The bike they forgot to stop making

Royal Enfield bikes have a cult following among classic bike enthusiasts around the world, some of whom own more than 20 working models dating back to the 1930s.

The bikes are now made in India where they festoon the streets and sidewalks and are the preferred mode of transport for millions of Indians. They were hugely popular in post-war Britain, and along with Triumph and BSA, helped establish the United Kingdom as the centre of the world’s motor-bike industry back in the 1950s and 1960s.

“Please don’t call us ‘cool’,” is one of Royal Enfield’s marketing slogans. It doesn’t pretend to be the best, the sexiest, the fastest, or the smoothest ride around. But they certainly are cheap and economical. The entry-level 350cc Bullet Machismo retails for R39 500, which makes it about the cheapest ride for its engine size in South Africa. The four-speed Machismo has a top speed of about 120kph, and puts out about as much power as a lawn mower — about 16kW at 5 500 revs a minute.

All the bikes are single cylinders, which makes them a dream from a maintenance point of view. An oil and plug change is all they need over a few thousand kilometres, something anyone with a reasonable knowledge of motors can do themselves.

At the top end of the range is the 500cc Bullet Electra, which retails for R49 500 and puts out 17kW, enough to crank out a top speed of 126kph — though wind-assisted speeds of up to 160kph have been recorded. This is unlikely to excite the superbike crowd, who will easily pay upwards of R120 000 to squeeze out speeds of 280kph and more.

Enfield bikes compare poorly with high-performance bikes produced by the likes of Yamaha, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Ducati. The new Suzuki GSXR 750cc goes for about R90 000 and is capable of notching up speeds of 280kph. The Aprilia RSV Mille 1000cc goes for about R115 000 and reaches similar speeds.

Even the 125cc Cagiva, with a top speed of 180kph, puts Enfield to shame on raw performance. But Enfield bikes are aimed at an entirely different market of gentlemen riders, less intoxicated by speed than the sheer thrill of the open road, and a love of anything retro.

“Since we opened up the shop about a month ago we’ve had a lot of interest from young and old,” says Godfrey Sinthumule, manager of the Royal Enfield outlet in Auckland Park, Johannesburg. “A lot of people remember Enfield bikes from the 1950s and 1960s and want to recapture some of those memories; others are younger enthusiasts looking for something different.”

Jeff Fleming, director of Afro-Celtic Trading, which imports the bikes, says he and his friend Terry Behan decided to start importing the bikes after they bought a pair of Enfields for personal use. They acquired the exclusive rights to market Enfield in South Africa, and hope to pick up just 1% of the market — about 600 units — over the next few years.

“Enfield is the only real classic bike still being produced,” says Fleming, who used to race bikes in the United Kingdom. “They’re very easy to ride, very forgiving, lots of torque, but definitely not a racing machine.”

Fleming’s partner in the venture, Terry Behan, points out that the Enfield Bullet is the longest running model still in production. He and a group of friends have formed the “Bulleteers”, an association of Royal Enfield enthusiasts who strap on their war-era goggles and head for the open road at weekends.

“We’re a group of like-minded people who have a passion for these bikes, and we want this group to expand. We’re not really in this for the money, as you can probably tell. We’re not trying to be a mass-market bike, but we are appealing to the un-biked, if I can put it that way.” Behan says the bikes are targeted at those who would like to take up biking, or get back into it, but don’t really want to do the insane speeds they did when they were younger.

Dave Gaunt, the resident mechanic at the Royal Enfield outlet in Johannesburg, says he used to own an Enfield Constellation, a 700cc racing monster that reached speeds of 220kph. Back in the 1960s mothers would ban their daughters from coming near the machine. Since then Enfield — described as the company that forgot to stop making motor bikes — returned to its roots. The Bullet range first hit the streets in the post-war years, and is still among the most popular of the Enfield models.

Royal Enfield, founded in 1901, is the world’s oldest motor-bike company still in existence. The bikes have been manufactured in India since 1970, and were the height of chic in the 1930s and 1940s. Peter O’Toole was seen crashing one in Lawrence of Arabia. Thousands of them were supplied to the British army in World War I, when they were modified for military use. One variation replaced the sidecar with a stretcher, and another had a rear-facing machine gun. The 125cc Enfield Flying Flea made its debut in World War II, and was light and hardy enough to be parachuted down to troops on the ground.

Enfield bikes have a reputation for being “thumpers” because of their trademark vibrations and gut-wrenching engine noise (not quite as bad, it must be said, as a Harley-Davidson), but the designers have made a few concessions over the years to modern biking preferences. The Thunderbird was voted by BBC as the “Best Cruising Bike” of 2002, and quickly developed a cult following among young Indians as a fun bike, rather than a workhorse. The saddles have been softened, lean burning engines incorporated into the design and gas-filled shocks are now a standard feature on most models. But the handle bars, instrumentation and frames have changed little from the original Enfields.

You won’t feel too comfortable leaning too heavily into the turns on these bikes — there are other models far better suited to this — but you’re certain to turn heads riding one of these classic retro bikes. Strap on your goggles and jodhpurs, and head out for Hartbeespoort Dam this Sunday for a trip down memory lane.

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Ciaran Ryan
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