Where some bikes only play at retro stylings, the Royal Enfield Bullet Classic is an authentic ramble into yesterday.
With a foxy grin Paul Newman wheels a bicycle round and round in merry circles, doffs a bowler hat in the direction of Katharine Ross and invites her to ”Meet the future.”
This is, of course, from 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The scene is unforgettable because the machinery doesn’t quite fit—it’s synched slightly out of time.
The closing days of the 19th century must have held many such surreal moments for people still living Old West days, as strange and wonderful modern technologies began to arrive.
These thoughts crossed my mind as I motored up Vancouver Island on a hunter green Royal Enfield Bullet Classic detailed with gold pinstriping, the handiwork of two brothers working 12-hour shifts at the factory in India, so the story goes.
Like Newman’s bicycle, the Bullet also seems a step out of time. It’s neither truly in the here and now, nor is it completely a thing of the past. Somehow, it belongs only to itself. As families roared by in cars stuffed with children and dogs, there were waves and long, nosy stares. In a Steve McQueen desert jacket and with big goofy goggles, and sitting bolt upright on the Bullet I too must have looked as though I’d just ridden through a time portal. The posture I held was much like Newman’s on his now old-fashioned bicycle, yet I resisted the urge to tip my half-shell to the ladies.
Royal Enfield Canada recently signed Montreal’s Moto Sport Newman Inc. and Capital City Toy Store in Fredericton, New Brunswick for a total of 10 dealers across Canada. The stated goal when we interviewed Enfield Canada president Rob McMullen for the May issue (“Enfield, This Time ‘Round”) was 15 to 20 dealers by year-end. That target may well be in sight as the Edmonton-based distributor has dramatically increased exposure of its four-model line over anything enjoyed by the previous importers, T&D Impex, which struggled with a variety of issues during a futile era in the 1990s.
A slew of upgrades to the 500cc single-cylinder Bullet platform hasn’t hurt: a new EFI motor, electronic ignition, Denso electronics and improved metallurgy are among the key upgrades. Emission controls have also been worked into the mix, if for no other reason than to make the Enfield product ready for prime time in worldwide markets. Though the brand dates back to 1890s England where it started as a bicycle company, and though Bullets have the longest production run in motorcycle history (arguably, since 1931) acceptance of them has been a tepid thing outside of India, where they have been wholly manufactured since 1955.
And it’s to that era we can now look for the styling elements of today. It wouldn’t be accurate to call bikes such as the Bullet Classic “vintage” because they’re still rolling off the assembly line. They’re not “trying” for a look that says yesteryear, they simply are that even if they have been infused with more marketable upgrades. Nor does that mean they’re contemporary motorcycles either: the front fender nameplate, sprung solo seat and 27-horse capacity run contrary to any notion of modernity. Bullets are organic descendants from another era that have survived intact to be exactly what they are today.
If you’re in the market for a Bullet, you either buy into all that or you don’t. Any comparison to other products available on “new model” shelves is ultimately pointless. The reasons for owning one would very likely be deeply personal in nature.
The nostalgia buff is an obvious customer. So is the person who sees only “cookie cutter” bikes when he visits his local dealer. A 20-something with eclectic tastes might go for a Bullet—with MSRP on the four models ranging between $6,895 (Bullet Electra) and $7,495 (Classic Military), it would likely fit his budget too. McMullen himself references the youth demographic (27 to 40) “who are interested in retro vintage stylings and bikes that can be customized like no others.”
Ideally, it would be a rider who also enjoys the tactility of tools and the experience of doing his own service and maintenance. Though the unit construction Bullet motor is essentially an uncomplicated device with easy access to its internals, its very simplicity probably means the owner will need to be an active participant in its overall health.
We took delivery of our Bullet Classic from Savage Cycle in Victoria which was founded by a Brit ex-pat ex-racer as a real old school parts and service shop for classic motorcycles. Colin Savage is out of the picture now, and the store has physically moved to bigger digs where current owners Alex Bolz and Mike Backen sell new models from Triumph and Suzuki as their bread and butter lines, and niche marques such as Royal Enfield. The made-in-India brand very likely represents the shop’s less polished past for the Savage Cycle boys, a throwback to an era when customers came in for a handful of jets and seals for their BSA or Meriden Triumph bikes, then stayed to drain the coffee pot four or five times. The shop is still a gathering point even if the current crop of customers leans more toward the sport and sport-touring side of the ledger. Here, reportedly, buyers of Bullet motorcycles have ranged between mid-20s and mid-60s, which brackets the demographic sweet spot noted by McMullen.
THE PRICOL-BUILT SPEEDOMETER indicates 73 mph as I sweep into a gentle corner in top gear. Sitting up high and tall in the sprung saddle, I’m having a fine time, thoroughly enjoying this peculiar sense of having gone back in time to the days of my youth but returning with a bike that is inarguably better than anything that ever passed as a Royal Enfield when I was a younger man. But at 73 mph, that’s it folks. I have no idea why the unit I’m riding registers in standard miles per hour, but I am quite certain that some sort of governor has kicked in to break up ignition at that mark. I try it again, and then again, and one more time just to be sure. There’s no doubt, something built in limits the bike’s progress at 73 (on this unit at any rate). It’s just as well.
Though the broad bars, slender profile, decent front braking and period-appropriate 19-inch Avons of the Bullet Classic lend the rider a sense of beautiful control, its relative light weight leaves it susceptible to battering by wind gusts and passing traffic. It’s far happier cruising below 60 mph (or 96 kmh if you prefer) and reaching that point requires a combination of short shifts and deliberate throttling.
The Bullet Classic doesn’t respond well to aggression. Rather, all aspects of the bike implore you to relax and simply appreciate the beauty of its steel fenders and old-fashioned headlight treatment. Some people have complained that it’s a buzz-prone bike but I’ve experienced worse: some modern twin-cylinder BMWs and Triumphs for example deliver sneaky vibes that register in your feet and hands only when you’ve come to a full stop. There are pulses coming through the light, delicate controls, to be sure, but they feel somehow more honest and unmasked by any attempt at “counter-balancing.”
For $7,395 MSRP, it seems a modestly priced ticket into an authentic past cradled in modern convenience.
By John Campbell