Words: Ian Chadwick
I must be crazy. I’ve traded in a loud 500-pound chrome and steel powerhouse Virago 750, a model of superb engineering, ergonomics and style for… a lightweight, puttering thumper with stiff gears, low power and a hard, high seat. Yes, I am now the owner of a new Enfield Bullet, 500cc deluxe model. And for some strange reason, I’m really enjoying myself on it.
I first saw the Bullet two years ago at the Toronto Motorcycle Show and I loved it at first sight. It’s quintessentially British in everything, from the hand-painting, to the drum brakes to the Avon Speedmaster tires and Lucas coil. Mine is a bright China red with a chrome gas tank and fenders, like an old BSA Star.
The Bullet has hardly changed since Royal Enfield started making them around 1936. Production stopped in the 1940’s, but returned in 1949. In 1955 the company sold its old manufacturing equipment to a subsidiary firm in Madras, India. Royal Enfield sputtered around the market for about 15 years before going the way of most Brit bike makers. But Enfield India continued to churn out Bullets just the way they were made in England in 1955. Forty years later they still do.
Canadian motorcyclist Don Detlor saw the Bullet in India, many years back. He joined Terry Smith to create T & D Impex to import them into Canada. It took them five or so years to get the Indian company to manufacture the bikes to meet Canadian standards and design – like moving the shifter to the left side – and to get the glacial Canadian bureaucracy to approve them for import. Even then the bikes suffered from initial problems with regulators and electrics that had to be worked out the hard way (the regulator is now replaced with an American-made one).
Today, T & D Impex sells limited numbers of Bullets to a small circle of dealers who can cater to the market for bikes which are admittedly oddities in the world of sport bikes and cruisers.
T & D import 350 and 500cc models, with some variations in paint and chrome, plus an India Army version which looks like a WWII bike with its metal carriers and olive-green paint. The parent company is working with Swiss Engineer Fritz Egli to make more powerful models, including a 650cc engine, but don’t expect them on the market for a year or two.
The Bullet pushes a meagre 24 bhp (18 for the 350), but it’s a torquey little bike with that one cylinder. The shifter is stiff and sluggish, and it’s not always evident the gear has taken until you release the clutch. I keep reminding myself it improves with use.
You can’t upshift from 1st to neutral, but you can easily downshift into neutral between 2nd and 4th gear by pumping a small neutral finder on the right side of the gear box. Very nifty, that! Although the manual doesn’t tell you, Terry taught me you can upshift from 1st by simply leaning down and pulling the neutral finder up a notch.
Acceleration is modest. My Bullet is still in the somewhat lengthy break-in period, so I’m taking it easy. The speedo promises 160 kmh, but 120 is really the max (it’s 90-100 on the 350 I’m told). The drum brakes work, but they’re a bit mushy and I wouldn’t want to depend on their sudden stopping ability. The Bullet encourages careful riding.
The bench seat was designed by the Spanish Inquisition: firm doesn’t begin to describe it, but you become accustomed to it. At about 30-31 inches high, it feels like I’m a long way from the pavement. I installed the single saddle seat, but took it off immediately: it adds several more inches of height on an unstable-looking bracket supported by stiff chromed springs. My biggest concern with it, however, was that it exposed the electrical components to the environment (like rain). At least the bench favours a good, upright riding position.
I changed the knobbly handgrips for standard cushion style grips, because I prefer the larger, softer grip. Aside from the usual difficulty of removing grips, the throttle-side grip gave me a problem when I accidentally twisted too hard on a small switch and broke it, disabling my brake light. Terry sent me a replacement immediately, so getting parts is not likely going to be a problem.
The Bullet uses a kickstart, but a decompression lever and ammeter make it relatively easy to turn over after a few tries. The kicker can throw you if you don’t do it by the books, but the process is simple (ask your dealer to show you how – the owner’s manual is confusing).
The 28mm Mikuni carb is small, but British riders can purchase a kit and 34mm carb to improve power and, with a slightly rebored port, get another 6 bhp from the beast. Terry installed the kit on his bike this spring, but is still working out the optimum carb jetting for it. The long peashooter muffler chuffs very quietly, but I installed a shorter, louder slip-on pipe, available as an accessory (re-jetting was not required). Despite claims that the Bullet leaks oil, mine is oil tight around gaskets and seams. There is sometimes a small seepage when the engine’s been running a lot, but nothing significant.
There are not many accessories available yet: some bits of chrome, a seven-inch headlight kit (stock is six); mufflers, clubman and single seats. More accessories are coming, including crashbars and extra chrome. The large cowling size and distance from the handlebars means many windshields won’t fit, but the Slipstreamer, designed for a Harley, works fine (although its design is not vintage). T & D are getting saddlebags and many commercial bags are suitable. The Bullet has two small metal toolboxes and comes with tool kit, spare tube, clutch and brake cable.
While it doesn’t snort and thunder down the street like the Virago, the Bullet draws its fair share of appreciative looks. People think it’s a vintage bike and they approach me with questions about it, surprised to learn it’s actually new. Even Harley riders who look down their noses at Japanese bikes give curt condescension to the Bullet because it’s so British. And price wise, the Bullet is a steal: $4899 list for the deluxe model, $3,999 for the basic 350.
I’ll write more about the Bullet as I work it in. After some initial trepidation, I’ve grown to love it for its unique qualities and undeniable charm. My thanks to Terry and Don for their patience, understanding and unhesitating support.
SECOND VIEW BY DAVID I. HALL
“Clinkety Clank!” That’s one of the names given to the 1993 Enfield Bullet that I have ridden for the last season. My black with gold pinstripes basic model was acquired as a trade for my 1976 Honda 750 Automatic (with some cash), from its original owner. Unfortunately, that owner lived in eastern Scarborough but worked at Pearson International airport. The poor Bullet was thrashed back and forth across the 401 each day. Apparently, a 1993 single that still thinks it’s a 1947, cannot stand that kind of abuse. With 10,000Km on the clock, “Clinkety Clank” made some ominous motor noises .. but … it took it anyway. I figured that if it blows up, it can’t be too hard or expensive to rebuild a simple single.
For the first few rides I babied it along, half expecting it to ventilate the engine cases. Gradually I ventured further and faster and began to quite enjoy the Bullet. Starting is usually a one or two kick affair, with no actual need for the compression release. Within seconds the choke on the tiny Mikuni carb can be flicked off and the bike happily ridden away. The other nickname for my Bullet is “Blunt Instrument” which seems to more accurately describe its engineering! The speedo is wildly optimistic. An indicated 100 kmh is actually only 70 kmh. Gear lever throw is short and requires a firm, deliberate movement, or shifts are missed. Generally, the bike seems happiest puttering along two lane paved country roads at 70 to 80 kmh, although anything resembling a hill gets you thinking of changing down a gear, which makes you feel as if you’re over revving the motor, or you can leave it where it is and lug it up the hill slowly.
Contrary to what you may expect, vibration is amazingly slight and steering surprisingly light for such a dated design. However, it is very easy to grind the centre stand, especially on left hand turns.
Enjoyment of this motorcycle is achieved by demanding from it only what it is designed to do. Relax, take your time, and bask in the attention you get every time you stop.