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Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Amongst my many motorcycles, I owned a succession of three Royal Enfield “Bullets” back in the ‘60s. An underrated motorcycle, they were never as popular as BSA, Velocette and Norton amongst single cylinder machine riders. Here is my 1956 version, suitably posed, in 1963.

Some history is now needed. The first Royal Enfield motorcycle was made in 1901 and over the years the company was responsible for many innovations in the motorcycle world – the first to use swinging arm rear springing, for instance. During the 1950’s they received a big order from the Indian Army for their 350cc Bullet model. This led the company to help India set up its own Royal Enfield factory in Madras (now Chennai). Morris cars did similarly and now versions of their old 1956 “Oxford” model form the bulk of Indian taxis.

The British motorcycle industry withered and finally died in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, Royal Enfield included. But its “child” matured, prospered and continued to flourish in India. There will always be those amongst us that enjoy traditional, simple, solid motorcycles and, with almost poetic assonance, the Indian child began exporting its machines back to Britain in the ‘80s. They still do so and we are their best export market. Thus Royal Enfield can claim to have the longest continuous production run of any motorcycle in the world.

Which brings me to the reason for this posting. I remember with affection those Royal Enfields I owned over 50 years ago. I have often hankered to own another. I could have bought an original to recondition, but age and a prostate operation have led to a drawback – no electric starters in those days and kick-starting a 500cc single cylinder is only for the young and active! But, praise be, India has now equipped their time-warp machines with electric starters. A chance trawl in eBay brought up a 2005 model so equipped. I succumbed and won the auction for it.

My 48th motorcycle, it now shares the garage with the BMW and the Honda scooter. By no means a motorway rocket, it is happiest thumping along between 50 and 60 miles per hour, but returns an incredible 85 miles to each gallon of petrol. In this manner one enters an earlier motoring world - delightful, serene and relaxed. Almost without exception, whenever I park it I am engaged in conversation; “I had one of those when young”, “Is it original?” etc.

There is something about the exhaust beat of a “big single”. Akin to the chug – chug – chug of a traditional canal barge, it is deeply relaxing and pleasurable. Some have said that this is the result of spending 9 months nestling in the womb under a mother’s steady heartbeat.

Here is a picture of the beast  (It has been re-registered with a 1963 number plate - the year I first owned a Royal Enfield) There is not a lot of superficial difference between it and the1956 version above, but it has an ELECTRIC STARTER!

(click either photo to enlarge)


herhimnbryn said...

Luffly! Now, I wonder if the pillion seat is comfortable?

Avus said...

You shall find out next time you are over.

Barrett Bonden said...

Avus, you are one of the world's great romantics, living down there among clusters of oast houses (now, alas, converted into second homes for merchant bankers), close to places with names like Snailham, not far from the Biddenden Ortego vineyard and the Shepherd Neame brewery and sustained by mechano-psycho links with a world that was romantic when it still functioned and has now turned into pure myth and legend. You make me feel rotten with guilt. I have this tendency to discard the past when something better comes along and thus it is with motorbikes. However, there's a supreme irony about all this. Whereas I am drawn intellectually to Fireblades et al, that's how it must stay; I wouldn't dare buy one because it would be like writing my own death-warrant. Whereas a Bullet, I know, would be safer. So you are the happier of the two of us.

I close my eyes (ignoring your photos for the moment) and try and re-create a Royal Enfield in my mind. The most salient detail is a thin metal oil pipe external to the cylinder; oil pipes make me think of dark patches in driveyards and backyards. But no I will not tease. I envy you your retro-happiness and I reckon you've earned it. I suspect that deep in your consciousness you regret having to buy an RE with an electric starter; a kickstart would be more authentic. But time passes and we aren't the person we used to be.

But please don't be tempted into wearing a crash helmet with a Union Jack design.

Avus said...

Thank you for that. Yes - you remember well the external oil pipe. I am also proud to say that the bike is truly retro-authentic in as much as an oil drip tray resides beneath it on the garage floor.
You know me well - yes a boot on a pedal to start it would be really nostalgic, however they still equip it with a kick-starter, not trusting too much to these modern electric things. I used it once for memory's sake and it started first kick. But I can remember sweating and swearing as I repeatedly tried to kick start machines in the past and now have the relief of a thumb merely pressed on a button.

Avus said...

A PS: No Union Jack bedecked helmet would ever come near my bonce!

David Blasco said...

Lovely pictures. I much prefer the look of the luggage carrier on the older motorcycle, though. Wish I had that. I have a 1999 Bullet here in the U.S. All best.

Avus said...

Thanks for visiting. Something similar to those old pannier carriers is still manufactured for the Indian Army Bullets.
Glad that Bullets are enjoyed in the US of A - a little bit different from, say, a Harley Electra Glide!

Vita said...

Although I agree with David, Himself, was admiring the luggage box on DAP 301B. He wishes he could have one. He also wants to know in what year letters jumped to the fore of numbers.

I want to know WHAT is wrong with having a Union Jack on a helmet, and is any sized Union Jack inadmissible, even postage stamp-sized?

Avus said...

Good to hear from you once more!
The luggage box on the "modern" Royal Enfield was made by "Craven Equipment Ltd." until the late '80s here. I bought mine back in 1978 to put on my Honda 400 four and kept it ever since - looks well on the Enfield. They occasionally come up for sale on ebay.
As to reg. numbers. British ones had always started with letters since the very first (A1). When we ran out of those combinations in the '50s we reversed them. Then in 1962 we started all over - letters plus numbers, but plus a year identifier letter suffix ("A" for 1962). When those ran out we started our latest system.
Union Jacks on helmets - unfortunately our national flag has become the emblem of our fascist British National Party, with all their connotations. Unlike "Old Glory", which you wear with pride on your lapels, our Union Jack tends not to be displayed on clothing, which is a pity.

Vita said...

Thanks, Avus, and for the nice things you said.

Sorry about your flag. I was afraid it might be something like that. Himself got a new helmet and it's got a little itty bitty union jack on it. Hope no one thinks he's a fascist.

Avus said...

As a Brit I feel honoured that "himself" wears the Union Jack on his crash-hat. Thank you!

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Satish said...

Beautiful thunder.... My dad had one of them (1956 model), but bad luck...when we had gone out for two days, some one stole the treasure, kept with us so long...really bad luck...If any one to sell it out there in your area, please let me know....i would love to have one..