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Bike Review - Posted 24th December 2012. Ho, ho, ho.
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Royal Enfield Meteor Minor

If you're on a quest for an affordable British classic bike, this oft-overlooked 500 twin might just fit the bill...

Royal Enfields for some reason were never the most popular British twin in town. Equally oddly, riders who rode them often loved them and stuck with them for years, like Velocette fanatics. A strange world. These days, the big twins, RE being the first to make a leap into the 650cc+ category with their 700cc models, are drifting out of most folk's definition of 'good value', although early Constellations can sometimes be purchased for a sensible sum. However most of the big twins fetch upward of 5k and Interceptors have reached the five-figure zone, so finding 500s at 3000-3500 can seem like a snip.

'Pioneers of modern motorcycling'... 1956 Royal Enfield 500 Twin on the left, 1960 Meteor Minor Sports on the right

The 500 Twin, as RE referred to their inevitable dive into Britain's post-war great love affair with twin cylinder motorcycle engines, was a design well out of the mainstream mould. Not only were its iron barrels and light alloy heads all separate items, like the AMC twins, but the rockerboxes were cast as one with the head itself, no doubt in an attempt to retain all that hot oil. The cams, ignition and charging were all driven by a remarkable chain drive, and RE followed Panther practice by housing their oil inside the engine. Not a wet sump like a car or a Sunbeam, but a cast-in oil tank. Not too great for keeping the lube cool!

Royal Enfields for some reason were never the most popular British twin in town. Equally oddly, riders who rode them often loved them and stuck with them for years, like Velocette fanatics. A strange world. These days, the big twins, RE being the first to make a leap into the 650cc+ category with their 700cc models, are drifting out of most folk's definition of 'good value', although early Constellations can sometimes be purchased for a sensible sum. However most of the big twins fetch upward of 5k and Interceptors have reached the five-figure zone, so finding 500s at 3000-3500 can seem like a snip.

'The Experts Look Again'... 1959 Royal Enfield Meteor Minor Sports brochure

The 496cc engine with its substantial single-piece crankshaft was housed in an adaptation of the Bullet frame, with swinging arm rear suspension and the signature RE casquette housing the instruments. Built from 1948 onwards, the 25bhp 500 Twin gained the usual upgrades over time with a double-sided front brake arriving in 1955 followed by a crankshaft-mounted alternator for 1957.

The best model was probably the Meteor Minor, the last of the RE 500 twins. It was offered from 1958 until 1963, and combined the piston size of the 700cc Meteor with a stroke of 64.5mm, which is the key to the smaller bike's appeal. Royal Enfield boasted that it was 'compact' and 'power packed' with 'amazing new easy to handle performance.'

The brochure bikes always look better than real life. Nice daffs, mind... 1959 Royal Enfield Meteor Minor Sports

Indeed, the Meteor Minor can, surprisingly for an RE twin, really rev hard, and given that the bottom end is close dimensionally to the bigger twins and uses decent big-end shell bearings, the risk of exploding it is respectably low. It's all in the figures; 30bhp at 6250rpm; the higher capacity Meteor managed only 6bhp more.

The Sport variant of the Meteor closed the gap to the 700 further still, producing 33bhp at 6500rpm thanks in part to tweaked cams. In Standard and De-Luxe form the engine ran at 8:1 compression which equated to a top speed of 90mph. All versions weighed around 390lb, had a saddle height of 29 inches, wheelbase of 53 inches and ground clearance of 5.5 inches - pretty standard for roadgoing twins of the time. In 1960 Royal Enfield suggest that the 500 was one of those 'have your cake and eat it' motorcycles: 'the luxury touring model that goes really fast!'

The luxury touring model that goes f-a-s-t... 1959 Royal Enfield Meteor Minor brochure
Royal Enfield on

All three Standard, De-luxe and Sport models came equipped with 4-speed Albion gearbox, 17-inch wheels ('giving a low riding position for added safety'), full width alloy hubs, a QD rear wheel and Amal Monobloc carb, while the De-luxe offered a dualseat, pillion footrests and enclosed rear chain. The exhaust system featured siamesed pipes, with the left exhaust sweeping across the front of the engine to meet its mate in front of the timing chest, a design which Cyril Ayton once said 'saved a few pounds but did nothing for the quality of the exhaust note.'

'Compact, Power Packed'...

The Meteor Minor was intended to combine the performance of the big bore twins with the modern style of the Enfield's smaller Crusader model, and indeed the Meteor Minor used a version of the smaller bike's all-welded lightweight frame. The brochure suggested that the Meteor Minor 'incorporates all the most up to date features of design, giving a sleek looking machine which has tremendous performance with uncanny ease of handling and stability.' They were obviously quite concerned that the 700 twins might seem to be too big for some folk to handle, emphasising repeatedly that in the Minor package: 'such performance has never before been so easy to handle.'

The Meteor Minor can still cope with 65-70mph cruising, and has an ultimate top speed of just under the ton on a good day with an unforgiving rider at the helm. It's surprisingly smooth and willing to rev and in its day was considered to be a 'sound, reliable and inoffensive motorcycle.' Although components aren't as easy to come by as for the firm's single-cylinder models, there is a reasonable spares supply and much specialist knowledge available. Unsung heroes like the Meteor Minor are rare, however, so if you spot one for sale then you'll probably have to act speedily to secure a purchase.

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Groovy colours. Man...

Words: Frank Westworth and Rowena Hoseason

Photos: Bonhams.com / RC RChive

'Such performance has never been so easy to handle'...

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