The Royal Enfield Bullet has been around in one form or another since 1932 when the first models were exhibited at the Olympia Motorcycle Show in London. The Bullet can make a claim to be the motorbike with the longest time in continuous production.
Royal Enfield were named after the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, from whom the founders won a supply contract in 1893. This is also where the Bullet name and trademark ‘made like a gun’ strapline come from.
The first range of Bullets used an inclined ‘sloper’ single cylinder four stroke engine in 250cc, 350cc and 500cc versions.
In 1936, the 500 Bullet was updated with a new upright, air cooled, 4-valve engine but retained its centre-sprung girder forks and hardtail design (with no rear shock absorbers).
Fast forward to 1948, and the post-war 350 Bullet prototype is introduced using telescopic front forks and an oil-damped, suspended rear swingarm. Two of these Bullets were used by the British International Six Days Trial (ISDT) team that year with both riders receiving gold medals.
These ultra-modern (for the time) components made it to the 350 and 500 Bullet models released to the UK public in 1949, and the firm’s ISDT success garnered them an international reputation. So revered was Royal Enfield that Madras Motors was founded in India to begin importing them for the Indian market.
In 1952, the Indian Army placed an order with Madras Motors for 500 350cc Bullets, which were manufactured and delivered from the firm’s factory in Redditch in 1953. The brand was so successful in India, in fact, that a purpose-built factory was created near Madras and a new company, Enfield India was formed.
In 1962, Royal Enfield closed its doors in the UK and that was the end of the Bullet until Enfield India was bought by Eicher Motors. Despite the demise of the Bullet in the UK, the Indian firm had been producing the 1955 version of the bike into the sixties and, in a twist of fate, began exporting the bike back to the UK in the seventies.
All of the Royal Enfield Bullet models we have today are still built in India and imported to the UK although these days they have been updated to meet Euro emissions and safety standards.
Between 1987 and 2006, Royal Enfield sold a version of the 350 Bullet in the UK. Although the bike fell foul of emissions laws eventually, there are still used examples around and it can be a great way to own a bike that feels like a British classic without quite as much authentic reliability or a hefty price tag.
The 350 was available in Bullet Classic, Trials or Deluxe trim with varying specifications and amounts of shiny chrome. The Trials version also got a 2bhp power increase, pushing it to 20bhp overall, upswept exhaust and a single saddle.
The 350 was finally discontinued in 2006, but not before the final stocks were sold off for just £1995. The 350 is still produced for sale in India where emissions laws are less stringent.
Royal Enfield 350 Bullet rivals
Original Bullet 350s would have faced competition from plenty of similar machines from Triumph, Matchless, Velocette and Norton to name a few, but by the time the bike was reintroduced to UK roads it was in a class of one.
Rivals like the Triumph Bonneville had moved on to have larger capacity engines and were then redesigned entirely to become modern retros. The Kawasaki W650 and later W800 is a possible contender, but they are vastly more expensive.
These days, the new wave of Chinese import 125cc and 50cc models come closest to capturing the spirit of the 350 Bullet. Brands like Bullit and Mutt offer cheap and cheerful retros that could tempt someone considering a used Bullet.
The bigger capacity version of the Bullet, the 500 was given a new, cleaner engine to get it through emissions regulations and is still available in the UK today. With mod cons like a front disc brake and electronic fuel injection, the latest model, the Electra EFI generates 27.5bhp.
Unfortunately, despite these upgrades the Bullet 500 is still a little too authentic for some compared to classy modern retros like the Triumph Bonneville and Kawasaki W800.
That said, the Enfield has a certain charm in its olde-worlde-ness, and one of its most endearing features is that it only costs £4199 for a brand-new one.
Royal Enfield 500 Bullet rivals
As with the 350, the 500 is a slight anomaly in the motorcycling landscape, bt its larger capacity and higher power put it firmly in the crosshairs of bikes like the Triumph Street Twin and Kawasaki W800.
These bikes are a higher-quality and more substantial prospect, but the Enfield has them both thrashed on price.
In homage to the original and very successful 350 Trials model of the late forties, Enfield now produce a 500 Bullet with an upswept exhaust, colourful frame, sprung saddle and polished fuel tank. Extended chrome mudguards, fork gaiters and a luggage rack behind the single seat complete the authentic ISDT look.
The bike produces 27bhp from the same 500cc single cylinder four stroke engine used in the standard model and costs £4699.
Royal Enfield Bullet Trials rivals
If the standard Royal Enfield Bullet models occupy a niche in the bike market then a competition replica version is incredibly niche.
The Bullet 500 Trials is a great bike for those looking for an off-the-peg machine with a retro custom vibe. It’s also a very cheap way into the retro scrambler market, undercutting machines like the BMW R nineT Scrambler, Triumph Scrambler and Ducati Scrambler.
Royal Enfield 500 Bullet prototype spyshots
In 2019, spy shots of a possible new Royal Enfield Bullet model emerged with a new engine that looks similar to that found in Enfield’s popular 650cc models, the Continental GT and the Interceptor.
While the new model will need to meet Euro5 emissions standards, it will also need to meet India’s Bharat Stage VI, which is even stricter.
Final drive on the bike seen in the spy shots has moved to the left-hand side, suggesting a complete redesign of the engine and gearbox rather than an update. The bike has also dropped its kickstarter for the first time in its history. The new model is expected to arrive in the UK at some point in 2020.
More from MCN