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Royal Enfield Bullet Sixty-5
First impressions were positive, but how did the 5-speed, re-styled Bullet cope with a full road test? Steve Wilson took the helm
Andy Williams, always a guy with a can-do attitude, was in a particularly cheerful mood. As the proprietor of Swindon Classic Bikes, he was just back from a dealer event at Watsonian-Squire, the UK distributor for a unique machine - the time-warp Royal Enfield Bullet, that classic British big single cylinder motorcycle, made since 1955 in India.
The Redditch-based parent company had finally gone under 33 years previously, but at the Tiruvot-Tiyur factory outside Madras (or Chennai as the city has been renamed) they've been churning out 350 and 500 singles in both military and civilian form in considerable numbers to this day, and reimporting them to the UK since 1977.
And at the dealer meeting, they had been celebrating the fact that for 2002, the Bullet had, erm, shot into the Top Ten in the UK's 126-500cc new motorcycle sales charts, in the process incidentally outselling Harley's XLH883 Sportster, Triumph's big Tiger trailie, and Moto Guzzi's twins. Notching up sales of more than 600 bikes may not sound that impressive, but it's a solid niche market, and likely to grow.
For good reason. Andy and the other dealers had been shown a tape of the factory in action. Where in the past, production had been labour intensive and quality control distinctly variable, now they saw CNC machines working on blank crankcases and alloy cylinder heads, a proper PDI station with all-round lighting, and every single engine being bench-tested. The gold pinstriping is still done by hand, though.
The transformation of the company had begun in 1994 with its takeover by the Eicher Group, which despite its Teutonic-sounding moniker was an Indian-owned truck and tractor manufacturer. I have a list running to eight pages itemizing the year-by-year detail improvements to the Bullet, many in the so-necessary area of electrical reliability, and to the ponderous Albion-based separate 4-speed gearbox, which by the late 1990s had become a genuine improvement on the original.
Then last year saw a further step forward for the 500s, in the shape of an electric start. Although the 12-volt, 6.5:1 compression Bullets had never been particularly tricky to kickstart, as Andy Williams pointed out, 'the starter takes a lot of stress out of them when you're riding - no need to worry about stalling them at the traffic lights.' A reliable Japanese Denso unit, discreetly mounted ahead of the cylinder, and driving through gears and a sprag clutch, the electric foot only added £250 to the 500 Classic's modest £2768 price tag - and that included the necessary larger battery, higher output alternator and upgraded switchgear. And they kept the kickstarter, as belt-and-braces backup, and for the look.
Not so the Sixty-5. For a start the silver metallic paint, also available in red, black, or Mystique Blue, really lightened the plot's appearance. Then there was the new 'flatline' dualseat, its ribbed top and curved shape echoing those Sixties' banana custom seats. It also made for a nice low seat height, at around 30.5 inches/ 77.5 cms, about the same as previously, but feeling less, as it was narrower at the nose. Our Editor, not renowned for elegantly long legs, could comfortably get both feet on the ground with this one. The seat was certainly a big improvement on its markedly stepped predecessor, with the sharply sculpted rider's portion which had prevented taller riders moving to a comfortable long distance riding position.
The new gearbox, with '5-speed' proudly stamped on its oval inspection cover, now featured a left-foot shift rather than the previous traditional right-footer. As it's now thirty years since a left-side change became a legal requirement in the USA and hence effectively the world, this means that even the die-hards among us, and certainly the majority of riders, will inevitably be more at home with a down-for-first, up-for-the-rest change pattern on that side.
To design and develop the internals, Mr Lal had gone to Dr Stuart McGuigan and his team, the guys responsible for the development of the new diesel motorbike for the Army, at Cranfield University in Shrivenham, the UK Joint Services college. 'Just up the road from here,' laughed Andy. 'Stuart's a rider, he used to pop in here while they were doing it, for oil seals and so on.'
It was time to try out the new offering. At a claimed 168kg dry weight, the bike certainly felt nice and light to wheel around and, with the lifting handle provided, was easy enough to pull onto its centrestand; a chromed side-stand was an optional extra. Modern Japanese switchgear, off a Suzuki Bandit, included a headlamp flasher and a push-to-cancel switch for the indicators, again an improvement on the previous equipment.
The choke lever was mounted down by the Mikuni-built-under-license carb, but as Andy confirmed, 'they don't like a lot of choke.' Electric start was standard on the Sixty-5, so although the kickstart was there, neatly folded all the way round out of the way, it was just a case of pulling in the clutch lever and hitting the button. Bingo - first time, every time.
The deep engine note from this Bullet was pleasing for the rider, healthy but not offensive, and later proved to give a nice blat for spectators as Frank the Ex-Editor tried out the Sixty-5. The sound exited from a shorter silencer than the notoriously long and restrictive previous item, whose tail-pipe had poked out beyond the rear wheel. Enfield agents' yards were littered with the things, as customers got them replaced with noisy pattern BSA M21 and Gold Star cans. This new item looked better, it was BS kite-marked, yet as I found on the ride, not unduly restrictive at all. Nice one.
The civilised theme continued as I snicked down into first and bumped out of Andy's yard to join the traffic flow. The clutch was light, the gearchange really effortless, and a tall hump-back bridge on the apex of a bend immediately proved that the Bullet's handling and roadholding were satisfying and hassle-free. Progressive rate springs on the unshrouded rear suspension units (another Sixties' touch) certainly helped smooth out the ride. The ribbed 3.00 x 19 Avon Speedmaster Mk II front plus 3.50 x 19 SM rear tyres, with modern rubber in a classic format, seemed just right for the bike, though TT100s were also an optional extra.
The effective 7-inch twin leading-shoe front brake was welcome as we effortlessly negotiated traffic leaving the nearby Honda car factory. The Enfield's braking has been another major area of improvement since the 1980s, when the Indian Bullets' brakes had been known as 'poor stoppers but great laxatives'. And keeping pace with the traffic was definitely aided by the 5-speed box. I didn't need convincing about the merits of an extra cog on a big single. A previous ride on specialist Phil Pearson's BSA Gold Star with 5-speed box and modern-adapted clutch had shown me how a harsh, rough-edged sportster could be transformed into something just as effective but altogether pleasanter and more useable.
Enfield seemed to have turned the same trick with their thumping roadster. With just a couple of digits on the mileometer of this brand new bike, no way were we going to explore its outer limits, although previous 500 Bullets, with replacement silencers, in my experience had been good for just over 80mph, and Andy said these versions were about 5mph faster. Out in the real dual carriageway world we ran steadily, so easily, at 50-55mph, that 70mph cruising seemed a realistic expectation when the running-in was over - yes, Bullets have to be run in, just like engines in the old days, even if they do now run on unleaded and return between 70 and 80 miles to the gallon.
Turning off onto by-roads up onto the Wiltshire Downs, the Bullet just piled up the points. The seat was comfortable, and its ribbed top stopped you sliding backwards when braking on bumpy going. The mirrors were excellent. The engine, always in an appropriate gear, pulled really well - unlike the no-flywheel Japanese singles such as Yamaha's old XT500, the thump was still discernibly, satisfyingly, there, but the well-chosen ratios helped take the shakes out of it. There was a modern, smoother feel to the whole plot, a lack of harshness which was admirable in a new engine, and a distinct contrast to even rebuilt genuine classics. The bike was a real pleasure to ride.
For traditionalists, there was an occasional backfire on the over-run from an air leak in the newly-fitted exhaust system, which would be easily remedied; and a mechanical squawk when you switched off. Swinging along the winding, undulating lanes approaching the Iron Age hill fort at Barbury Castle, the handling once again proved more than adequate - if there was anything like a weak link it would have been the front forks, which could probably also benefit from progressive springs, but which even so were well up to the Bullet's performance envelope.
FW took a spin and rode up the steep hillside to Barbury Castle effortlessly, returning to remark on both the smoothness, and on how slender the bike felt. A photo session proved that the Bullet's clutch was unflappable, and that its admirably tight turning circle was exactly the width of one narrow lane. Standing back to look during the static picture shoot, we agreed that there was good market recognition in the styling cues and colour scheme - they weren't kidding around about the Sixties thing. The polished primary chaincase had been flattened off with the wider electric start engine, but still looked correctly in period, as did the tinware, and touches like the twin pilot lights above the headlamp. And, yes, the engine was completely oil-tight. The only unfortunate touch were the indicators - which were not the ones you'll find on the standard Sixty-5, and I reckon even those should be exchanged for the optional chromed teardrop jobs. Sixties, right?
Just like Morgan motorcars, Royal Enfield are engineered in a direct, unbroken tradition, to which the new owners are very sensitive. They're unique - outside the Chinese and Russian copies of classic BMW boxer twins, there aren't any other mass-produced time-warp motorcycles (unless you count Harley-Davidsons…)
Their appeal is self-evident for those who appreciate old-style machinery without wanting to take on the challenge of keeping thirty and forty year old iron running. The Enfield spares situation is excellent, and the spares are cheap. The Bullet's halogen headlight, effective indicators and electric start are really practical features. If you care about such things, a system of filters, vacuums and pumped air means that the bikes comply with current anti-pollution legislation.
The petrol economy is good, with cheap insurance (£65.37 fully comp, last time I looked) offsetting the fact that, unlike with a 'real' pre-73 classic, you'll have to pay road tax. And the price is undeniably right - a Classic Sixty-5 costs £3268 OTR (with another £150 for the De Luxe with extra chrome). That's about £250 less than a Honda 250cc commuter, and only about £750 more than most comparable old British classics - few of which sport electric starters.
And the bottom line is decent starting, brakes, comfort and performance on this model, with which the Bullet finally seems to have come right. Sure the production standards have yet to rival the Japanese - Siddhartha Lal himself, with characteristic openness, acknowledged last year that 'our build quality needs huge improvement'; but equally surely they're working on it, and on the evidence of this silver Bullet, they're getting there.
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