Friday, July 6, 2012

Royal Enfields vs. The Curse of the Modern Motorcycle

Even new Royal Enfield motorcycles look old compared to modern motorcycles.
Nicholas Biubuyck, whose job at Bonhams gives him access to wonderful motorcycles of all eras, references  modern Royal Enfield motorcycles in a column for The Vintagent blog entitled "The Curse of the Modern Motorcycle."

He writes:

"Maybe I've become a Vintage/Classic Motorcycle Snob (a title I am content with), but it seems to me riders of new bikes are discouraged from understanding how an engine works, and are offered only utility from their motorcycle.  I struggle to believe that's all they want, given the number of new Royal Enfield Bullets and Triumph Bonnevilles on the road.  Until you ride something that really speaks to you, and takes you on a different kind of journey, how can you experience what's best about motorcycling?"

The author seems to be saying that the groundswell of appreciation for the Bullet and the Bonneville reveals increasing enthusiasm for the more interesting motorcycles of the past. But are they really immune from "The Curse of the Modern Motorcycle"?

Biubuyck's complaint seems to boil down to the feeling that modern motorcycles are less engaging. The great classics of old brought the rider into the game, forcing him to be alert to every twitch and ping of the machine beneath him. Modern motorcycles excel at excellence. This delivers a greater certainty of reaching the destination on time, but subtracts much of the interest from the journey.

This strikes me as quite likely to be true, although I can't testify since the oldest motorcycle I personally recall riding was a cooking Honda and it was — by the 1970s! — already essentially flawless.

My 1999 Royal Enfield Bullet is much more "engaging," treating me occasionally to a stroll back along the road to pick up parts that fell off. I adjusted the valves in a church parking lot the other day, trying as best I could to preserve my "Sunday" clothes. I enjoyed this thoroughly.

As a V/CM Snob, Biubuyck might not look twice at my lowly Bullet. But I probably had about as much fun with the valves as Biubuyck claims to have had reattaching one of the carburetors of a 1971 Norton Commando Roadster.

Do the more recent Royal Enfield Bullets, with their unit constructed engines, provide this level of "fun"?

Well, for starters, modern Royal Enfields have self-adjusting valves, non-adjustable fuel injection and leave-me-alone electronic ignition. For a time (no more) you could even buy a new Royal Enfield C5 in the United States with no kick start lever. The Horror!

Yeah, but... "utility"?

I've never ridden a Bonneville, but I have tried out the new C5. It's a dreamboat compared to my 1999 Bullet but it's not going to bore the rider as a result.

Hell, 99 percent of the time riding any Royal Enfield in my town is spent figuring out how to keep up with traffic on a single-cylinder, push-rod, low rpm, low compression upright motorcycle.

Even if Royal Enfield builds more powerful motorcycles in the future they are likely to share specifications that keep them firmly rooted in the past.


  1. Dave Burgis7/06/2012

    I have a modern day Triumph America and two bullets new and old models, I love my Triumph but the bullets are just realy fun to ride and easy to maintain by most people. I am from the old school and lucky to have been around when they still made them in Reddish UK and I owned one back in the day, today,s young riders mostly prefer Crotch rockets and see every thing at a blur ! but they do not realize what they are missing by not trying these cool machine,s.

  2. I feel it's a bit disingenuous to talk about it this way, and speaks of festishizing the machine rather than focusing on the ride. Which is fine, if that's what you're into.

    I like my Enfield because, like many other people, I find it a unique ownership experience in today's world, and as a consequence, a unique riding experience...but not one that's somehow more pure. I like the fact that I can truly begin to grasp, intuit, and even begin to manipulate the basics of an internal combustion engine. I like it for what it is.

    But to say that the "ride" on an old machine is better is an odd stance. Must ride value have to include accounting for the machine on which it's done? Frankly, focusing on the dynamics and experience of the "ride," in a pure sense, is probably best done when the machine is a less-visible factor in that equation. When I have nearly unlimited power at my command and handling that hurls me somewhere new at a thought and a glance and a slight shift of weight, it's frankly less about the bike and more about what I as the rider can accomplish.

    Yes, some modern machines insulate the rider a bit more from entirely human control of the machine, but then again, isn't that also a boost to another sort of riding experience? That's to say, the sportbike gives you the ultimate in athletic/dynamic riding experience (machine being largely invisible in terms of character or quirks...just doing what it does spectacularly well based on your straightforward input, aided by computers and slipper clutches and the like), and the gold wing or beemer touring behemoth lets you focus on the pure dog-with-head-out-the-window wide wonder of moving over pavement with your face in the wind, despite conditions that could hamper this feeling (heater, anyone?) or needing to pay special attention to the mechanical stuff while on the move.

    Some of us do love what classic or vintage bikes let us experience, but that's why there are so many different bikes. I just think it's wrong to say that classic bikes accentuate the "ride," when frankly they take away from the rider's ability to focus purely on the riding experience. They and their quirks are always a much greater part of the calculus of the ride than the invisible modern bike.

    1. rustygman7/11/2012

      A lot of people are very happy on modern bikes and we all know they generally do what they are asked with no fuss. I think it is a matter of whatever suits you. I just completed a tour of france and germany on my yamaha fz750. It was faultless and handled a dream. On my return i wished to get back to owning one bike only and the fz750 was promptly sold. My enfield 350 does not do any job as well as the yamaha (except thump along country roads) and yet at no point did i consider selling the enfield - it was always going to be the modern(ish) machine. Lots of people don't undertstand the logic but i suspect all enfield owners would.


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