The classic Bullet gets a significant makeover.
2010 Royal Enfield Bullet Classic C5
Claimed power: 27.5hp @ 5,250rpm
Top speed: 80mph
Engine: 499cc OHV air-cooled vertical single
Weight (wet): 412lb (187kg)
Price: $6,395 ($6,695 Calif.)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.6gal (13.5ltr)/65mpg (observed)
From a distance, there’s not much to separate a new Royal Enfield Bullet Classic C5 from the Royal Enfield Bullet Deluxe we tested in 2005. The visual checklist includes the signature vertical single cylinder engine, spoked wheels, a richly painted gas tank with rubber knee pad inserts, a sprung solo saddle, and the cool headlamp nacelle with its little marker lights on either side. But then you look a little closer, and the differences between this bike and any Enfield that came before start coming into focus.
The fact that the new C5 looks like the earlier Bullet Deluxe is entirely intentional, of course. India-based Royal Enfield has made its fortunes in the U.S. and Europe precisely because of the vintage appeal of its bikes. That appeal, however, wasn’t by design — at least not initially.
Royal Enfield India didn’t go into business to make retro bikes, it just sort of turned out that way. The company’s roots go back to the mid-1950s, when the Indian government started ordering British-built 350cc Royal Enfield Bullets for police and army duty. Thanks to their rugged simplicity and frugal nature, the Enfield Bullets became very popular in India, so in 1955 Madras Motors struck a deal to buy 800 350cc Bullets in unassembled “knockdown” form, ship them from England and assemble and sell them in India. That deal eventually led to the manufacture of parts, and by 1962 the manufacture of complete Royal Enfields in India.
Ironically, although Royal Enfield in England folded in 1971, unable to compete in a rapidly changing world market, Enfield India (it didn’t acquire the rights to the name “Royal Enfield” until 1995) continued churning out single-cylinder Bullets. The forces that caused Royal Enfield’s collapse in England were irrelevant to Enfield India, because the Indian Enfields were 100 percent home-market products.
Fast forward to the mid-1990s, and Enfield India started to capitalize on a growing market for retro-themed motorcycles, creating an export arm and shipping bikes to the U.K., Canada and the U.S. Although export Enfields received mild upgrades like 12-volt electrics, a better seat and better brakes, they were still pretty much identical to the bikes that Enfield India had been making since 1962.
Big changes started to come in the last decade, as Enfield India introduced radical upgrades like the lean-burn Electra model, a five-speed transmission and disc brakes. The Bullet Deluxe we tested back in 2005 was sort of the end of the line for the original Bullet, a drum-braked throwback to the 1950s, dripping in chrome and rich red paint. We liked the bike plenty, but we also had some problems with it, like a starter sprag clutch that failed on us — twice — and fueling problems that led to hard starting and poor performance. The former we fixed by replacing the clutch, the latter by upgrading to an Amal MK2 carb.
Even so, by the time we gave “our” Bullet back, we were pretty smitten with it. Sure, it was slow and at its best when kept to two-lane back roads, but it was also simple, honest and just plain fun, qualities that are increasingly hard to find on new bikes, it seems.
While the C5’s DNA is obvious, riding the bike exposes an essential fact; for all its old-school Royal Enfield styling cues, this new bike is more revolution than evolution. Okay, so the frame is basically the same single downtube tubular affair as the old Bullets, but the drivetrain is so far ahead of any previous Enfield that it’s really an all new machine, a point proven over the course of a few days and some 200-plus miles in the saddle.
To start with, unlike Bullets of old, this one starts on the button — literally — first time, every time. In fact, there’s no other way to start the Bullet Classic C5, as it doesn’t even have a kickstarter fitted to it. That’s thanks to the bike’s new engine, a clean-sheet redesign of the old 500cc mill that retains — by design — visual parity with its older brothers. Where the old unit followed the time honored practice of a separate engine and transmission, the new engine is unit-construction, with the engine and transmission sharing a common casting. That makes the engine shorter front to back, but no less taller, and it’s that height — and a lack of cam towers (it’s still a pushrod engine) — that keeps it looking like Enfields of old. The change in construction is radical stuff, but even more radical is the mill’s electronic fuel injection, adopted out of necessity to meet increasingly stringent emissions here and in Europe, Royal Enfield’s most important export markets.
The fuel injection utterly changes the character of this new Enfield. Hot or cold, our C5 was a model of civility. Cold starts were a simple matter of waiting for the fuel pump to power up, then giving the right handlebar mounted starter button a jab. You can pull the cold-start lever on the left handlebar, but we found it unnecessary, even on 30 degree mornings. And hot restarts, the bane of our old bike, were similarly fuss-free; the new unit starts cleanly and immediately, settling into a comfortable, stable idle.
Shifting on the 2010 we tested was significantly improved over the 500 Bullet we rode back in 2005. Although we didn’t have any particular shifting problems with the 2005, it was however generally slow and vague when shifting; frankly about what we expected for a gear box based on 1950s technology. That’s not to suggest the C5’s tranny is fully up to modern standards. Like earlier units, it responds best to an unhurried approach, but gear engagement felt noticeably firmer and more predictable, and we only hit a false neutral one or two times. Curiously, that only happened when riding with heavy boots.
Out on the road, the new bike was much like our earlier Bullet. The suspension is firm and does an adequate job of insulating the rider from sharp road inputs, but a little more wheel travel (the back only has three inches, the front five) would be nice. Top speed is still in the 80mph range, but the bike is happiest at speeds in the 50-65 range; above 65, vibration from that big single starts to intrude sharply, felt most noticeably in the footpegs.
Like our 2005 test bike, where the new bike really shines is on two-lane blacktops, where a relaxed approach takes advantage of its limitations and the Bullet Classic C5 feels like it will go all day. You’ve doubtless heard the old line that it’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow, and that’s sort of the case with the C5, except you don’t really want to ride it too fast. Try to wick it up too much and it feels rushed and uncomfortable, clearly out of its element. But turn things down a few notches, and you’ll discover the C5’s sweet spot.
The engine absolutely loves mid-range revs and pulls strongest when not pressed too hard. And the brakes, a disc front and drum rear, are perfectly matched to a slower gait, hauling the bike down quickly and with good control. Brake fade is never an issue, because you’re not going fast enough to induce any. And where the C5 starts to feel a bit twitchy at high speeds, at lower speeds it’s stable, light and flickable, perfect on little roads with sudden, tight turns.
Ridden this way, we found the C5 rewarded us not only with heightened riding pleasure, but with great economy. We averaged 65mpg in the 225 miles we put on our bike, and we weren’t trying to be frugal. Oil consumption was nil (we’d expect that out of a “new” engine design), and we didn’t have a single problem with our black C5, which was generously supplied to us by Enfield dealer John Redmond at Crossroads Powersports in Kansas City. Sales of the new model have been excellent, John says, a situation apparently mirrored everywhere else in the U.S., as C5s have been in high demand since the first models hit these shores in late 2009.
And we can see why. While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, the C5 is the most honest retro ride out there. A further refinement of the bike that made other makers appreciate that there is in fact a market for simple, old-school fare, the C5 continues Royal Enfield’s heritage of old-school charm and simplicity while being a better bike in just about every way. MC