Under the Radar: The Royal Enfield Bullet 500
Best bets on tomorrow’s classics: 1952-1962 Royal Enfield Bullet 500
A 1953 Royal Enfield Bullet 500.
Royal Enfield Bullet 500
Years produced: 1952-62
Claimed power: 25hp @ 5,750rpm
Top Speed : 78mph
Engine type: 499cc air-cooled OHV single
Weight: 420lbs (wet)
MPG: 45-65 (est.)
Price then/now: £214-£250 ($600-$700)/$2,500-$6,000
Royal Enfield is one of the oldest of all motorcycle manufacturers. The company incorporated as a bicycle maker in 1890, and produced its first vehicle, a De Dion-powered quadricycle in 1898. And in spite of its famous slogan, “Made Like a Gun,” the company never actually made munitions: the “Royal Enfield” name was adopted after the company won contracts to supply gun parts to the Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, near London.
RE pioneered many motorcycle innovations, offering a three-speed countershaft gearbox in 1911 and a pressurized automatic recirculating engine lubrication system in 1914. The first Bullets were sporting variants of RE’s overhead-valve four-stroke 150cc, 350cc and 500cc singles in the 1930s. The 500cc Bullet was particularly innovative, employing both three- and four-valve cylinder heads with pent roof combustion chambers. Innovation went on hold for six years from 1939, while RE supplied the British Army with the solid and slogging side-valve 350cc model C and overhead-valve model CO.
After hostilities, Royal Enfield’s big single models G and J (350cc and 500cc) appeared looking like the wartime singles in civvies that they were. A brand new 350cc Bullet arrived in 1948 with several important innovations. The long-stroke 70mm x 90mm overhead-valve engine carried its oil supply in a cast-in compartment behind the crankcase, the iron cylinder was topped with an all new light alloy head, and the gearbox bolted directly to the engine in “semi-unit” construction. A new frame carried a telescopic front fork, and at the rear a swingarm with telescopic spring/damper units. Also surprising was the use of light alloy in the forks, primary cases, cylinder head and (later) hubs.
The new Bullet quickly proved highly competitive in motorcycle trials, with works riders Vic Britain and Charlie Rogers both winning Gold Medals in the 1948 International Six Day Trial as part of the victorious British team. RE went on to win three more ISDT makers’ trophies in the next five years. The Bullet, along with the Ariel HT and Matchless G3, became the trials bike to beat, while the street version sold well, too — though new 500 and 650 twins from other makers somewhat overshadowed it.
The company responded with a bigger 500cc engine of 84mm bore in 1952. This raised the output from 18hp to 25hp with little weight gain, giving a lively performance for the time. And in 1954 the famous RE “casquette” headlight enclosure with its distinctive side running lights was fitted. 1955 models featured a new open-loop diamond frame, which lost the previous frame’s seat tube, making room for a central toolbox/air cleaner housing.
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