Motorcycle Pure and Simple.
There is definitely something wrong with this picture. I’m bombing along a back road in Santa Paula, Calif. (aka the Citrus Capital of the World) aboard a mercilessly underpowered, somewhat skittish motorcycle that, despite being the latest offering from the company, hasn’t witnessed any major design changes since Eisenhower was president. Yet, I’m having an absolute ball. This dubious euphoria is courtesy 500cc of old school, single-cylinder rattle and charm—little changed since its introduction in 1954—known now as the Royal Enfield Bullet 500 Electra.
At the risk of contributing to the maelstrom of mid-life crisis escapism so prevalent in the motorcycle industry today—with its retro machines preying on an aging demographics’ sentimentality—I have to admit, the Electra X has managed to rouse a shameless whim of nostalgia in me.
Strangely enough, the Enfield’s persona as a throwback to simpler times is not the end result of a marketing department’s zealous pursuit of the graying sect desperate to revisit the long dormant fancies of their youth. Quite the contrary. For 50-plus years, Enfield India has been pumping out an average of 30,000 Bullets annually to fill the need for inexpensive, functional and reliable transportation at home, as well as many third world countries.
The Bullet, Royal Enfield’s signature machine, was introduced in Britain in 1949 as an about-town errand runner and daily commuter. The company went racing and racked up a number of victories in motocross, roadracing and trials, proving its worth and cementing status as a legitimate, competitive brand. By 1954, the Bullet’s versatility and dependability attracted the interest of the government of India. With the duty of patrolling its border with Pakistan in mind, 800 units were ordered. Evidently, the Indians were pleased enough with the motorcycle’s performance to place sizable orders the next two years. This led to the British manufacturer opening a factory in the east to better accommodate this new, vital customer. Within two years, the plant was producing the Bullet entirely from scratch in Madras, India.
Ironically, in 1967, as Royal Enfield was thriving in India, the original company collapsed in Britain, falling victim to the onslaught of the burgeoning Japanese marques. But, by then, Enfield India was operating as its own entity, with a steady homegrown demand for its product that ensured fiscal stability and continued growth. This was certainly helped along by the country’s population surging toward one billion. The result of this unusual reversal of fortune is that Royal Enfield remains the oldest motorcycle manufacturer still in business with an uninerrupted history of trading.
Avoiding costly design changes by leaving the original, proven design somewhat intact, the company has been able to provide a motorcycle at an affordable price to a vast, needful market. Today, the Royal Enfield Bullet line is produced pretty much the way it was in 1955, with advances in metallurgy and modern machining methods having served to make the present bike more reliable and, relatively, oil-leak free. It is, however, in essence, the same machine that came off the assembly line 50 years ago; a legitimate, authentic retro.
In a serendipitous turn of events—with the current craze of retro chic that has major motorcycle manufacturers proffering knock-offs of their former glories—Royal Enfield found itself in vogue simply by virtue of never having fixed what wasn’t broken. With the inevitable swing of the fashion pendulum catapulting dated items back into the realm of cool, the humble little Indian manufacturer unexpectedly finds itself at the vanguard of style—a hip and fashionable icon of pop culture.The five flavors of Bullets imported into America are propelled by a 499cc air-cooled, four-stroke, single cylinder engine that produces 23 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. The Lean-Burn engine with electronic ignition, a rare acknowledgement of the calendar, complies with a more stringent spectrum of emission laws than the somewhat liberal levels imposed in India, allowing the company to look past its own borders for sales.
"5-Speed" is prominently forged into the engine cases for a reason. It wasn’t until 2005 that the five-speeds became standard issue, and the Classic is still available as a four-speed for vintage racing. For safety reasons, the transmission was converted years ago into a left side shift, one-down/four-up. Despite being equipped with a quirky electric starter, the Bullets come with a genuine old-school kick start as well. When was the last time you kickstarted a street bike?
The riding experience garnered on the Enfield is, without a doubt, a return to a time when motorcycles’ raw and youthful enthusiasm far outweighed any mechanical shortcomings. Despite the catchy, suggestive moniker of the line, the Bullets are anything but. In fact, the Electra X doesn’t do anything remarkably well, which paradoxically contributes to its considerable charm. Due to its low horsepower output, the key to riding the Electra is maintaining momentum. It is a little like driving a 1968 Volkswagen Beetle, and even has similar drinking habits. The Enfield gets an estimated 70 mpg, and with a fuel capacity of 3.8 gallons, you’re not going to be on a first name basis with your local gas station attendant. Premium octane? Surely you jest. (Click image to enlarge)
Barreling down the cracked asphalt that splits a labyrinth of orange groves, the Bullet Electra X whisks me back to my early forays into motorcycling. It is an easy surrender to things past. The nostalgia is kept buzzing with carefully synchronized shifts through the gearbox at half-throttle, keeping the motor at a lazily thumping drone. You can twist the throttle all the way to the stop if you want, the sound of the engine will build and there’s more vibration, but oddly, you are not going to go any faster. In today’s arena of hyper-powered race machines masquerading as street bikes, there’s something truly invigorating about being able to ride a motorcycle to its full capabilities.
The Bullet, by virtue of its limitations, delivers the most visceral of rides. Every bump in the road, every crease of asphalt is felt with absolute clarity. Hitting any sizable cracks in the pavement will transmit the concussion directly up through the 1970s piggyback reservoir shocks and into the seat and handlebars, reminding you that you are, to all intents and purposes, riding a vintage motorcycle.
The Enfield jaunt is reduced to the unqualified basics; a twist of the throttle, a pull of the clutch, a shift of gears, and the occasional implementation of brakes. A single disc provides the stopping power up front with a traditional drum brake handling the rear. While not exactly exemplary, they work just fine with the Electra’s 75 mph claimed top speed (provided there’s no headwind or grade), claimed dry weight of 370 pounds and narrow 19-inch tires.
The deficit in power, handling and brakes, combined with the lack of mechanical response, is almost incomprehensible by even the most rudimentary of standards. However, once you get past your modern performance expectations you can enjoy the Enfield for what it is—a motorcycle that manages to capture the essence of what we all got into motorcycles for in the first place: pure, unadulterated fun.With that as criteria, the Bullet Electra X delivers in spades. If this motorcycle doesn’t blow away your jaundiced cynicism and make you grin from ear-to-ear when riding it, then you need to dust off your high school yearbook and remind yourself you were young once.
In an industry so ardently beholden to mechanical advances, it is refreshing to see a manufacturer so blithely unconcerned with technological development. The Royal Enfield is the quintessential basic motorcycle.
This minimalist approach is reflected in the business side of things too. The exclusive distributor of Royal Enfield in the United States proclaims to have seven employees and a dog on the premises. However, the operation manages to provide a toll-free technical support line that is answered by an actual human being. How novel!
For the inevitable yearning for more power, there are aftermarket high-performance parts, as well as kits to turn your bike into a café racer or a trials bike—even a sidecar is available.
As long as America is outsourcing jobs to India, it is only fitting that we should be importing some nostalgia from them. Owing to its eclecticism—and the fact it has remained somewhat untouched by modernity—the Royal Enfield Bullet appeals to a very wide and diverse range of motorcycle enthusiasts. Whether tooling around town, or scrambling down a country back road, the Electra X is a good, clean kick in the pants. Any time the Bullet is parked it attracts admirers, whether they be motorcyclists or pedestrians.
The brakes are lousy, the power is M.I.A., the headlight is dim and the thing vibrates—but don’t get me wrong, the bike is an absolute blast. And, to cap off the walk down memory lane, it just wouldn’t be right if you didn’t have to place a drip pan under the old girl to catch one or two errant drips of motor oil.
Photography by Don Williams