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The Royal Enfield Bullet

A brief history
The Royal Enfield Bullet

The History

In 1949 Royal Enfield first launched the 350cc Bullet. A 499cc version was launched in 1953 but did not prove very popular.

In 1955, Royal enfield carried out some retooling and redesign at their Reddich plant, in UK, to modernize the Bullet, and in 1959 some changes were made to the gear ratios. Between 1956 and 1960, the Bullet was released in several models, including a 350cc Trials "works replica" version, and a 350cc "Clipper" model. Technically the engines and power trains were the same (except for bore size) and the only differences were in exhaust, seating, instrumentation, handlebars and gas tank. A lot of technical improvements were also made in that time, including moving to alternator charging (1956) and coil ignition (1960). The 350cc model continued in production, but the 500cc model was discontinued in 1961. An "Airflow" model was also made briefly.

In 1962 the UK company was sold, and the Bullet was discontinued. In 1967 they closed down the Redditch factory where Bullets had been made. Finally in 1970, the new owners, dissatisfied with its financial performance, closed down Royal Enfield completely.

In 1955, the Indian government needed a solid and reliable motorcycle for its police and army. The Bullet was chosen as the most suitable bike for the job of patrolling the rugged border areas. The Indian government ordered 800 of the 350cc model, beyond the company's ability to fill at the time. With more orders from India looming, the company sold its design to Enfield India, a subsidiary firm in Madras, India to start manufacturing them there.

Enfield India continued to churn out Bullets just the way they were made in England in 1955. Forty years later they still do, with a few minor modifications (signal lights, a 28 mm Mikuni carb, 12-volt electrics, a better bench seat and in 1990, twin leading-shoe brakes). While not the largest motorcycle manufacturer in India (they rank about third, producing around 18,500 bikes a year but have plans to increase that to 25,000), they are one of its oldest.

Initial attempts to export 350 Bullets into the UK in the 1970s, were unsuccessful. The bike wasn't up to par and the exchange rate wasn't very good, so they were not as inexpensive as they are today. The Indian company had little interest in making changes the few sales exports could garner.

In 1986, Raja Narayan, a UK civil servant, returned to his home in India and started an export arm for the company to bring the Bullet back into England (an effort so appreciated that a couple of Indian automobile magazines wrote up large articles on the whole story). He got his first 350 into England that year. He was responsible for many of the production changes that improved sales and quality over the years. It was the prodigal son returning home. The bike appeared in UK motorcycle shows in 1989 and at the Classic Bike Show in Stafford in 1990. Canada started importing them three years ago, and the US in 1995. Twenty countries now import them.

In late 1995, the Indian firm finally acquired the name Royal Enfield as their own

Bullet - The India Scene

Indian Industrialists, subsequently acquired the entire company and production line, continued operations at Madras factory and could not do better than to build bikes to the original specifications. To this day, they continue to churn out brand new 40-year old bikes! It is a true classic, with the single-cylinder 350cc or 500cc engine producing a deep, throaty rumble and powerful torque that have prompted some to christen it the two-wheeled tractor. At idle speed you can audibly count the engine revolutions per minute!

Fritz Egli of Egli Vincent fame has turned his hand to revamping the venerable Enfield, and the result is a very pretty motorcycle which performs a great deal better than the original whilst retaining the classic understated charm of the Royal "Oilfield".

In India, the first thing you need to adjust yourself to, is the speeds of the traffic, or the lack of it( 70KMPH and above would brand you as Kamikaze). The Royal Enfield Bullet (a.k.a. the thumper, because of its distinctive single cylinder sound) requires you to concentrate on the sheer style, aesthetics, riding pleasure and comfort. Inspite of some non-conventional aspects like the gear-change on right foot and brake on the left,riding a Royal Enfield Bullet translates pure, unadulterated pleasure!

The Enfield factory at Tiruvottiyur, in Madras, is now over forty years old. Some 20,000 motorcycles are still put together annually, using many of the original machine tools and dies from the original British parent factory. Most parts, right down to the pinstripes on the paint work, are still hand finished.

In India, everybody knows that to drive an Enfield, you have to be a bike mechanic, or at least, your best friend has to be one. A mechanic who works exclusively on the Bullet is a sort of an artist. Through all the sounds that the Bullet's engine makes, an experienced mechanic can actually pin-point a problem with-out ever having to strip it apart.

I have travelled long distance on my Bullet 350 Standard; from Bangalore to Velanganni (some people spell it as Velankanni, a distance of 640 Kms(one way) in extremely hot conditions. The only maintanance I caried out along the way was to wipe clean the rear view mirror! I also rode all the way to Allepy district in Kerala, 673 Kms one way, in very wet conditions. The ride was more comfortable than when I had driven down by car. You see, riding the Royal Enfield Bullet over these long distances does not wear you out, though your backside might need to be of the more rugged variety.

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