The first Royal Enfield was manufactured in Redditch, England, in 1901, making it the oldest, continually produced motorcycle in the world. Though the brand has passed through a number of hands over the years, it has never been out of production. Currently it’s owned by Eicher Motors, a $1.3-billion company based in India. From the start, Royal Enfield was innovative. In a world of belt-driven bikes, its first motorcycle had a primary countershaft with chain drive to the rear, and oil was housed in a separate container within the engine—a feature that it used in many of its later bikes.
When all other motorcycles were still using total loss, hand-pumped lubrication systems, Enfield added a system with a geared oil pump. Over time, it introduced the first cush drive, the neutral indicator, modular design and other technical innovations.
(Between World War I and World War II) The Redditch factory turned out a variety of models, two-stroke and four-stroke, V-twins and singles, with displacements ranging from 249cc to 1,140cc. When the depression struck in 1929, Enfield was largely unaffected. The company was well run, lean, and produced a variety of other products and sub-assemblies for the likes of BSA and other motorcycle companies. Its products, while not as glamorous as some of its competitors, were solid, reliable, priced competitively and continued to sell. During World War II, Royal Enfield, like H-D, Triumph and BSA, supplied bikes for the military.
Following the war, the British government was desperate for foreign currency, and as a result most new motorcycles were sold overseas. Royal Enfield, like many others, bought back the machines previously sold to the government, refurbished them and sold them domestically. Finally, in 1946 it began production of a new line of machines, including new 350 and 500 singles dubbed “G” models.
The all-new Bullet was introduced with displacements of 350cc and 500cc, and although it resembled the “G” models of ’46, it was an almost entirely new design. It featured Royal Enfield’s own telescopic fork, a swingarm rear end and its newly-patented neutral finder.
An order for 800 Bullet 350s was received from the Indian government. Not only was the order a tall one for Enfield, India was at war with Pakistan and needed the motorcycles to be combat ready when delivered, putting additional strains on the manufacturer to insure the bikes would only need gas and oil upon delivery.
Shortly afterwards, the Indian government mandated that certain products, including motorcycles, be made by Indian companies, so in 1956 Royal Enfield partnered with the Madras Motorcycle company to begin manufacturing in India. As the Madras company came on line, Royal Enfield initially sent “knockdown” models, while Madras quickly began to produce frames and other cycle parts. In 1957, the British tooling was sold to Madras Motors and it became Enfield of India.
Eicher Motors purchased Enfield India, and the Bullet, which was basically the same as the 1955 model, was given new electrics, brakes, fuel injection and a general upgrade. Five years later, Royal Enfield began exporting its bikes to the US.
Classic Motorworks purchased the U.S. distribution rights, and today it imports six versions of the 500cc Bullet and will begin importing the Continental GT 500 before the end of the year. There’s a rumor that a 700-750cc twin is being developed, but no indication of whether it will be of modern design or classic style.
(This Royal Enfield History article was published in the February 2014 issue of Rider magazine, along with a review of the 2014 Royal Enfield Continental GT. CLICK HERE to read that review.)