When is a modern bike actually a classic bike? Answer: when it’s a Royal Enfield Bullet. Park an original 1950s model next to a 21st century example and you need a keen eye to spot the changes. In the fiercely competitive world of motorcycle manufacture, it seems unbelievable that the same design could remain in production for so long. In fact, the Bullet didn’t survive longer than its rivals because it was better in any particular way but because of a curious quirk of history.
Royal Enfield’s 350 and 500 Bullet singles can trace their heritage back to the girder fork models of the 1930s but the familiar package with telescopic front forks and swinging arm rear suspension dates from 1949. In 1953 the Indian army was supplied with 500 of these 350cc Bullets and was so impressed that a factory was subsequently set up in Madras (now called Chennai and nicknamed ‘the Detroit of India’) where Bullets were made under licence from 1955 onwards.
Bullet production in the UK ended in 1962, with Royal Enfield itself closing in 1970. What distinguished the Bullet from its British competitors is that production in India continued uninterrupted through the 70s, 80s and 90s. In fact, the 350 Bullet was still available new in EU markets until 2007 when increasingly strict emissions regulations forced Royal Enfield to replace the venerable motor with a new design. Even then, the original iron-barrel 350 soldiered on until 2011 in the domestic Indian market.
So, essentially, it was still possible to buy a 1955 Bullet 350 brand new, until 2011. Compared to the Honda Cub and Harley Sportster, both of which had been steadily updated during their long production histories, the Bullet really can claim the record of ‘longest continuous production run’.
The final Bullets were an anomaly; a two-wheeled time warp. They offered the experience of riding an authentic 1950s bike except nothing was worn out because everything was brand new. This made them an attractive prospect for folk seeking the classic bike buzz without the tears. There were caveats though. Some owners reported manufacturing quality standards well below 21st century norms, leading to warranty issues. Others overlooked the fact that a 1950s design requires a 1950s level of maintenance and riding style – there were no motorways when the Bullet was launched!
In recent years, the Bullet’s Ace cards have been low prices and wide availability of custom accessories. The final 350 Bullets were offered new at just £2000 when an actual 1950s model would have been much more expensive. Trials replicas and café racers are easy to create using a variety of off-the-shelf parts from specialists, usually requiring no more than bolt-on replacement. Unless you’re a Royal Enfield expert, the registration number is often the only obvious guide to a Bullet’s age – you can’t say that about many bikes!
Are you a fan of the Royal Enfield Bullet? Let us know in the comments below.