Embellishment, thy name is what sells Auto Americana by the millions, be it on two, four or 16 wheels! Custom craftsmanship, swathed in chrome and adorned with slick paintwork to make newer versions of regular production models has long been the magic mantra to spice things up and shift countless Fords, Chevys, Cadillacs, Harley-Davidsons, Caterpillars, Macks, etc out of showrooms and this practice continues unabated to this day. Of course when it is wheeled tradition which is being peddled, this line of customization at the factory level holds some esteem and residual values to the product.
So if you are thinking this is pretty much the line of thought being borrowed and adopted for India by Royal Enfield you would be both wrong and right – to varying degrees! Fact one is that Royal Enfield never believed in what it could do and spent much time fretting over who their customer was – the Machismo type, the dudhwala, the lone ranger type of long distance rider, the evolved rider, the born again biker or maybe even the young dude who wants to typify cool on the move. The key to their muddled thought process was just going with gut feel as a biker and the rest would pan out. Hesitatingly the firm worked on tweaking its staple product since inception (in India of course), the Bullet but then it had to for the simple reason that emission standards evolved and the need to stack up on technology to meet legislation saw the old push-rod lump get a sizeable makeover. The separate gearbox was junked and the unit construction engine incorporated a new 5-speed constant mesh cluster within the crankcase. From this substantially revised bottom end, the scene shifted to a twin spark plug top end job along with electronic fuel injection and the resultant 500cc motor that emerged set the new standard for what many wanted from a Bullet.
Do understand that to date the Bullet has never changed in form but only in makeup and till now Royal Enfield has been spinning variants from the same armoury, never making an all-new model (but that should change in a year or so). Nothing wrong in that for when you see the bent twin iron from Harley-Davidson which goes right back to before World War II, the Bullet has just climbed the upgrade wagon, so to speak! What I am driving home is the point that Royal Enfield should not have worried for their Classic job was exactly what the market needed – a refreshing modern throwback to an era of motorcycling which can cut the mustard even today. From its roll-out just prior to Auto Expo 2010 to right now, the Classic has stumped the Royal Enfield management by accounting for over 40% of total sales for the marque and it shows no sign of petering out
Ever since its roll-out in November 2009, the Bullet Classic has quite clearly made an impact on motorcyclists’ psyche and from that point on the firm put into place a whole new programme on two fronts: get the production process upgraded from a technology and efficiency angle while planning even more upgrades to the basic product. Mind you when I tested the Classic almost two years ago, I marveled at the bike as the single biggest techno-leap Royal Enfield had ever accorded the Bullet in its long history and it showed in the way it brought forth the smiles on many faces. Heck, I wasn’t even a Bullet traditionalist, more often than not joking about them just so that I didn’t get to ride these Royal Oilfields but the Classic made me a convert – I can’t believe I am saying this! From there on I have been badgering the folks at Thiruvottiyur to further make the few decisive improvements on the bike which had not got the ‘Classic’ treatment. The rate of development pace may not have been up to Ninja or Fireblade speed, but given the wafting pleasure of a Bullet in its element, the new Classic introduced this week packs in a small raft of improvements in hardware and software which have yet again honed the calibre of this long standing gun on two-wheels for the better.
First a mention about the new variants, or to be precise the new models which will now constitute the 500cc Classic range. To be turned out in two distinctly different liveries, the first one is the Classic Chrome version which is resplendent in the traditional Brit bike turnout of yore with a painted and chromed tank, the same theme being carried over lengthwise on the two mudguards. Again in this variant there is a choice of maroon or black to go with the chrome and the Classic in this traditional stance does look dishy. The second variant is one which harks towards the Bullet being the defender emeritus via its links to the armed forces and it’s decked out in a khaki matt finish throughout. This unusual is also brilliantly turned out with tiny rubber knee guards on both sides of the petrol tank to give the machine a period aura which only goes on to emphasise the overall charm of the package no end. The badging on both variants is the traditional Royal Enfield script and the medley of retro style overtones with modern tech essentially massaging ‘old’ muscle makes for a heady concoction.
One doesn’t buy a Classic or for that matter a Bullet to trip the light fantastic or out drag Hayabusas and its ilk but to deliver a most pleasurable ride where the exhaust beats can be heard at the convenient rate of one every other telegraph pole! No wonder it is the epitome of relaxed adventurers but with newer converts to the Bullet’s wholly non-violent cause, Royal Enfield knew that if there were some nut cases out to extract and use every iota of the 27.2bhp the long stroke 499cc single produces, they needed to give better control and stability to the package.
This was what I had mentioned in my report from two years ago, especially calling for the front fork to be junked with modern internals allied to revised rake and trail. The earlier Classic with the added thump from its fuel injected twin spark motor had a new found urge to gallop but the handling stability, especially under braking made the front wheel hop and skip and this did detract from the other gains made on the Bullet platform. Nothing would have happened had the powerful front disc not clamped so well, twisting the archaic forks beyond their capability so something was needed to be done, and soon.
The boffins at Royal Enfield took this to heart and have a completely new front fork and revised geometry for the 2012 Classic range in focus here. To the unsuspecting eye this may yet look the same but peer close and you see that the forks (built by Endurance who also provide the rear gas charged shock absorbers) act directly on the axle and even though their housings remain yet in the traditional retro style, the internals and their construction are all new. The revised geometry this brings in its adoption sees the trail hiked to 101.49mm from the previous 72.54mm while the centre shift of the forks measure 26mm at a rake angle of 26.09 degrees.
So much for the number crunching but moving on to the placement of this directly on the axle has meant a positive shift in the weight distribution plus also the ability to soak up braking forces without affecting the directional stability of the machine. There is much more poise, more ease and generally a much calmer approach when hitting the anchors. In fact the Royal Enfield engineers went back into history to revert back to a 19-inch front wheel, junking the 90/90-18 tyre for a 90/90-19 unit. The good thing is that this entire revised front end set-up works a treat and the near neutral handling ability colludes well with the overall character of this machine to make it a pleasure ride every time one swings a leg over its minimalist single seat and hits the road. The rear tyre is also changed, a slightly wider 120/80-18 unit coming in place of the 110/90-18 detail on the original Classic.
While the new front forks and larger diameter wheel up front constitutes the main detail changes on the 2012 Classics, there are some important tweaks elsewhere on the machine. One of these is the new mapping of the electronic fuel injection system, the Royal Enfield engine men worked with Japanese fuel equipment supplier Keihin to make for a much smoother power delivery without sacrificing any of the crisp response (in relation to the pre-Classic Bullets) which has been just as much of a revelation in the smiles-per-hour stake as has been the overall pleasure factor in the ownership experience.
Make no mistake about it, as I have mentioned earlier, the Bullet Classics are a throwback to a different era of motorcycling long lost to us but just as relevant among a section of motorcyclist which is going fast forward into the past and enjoying every second of this journey. To try and convince us hard-nosed journos and disbelievers, the firm organized an exclusive ride in what was supposed to be sandy desert wastes in and around Jaisalmer. Based at the uber exclusive resort, The Serai, we spent a day and a half exploring a Rajasthan with good tarmac, some sandy stretches to put the woollies in one’s stomach and acres and acres of greenery! Yes the strong monsoon this year had changed the golden yellow desert landscape into a lush green forest with strong shrubbery and trees making for a surreal base to ride what are essentially two-wheeled blasts from the past albeit with a very promising future.
The essence of the Classic is massaging the ego and let me tell you that I was beaming all throughout the ample time I spent on the saddle riding through brush, sand and tarmac. Of course having a lazily spinning long stroke mill made things so very easy but let us also factor in the silky smooth fuelling which made things so very pleasurable. Many mention a drive in a Rolls-Royce being akin to wafting at speed on a carpet of air, well one can say the same thing about wafting for pleasure and the Classic delivers in bucket loads. The controls have improved greatly and the clutch plus the shifter mechanism for the 5-speed constant mesh ’box add their own to the pleasure quotient. The biggest thrill is to whack open the throttle in third and give the bike its head on an open stretch. The strong torque takes over and like a tractor the big bike pulls hard and strong. I did that many times over and over and there was a crazy reason for that – no I wasn’t trying to break the engine but something just didn’t feel right.
The abject reduction in vibes at the handlebar level and also at the footpegs was what really induced me to gun the big mill but there it was, a new facet to the Bullet legend, and a welcome one at that. I don’t know if this is good or bad for the traditional Bulleteers who could have used the vibes to massage their manlihood, at least while bench racing each other at the pub and by and large shooting the breeze!
Getting back to reality though, the new-for-2012 Classic range gets a big thumbs up for slight detail changes which bump up the pleasure aspect manifold. Of course there is a premium on pleasure and the Classic Chrome will be yours for Rs. 1,65,400, the Classic Desert Storm is the more appealing proposition at Rs. 1,58,200 (prices, ex-showroom Mumbai). However, one has to see these bikes in a totally different perspective and that is for their slow spinning high torque rideability where watching the scenery, and savouring it, while you ride are as important a criterion as getting to one’s destination taking the long way around. The small band of merry Bulleteers at Royal Enfield – honest there finally are bikers at the helm of affairs steering the firm – led by Dr Venki Padmanabhan with support from motorcycle industry veteran R L Ravichandran plus the diehard support of long standing Bullet and motorcycling aficionado Siddharth Lal, means that more is in store for the marquee and from the marque. What shape and form it will take is still in the concept stage but rest assured, on the strength of understanding the neo-retro motorcycle segment and marrying it to customer preferences in the here and now, Royal Enfield seems to have just about managed to get a handle on things. Now let’s see many more new variants on the Bullet theme ram home!
ROYAL ENFIELD: The Future Ahead!
In its near 65 year plus history in the Indian market, Royal Enfield has been propped up almost single-handedly by the Bullet, majorly in 350cc displacement and only in the past decade has it made the welcome move to a half litre machine. While the venerable Chennai-based firm did attempt to do other bikes, none of these (the Enfield 200 with a Villiers-two-stroke engine, the Fantabulous scooter which predated the swing-open rear cowl of the Honda Activa by a good four decades and the Zundapp range of 50cc, 60cc, 75cc and 175cc motorcycles) have enjoyed such a long lease of life as has the Bullet. The Thunderbird cruiser was a major departure for the Bullet and for a while it did open up an altogether new vista for the traditional Bullet customer before the Classic brought it all back together in the nicest possible manner from late 2009 onwards.
At Auto Expo 2010, Royal Enfield had shown another take on the basic Bullet theme, this being the Café Racer concept. I think this is next on the anvil even though I for one have mixed feelings regarding its tank design which is intrinsic a part of any motorcycle’s visual appeal and standing. I think a typical period scrambler would also be a very good niche product for Royal Enfield to emulate and this would go just right with the engine characteristics the Classic is endowed with.
However, bits and pieces are exactly what Royal Enfield has been resorting to for a long time but the time has now come when it needs to unshackle itself from its conservative streak and come out boldly with an all new machine. In fact, this would help it because the retro-classic style has a lot going for it and with some nifty moves the company could do well to have a twin-cylinder machine join its line-up. This twin could spawn a modular engine family with varying engine capacities from say 450cc to 750cc and housed in different chassis to come up with a range of models. The time has also come to think about overhead cam motors, be it single or twin cam with two or three or four valves per cylinder. The writing is on the walls for a move into the ohc space and multiple valves, if only thanks to the prospect of staying on the right side of tail pipe legislation or the horrible spectre of being overwhelmed by it. Siddharth Lal and team have been discussing parallel twins, vee-twins and what have you, the company is in sound financial health and an all new modern manufacturing facility is also coming up within the next few months. What is needed is clarity of purpose and a gut feel to doing great motorcycles. The Classic was born out of that line of thought but now they need to go the whole hog – lock, stock and gun barrel if they are not just to stay relevant but also take a leaf out of the Harley and Triumph way of retro biking taking to the back of beyond successfully. Motorcycling’s oldest bike maker needs these decisive steps and the fear of success shouldn’t deter them from putting their best feet forward to the task. Fire away Sid and gang!
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