic British style on a bike that is more genuine classic than mere retro-copy. SNAPSHOT The Royal Enfield is all about laid-back riding in 1950s coolness and styling. It’s an old-style bike with electric start and fuel-injection, allowing you to enjoy 1950s riding without having the hassle of a choke and kick-starting: and with brakes that are at least safe for today’s roads. And it’s relatively cheap. Quality is perhaps a bit questionable, but give it plenty of TLC and it should be fine.
Engine: Single-cylinder, 499cc. Power: 20kW at 5,250rpm. Torque: 41.3Nm at 4,000rpm.
Suspension: Front: Telescopic Fork, 130mm travel. Rear: twin shocks, 80mm travel
Fuel capacity: 14.5 litres.
Weight: 187Kg (ready to ride)
Seat height: (Not available).
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 90 X 19”, Rear: 110 X 18”
Brakes: Front: 280mm disc. Rear: 153mm Drum.
Price: $7,750 (Ride-away).
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