Bikes we love

Pining for a Royal Enfield

I’m going a little crazy for Royal Enfields these days. If you’re just joining the party, I’ve decided recently that I want a Royal Enfield Bullet Electra EFI. Or something. To be honest, I’m having trouble determining what the difference is between a Bullet Electra EFI and a Bullet 500 EFI, apart from paintwork. I am inclined to say I’d be happy with either. Or, indeed, most other Royal Enfield models (1). Since I’ll be getting a secondhand bike, I don’t think I’ll really have the option of being too picky.

As I mentioned in my previous post, a secondhand Royal Enfield costs roughly the same as a secondhand Honda Varadero, with both the insurance costs being similar, as well. Beyond that, however, the bikes are not really comparable. With the Varadero one gets modern technology but a weak engine. With a Royal Enfield one gets decades-old technology (2) but a slightly less weak engine, plus the benefit of riding a machine that looks really cool.

Sticking with Lucky’s advice of choosing a bike that puts the biggest grin on my face, I find myself far more interested in the Royal Enfield. I suppose all of this is subject to change once I actually get a chance to sit on one, but already the arguments in the bike’s favour are piling up.

For one thing, Royal Enfields appear to be durable as all get out. They are the go-to machines for a number of tour operators that lead motorcycle excursions in Nepal and the like. Go to YouTube and watch the countless videos of people putting the bikes through hell in the Himalayas. Although Royal Enfields are apparently items to be treated with kid gloves in other parts of the world (hence their low insurance rates in the UK, I assume) they are workhorses in their native India.

This is one of the reasons the bike hasn’t changed much: it is first and foremost designed for a market in which the bikes are beaten up and used and used and used and used. It is expected that bits be relatively interchangeable, which is why some of the parts you find on a 2014 Royal Enfield are exactly the same as you might find on a 1954 Royal Enfield.

Royal Enfield’s factory in Chennai, India, churns out roughly 250,000 motorcycles a year. With the company now expanding to African and South American markets there are plans to increase that to 500,000 motorcycles a year. That’s a lot of spare parts. Not to mention the countless aftermarket companies, like Hitchcocks here in the UK, that produce and source their own Royal Enfield parts.

As an extension of that, the bikes are loved both by classic bike enthusiasts and as a traditional foundation for cafe racers, so the amount of mechanical know-how available online is extensive. With the bike not changing much over the years and dozens upon dozens of owners keen to share their knowledge I feel I’d have a fair chance of keeping the thing running. And possibly even daring to make a few modifications.

I want to wrap the exhaust pipe. I’m just stating that right now; I think it would look cool.

All of this backup and parts availability makes up for the fact that dealers of Royal Enfields are somewhat sparse in the UK. Indeed, back in February Royal Enfield lost its UK distributor for a short while, with a new distributor sorted out only a few weeks later. The fact that such a thing happened at all, however, strikes me as kind of sad. And perhaps it is an equally sad commentary on the state of motorcycling in the UK.

As you may able to guess from the name, Royal Enfield used to be a British company. It started building motorcycles in the 1890s. Over the years, Royal Enfield secured a number of contracts with military and police forces worldwide, which is what eventually led to the company being bought by the India government in 1949 as British operations faltered.

OK, true, Royal Enfield is, these days, in no way a UK company, but I still find it sad that the brand would fall from grace in its original country to such a point that a distributor would back out. Though, to be fair, it seems Royal Enfield’s former distributor didn’t fully understand the bike: what it is and what it can be. That erstwhile distributor, Watsonian Squire, seems to be primarily concerned with producing motorcycle sidecars.

And in as much, Royal Enfields in the UK seem to have fallen into the category of being quaint little things to be kept in heated garages by old men. By and large, the sportbike-driven motorcycle culture is dismissive of the Royal Enfield’s heritage and tradition. I often get the feeling that most UK motorcyclists don’t necessarily choose a bike based on their heart or similar intangibles.

And if that’s true, perhaps it partially explains why motorcycle numbers are on the decline. It rains all the time in the UK. One needs to maintain a certain level of passion to stick with it through the constant rain and cold, and I’m not sure Britons have that.

Or perhaps it’s just the Welsh. After all, the UK is home of Triumph. And if any company knows how to make a bike that is really cool it’s those guys. But I don’t often see Triumphs trundling past my office window in Cardiff. It is a load of SV650s and Fazers, the occasional R6 and a handful of Chinese 125s. Bikes that, for the most part, were bought because of price. And perhaps they’re decent bikes, loaded with quality features that I won’t have on a Royal Enfield. But I can’t really get excited about them.

The Royal Enfield, however, I think about constantly.


(1) It’s a damned shame Thunderbirds aren’t sold in the UK. I think they look pretty cool.

(2) I wonder how Royal Enfield will handle the 2016 European regulations requiring all bikes to be equipped with ABS.