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Common Tread

Down to our last Bullets: Royal Enfield ends a classic

Jun 26, 2020

Royal Enfield’s iconic 500 cc Bullet — a motorcycle with a fundamental architecture that has hardly changed in over 60 years — has finally been discontinued.

For motorcyclists of a certain age, the quintessential British bike will always be a 500 cc single. But what if you want that 1950s vibe, and a warranty? The obvious choice has long been a Royal Enfield Bullet — a new bike that, at a glance, still passes for 60 years old.

In spite of their anachronisms, the Indian-made Bullets have turned many heads, and turned many riders of objectively superior modern bikes into fans. However, the venerable Bullet has finally fallen victim to India’s increasingly strict emissions regulations and the rise of the 650 cc Interceptor as Royal Enfield’s flagship model.

I should have seen that coming, but somehow it was a shock; the Bullet seemed to exist in a sort of time warp. In the Indian domestic market, Royal Enfield celebrated the last of the 500 cc Bullets with a handsome, murdered-out Limited Edition Classic Tribute Black version (shown in the photo at the top and in the video below). The Tribute Black model appears on Royal Enfield’s UK website, too, but in Royal Enfield North America chose not to mark the passing of this minor legend.

The Bullet "goes native"

The first Royal Enfield to carry the Bullet name appeared in 1931 (or ’32, depending on which model history you read). That first round, which was available in 350 cc and 500 cc versions, had a rigid frame and girder fork, typical of the period, but a noteworthy four-valve head. A few years later, the company briefly flirted with a three-valve head, before reverting to four valves. As with most civilian vehicles made in Britain, there was essentially no development during World War II, or in the immediate post-war period.

In 1948, the International Six Days Trial was held in San Remo, Italy. Vic Brittain and Charlie Rogers, who were members of their country’s "Trophy" team, rode 350 cc Royal Enfield factory specials. Those prototypes had alloy two-valve heads, swingarm rear suspension, and telescopic front forks. They presaged the 1949 Bullet and a period of notable trials success, including a win by Vic’s son, Johnny, at the prestigious Scottish Six Days in 1952.

Legendary Royal Enfield Trials rider, Johnny Brittain, passed away 7th March after a short illness. Between 1950 and 1963, Johnny was the star rider of the Royal Enfield Trials Factory Works Team, amassing a huge haul of victories on his 350 Bullet, HNP 331. Two times the winner of the renowned Scottish Six Days Trial, Victory Trial, British Experts Trial, and Scott Trial, Johnny was the final surviving member of the last British team to win the International Six Days' Trials (ISDT) in Czechoslovakia,1953, where he rode a Royal Enfield 500 Twin. In an illustrious international career that spanned 15 years, Johnny won 13 ISDT gold medals and went onto become a great ambassador for the sport of motorcycling. He will be greatly missed by all of us at Royal Enfield. #MadeLikeAGun #PureMotorcycling #RidePure #RoyalEnfieldBullet

A post shared by Royal Enfield (@royalenfield) on

At that time, the Indian government sought a rugged motorcycle for military and police use in India’s mountainous border regions. The 350 cc Bullet — which was dominating trials sport — was an obvious choice. At first, Bullets were shipped from Redditch in "complete, knocked-down" form and assembled in a factory in Chennai (also known as Madras).

In 1955, a new company, Enfield India Ltd., was formed. Around that time Royal Enfield (in England) modernized the factory in Redditch in advance of releasing an updated 1956 Bullet. Enfield India licensed the design and acquired the old tooling required to make 1955 350 cc Bullets from scratch. It took a few years, but eventually Enfield India was capable of producing bikes using virtually all-Indian components.

In 1970, the original Royal Enfield company succumbed as part of the broader collapse of the British motorcycle industry. But Enfield India went on producing that 1955 350 cc Bullet, virtually unchanged, for decades. The company had a steady customer in the Indian government, but the bikes were also a hit with civilian riders (who had limited choices, because India protected its domestic industry with prohibitive tariffs).

Royal Enfield Bullet 350
The Royal Enfield Classic 350 has seemingly been around forever. Royal Enfield photo.
“The Bullet has evolved to perfectly match its environment,” said Alan Fleming, a friend who rode one of those ancient Bullets on a tour of India, Nepal, and Bhutan a few years ago. “On the dirt roads in Bhutan, we just left the bikes in first, stood on the footpegs and let them thump their way through the rough stuff like a very heavy dirt bike. The bikes were a handful in loose sand but otherwise they were perfect for the roads.”

Alan told me that most of the problems they had on their trip were related to dirty fuel, but the simple carburetor was easy to clean out.

“The only other notable issue was the gearbox,” he added. “Since this was a pre-unit bike the transmission was in a separate case. It was small but somehow contained not only the four gears advertised but also about a half-dozen neutrals. This made for quite a few heart-stopping moments when poking a gear change while passing a big bus or getting out of the way of a truck.”

Outside of India, motorcyclists think of the 500 cc Bullet as the definitive version, and it’s often described as the longest continually produced motorcycle, but only the 350 was in continuous production. There was a nearly 30-year hiatus in the 500’s run; Enfield India did not manufacture it until 1985. At first, it was an export-only model, but it was offered in India from about 1989 onward.

Enfield India’s got into financial difficulties and the domestic market shifted towards smaller, more modern bikes. The company was ultimately rescued by Eicher Motors, a huge Indian tractor and truck maker. Eicher’s founder, Vikram Lal, might have been making an emotional decision as much as a business decision; he once owned a Bullet. Vikram subsequently installed his son, Siddhartha, as the CEO. With access to Eicher’s capital, Enfield India hired AVL — a huge engineering firm based in Graz, Austria — to modernize the Bullet.

AVL’s first effort was basically an alloy version of the old cast iron motor, though a steady stream of updates included a "lean burn" motor and a five-speed gearbox. Moving the gear lever to the left side helped attract younger riders and made the Bullet much more attractive outside India, but it so upset traditionalists that, for a while, Royal Enfield gave Indian customers a choice of the the old right-side shift with four speeds, or the new left-side shift with five speeds, and most customers chose the original four-speed. A lot of Indian customers also missed the old iron motor’s thump.

Despite many improvements to Bullets produced over the 1990s and 2000s, the Chennai factory never caught up to the build quality of most Japanese or European bikes. During that period, Geoff Hill, who writes a column on motorcycles for the Daily Mirror tabloid in the UK, traveled to India with his friend, Paddy Minne. The two bought Bullets and rode them back to Northern Ireland. That journey, which he wrote up in a memoir called, "Way to Go," was a litany of mechanical problems.

"They were made of tinfoil and hope," Hill told me in an e-mail recalling the trip. "The nuts and bolts were a mix of imperial and metric, and needed to be checked pretty much every day, since at cruising speed, the vibrations slowly unscrewed all the large ones, and if you went any faster, the vibrations became a finer, subtler threnody, like the wind in telegraph wires, which loosened all the small ones.

"I was riding through Istanbul when I heard a clatter and looked around to see that the horn had fallen off, probably through overuse in India and Pakistan, and at the end of one of the last days of the trip, I got off the bike in England and looked down to see that the air filter box had become completely detached and was only still there because it was leaning against the ignition key, which is down there on older Enfields."

Royal Enfield Bullet
Although the unit-construction 500s built in the last decade, with fuel injection and disc brakes, are very different from the Bullets built from 1955-09, the UCE models still carry on an old-school look... and riding experience. Royal Enfield photo.

Enter the UCE

The last major iteration of the Bullet is one that’s familiar to most Americans. For the 2009 model year, export markets received a new, unit-construction motor. Known by the acronym UCE, the unit-construction engine shares the same undersquare 84 mm bore and 90 mm stroke the Redditch-built Bullets had back in the mid-1950s. Writing on the excellent Vintagent blog, Paul Henshaw made the case that the UCE played the same role at Royal Enfield that Harley-Davidson’s Evolution engine played for The Motor Company. That’s to say, it kept most traditionalists happy while making great strides in terms of oil tightness, general reliability, and ease of maintenance.

The new motor had a twin-spark head, fed by a Keihin EFI. The compression ratio was raised to 8.5:1, yielding a claimed 27 horsepower. It was equipped with an electric start but retained the kickstarter. The suspension, brakes, and switchgear were also much better.

As much of an improvement as the UCE may have been, newer Bullets still have their issues. Bike Magazine, in the UK, recently published one of their "Big Test" features on a Bullet they kept for five months. The test was compiled by Bike’s Mike Armitage, who noted a few niggles, including some faulty electrics, less-than-perfect shifting (still!) and an unwillingness to start when the engine was hot. The thing is that Bike’s testers, like pretty much every Bullet rider I’ve ever met, graded the motorcycle on a completely different curve.

There was also a 350 cc version of the UCE. That model retained a carburetor until recently. My friend Sunny Soral, who managed a Royal Enfield dealership in Jaipur, told me that the smaller Bullet has always been far more popular in the domestic market.

“The whole of North India is addicted to Standard 350, especially in the Punjab region,” he wrote in an e-mail, “The Sikhs [a dominant religious group in Punjab] have a saying there has to be at least one Bullet in every household. You can effectively think that for most Sikhs, buying an RE Standard 350 is like a ritual when they have a son or if they have a marriage in the family.”

Indian motorcycle journalist Shubhabrata "Shumi" Marmar agreed that the smaller Bullet, and its kissing cousin, the Classic 350, are still among the most important motorcycles in the premium segment there.

“In India, the premium segment is usually defined as anything north of 100,000 rupees," which is about U.S. $1,300, he said. "It’s a definition that perhaps needs an update. But in that space, the Classic 350 and Royal Enfield dominate the numbers by a massive margin. But the market share has been slowly fading — many ascribe it to the loss of the exclusivity value of the Classic 350 since they’ve become ubiquitous. A large part of the audience does not think very highly of them to be sure but the numbers say otherwise.”

That strong domestic demand explains why Royal Enfield has finally updated the 350 cc Bullet with EFI, in order to make it meet India’s strict new Bharat Stage VI emissions regulations, so it can continue to sell the 350 in the domestic market. It would be easy to make that model U.S.-compliant, but Breeann Poland, who handles the brand’s PR and marketing for all of the Americas, was pretty emphatic in disabusing me of the notion the small-bore Bullet will be sold stateside.

However, Royal Enfield is also about to launch another 350 cc single-cylinder bike, dubbed the Meteor, in the domestic market. Mike Armitage told me that he lives only 30 miles from Royal Enfield’s new English R&D center, and that he just saw what he reckoned was a new 350 cc prototype pottering through his home town. If they’re testing it in the U.K., it likely means it’s destined for that market.

I have strong reasons to expect that the new 350 cc Meteor — a machine that will presumably sell for well under five grand — will come to the United States. That’s something that could really help to attract new riders.

Royal Enfield Bullet
The Bullet has evolved to suit its environment. Royal Enfield photo.

Admit it, you want one, but should you buy a Bullet while you can?

“It’s slow, basic and vibrates — a good 125 is faster and better suspended. The RE exists purely for thrumming at 55 mph and gently bobbing on back lanes,” Bike’s Armitage wrote. But then he concluded his write-up with “As a get-away-from-it second bike, with boldly different sensations, every home should have one.”

If you agree, you probably shouldn’t wait too long before seeking out a Royal Enfield dealer that still has one in stock. Poland also told me that the distributor has none in the warehouse. A quick scan of dealer websites suggests that most dealers have only the Himalayan and the newer 650 twins in their showrooms; others, like San Francisco’s Scuderia West, still have several Bullets in stock.

One thing’s for sure, though. They’re not making any more of them. And that’s a sentence that I honestly never expected to type.