2008 Enfield Bullet 500cc Classic Road Test
[This 2008 Enfield Bullet 500cc Classic motorcycle spotlight first appeared in the January 2009 issue of Rider magazine]
The Royal Enfield Company started as The Enfield Manufacturing Co., Ltd., in October 1892, and made its first motorbike in 1901. The British company produced many noteworthy motorcycles over the next seven decades until the ’70s when it folded. Manufacture continued in India, though the bikes were predominantly intended for local use and were not widely exported. In 1995 Enfield of India bought the rights to the name “Royal Enfield” and began renewed development efforts.
Modern carburetion, five-speed transmissions and new twin-leading-shoe front brake systems were all nice improvements. What really separates this company from others, though, is its commitment to keeping a vintage feel and look to its products. That said, the owner of a new Enfield will need a bit of mechanical expertise to keep the bike safely and reliably operating over the long haul. It’s not that the products lack quality, only that they are truly “vintage” bikes and will need to be more carefully maintained than would a new Asian or European machine.
I picked up the new Bullet “Classic” from J Mar Customs in Pahrump, Nevada, about 70 miles from my home in Las Vegas. The owners, JB and Deb, run the shop there and build custom bikes and offer parts and service on most brands. The bike was delivered to me with 14 miles on it, so I’m glad I was transporting it to Las Vegas in my truck instead of riding 70 miles of freeway to break it in! As I was unloading the bike I noticed a couple of loose fasteners and a missing fender mount nut, so I pulled out my trusty antique Whitworth spanners…and found they did not fit. It was a pleasant surprise to find the bike has standard metric fasteners. I examined every external fastener I could find and tended to several with questionable torque. I would suggest this as routine maintenance every few hundred miles. A little thread locker might be in order, too.
Since I only had a few days to ride I wanted to spend some time roaming the surface streets in the northwest end of Las Vegas to get a feel for how the machine operated in the city. First thing to note is the easy starting. The electric starter turns the 500cc single over easily and the bike fires right up and idles nicely, emitting motor noises that I remember from my youth. “Modern” bikes don’t sound like this! Just for fun I tried the kickstarter, and thanks to the 8.5:1 compression ratio, even I could start it up. I continued to use the kickstarter because it made me feel macho. This Bullet has the new “AVL” 500cc “lean burn” motor that incorporates a new head design with a narrower included valve angle as well as an electronic ignition. These changes give it a claimed 25 horsepower and upward of 70 mpg while weighing in at 370 pounds dry.
The Enfield has a reasonable amount of torque and a largish flywheel, which combined with an appropriate first-gear ratio made it easy to ride away from a stop. The gearbox and clutch action are smooth, and the gear spacing works well with the limited power available. Acceleration is adequate and the bike was able to keep up with traffic in the city without overtaxing its motor. Out on the open road the Bullet is very happy at around 55-60 mph, and if you stay within its comfort zone is really cool to ride. It feels light and nimble and effortlessly carves smooth arcs over wandering country roads (I wish we had a few more of those here). The altitude in Las Vegas is about 2,200 feet, and while riding I took the Enfield up into the mountains to about the 7,000-foot level and noticed a definite loss of power at that altitude.
The twin-leading-shoe brake in the front was surprising in that it worked just about like the twin-leading-shoe brakes I remember from many years ago (not well), so you must plan ahead. I found that all of the controls worked well without much physical effort. The suspension has been upgraded several times over the years, but it still has very limited travel and seems oversprung and underdamped. The riding position is comfortable with good legroom and an upright posture. The seat is a thinly padded sprung unit that works surprisingly well provided you avoid sharp-edged bumps. Combined with the short-travel suspension it has a tendency to bounce you in the air from time to time, but if you live in an area with winding country roads with low traffic you could easily spend several comfortable and amusing hours in the saddle.
I enjoyed the experience of riding this modern antique. It was fun to catch the expressions of people in their cars as I whizzed by. The wonderful old-looking green paint and tank badges combined with polished and chromed bits make for a very understated British look. I think of all the work modern stylists have gone through to achieve this look and marvel at the fact that this bike still has not changed much since the ’40s. Lucky Enfield!
The morning I had to return the bike I got up before the sun and rode out into the desert, marveling at the beautiful morning light reflecting off this time machine. When taken in the context of all the other motorcycles on the market today I think there is certainly a place for this one. It might take a little more commitment in terms of upkeep, but the rewards of having a modern antique with a warranty are great. It certainly bears mentioning that Enfield has an amazing 170-page parts and accessories catalog that would allow anyone the opportunity to make the Bullet a truly unique and personalized ride.