When I was a kid my parents bought me a stingray style bicycle that we called a muscle bike. With a can of cheap green spray paint, a leopard patterned banana seat, and high handlebars, I went to work updating. Attaching handlebar streamers to the hand grips and playing cards with clothe-pins to the frame, the streamers flapped and playing cards blade slapped the spokes as the wheel moved. In my imagination, my muscle bike sound a bit like a motor.
After graduation from the university, I toured through India with a music group. Before going there, my mentor had given me the name and address of a good friend from the time he lived in Long Island, NY, and asked if I’d stop by in New Delhi to say hello if I had a chance.
One night in Delhi, I borrowed a Royal Enfield Motorcycle and drove to where she lived. I didn’t have a motorcycle license and hadn’t ridden a motorcycle. It’s dangerous to ride without training, and crazy to ride a motorcycle in India, but at 22 I felt invincible; I mounted the bike and took off through the streets of New Delhi dodging animals and people.
I found where she lived, knocked on the door, and told her why I was there. She invited me in for tea and we talked.
After that day, I didn’t ride a motorcycle again until I was 46 years old; but from that night in India until the time I bought my first Harley Davidson motorcycle, I have cherished that memory and the thrilling experience of riding the bike dodging goats, cows, and people. For years, I wanted to ride a Royal Enfield again.
Once in a while, I’d look at Craigslist or EBay to see if someone had an Enfielder that appealed to me, and in 2016 I found one for sale in Las Vegas at a sport dealer. After asking questions about the bike I made an offer and they took my bid. We arranged delivery and a few weeks later a Royal Enfield Classic Bullet 500 with 14 miles on the odometer arrived at my door. Getting on the Enfielder that day was the first time I had ridden one in over three decades
Like the Muscle Bike of my youth, I’ve made a few cosmetic modifications to the mototcycle. It now sports a custom paint job with the Enfield traditional RE logo on the tank with a representation of the WWI Enfield .303 rifle; a design tying into the history of Royal Enfield as a bullet maker in Redfield, England, pre WWI, the number 5, a new seat, and mirrors.
Take a good look, there’s no change to the frame on this 1954 model from what you’d ride on mine now except that since 55-57 they’ve been manufactured in India by Madras Motor Company, renamed later to India Enfield, and since 1994 known officially as ROYAL ENFIELD MOTORS LIMITED.
That night in New Delhi, I rode a bike like the ’54. It’s a little rigid but essentially the same frame I ride today
Below: model S350 English made 1954 rigid frame Bullet.
Below: My RE Bullet Classic 500 India Made in 2017
What became the Royal Enfield motorcycle started as a needle making factory. In the 1880’s the needle makers turned to manufacturing bicycles. Near the turn of the Century, in about 1901, the factory turned to making motorcycles and didn’t look back
It’s Motto, paying homage to that history, and often used in advertising, read “Built like a gun, goes like a Bullet.” It’s on my seat which I had delivered from India.
Royal Enfield Motorcycles dominated the British motorcycle market pre-1950, but when Japanese bikes were brought to Europe, and British soldiers were looking for new adventures after the war, they began purchasing imported motorcycles because they were faster and cheaper than the Enfield.
In addition, English motorcycle sales competition was intense with the Enfield facing inroads by Triumph, Norton, Coventry, Wolverhampton, and BSA.
It’s a long story related to global economics and pride, but Royal Enfield lost its footing and in the mid 1950’s and the company and brand was sold to Madras Motor Company. Since the mid ‘50’s, that’s where they’ve been made. Mine, according to the ID stamping, was manufactured in Chennai (formerly Madras), India, in January 2017.
Royal Enfield Motorcycles are seldom-seen in the US, yet they’re the world’s highest selling volume motorcycle. Most people mistake mine for a classic Triumph, and there are similarities with the Triumph.
This bike is easy to handle, and fun to ride but it feels like a bike manufactured in 1950 in England. Seat springs and adjustable shocks smooth it out, but you’ll notice the old school feel as the handling is loose and response is not immediate. If you are six feet or taller you will definitely feel cramped on this bike, but you could still ride it.
It’s not good for Interstate Riding, although I’ve driven it on Arizona highways at 65 mph; but if you want to hit the corners with a sense of adventure and a test of your riding skill give it a try. ALERT: you will be asked lots of questions about the bike at every stop.
As a unique historical note, RE made a very small model during WWII that they called the “Flying Flea.” It was dropped from planes and parachuted down behind enemy lines – like the riders – yet it transported soldiers while light enough for troops to carry across muddy creeks or fields.
ABOVE: The Flying Flea design on a T-shirt today
1891 Company begins Mfg bicyles after transitioning from a needle factory
1892 Enfield (bicycles) announced to the public by the Enfield Manufacturing Company in Birmingham, England
1901 Enfield produced a car and the 172cc motorcycle
1909 First V-twin 297cc produced
1912 Enfield created a 2.5 hp open-frame two speed engine; and produced, The Lady Drives, a publication containing letters and photographs of lady riders which was reviewed by The Queen in 1917
1914 First 2 stroke motorcycle fully produced with priority to WWI needs
1920’s Intense competition vis-à-vis Royal Enfield by British bike makers included Triumph, Norton, Coventry, Wolverhampton, and BSA
1912 bike for the ladies, 2.5 hp (ABOVE)
1924 Increasing development of 8 models
1928 RE goes to the center-spring girder fork from the Druid Design
1930 The 350 and 500 CC motorcycles introduced
1932 The “BULLET” is born in 250, 350, and 500 cc configurations
1939-45 RE produces large quantities of motorcycles for the War effort that included side cars, stretcher cars, and “the Flying Flea,” a 125 cc small enough to drop from planes and light enough for soldiers to carry
1949 The “New Bullet” introduced in UK along with beginning production of some parts in India at the Madras Motor Company
1952 India Army requests the Bullet which led to great success and volume production by both the Madras Motor Company and the Reddich Enfield factory
1955 To increase profit and production English Reddich partners with India Enfield growing its manufacturing factory in India near Madras (now Chennai)
1956 The turn-a-round; England sellls company to India Enfield in Madras. English production of the Enfield ceases. The Madras plant begins manufacturing the full Bullet motorcycle (not just parts) under license. India begins exporting the 350 Bullet to UK and Europe and From 1957 The Royal Enfield motorcycle is phased out of production in England
1989 The “New Bullet” 500cc is released in Classic, Deluxe, and Superstartrim models
1994 The Eichler Motor Group acquires Enfield India Limited (the Madras factory) and renamed the factory to ROYAL ENFIELD MOTORS LIMITED
2011 The “ONE RIDE” event organized for the first Sunday in April (RE riders over the world ride)
2015 Royal Enfield North America establishes a North American headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and is set up for the first direct company distribution outside of India.
2017 Enfield’s newest plant in Vallam Vadagal, near Chennai, is a world-class manufacturing facility dedicated to producing Royal Enfield 350cc machines.
2017 Three new high tech 350 Enfields introduces
2018 Royal Enfield Motors Limited discontinued the Bullet 500, ending the Royal Enfield Bullet, a model started in 1932