Story and photography by James Parchman
[This 2009 Royal Enfield Bullet 500 Classic C5 Road Test was originally published in the October 2009 issue of Rider]
The history of the Royal Enfield Bullet is as interesting as any in motorcycling. Gordon May’s wonderful book, Royal Enfield, The Legend Rides On, dates the original Bullet thumper to 1932, making it 77 years old and the longest constant production run. English 350cc Bullets were first exported to India for military use in 1949. Future demand appeared so promising that in 1955 the first Indian factory opened its doors, in a Chennai suburb called Thiruvottiyur, producing motorcycles for the military. After Royal Enfield UK collapsed in 1967, Indian production of 350cc Bullets continued. In 1990 Royal Enfield became India’s first producer of a 500cc motorcycle, a bigger Bullet.
Royal Enfield got into diesels in 1993, building the world’s first production diesel motorcycle, the Taurus. At 325cc and 6 1/2 horsepower, it was no speedster, but delivered over 150 mpg. Unfortunately, the company’s crystal ball wasn’t reading clearly and Taurus production ceased in 2002, just before worldwide fuel price increases would have insured product viability.
Today India is a major motorcycle producer and market in its own right, with an estimated motorcycle population of 20 million. Most are less than 200cc, while Royal Enfield’s smallest machine is 350cc. This regulates it to domestic niche-producer status, with its bread and butter remaining in supplying motorcycles to the Indian military. There the Bullet performs as a daily workhorse and a special occasion showhorse.
Reliability was a problem with prior generation machines, a fact that present management is quick to admit. Much of this relates to tooling that made too many Bullet models for too long. New blood was recruited to address this problem, most recently Chief Operating Officer Dr. Venki Padmanabhan. His mandate is to improve current product quality, then move the company forward with new creations, building on the Bullet legacy.
Royal Enfield is confident of the quality of the new product and currently offers American customers a one- year, unlimited-mileage warranty. With the debut of the C5 and other unit-construction (UCE) models, the warranty will increase to two years, unlimited mileage.
Technical upgrades to the Bullet have occurred slowly. The 2009 UCE engine is the first all-new design in decades, and was developed to meet foreseeable worldwide emission standards. All UCE models also incorporate front disc brakes (rear is still drum), the transmission has five speeds and shifts on the left and starting is electric, with the auxiliary kicker no longer present. Wheels on the C5 are 18-inch and are shod with Avon Speedmasters. Fuel delivery is via Keihin EFI, hydraulic lifters replace solid now, and oil and air filters are easily accessible; the chain is now an O-ring type.
The styling inspiration for the Bullet C5 are the British singles of the 1950s, and the machine is available in three unique color schemes: a slightly mint green, black, and maroon. The sides of the tank on each machine are white, with the Royal Enfield logo in red. Appropriately, the tank includes thigh pads. The frame color matches tank and fenders, and there is a comfortable single saddle with springs complementing those on the twin gas-filled shocks. A pillion pad will be available.
In addition to the C5, the Royal Enfield lineup for the USA includes several other Bullets. The E5 is a naked bike in solid colors and has 1970s styling. The G5 features a solo-seat retro look in solid colors. The G5 Deluxe trades solids for chrome fenders and tank, and adds a dual seat. The G5 military is appropriately olive drab green and includes metal saddlebags and crash bars. All models incorporate the UCE power package; the E5 and G5 continue with the current frame and 19-inch wheels.
At Royal Enfield’s test track, the C5 odometer showed about six miles. It started right up, idled smoothly and accelerated without sputter or hesitation. The clutch had an easy pull, and the transmission, a problem in previous models, shifted sweetly. We wish the C5 included a tachometer. Thankfully, Royal Enfield continues to supply their motorcycles with side- and centerstands. Top speed is a claimed 82 mph, although we didn’t see it on the short track, with a design imperative for all-day cruising at 70 mph. That mission seems to have been accomplished.
At 499cc, the Bullet C5 is no rocket, but it’s fun to ride. Here we draw a comparison to another thumper, Kawasaki’s KLR650, a moto-journalist cult favorite, which has little technically in common with the C5 other than its cylinder count and enjoyability factor. The KLR has a tweety sound that never gets better; the C5 has a truly memorable sound that should improve with age. The KLR has never won a beauty contest; the Bullet C5 is stylish, and it’s easy to picture Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant (or Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio), dressed in tweeds and off for an afternoon jaunt on the C5. The KLR is a great handling bike, almost unpassable in tight curves; well, the C5 doesn’t require valve adjustments.
Royal Enfield’s suburban Chennai factory is somewhat of a tourist destination, with Saturday tours given by production engineers well versed in the product and its history. A small fee will gain you a better understanding of classic motorcycle manufacturing, and a Royal Enfield T-shirt.
Also highly anticipated is Royal Enfield’s yearly group ride of 50 motorcyclists to the highest motorable point in Himalayan India. Much of the road is unpaved and reaches altitudes of 18,380 feet. Weather conditions are unpredictable and even breathing is difficult. The company reports a long waiting list for participation in this event.
By the time you read this the first C5s will be arriving on American shores. A final opinion on whether this $6,395 machine is simply a retro-novelty or an enjoyable, reliable midweight will have to wait for a full road test. Unfortunately for those in California, all Royal Enfields remain 49-state motorcycles, though the company is making a major push for Golden State certification.
We think Royal Enfield is on the right track and just in time for a midsized market resurgence. After all, wasn’t it in India that Tennyson, possibly predicting the future of motorcycles, said, “Half a liter, half a liter onward”?l
2009 Royal Enfield Bullet 500 Classic C5 Specifications
Base Price: $6,395
Warranty: 2 yrs., unltd. miles
Type: Air-cooled single
Bore x Stroke: 84.0 x 90.0mm
Claimed Horsepower: 27.2 @ 5,250 rpm
Claimed Torque: 30 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm
Compression Ratio: 8.5:1
Valve Train: OHV
Valve Adj. Interval: Hydraulic self-adjusting
Fuel Delivery: Electronic fuel injection (Keihin)
Lubrication System: Wet sump, 3-qt. cap.
Transmission: 5 Speed, cable-actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Charging Output: 220 watts max.
Battery: 12V 14AH
Frame: Tubular-steel double cradle w/ tubular-steel swingarm
Wheelbase: 54 in.
Rake/Trail: 26.0 degrees/2.83 in.
Seat Height: 31.5 in.
Suspension, Front: Telescopic
Rear: Dual shocks
Brakes, Front: Single disc w/ 2-piston pin-slide caliper
Rear: 6-in. drum
Tires, Front: 90/90-V18
Claimed Wet Weight: 408 lbs.
Load Capacity: 397 lbs.
GVWR: 805 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.8 gals.
Average mpg: NA
Estimated Range: 240 miles-plus
Indicated rpm at 60 mph: NA