The Royal Enfield website is very snazzy. There’s lots of flash animation. The glamour shots show super-cool long-haired dudes riding their Enfields into desert sunsets, alone on perfect roads, not a house or cop in sight. The bikes themselves gleam in antiseptic perfection. You can spend a lot of time comparing features on the site and never get bored. You can even change the color schemes on particular bikes to check out the exact one you want. You really want one of these bikes. The site is the product of cutting–edge information-age technology and savoir-faire. www.royalenfield.com
On close inspection, though, the bikes themselves speak a different language. All Enfields have push-rod single cylinder motors fitted in rigid frames. Most of the bikes are kick-start. Most sport drum brakes. All the wheels are spoked. No overhead cams. The displays are analog. The clutch and brake are cable operated. The bikes are cutting-edge 1950’s technology, with a few innovations from the 70’s. No titanium. No alloys. No Ohlins. OK, so the bikes are “retro,” you say. Yes, but not for nostalgic reasons. The bikes simply haven’t changed in 50 years, nor has their name. The major model was the Bullet back then, as it is now, in two engine sizes, 350 and 500. This might seem odd, but do not forget the Hindustani Ambassador, modeled on the Morris Minor. They still make them in India and people still buy them—a lot of them.
So this is Modern India. Website technology from 2006 selling motorcycle technology from 1956. This country has one foot ahead of the rest of the world and the other, well, someplace in the past. For a simple Western mind like mine, the time differential is hard to bend around. In fairness, the US has Harley Davidson—a company that also makes motorcycles using largely 1950’s technology. But Harleys are consciously retro. Behind the image, though, it is possible to find modern touches, such as starters, disc brakes and belt drives. Not so with Enfields.
So of course I bought an Enfield sight unseen, which wasn’t as much of a mistake as it could have been. It belonged to a former staff member, and he seemed honest enough. The Enfield was not new, mind you: it’s a 2001 Lightning 535 with 59,645km (about 34k miles) on it, which is an enormous number in any country, but in India it’s astronomical. Considering the roads and driving habits, it’s a minor miracle any machine makes it past 1000 miles. But my bike starts. It runs. I get places on it. And I love it to bits, except for the styling.
My Enfield looks like some mid-1970’s department store designer’s idea of cool, or a bad interpretation of 1970’s Harley police-cruiser. It has big swooping handlebars, an up-tilted gas tank, gray metallic paint, yellowing plastic Enfield badges and a stupid little windscreen that does no good whatsoever. I feel like Eric Estrada on the thing. Maybe I should buy a pair of aviator glasses and blow dry my hair. The teeth, well, I just can’t go there. Other Enfields around town have a range of styles and additions, such as huge crash bars and huge horns. Bullets are also generally scruffy from endless use. Finding a minty bike is nearly impossible.
Riding it, however, is decidedly different. It’s almost fun, in the same vein as driving a Big Wheel would be. It brings back memories, both the good and bad.
First of all, starting an Enfield is not a simple task. With an advanced degree in the Mysteries of Enfield, it sometimes takes a single kick. However, for the uninitiated it is both impossible and highly dangerous. Kick after kick after kick gets you nothing except another chance at a backfire. And 535cc single cylinder backfire is nothing to sniff at. When the Enfield backfires, it propels the kick-start lever backwards at high speed with huge amounts of torque, launching you in a somersault over the handlebars and onto the pavement in front of the bike. With a broken ankle and bruises all over, you will lie there and just weep in frustration. Then the bike will fall over sideways.
So as an owner, I was initiated into the starting rites of the Enfield. The first Keys of Knowledge is the location of the compression release lever, below the left handlebar grip. The other great Key of Knowledge is so ingeniously hidden, that it is a credit to the High Priests of the Creators of the Mysteries of Enfields. I dare to reveal it even to the uninitiated: The Ammeter doubles as a Top Dead Center indicator when the kill switch is in the off position. This may have been a common feature on singles from the 1950’s, but I was born in the late 60’s. Ammeters tell you if your battery is charged, so it is simply not intuitive for me to look at the ammeter gauge to figure out how to kick start the motorcycle. But there you have it.
The starting ceremonies begin with turning the key on, but leaving the kill switch off. You then slowly push the kick start lever through a cycle until the ammeter needle pushes all the way to the right, then drifts back slightly. Now the piston is just past TDC. You then delicately flip the kill switch on. You then engage the compression release lever, and poise your foot on the kick start. Then you simultaneously kick start and release the compression lever. If you hold the compression release too long, the engine won’t start. If you let it go too early, you almost ensure a backfire. Nevertheless, as a safety measure you get your foot off the lever as soon as you complete the kick. If the bike starts, you’re lucky. If it doesn’t, then repeat starting process as necessary.
During my initiation into the Mysteries of Enfields, however, my guru discovered a small problem. On my bike, the ammeter gauge does not double as a TDC indicator. I’m not sure if it’s broken, or Enfield just didn’t put it in my model for some perverse reason. Either way, my ammeter gauge just bounces randomly as I push the kick-start around. So how do I start the bike? Well, my right leg is now much more muscular than my left, if that answers your question.
Once started, the bike asserts itself as sui generis. This is nothing like anything I’ve ever heard, but admittedly, I’ve never heard a big single before. Harleys offer a deep, masculine, aggressive V-twin note. Ducatis produce a civilized yet aggressive and beautiful growl. Hondas and other Japanese bikes make a muffled higher-pitched whirr. My two-stroke Jawa 350 made a sound like exploding silverware in a sack being thrown down a stairs.
Enfields make an odd kind of noise. It reminds me more of a sewing machine or a small steam engine than a motorcycle. There’s a chuff-chuff-chuff with spinning gear noise at idle. A flip of the wrist turns the sound into a thumping bopbopbopbopbopbop from the exhaust and a clunky “chlachlachlachlachlachlachlachla” from the motor. The first time I figured the valves, gearbox and everything else needed serious adjustment, but it seems that all Enfields sound like this. The Enfield is more Wallace and Gromit than Mick Doohan and Carl Fogarty.
Engaging first gear feels and sounds like a very heavy forger’s die has dropped into position, a “crrrrrrrCLUNK” that causes a jolt through the whole motorcycle. Perhaps my clutch is out, but again I have the feeling this is simply the way Enfields work.
On the road, the bike is heavy but well mannered. Enfields are at their best in the low and low-mid range revs. At high revs, the motor threatens to shake every nut and bolt off the frame in some grand cascade behind the bike. Ten seconds of high rpms are also enough to numb hands shake feet off the pedals. And the sound is simply awful. So I keep it at low revs.
Enfields are heavy, very heavy. A friend here tells an anecdote T-boning a scooter on his Bullet. The scooter driver had pulled out right in front of him by accident, and they collided at a good 15 mph. Nobody was hurt beyond small pavement scrapes, but the scooter was thrown down the road and bent severely. The Enfield was unscratched, not even the front tire flattened.
At low speed, the motor always seems just one “bop” from stalling. And it does stall quite easily. There’s a slow hairpin curve over cobblestones on my driveway. Going up it safely requires a speed slower than the motor can handle comfortably in first gear. I’ll drive up it “bop…bop…bop…bop…” feeling forward thrust with each “bop,” but losing it right afterwards. Then all too often I get “bop…bop…bop…cough, wheeze, stall.” Then I have the enjoyment of trying to kick start it on a curved incline, one foot on the brake, the other on the kick start lever….
In fact, my Enfield seems to enjoy stalling. It’s happened once or twice when I’ve throttled down after noticing an oncoming bus aiming at me, then attempt to throttle up fast to avoid the bus, which has sped up to hit me. “Bopbopcough, spit, wheeze, ka-POW” with a backfire bringing everyone’s attention to my plight (Look—a Whitey on a stalled Enfield), drifting ever slower with the bus coming head on, honking continuously, which in Tamil road manners means “your move buster, my steering wheel doesn’t function for smaller vehicles.” Bump starting is simply not an option as it is more difficult than kick starting it. Releasing the clutch with the motor not running simply locks the rear wheel and “SCRRRRRRREEEEEEEEE” we go into a slide that brings the bike to a full stop in the middle of the road. The compression on a 535 cc single is, well, huge. I’ve tried bump starting in every gear, from first to third. In third, the wheel simply turns a little before locking. And even at 15 mph my rear tire doesn’t have the traction to spin the motor. I think it’s one of the few vehicles in India that has tread on the tires (the previous owner was most certainly from the West). Then I try to recall the kick-starting ceremony in the midst of traffic. Let’s see, first I turn the kill switch off….Thankfully, the oncoming bus has always decided not to hit me in the end.
Upshifting the Enfield is a pleasure. The gear action is easy and smooth—though the brake is on the left, and the gear lever is on the right, and it’s first up and four more down. As a hapless Yank, this is all backwards for me. Early on, more than once did I upshift from second to first, or hit the brake instead of shifting. Now it almost seems natural, as does driving on the left-hand side of the road. But Enfield gearboxes have tons of false neutrals. That is one annoyance.
And the build quality of the Enfield? A friend here, who has ridden his Bullet all over India, had this to say about them: “You know, they say men think about sex on average every 6 seconds. Well, when you’re on an Enfield, you’re thinking ‘what the hell is going to break next’ every 6 seconds. It’s the very essence of the Enfield riding experience.” And so far only my taillight has fallen off. But I don’t think about it too much. I have run out of gas twice, but always uphill of the gas station. God loves me.
But where do I go on my bike in Kodai? Well, from home to school, and from school to home almost exclusively. I can’t afford to go further with gas at $3.78 a gallon. My kids absolutely love to go to school on the bike. My son sits in front and my daughter behind me. And we don’t have helmets. Sometimes my wife joins us, making four on the bike. All of you readers in the US now have either swallowed your gum or spat out your dentures in disbelief. “That’s unsafe!” you say. Well, in the US, I never would have done this. But I guess we’re going Indian. Very, very few people wear helmets here. Families of three, four, five and six get onto single motorcycles and gad about happily, without helmets. I don’t even know where to buy helmets. And it’s only a ½ km to school. And it’s fun. Our driveway is a peculiar hoot, seeing as the steepest part is covered in loose rocks the size and shape of baseballs. Never a finger on the front brake, I still get front wheel slides and sideways shifts as I roll over some of the larger rocks. With the whole family on the bike, it can get interesting. I guess we’re crazy. But it’s fun.
Motorcycling in India is a marvelous thing. Simply put, there are as many motorcycles on the road as other vehicles. So (almost) everyone is an enthusiast. Just as in the US, there are safety conscious riders who have helmets and gear, but they’re not the overwhelming majority. You don’t get suspicious and judgmental stares when it’s revealed that you ride a motorcycle or allow your children on it. My daughter has several friends who also ride their dad’s motorcycle to school. It’s fun when we pull up together at the staff parking lot.
The bikes available in India are all small cc. The Enfield 535 is the largest displacement bike available. Most are 125’s and 250s’ and 350’s. They have marvelous names such as Yezdi, and Rajdoot, and Bajaj. Suzuki and Honda also have a presence marketing their wares as Suzuki Maruti and Hero Honda. While there are a lot of bikes, their technology is all largely older.
The most beautiful part of motorcycling here is, of course, the ladies sitting on the back. They all ride side saddle, the ends of their colorful saris trailing in the wind. Almost every bike has a special rear-wheel guard, step, and hand hold for the ladies. The guard keeps their saris from catching in the rear wheel. The handhold is generally an oval ring towards the front of the bike. I had no clue what they were at first, and still use the one on my bike to hold my laptop. My wife refuses to ride side , though I haven’t given up.