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The Enfield

EnfieldAh, driving an Enfield around India.  The fabled "Bullet".  Big, throaty engine, vintage looks, and the wide open Indian road.  It doesn't get better than this.  Or does it?

There is no denying the appeal of the classic Indian Enfield Bullet.  Originally developed by the Royal Enfield Company of England and first imported, then manufactured in India, this classic design motorcycle has caught the imagination of bike enthusiasts around the world.  Touring India on an Enfield, either rented or bought, is a dream for many.  And it's quite attainable.  But a few words of caution might be in order, not to dissuade the dreamer, but to inject a little reality.

I have a Bullet.  I love it.  It has that great BUDDA BUDDA sound, head turning styling and sufficient size so that my big frame doesn't make me look like a Shriner clown on a motorized skateboard.  But let me confess, owning a Bullet is a pain in the butt.

If you do get a Bullet and plan to go touring around India, there are some things to consider.  Get the best machine you can, plan your trip carefully, carry some crucial tools and spares, and drive EXTREMELY defensively.


Bullet Ups and Downs

Bullets are big bikes, as heavy as many 750cc bikes would be.  But it's only a 350cc, and under-powered.  (Enfield now makes a 500cc, but I've not tried it.  It looks exactly the same as the 350 but will probably benefit from the extra power.

The Bullet is also poorly balanced top heavy so cornering is affected and it's awkward to push.  It also has pathetically weak brakes.  The front brake will often not even hold a stationary bike on a slight hill.  The rear brake grips better but the drum shoes need frequent changing or they tend to lock.  These are drum brakes, but I recently saw a small ad offering to convert your Bullet to disk brakes, for about Rs 6,000 or so.  If I see the ad again, I'll post it here.  You need good brakes on Indian roads.  (Also, I believe the export model of the Bullet offers better brakes, at least on the front wheel.)

Bullets are temperamental creatures - each one unique.  They seem to need constant fiddling and tinkering, a timing adjustment here, carb tuning there.  It helps if you know a bit about bikes.  I didn't, but I'm learning fast.

Bullets always have something wrong with them.  It is usually not serious but my Bullet mechanic is a regular stop when ever I go around town.  Here's the list from my three year old bike from the past month.

  • I fixed the tail light (which fell off).

  • My mechanic changed my brake pads and showed me that the bearings are shot in the rear wheel.  There was (yet another) short in the electrical system and when I tried to fix it myself I blew out all my bulbs.  Now only my high beam works, and usually not when I want it to.

  • One rearview mirror's threads have stripped and I have it held in place with tape.  A puncture in a new tube still leaked after three attempts to patch it so I replaced the tube yet again.

  • My throttle cable broke, and of course I hadn't replaced the spare I used up last time it went.

  • This is in addition to the minor oil leaks, starting problems, and strange rattling sounds that seem to come and go regularly.  My machine sometimes starts cleanly on a light kick, and other times demands 10 minutes of tinkering and adjusting before it turns over.

It goes on like that - rarely serious but always annoying.  And every Bullet owner I know has a similar story.  Would we give up our Bullets? No way! All the fuss and aggravation is what bonds Bullet owners to their machines.  They are our babies, colic and all.  Perhaps that's the real secret of the Bullet mystique.  Or maybe it's that great BUDDA BUDDA sound and the beauty of being out on the wide open Indian road.

Update Note:
This list of problems is from my earlier days with my Bullet.  Over the past two years we have settled into a much more comfortable relationship.  I rarely have trouble with it these days.  It starts promptly (most times) runs reliably, and it has been at least 6 months since I visited my mechanic.  Since I know its weak points, I look for the warning signs, change the cables and tubes regularly, and look after it more than I used to.  I guess there is a moral there.


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