The Trials, Tribulations and Pleasures
When I told my biking mates that I’d be testing a Royal Enfield, many of them looked at me with disbelief; assuming that I would be riding a classic Royal Enfield from the 1950’s, 40’s or earlier. When I told them I was testing a current production 500cc Royal Enfield in trials guise, they where intrigued.
The Royal Enfield 500 T
Sadly many motorcyclists do not know that you can still buy a new Royal Enfield motorcycle in 2007. In 1970 Royal Enfield UK ceased operations, which brought an end to this historic motorcycling marque being manufactured in England; however since the mid 1950’s Royal Enfields have been made at the Royal Enfield factory in Madras, India and production has continued to this day.
So in a bizarre twist of fate, its now “coals to Newcastle”. Watsonian-Squire Ltd based near Moreton-in-Marsh are the official import agents for Royal Enfield motorcycles in the UK and they have been importing Royal Enfield Bullets from India for sale in the UK market through their Royal Enfield dealer network, since 1999. With UK sales of in excess of 600 units a year, this once famous British motorcycling marque has now established a firm presence back in its birth place market.
Royal Enfield had a distinguished history in trials competition, non more so than in the International Six Days Trial during the period 1948-1953, reputedly one of the toughest motorcycle trails competitions ever. The Royal Enfield Bullet Electra 500 T has been styled by Watsonian-Squire to recapture the spirit of this success and produce a trials style motorcycle that is designed to be comfortable to ride on today’s roads.
Watsonian-Squire have taken the standard Electra-X road bike, kept the frame, running gear, kick start, electric start, 5 speed gearbox, 280mm single calliper front disc brake and gas filled rear dampers. To this they’ve added/changed alloy mudguards, scrambler style handlebars, solo sprung saddle, revised rear sub-frame and tail light assembly, alloy bash-plate, smaller indicators and upswept sports silencer. In addition the bike is shod with Continental TKC 80 Rally tyres to complete the trials look.
New but old
When you first set eyes upon the 500 T you cannot fail to be charmed by its looks. The eye catching upswept chrome silencer, the alloy mudguards, engine casings and engine, the spoked chrome wheels, the wide chromed scrambler bars, are strikingly off set against the black frame and then further complemented by the gorgeous deep silver paintwork of the tank, headlamp nacelle and fork tubes; topped off by famous Royal Enfield badges in chrome on the tank.
I’d forgotten how good chrome and polished alloy looks. Brought up on a diet of modern motorcycles that seem to have lost much of the quintessential charm of design that bikes from the classic British motorcycle era possessed, this bike immediately wants to rule your heart.
However interwoven with these classic looks are thoroughly modern components. With modern switch gear, electric start, halogen headlight, front disc brake and gear lever on the left today’s rider should feel perfectly at home on this machine.
Plus there’s no need to worry about an engine dating back to the middle of the last century, the 500 T is equipped with Royal Enfield’s latest lean burn all alloy Electra engine. This new Royal Enfield Bullet engine was designed in conjunction with Austria’s AVL. AVL is the world’s largest privately owned and independent company for the development of power-train systems. However this new engine was designed to retain the appearance, simple design and most importantly for some the sound of this great British ‘single’; but being thoroughly up to-date it is said to offer much greater reliability, performance and fuel consumption and meet current and anticipated emissions legislation.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was expecting when I first rode the 500 T. My last ride on a Royal Enfield had been in 1977 on a Royal Enfield Continental 250 GT which even then was many years old and felt very agricultural against the Japanese bikes of the day.
I think I expected the 500 T to feel dated, uncomfortable and ponderous, how wrong I was!
The first thing that strikes you is this bike is small; stand it along side any mid range Japanese bike and it is dwarfed yet its size belies its ergonomic comfort. I did not feel cramped up on the bike at any stage. The single leather sprung saddle and the scrambler style bars produce an upright riding stance, which is very comfortable even over long distances. With knees grabbing the silver metal petrol tank, the gear level and rear brake pedal feel naturally placed and the light action clutch lever and smooth throttle cause no wrist ache what so ever.
I covered in excess of 500 miles on our test bike and at no time felt uncomfortable. The bike is equipped with gas filled twin rear shocks and standard oil filled front forks, but on the 500 T you are further isolated from the worst of British road surfaces by an ample, fully sprung single seat leather saddle. So effectively the rear of the bike is doubly sprung.
I found the front fork set-up to be very firm and in consequence I never experienced any noticeable fork dive even under hard braking. The only thing that really contributed to down grading the quality of the ride was the very knobbly TKC 80 tyres. However these will allow you to go off road and coped with the most appalling wet and muddy road conditions that the British weather could throw at them, giving exceptionally high levels of on-road grip. Muddy green lane tracks where equally easy to traverse and undoubtedly this bike could be used for some serious green laning and light trials riding.
Whilst there are some throw backs to the Bullet’s past, a kick start and a compression release lever and a manual choke, these all add to the riding ambience and are infact in the most part are practical additions. On several occasions I chose to start the bike (the old fashioned way) with the kick start, aided by lowering the compression with the compression release lever, this proved to be very easy to do. Certainly a bonus if you have flat battery.
However the bike is so simple to start from cold with the electric start, pull out the choke lever on the side of the carburettor, first remembering to switch the petrol tap on, ensuring the bike is in neutral and the side stand up, pull the clutch lever, touch the starter button and the bike instantly fires into life with a distinctively single cylinder “phut phut” sound from the attractive upswept exhaust. Within a few tens of seconds the choke can be turned off and the engine settles into a very slow tick over. Infact the engine ticks over so slowly I’m sure you can count the strokes from this big 500cc single.
Now with only 25 BHP on tap, wheel spinning starts are not what this bike is about. However the bike pulls away cleanly and positively with only a little throttle needed to get going. It has a surprisingly light clutch action and the 5 speed box whilst being positive in action still permits fairly slick gear changing. Only once or twice did I experience the odd false neutral, which I’m prepared to put down to operator error.
With a claimed top speed of 78 mph this bike is not going to set any speed records, but for the most part there is adequate performance to ride in today’s traffic conditions and within current speed limits. The bike will happily cruise along at between 60-65 mph, though it seemed best at a steady 60 mph. My riding of the bike indicated that the claimed top speed is fairly accurate. The only time I found the performance lacking was on fast A roads, dual carriageways or motorways, where there is not enough extra speed available for overtaking. However this is a trials style bike and is best at home on twisty back-roads or quieter country roads where the bike really comes into its own. The bike pulls strongly up to 60 mph, but much beyond 65 mph to 70 mph the bike’s performance tails off and the light pleasant vibration felt through the large rubber foot pegs starts to increase markedly.
I found if you rode the bike at a steady 60 mph it would go up hill and down dale without ever needing to change down. The engine’s power delivery is diesel-like in that it pulls very strongly with ample torque to pull its light 168 kg weight up the steepest of inclines.
Shod with knobbly tyres and sporting fairly basic suspension I expected the handling to be acceptable at best, however this bike can be ridden around twisty country roads with a certain amount of flair. The bike can react to steering input fairly quickly, aided by its wide handlebars.
The brakes are more than capable for the performance offered, with a 6 inch rear drum and a 280mm diameter single disc brake upfront. Braking was positive and I found the bike could be stopped from near its top speed without any drama.
With its light weight and torquey engine, it can be almost thrown into corners and will push into and then pull through corners with a surprising degree of accomplishment. Riding with some far bigger Japanese machinery on one day’s test ride, my riding companions stated that they felt the pace was more than adequate and given the wet and occasionally icy conditions they would have not wanted to have ridden any more briskly. Talking of ice, rounding one corner on a country road I was presented was with twenty or so metres of sheet ice completely across the road, with no time to do anything, I just held the throttle steady and the bike sailed across the ice as if the road surface was normal, very reassuring.
This reassurance is complimented by the bikes very solid feel, partly due to the absence of acres of plastic, the overall quality of the paintwork, chrome and alloy finish is something that larger manufacturers should take note of.
However what the words above cannot adequately convey is the shear riding pleasure this bike provides. The exhaust note from the big 500c single engine starts off as a steady “phut phut” but as you press on the note loudens and produces that distinctive big British single sound, the crackle from the exhaust on rapid deceleration or closed throttle downhill being the most pleasing sound. The torquey engine combined with the nimble handling make this bike a constant delight to ride, particularly around twisty country lanes, without the fear of losing your licence. The bike constantly brings a broad grin to your face every time you ride it, but it will also bring a big smile to your bank mangers face.
This bike only costs £4,032 on the road and can be run and maintained thereafter very cheaply. Royal Enfield claim average mpg of 87.5 mpg. Now unfortunately I can’t verify this figure, seeing figures of 70 mpg and 72.9 mpg during my test riding. However I’m prepared to admit I was fairly heavy on the throttle at times (we were testing!) and I’m sure more normal usage would achieve 80 plus mpg. What other bikes can you buy that will offer what the Royal Enfield Bullet Electra offers and return this miserly fuel consumption.
Not content with a competitive purchase price and excellent mpg the bike only needs 2 hours servicing every 3,000 miles after its first 500 mile 1 hour service. A typical service will only cost between £70 to £80. Spares prices are amazingly cheap compared to many other leading brands and there is a thriving aftermarket accessories following for this bike as well as a catalogue of official accessories from Watsonian-Squire.
However because this bike still relies on relatively simple mechanical components it should be within the remit of many a home mechanic to service the bike yourself. Here in lies more of the charm of this bike, it is a motorbike you can fettle on a Sunday without the danger of upsetting a complex engine management system or fly by wire controls!
Now for me the one performance shortfall the bike has, is in standard trim the fast A road, dual carriage way and motorway performance can be found wanting. However this can be instantly remedied by fitting an official Royal Enfield UK Highway kit, this improves power by 25% and allows much higher cruising speeds; instantly solving the faster road issue. This official kit only costs £299 and incorporates a 32mm Dellorto carburettor, modified inlet air filtration system, and a road legal free flow silencer which produces a deeper exhaust note (this exhaust may not be required on the 500 T as it already has a free flowing exhaust than the standard road models). In addition you can increase the front sprocket from 18 to 20 teeth to provide higher gearing.
Fitting the Highway Kit and revised front sprocket would give you a bike that could adequately cope with all modern traffic conditions. I speak from experience as Watsonian-Squire let me briefly test the Royal Enfield Bullet Electra Clubman racer that was fitted with the Highway kit and higher gearing, this bike has claimed 3 figure performance and my brief ride of the bike demonstrated how much extra power and speed the Highway Kit unleashes. However you may want to consider changing those TKC 80 knobblies for some road rubber if you give your 500 T this much performance!
Now you may have deduced from what I’ve written above that during my time with the 500 T I’d become very fond of this endearing bike. Therefore it is with some regret I have to mention the tribulations.
Four days in to our test period after some 200 miles plus of riding the 500 T let us down, with failure of the rear inner tube, leaving me stranded by the road side and necessitating rescue. Subsequent examination of the tyre revealed no puncture, but the inner tube had a small split in it.
However, I was able to experience the simplicity of the quick release rear wheel which meant removing the wheel for repair was a fast and simple operation, not even disturbing the chain tension. A pleasure compared to may other bikes I’ve worked on.
Eight days into our test we set out for a quick photo shoot and I immediately started to experience some problems gear changing, putting it down to cold gear box oil, I pressed on; my mistake! Shortly thereafter I went to change gear and the clutch level went limp, yes, the clutch cable had failed, necessitating rescue again.
Yet again I was able to experience how easy this bike is to work on. Changing the clutch cable myself (I’m no mechanic) took under an hour and really was no more complex than Meccano.
Now on these occasions I may have just been unlucky and given the bikes endearing qualities and charms this is something I could be prepared to forgive at this stage, however only a long term test will confirm if these where isolated incidents.
This is not a bike for those whose buying choices are dictated to by performance figures alone. Rather it’s a bike for those who enjoy the emotions of motorcycling. Riding around on a bike that harks back to 1950’s, yet which has the advantages of a modern engine and electrics, but with period looks and charm is something that will appeal to many motorcyclists and certainly stirs the emotions.
Combined with cheap running costs, simple servicing, lower insurance costs and a competitive purchase price, only enhances these charms. Plus it’s a motorbike you can polish, fettle and treat to the many after market accessories that be purchased for it.
All in all it’s a real motorcycle, one with which you can become involved and is poles apart from many of today’s antiseptic motorcycle offerings. The reward for such involvement should be many hours of motorcycling pleasure that will have you grinning every time you ride it.
Article and Photos by Jon Booth – www.inter-bike.co.uk – The UK Biker Site. Note all performance figures, weights and technical specifications are as claimed by the respective manufacturers
Thanks to the Watsonian-Squire Group for the loan of the Royal Enfield Bullet Electra 500 T