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Despite my natural tendency to make excuses for classic British motorcycle designs, no matter how perfidious or diabolical, it was hard to put a good spin on my first encounter, about 15 years ago, with the Indian-built Royal Enfield 500 Bullet.
Back in the mid-Nineties, I took one of these new subcontinental imports for a short demo ride at Sears Point (now “Infineon,” whatever that means) Raceway. The bike was slow and chuffy, and during our little 10-mile test loop, the transmission became locked in third gear. The engine then died while struggling to climb the steep road into the paddock, and I had to push it up the hill with the clutch in. The local dealer finally got the bike back into neutral, after much struggle, but could not restart the engine.
I went away somewhat disappointed, as I liked the look of the thing and the very concept of producing a current version of a classic old Single, with all the continuity and tradition that so appeal to one’s inner Luddite. But others I talked to–including friends who had become dealers–had similar stories. Poor metallurgy, lax quality control…not quite ready for prime time.
Of late, however, I’d learned that Eicher Motors Ltd., the big Indian truck and bus company, had acquired Royal Enfield and put real money into development, even hiring an Austrian engineering firm to rework the internals, with a better crank, rod, piston, gears, oil pump, etc. So when Mr. Editor Edwards asked if I’d like to take another look, I jumped on it.
My test bike, a Bullet 500 Military model, arrived by truck, partially knocked down so it would fit in a shipping crate. I installed the front wheel, fender, handlebars, control cables, battery and turnsignals, checked the fluids and then took it for a ride.
And I do mean a ride. Not two or three. The bike arrived later than expected, missing the last waning moments of Indian (so to speak) summer. So I took it on one long ride in 38-degree weather the day before our first Wisconsin snowstorm hit. And after a quick three-hour steaming-hot shower to regain the use of my limbs, I sat down in the heated workshop to collect my thoughts.
First of all, this new Bullet did not stick in gear.
Quite the contrary. It now seems to have one of the slickest, nicest-shifting gearboxes in all of motorcycling–and it’s a five-speed now, rather than a four-speed. The cogs just slide together in effortless, well-oiled harmony. Also, there’s an electric starter and the bike fires up immediately, using the carburetor-mounted choke, and settles down into a smooth, throaty idle. The bike still has a kickstarter and a compression release, and I used the former just once as a science experiment to see if I could re-injure my knee (an old Jezail bullet wound from the Khyber Pass when I was stationed with Watson and Kipling). The experiment was a resounding success, and the bike started right up–without help from the compression release, which wouldn’t budge in certain crank positions. That’s okay; the magic button works just fine.
Light pull from the clutch, snick into gear and we are on the road. The Bullet carburetes perfectly at all speeds, under all loads, and accelerates just fast enough to be fun. Top speed is supposed to be 75 mph, and I saw about 73, tucked in and hugging the tank on a brief stretch of flat road. Mostly, though, the Bullet likes to cruise at 55 or 60 mph, at which speed it’s delightfully smooth and mellow. That fifth gear is usefully tall and will take the bike up to 65 or so before things start to sound busy.
The drum brakes are…adequate. Plenty good for the speeds achieved, but a hard stop (deer!) takes a progressively harder squeeze as you approach the target. Steering is the slightest bit weavy at low, gas-station speeds but tautens up and becomes gyro-stable and intuitive in normal riding. In handling and dynamics, it’s as friendly as a big Schwinn, with decent suspension compliance and reasonable cornering clearance for the dispatch-courier style of riding this bike encourages.
Riding position is roomy and dead standard–90-degree drop from the knees to the pegs, handlebar grips just there, where they should be, and a wide, comfortable seat, slightly on the soft side.
Overall, the surprising thing about this bike is how normal it is. It has great antiquarian charm in sight, sound and simplicity but makes no special demands on your patience or riding technique. The running gear, controls, switches, clutch, etc. all have a modern feel, and the engine idles well. No vintage riding strategy is required, where you avoid stoplights and traffic, or dread shutting off the engine for a moment, lest it never start again in your own lifetime. Just get on and go.
Beyond that, the 500 Military has many attributes that make it a useful daily rider, such as easily deployed side- and centerstands, a real toolbox and metal panniers with simple hasp-type rear latches (bring your own padlock). For a bike with an MSRP of $5545, it’s well-equipped and complete.
Finish on this model Bullet is a flat olive drab–which Royal Enfield tells me is now their most popular version, outselling the more deluxe chrome-and-shiny-paint models. The paint is somewhat haphazard, with a bit of overspray here and there, but that’s part of the utilitarian appeal. Enfield says the Indian army simply washes and quickly repaints these bikes every year as a matter of course. Best to save the polish for your Sam Browne belt and Webley service revolver, in any case.
As a paid critic, I wish I could find something to dislike about the Bullet, but I can’t. It’s comfortable, charming, fun to ride and has great garage presence and general coolness. My only regret is that it landed in Wisconsin on the first day of real winter. I’d like to have spent a week piling up the miles or taking a long road trip to see how it holds up. First impressions say it would hold up fine, but it’s the miles that tell the story.
There’s a snowdrift against my garage door right now, so maybe the Royal Enfield folks won’t be able to get the bike out of here until spring. After I’ve made a quick ride south, to see the dogwood bloom.