A Tale of Two Singles

At around three on Tuesday afternoon, Mohan knows he’s very near closing an important deal for his airline, which would get him out of his unfamiliar low sales rut. Just before the sun sets, he loses out to the rival player, this after three days of persistent sweat and sweet talk. His calm expression hides a downed heart as he wishes the boys a good night, and rolls back home on the 5:46, head bobbing ever-so-slightly to his favourite JJ Cale playlist. It’s been a rough day.

Mohan ducks in and out of the shower, then heads down the elevator into the basement, and walks towards a little glint of chrome in that unlit corner. As he nears the two wheels he’s proudest in the world to call his own, a small smile melts away all his previous intestinal by-product descriptions of the day. A decompression and two kicks later, he’s off to buy bread at Satya’s bakery twelve kays away, after deciding against getting it delivered home. Because somehow that beat his silver Bullet orchestrates never fails to soothe stressed neurons.

Chicken and cheese sandwiches swallowed for supper, he sits on the single couch and places his prized book on the coffee table, feeling the familiar nirvana of slowly turning the glazed pages of one Royal Enfield collector’s edition hardbound…

… It was around the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Dr. John H Watson to Sherlock Holmes when the gods smiled down on the vision of a sturdy frame for the bicycle that would mature into a rather famous motorcycle. In the early 1880s, George Townsend Jr. had driven the “Townsend Cyclists Saddles and Springs” company from producing a local inventor’s single coil saddle to manufacturing complete bicycles remembered for their robust scaffolding.

Around ten years later, after bagging a valuable contract to produce precision rifle parts for an arms factory in Enfield, Middlesex, the newly named and controlled Eadie Manufacturing Company Limited commemorated the occasion with the release of the “Enfield” bicycle. The link to ‘royalty’ began when the specialised company producing these bicycles became “Royal Enfield Manufacturing Co. Ltd.”

Royal Enfield’s initial foray into mechanised vehicle manufacture began with three and four-wheelers with an unimaginable output of 1.75hp. Quite soon after the hype and hangovers of the biggest parties the right side of the 19th century had died down, French designer Louis Goviet penned the first ever Royal Enfield motorcycle. With the remarkably small Minerva engine mounted over the front wheel, it went into production immediately in 1901.

The front-engine design soon lost ‘traction’, since the first wheel was overtaxed for grip around corners due to excess weight up front. The engine was moved to behind the front wheel on the frame and came to temporary resting under the rider’s rear. Royal Enfield then furthered a division purely for production of cars and motorcycles called the Enfield Autocar Company. The Alldays and Onions Company took over proceedings of the soon cash-strapped Enfield Autocar from 1907 up until 1924, when the name “Bullet” was first adopted for car models produced under “Enfield” and “Enfield-Allday” badges.

Where there is a wheel, there is usually a way to compete. In 1909, Royal Enfield produced a quality set of two wheels that used a strong 297cc, Motosacoche V-twin motor coupled with a belt drive. The V-Twin went on to become very successful, winning prestigious reliability trials like the Edinburgh to London in 1910. Two years later, the Royal Enfield Model 180 with a 770cc JAP engine and sidecar competed convincingly in the acclaimed Brooklands races. Some versions were exhibited with a machine gun fitted to the sidecar for public awareness of their versatility. This publicity did not ‘stunt’ the company’s growth by any means, because when World War I ensued, strengthened Model 180s realised huge demand not just from the UK, but France, Belgium and Russia as well.

However, the motorcycle we so fondly know here in India actually spawned in 1934, when 350cc and 500cc displacement iterations were released with exposed valve gear – the first true Royal Enfield Bullets. Post WWII in 1947, Enfield reintroduced the 500 Model J with kinder-to-spine front hydraulic damping. This economical workhorse sold well; revolutionary rear spring suspension was introduced on the Bullet 350 OHV and 25hp 500 shortly afterwards.

Wonders never ceased with Enfied around that time, it seems, as Royal Enfield is credited with producing in 1959 what was possibly the first ‘superbike’ in history – the 700cc Constellation Twin. Some Enfields even crossed borders into the US, rebadged as red-liveried Indians. The Yanks, however, did not take too warmly to the immigrants.

Efficient Japanese motorcycles were to become all the practical rage around when the world’s best concert ever took place in that ranch near Woodstock, New York. What was to follow could have been forecast the moment the first frugal import was tested. The demise of British Royal Enfield occurred finally in 1970 when their Bradford-on-Avon factory was shut down, meekly aping the Redditch facility’s end in 1967…

Mohan pours a stiff whiskey and lights his post-meal smoke.

… India, meanwhile, had more than twenty years before become familiar with the instantly recognisable Bullet thump. 1955 saw the government order an 800-strong consignment of Enfields that were to be mainly pressed into border patrol service. Working to lower production costs, the Redditch firm chose Madras Motors as partner to assemble British-built components into the largely unchanged Bullet 350s under the “Enfield India” company title.

By the late fifties, the Indian offshoot firm was manufacturing Royal Enfield components locally after purchasing all necessary tooling. Enfield India became wholly independent producers of Bullets in 1967. The company kept churning out examples of these singles for almost thirty years on, till Eicher bought over the company in 1994, and obtained the rights to the “Royal Enfield” name the following year.

Unfortunately, there was a long time when Bullets were not “Made Like a Gun” like their original 1893 mantra intended them to be. Worrying oil spills occurred anywhere the thumpers were parked more than momentarily, and the itch to ditch lube from any supposedly sealed joint had the knack of creating brilliantly random black streaks on just-laundered attire. Not too much complaint was made at the time, since there really wasn’t too much choice in the market at the time to threaten shifting of loyalty to another bikemaker.

Demographics of buyers have changed especially over recent years. Younger, more ‘sophisticated’ buyers in spotless chinos demanding improved-everything have added to the taken-for-granted elder customer base of yore, making Enfield sit up and take notice of its shoddy workmanship. A good thing for the company it turned out to be.

Royal Enfield presently can’t keep up with demand and is ramping up production capability. Steps in the right direction are constantly being made, and though most Bullets today still ride on that basic 1960 design, they are exponentially more reliable, and easier to ride and live with now. The shifter is located on the left, unlike its previous unusual (and occasionally unsafe for novice) right side position. A lot of buyers presently even use them as daily commuters, something that even the most passionate enthusiast could not have been bribed to do in the past.

The Royal Enfield Bullet has also been an old favourite for the customizer to showcase his art. While results have not always been entirely delectable due to bank statements often taking precedence over a quality personalisation job, a handful of low-profile mod-gurus do keep the quality flag at full mast. Aftermarket modification like silencer replacements to attain that perfect pipe length and beat out the right acoustic personality, is almost unwritten regulation of new Enfield owners today. Let’s not forget international names like respected Swiss Enfield distributor and tuner Fritz W. Elgi and Englishman Andy Berry who transcend geographical boundaries to showcase their skill and passion on the Bullet canvas.

The Royal Enfield portfolio today has a dozen single-cylinder models in 350cc and 500cc displacement variants, true to their unique mechanical upbringing. A remarkable longest continuous production run for any motorcycle in our spinning sphere’s two-wheeled history belongs to the protagonist – the Bullet has become an obvious stalwart in India’s Motorcycling Hall of Fame.

There simply isn’t any alternative to that iconic bass resonance sending jitters down the chassis of predominantly characterless, low-output, new-age competition during a nonchalant pass on open tarmac. Since often parroted are phrases like ‘glorious history’ and ‘timeless heritage’ in the same breath as ‘Bullet’, this unflinching single-pot icon warranted a small dig into the Royal Enfield time capsule…

Mohan downs the last swig from his second drink, clinks the stubby glass down on the oval balsa table, and reads the epilogue of the Enfield story he always feels deeply rooted to:

A family in the nineties,
An ailing man in his fifties,
And a Bullet from the sixties
Finally went separate ways.
It was an emotional goodbye,
But the next meeting’s on lay-by.

A stretch, a scratch, and few steps later, he’s under the covers with the fan at full tick. It’s one in the morning and he’s exhausted, but with soul supremely content. Mohan’s day improved by night, when he grabbed those valuable couple of hours to exercise a blessing he knew was his – being able to sample and understand why only some legends will be truly fit for royalty.