Bondo manages to get his grubbies on a Royal Enfield Bullet Classic for a first Canadian Test Ride.
You may not realize it from my boyish good looks but I’ve been around for a while. I’ve also spent much of my time in decidedly vintage circles and as a result I’ve ridden a number of vintage bikes and will gladly testify that motorcycling’s “good ol’ days” weren’t really all that good.
Motorcycles of the 1950s and ’60s vibrated like a California aftershock, leaked oil like a BP well, had dodgy electrics, were difficult to start and then even more of a chore to keep running.
But, vintage motorcycles possess certain qualities that I still find desirable — namely, they are light(ish), simple, and easy to handle.
Thanks to the new-to-Canada Royal Enfield Bullet you too can experience the icing on your nostalgia fruitcake, replete with some of the better traits of old-time motorcycling, and more importantly, with few of the drawbacks.
THE ROYAL LINEAGE
The Royal Enfield Bullet is about as close to a real retro bike as you can get — enjoying the longest motorcycle production run of all time of any motorcycle — the Bullet first appeared out of Enfield’s English factory in the 1930s. By 1955, the bikes were being assembled in India under license from the Royal Enfield parent company, with full manufacturing by 1962.
Although motorcycle production of the Royal Enfield (England) ceased in 1970, the Indian firm kept on churning out Bullets under the Enfield of India name, making a brief appearance on Canadian shores in the ’90s.
In 1995 the company finally purchased the right to use the full Royal Enfield name, but it wasn’t until 2010 that they ushered in a brand new, unit construction engine, complete with EFI and a catalytic converter which allowed the Bullet to meet the all important Euro 3 and California emissions standards.
Today — save for the distinctly modern-looking front disc brake — the new Bullet looks just like a mid-1950s Royal Enfield 500cc single, until you look a little closer …
Instead of a six-volt, “positive earthed” magneto supplying weak and intermittent sparks, the 2010 Enfield boasts modern 12-volt digital electronic ignition, and in place of a primitive, leaky Amal carburetor, you’ll find electronic fuel injection. The thing is, it’s all very well incorporated to keep that classic ’50s look.
After several months of hassling, hounding and general haranguing, we finally managed to get a Bullet Classic to test. It’s one of four models that are currently being imported into Canada, which include the Electra (dual seat, paint), the Electra Deluxe (dual seat, chrome) and the Classic Military (single seat, green).
THE FIRST CANADIAN TEST
The starting ritual for vintage 500 singles was a complicated series of hand and foot gyrations known only to the rider. Tickle the carb, retard the spark, give it full choke, pull the compression release and then kick for all you were worth.
Especially recalcitrant examples sometimes required incense burning, Gregorian chanting and the sacrifice of a chicken or two.
Starting the new Bullet is much simpler — turn key, press starter button and the Bullet’s engine fires readily and settles down to a traditional lumpy idle. In fact, there’s not even the option of a kick start anymore, though there is an enrichener for cold starts. Our recent 26 C mornings didn’t require its use.
It won’t start or run with the sidestand down, however, even with the tranny in neutral and the clutch pulled in, so to let it warm up while you don helmet and gloves, you have to lever it up on the centrestand — a task that’s easily accomplished.
Snick into first and off you go, thump thump thump down the street. You hear and feel every exhaust thud because — despite being a redesigned motor — there are no counterbalancers to quell the power pulses of the 84mm (3.3 inch) piston.
As a result, vibration is your constant companion. Thankfully, it’s definitely not in the league of a BSA Gold Star or 441 Victor, motorcycles that shook so horrendously, they’d routinely shed parts and destroy every bulb filament on the bike before you’d got around the block.
In contrast, the Enfield merely buzzes, but this only becomes excessive at highway speeds of 100 km/h or more — and even then, it’s mostly just a tingle through your feet.
Enfield’s moto used to be “Made like a gun, goes like a bullet.” Now it’s shortened to “Made like a gun,” which is more realistic because it would be a rather slow bullet as the air-cooled, 499cc, OHV single-cylinder mill thumps out real vintage muscle, to the tune of 27 horsepower and 30 lb-ft of torque.
That has to propel 187 kg (411 lb) of Enfield, and as expected acceleration can be charitably described as “leisurely.” An informal, seat of the pants test had zero to 100 km/h coming up in 12 steamboats.
The slick shifting transmission’s bottom four gears are fairly close together, while fifth is suitable as an overdrive, allowing for cruising at 100 km/h. I saw an indicated 125 on the 401 (just keeping up with traffic, officer) but there wasn’t much left.
At these kinds of speeds, the Enfield feels a bit nervous and twitchy, likely due to the upright riding position and a seat height that’s level with the fuel tank, resulting in a centre of gravity that is fairly high.
But to push the Bullet is to not understand what it’s all about. The Bullet’s forte is a more relaxed pace — chugging along at 90 km/h on two-lane roads is right in the motorcycle’s strike zone.
The wide bars, narrow tires and light steering make for effortless handling around town, while the upright riding position gives you a great view of traffic.
The Avon Roadrider buns (90/90-18 front and 110/80-18 rear) have decent grip but I found the Bullet was much happier with a nice, smooth line through the turns rather than a “point and squirt” riding style. Come in hard on the brakes, flop it over and it feels decidedly unstable beneath you.
The ride is actually quite good and the front forks and twin rear shocks do an acceptable job of absorbing bumps, frost heaves and potholes. The Royal Bottom is further insulated from larger jolts by the sprung seat.
The single front disc requires a hefty pull on the non-adjustable lever to get any stopping power. Lever feel is rather wooden and feedback is somewhat vague, typical of motorcycle disc brakes from the Dark Ages.
Still, eat your Wheaties, work on your grip and you can get the Enfield to stop in a fairly short distance. Hey, it’s WAY better than the twin-shoe drum of the originals.
The Enfield really excels in the way it sips dead dinosaurs. At the first refill, I recorded 214 km on 8.16 liters. That works out to 3.8L/100 kilometers or 75 miles per Imperial gallon — not bad for a bike with less than 1,000 km total on the clock that I was riding fairly aggressively.
Expect close to 350 kilometers or more from each 13.5 liter tank once it’s fully broken in.
A CLASSIC ACT
Right up there on the Bullet’s list of attributes are the classic good looks. From the heavy gauge steel fenders (complete with girder-like braces) and the period steel fuel tank complete with rubber knee pads to the sprung single seat, everything about the Enfield screams “1955.”
There are also two lockable compartments on the rear frame downtubes. On the original Enfields, these were for glove storage and tool kits but on the 2010 model, the left one hides a bundle of electronics (hey, you have to put them somewhere) while the air cleaner resides inside the right one.
The engine is right out in all its alloy and polished aluminum glory for the world to see, not hidden away like an ugly stepchild behind layers of cheesy plastic.
Keeping with the classic design, the instrument package is about as rudimentary as it gets. You’ll find an analog speedometer with integral cable-actuated odometer and a separate dial for the low fuel light and an engine light that, for some reason, is shaped like an old Chevy V-8.
Sadly, the Enfield has carried over the British tradition of lousy headlights, even though (thankfully) the electrics aren’t made by Lucas. The headlight shell is surrounded by an attractive, beefy looking bezel with two rather odd illuminated nodules on the upper bezel quadrant. I have no idea what their purpose might be.
The beam itself has a rather odd pattern with one glowing spot about two meters in front of the front wheel and another about five meters out with a very narrow spread. To top it all off, there is a fairly strong reflection that goes straight down, giving a perfectly illuminated view of the front axle nuts.
The high beam is slightly brighter, and rounds off the last requirement of a sad lighting system, that of providing a perfect silhouette of the front fender. Hey, at least it’s an improvement on the Lucas rule of lighting where you had the choice of “dim, flicker and off.”
I liked the Enfield Bullet but to compare it to a modern motorcycle is completely missing the point. It doesn’t pretend to be something it isn’t. You won’t find one on club roadracing grids, nor are you likely to see one laden with bags and a topbox, traversing the Trans-Canada from Victoria to Halifax. Although I’m sure somebody will be fool enough.
It’s a return to motorcycling’s simpler days — when bikes were reasonably priced and economical to run … only without the oil on the floor, gas leaks and myriad electrical challenges.
The Royal Enfield would make a great city bike or commuter (as long as you opted for a luggage rack or the dual seat to strap on a tailbag) not only because of the fantastic fuel economy, but its sheer uniqueness.
I haven’t had a press bike garner so much attention from the general public since I was riding the Triumph Scrambler around last fall. Everywhere I went, people asked about it and most of them weren’t even motorcyclists.
All I was missing was a pudding bowl helmet, split lens goggles, and the pukka waxed cotton Belstaff riding jacket and I’d be back in 1955.
|Royal Enfield Bullet Classic|
|Four-stroke, OHV single, air-cooled|
Power (crank – claimed)
|27 Horsepower @ 5,200 rpm|
|30 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|Electronic Fuel Injection|
|Five speed, Chain drive|
|Single 280 mm disc & 2-piston|
|152 mm drum brake|
|800 mm (31.5 “)|
|1372 mm (54 “)|
|187 kg (412 lb)|
|Black, Teal, Red|
years and 10,000 km