Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What's the best year for a Royal Enfield?
Just depends what features you want

What model year is best for Royal Enfield motorcycles? That's the question this reader asked:

Hello David. I love the Enfields. I had a BSA 350 in 1965 and still wish I did. I read your web page and all the info but I thought perhaps you could help direct me. I wish to buy a used Enfield. My question is, with 1999 or later, is there an advantage in any years for reliability, desirability or value? Is there any general rule about desirable years? I am mechanical and that is not an issue. Thank you for any guidance. Sincerely, Terry

Dear Terry, it sounds as though you know more about mechanical matters than I do. You will be fine, as long as you realize that a modern Royal Enfield may well be slower than that BSA of long ago! Britain had brought its motorcycles to a high standard by 1965, but speed is still not the first requirement in India.

It's gas mileage; something we hardly even think about in the U.S. Royal Enfields are motorcycles made for conditions in India, where they cost only a fraction of what they do here, use little gas and where labor (for maintenance) is less expensive.

Model year isn't as important in a made-in-India Royal Enfield as it is in some other motorcycles. Kevin Mahoney, president of Royal Enfield USA, wrote this:

"The boys at the factory cannot understand for the life of them our obsession with model year. You have to remember that for 50 years when a model year changed all they did was change the calender in the parts room."

This is why you can't always tell just by the year of manufacture what a Royal Enfield will be like. Just make sure the bike you buy has the features you want. Here's how things seemed to progress, in the U.S. market (this information doesn't apply outside the U.S.):

For years, the dividing line was "mid-1999." Early '99s had three wires going into the generator; late '99s had four. This was a big improvement in the electrical system and, supposedly, there were unrelated quality improvements made as well. Late '99s were just better. That said, I have an early '99 and it has served me well for 40,000 miles. How to tell them apart? Early '99s have red horn buttons. Late '99s have yellow horn buttons.

Next up: electric starters, around 2002. Prior to the unit-constructed engines of the C5 and G5, which came along in 2009, electric start was something of an afterthought for Royal Enfield and they didn't get it perfect, initially. The problem was that the starter's sprag clutch could not withstand any backlash from the motor, and the old motors reversed themselves more often than anyone appreciated, kicking back on starting and on stopping, too.

Many electric start sprag clutches shattered before a fix was found: a new rectifier. You want a GREEN rectifier, not a black one. Royal Enfield sent enough replacement green ones to the U.S. to replace every one sold, and Royal Enfield USA handed 'em out for free.

Still, many careful Enfield owners press their compression release lever when starting, until the electric motor really gets the engine spinning, past the point where it can kick back. These owners also will only stop the motor with compression release, again avoiding any chance of backlash (without compression, the motor just wheezes to a stop).

Today's Royal Enfield motorcycles, with the new unit constructed engine (UCE) have a different, more reliable electric start system. Even so, they actually have an "automatic decompressor" as a safeguard!

Then came the five-speed transmission, in 2004 (some 2004s have it, some don't). This was a definite improvement. In the U.S., an under-the-tranny shift linkage had been used to move the four-speed gearshift to the DOT required left side. This linkage introduced slop. The five-speed transmission was designed from the start to shift on the left.

Left-shift linkage on a four-speed Royal Enfield (red): levers, cotter pins, washers.
Also, on the road, the four speed had a big gap between third and fourth; you just needed one more gear, and the five-speed supplied it.

That said, I love my four-speed transmission because it has the lovely "neutral finder" that allows you to go from fourth to neutral with one stoke of your heel. The five-speed doesn't have a neutral finder but most people agree that it doesn't need one.

The next watershed was the AVL or "Lean Burn" engine, introduced in the U.S. about 2006. It had an aluminum barrel instead of cast iron — aluminum sheds heat better than iron. You also got a roller bearing bottom end, improved combustion chamber design, high volume oil pumps and electronic ignition. Traditionalists say the iron head is still better, but that's what you expect to hear from traditionalists.

Kevin Mahoney has said that he does not believe parts for the AVL engines will be a problem, even though they were a brief interim step between the iron barrel classic of 50 years and the new unit-constructed motors of today. After all, many, many thousands of the AVL bikes were made and sold in India, so there will be demand for parts for a long time.

And, finally, Terry, here is a link to my blog item on identifying model years.

One last thing: all bets are off if you buy a motorcycle that was a direct, private, gray-market import to the United States. There are differences between the home market models and the official imports and, on top of that, restorers in India are very creative; there is no telling what such a bike might be like internally, for better or worse.


  1. Anonymous1/18/2011

    interesting article...I am in the process of purchasing a 2005 C5 with lots of mods and goodies

  2. That's a very interesting overview, David. I was planning to do the research and come up with something similar, but I'm very glad you beat me to it. Well done!

  3. Anonymous1/18/2011

    The photo is the best I've seen of the shift linkage for the left-shift 4-speed. CMW would have done well to supply it with their after-market shifter bushing kit. Unfortunately, CMW saw fit to supply only an inadequately written set of instructions that was accompanied by a poorly drawn,incomplete, and out of scale diagram. And, all attempts to have them remedy the situation fell on deaf ears.

  4. Anonymous1/18/2011

    Whoops, I forgot to sign the above comment!

    I am Al in Philadelphia

  5. Hey there a friend of mine is selling me a RE Bullet 350cc in about $2600.00 dlls it has less than 1000 miles
    It is a 1998 model, do you think it's a good price?


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