Friday, August 6, 2021

Royal Enfield's Bullet was a spoon full of sugar

1952 magazine ad for the Royal Enfield Bullet.
Ads for Royal Enfield's Bullet were meant to raise your morale.

We're watching Royal Enfield roll out one new motorcycle model after another in a remarkable effort to bring more joy, more passion, more practicality and (of course) more profits to motorcycling. 

Global epidemic pausing production in India? No problem! Declining interest in motorcycling in other countries? No problem (we hope)! 

At least twice before, during the Great Depression and in the aftermath of World War II, Royal Enfield used  exciting new motorcycles to banish motorcycle market malaise. Both times, the model name used was "Bullet." 

Jorge Pullin recently showed 1932 press accounts of the birth of the Royal Enfield Bullet on his blog My Royal Enfields.

Actually, there were three Bullets announced for the Depression year of 1933 including, rather incredibly, a four-valve 500cc version.

"An EIGHTY m.p.h. FOUR VALVE 500 c.c ROYAL ENFIELD," Motorcycling magazine exclaimed. "Three 'Bullet' 250, 350 and 500 c.c. Models Starred for Next Year."

The Motor Cycle magazine foretold what this would mean:

"Speeds of 60, 70, and 80 m.p.h. are claimed for the three models in the order described, but special pistons giving a compression ratio of approximately 8 to 1 may be obtained , and these, in conjunction with suitable fuels and straight-through exhaust pipes, are said to raise the speeds by about 10 m.p.h. in each case."

Exciting, right? No? Well consider that it was the Depression.

How depressing was that? Well, read the press accounts on Jorge's blog (easier to do if you right-click on the image of each page and choose Open Image in New Tab).

You'll find that in all three publications he includes, the coverage paid most attention to Royal Enfield's other offerings, including sidecar tugs for tradesmen and the Cycar, Royal Enfield's utilitarian pressed-steel motorcycle for people who hated motorcycles.

The near-exotic four-valve Bullet wouldn't stay long in the catalog, but the Bullet name would make a strong comeback in the depressing years that followed World War II (Britain continued to ration sugar until 1953, surely a depressing state of affairs for Mary Poppins.)

Roy Bacon explains how it worked in his book "Royal Enfield, The Postwar Models."

"While the solid singles filled a need just after the war not even Enfield adverts could claim that they were exciting machines and, as far back as 1933, they had overcome this deficiency by introducing the Bullet range. These were more sporting models, often based on the tourers but sometimes going out on more adventurous paths.

"After the war, and as soon as the immediate call for transport had been met, such models were needed to cheer riders up so Enfield obliged with a new 350cc Bullet... a sensation since they were fitted with swinging fork rear suspension."

Note that the official Royal Enfield website for the U.S. doesn't currently list the Bullet. It's different for India, of course, where the Bullet name is so revered as to be indispensable.

"A motorcycling icon since 1932," the Indian website boasts of the Bullet. "Bullet, the quintessential Royal Enfield..."

Just not so essential in the U.S., where the website currently lists only the Meteor, INT650 (OK, that's the Interceptor), Continental GT and Himalayan.

The name "Interceptor" is probably the Royal Enfield motorcycle Americans of my generation remember best. During our youth in the Swinging '60s the handsome and powerful parallel twin, shining with chrome, made a big impression.

In fact, I'd argue that many of us knew all about the Interceptor, but didn't even notice, or care, that it was a "Royal Enfield."

After all, what was a Royal Enfield in America back then? The little two-stroke Royal Enfield Model RE didn't last long after imports began in 1947. From 1955-1960 Royal Enfield disappeared in the United States under the Indian brand, as Chiefs, Fire Arrows and Trail Blazers, model names unknown in Britain.

Royal Enfields were back selling under their own names in the U.S. by the time I was old enough to notice motorcycles. The Interceptor really caught my attention.

But then it all seemed to end, with the closing of production in England in 1970.

Unknown to me then, Royal Enfields were still being built in India, most notably as the "Bullet." Bullet is the name that by sheer weight of numbers in India has became the best known Royal Enfield in the world.

I bought my Bullet, a 1999, in 2001.

Hard as it is to imagine, outside of India Royal Enfield's ambitious plans for fresh models under new or revived names in this new era could begin to submerge the Bullet.

But surely an updated Bullet is in the works for India and, eventually, the world. Perhaps that will eventually be my next Bullet.

1 comment:

  1. Another Royal Enfield 500? But the line from the series "Shooter" is: A bullet is forever...


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