OK, here’s a question – what’s the best selling motorcycle of all time? Let’s discount scooters and step-throughs, because everyone and his dog knows that the Honda Cub is the best selling powered two-wheeler of all time with over 100 million sold since 1958.

The OG! The very first Royal Enfield Bullet models were announced in 1932 for the ’33 season, with a ‘sloper’ engine and 4-valve cylinder head, making it the company’s most sporting machine. [My Royal Enfields]
As for motorcycles, Harley big twins must be right up there, while Triumph made over 300,000 Meriden Bonnevilles and Honda shifted over 400,000 CB750s (some say over half a million). But as an overlooked contender, I’d like to nominate the Royal Enfield Bullet. In continuous production since 1949, it saw an explosion of sales in the 2010s, moving more than half a million Bullets a year at its peak. Just how many have been made in total is a bit of an educated guess, but take into account a string of six-figure totals over the last decade, I reckon it’s over two million. All of this of course, is up for debate, not least in the pages of Vintagent. [Ed – I think it’s a fair claim, and also that R-E is the oldest motorcycle brand in the world]

But if it hadn’t been for the Indians, none of this would have happened – Royal Enfield in Britain built less than 9000 Bullets in 13 years. What transformed the Bullet into a motorcycle icon was an order from the Indian Army in 1953, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Other Royal Enfields: the ‘Angels of Pervyse’ rode an RE V-twin outfit in the fields of Belgium during WW1. Read more here. [Vintagent Archive]
Sporting Roots

Royal Enfield – despite being one of the oldest names in the business – wasn’t a motorcycle pioneer. Its roots stretched back to the 1850s, but didn’t launch its first motorcycle –a 2 1/4hp V-twin – until 1909. Despite newcomer status, RE was quite the innovator, offering a gearbox and chain drive from 1911, a rubber cush drive to even out chain snatch in 1912 and automatic lubrication the year after. The company weathered the often difficult years of the 1920s and ’30s very well, settling in as one of Britain’s second-league motorcycle manufacturers – it was never going to bother BSA, but it was a good, solid business.

A 250cc version of the 1933 Bullet, a real Promenade Percy bike with flashy chrome and high pipes, and perhaps, a bit of a prototype street scrambler too! [Bonhams]
The first Bullet arrived in late 1932, a flashier, sports version of RE’s existing single. It ticked all the boxes of a sporting bike of its time: rakishly inclined cylinder, four-speed foot gearchange, higher 6.5:1 compression ratio plus extra chrome on the tank, rims and handlebars. The Bullet, now seen as a ‘sensible’ machine for classic enthusiasts, started its life as a Promenade Percy job, with a virtual pencil moustache and cravat.  Soon 250 and 350cc variants followed, some even with three- or four-valve heads, but World War II put a stop to all that.

A catalogue shot from a slightly later 1938 J-series Royal Enfield Bullet, with an engine much closer in design to the postwar Bullet, with ‘semi-wet sump’ crankcase and vertical cylinder. [Peter Henshaw]
When the Bullet reappeared for 1949, it was with the must-have advance of the time, telescopic forks, plus a swinging arm rear end. Royal Enfield’s resident boffin Tony Wilson-Jones had been experimenting with rear suspension since early 1939, trying leaf springs before settling on the familiar one-piece swingarm with twin coil-sprung dampers. This was a great leap forward, offering more comfort and better handling than any mass produced alternative, especially the plunger rear suspension favoured by the likes of BSA and Norton, which were cheaper to make but had very limited travel.

That apart, the first postwar Bullet was a relatively conventional 350cc single, with alloy head and separate four-speed Albion gearbox, while the new frame gave, as the brochure put it, “smooth speed and cushion comfort.” A big-bore 500 was added a few years later and the Bullet became a typical Brit single do-it-all bike, as happy plonking through one-day trials as taking bachelors to work, or sidecarring families to the coast.

The 1949 Royal Enfield Bullet with full suspension front and rear, and the overall design that would define the model for generations. [Bonhams]
Second Home

Meanwhile, newly independent India was facing military opposition in the contested region of Kashmir, and in 1953 the Indian Army ordered 800 Bullets from Redditch to patrol this rugged, mountainous terrain. One stipulation was that the bikes had to be capable of hard use straight from the crate, so RE took pains to put miles on each bike and check it wouldn’t seize on full throttle, before crating it up. And it must have worked, because the military soon ordered more.

The first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, tours the Enfield India plant in Chennai in the early 1950s. [My Royal Enfields]
Now the Indian government took a hand. Keen to develop indigenous industry, it encouraged a joint venture between importer Madras Motors and the home company, and Enfield of India Ltd was born. The idea was that Enfield India would initially bolt bikes together from kits of parts sent out from Redditch, gradually increasing the Indian content as the years went by.

In fact, that’s exactly what happened. In the first year, just 163 Bullets were assembled from parts, but gradually the new Indian factory in Chennai began to build its own frames, swinging arms and tinware, then went to engine assembly and finally manufacture of virtually the whole bike. Working conditions were very basic by Western standards, and at first the frames were brazed together on the workshop floor without using a jig. When the frame was finished, a couple of men would come along with blowtorches and hammers to true it. But in that inimitable Indian fashion, it all worked and in 1975, the last part still imported from England – the con-rod – was only replaced with an Indian item.

A 1954 visit from the Indian Royal Enfield importer (Madras Motors) to the factory in Redditch, England. The Managing Director’s name was not recorded – can someone supply his name please? [My Royal Enfields]
Meanwhile, Enfield of India was making hay in its home market. Imported machines were prohibitively expensive, so the Bullet really had India’s market for ‘big’ bikes to itself, even though for decades it was only available as a basic 350. With a background of military and police contracts, it had a good reputation and became a real status symbol as the only ‘big bike’ built in India. Demand soared ahead of production and waiting lists grew.

Which was why, right through the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Enfield of India made very little attempt to update the Bullet. It was basically the same 350cc pushrod single, with separate four-speed ‘box, drum brakes and six-volt electrics offered by RE back in 1954. The Indians did diversify a little, adding the Fantabulus scooter (“fantastic in performance, fabulous in price”) and smaller two-strokes, but the Bullet was always its flagship, selling in thousands every year.

A 1977 road test in Motorcycle Sport thought the Enfield India Bullet a pretty fine machine, but not for everyone. [Motorcycle Sport]
Back in Britain, there was growing interest in classic bikes, and Laverda importer Slater Brothers twigged that there might be a business case for importing Enfield of India Bullets back to the mother country. In 1977 it started doing just that, advertising the Bullet as “for the more mature type of rider.” In a world of Z1000s and CB900s, the Enfield was painfully outmoded, and early road tests castigated its lack of performance (slower than the Redditch original), woeful brakes and poor quality. By the time it got to Britain, the Bullet wasn’t even that cheap, costing £695 when you could still buy a genuine British banger for about half the price. It wasn’t a great success.

But other importers took over where Slaters left off, and Enfield of India slowly realised that there might be some mileage (and prestige) in exporting Bullets. So very slowly, the 1980s saw gradual updates to the design – 12-volt electrics in 1985, a 500cc export-only Bullet with twin-leading-shoe front brake in ’88. With the typical European/North American rider growing older, the Bullet began to carve out a niche as the classic bike you could still buy new. It was amenable to fettling too (cynics adding that there was plenty of scope for improvement). Fritz Egli took one in hand, smoothing the bike’s rough edges with his ‘Swiss Finish’ and offering a reframed 624cc Super Bullet. Others converted the Bullet to diesel power (the separate gearbox made that relatively easy) and there is also the remarkable Musket V-twin mating two Bullet engines on a single crankcase [One of which was included in our Custom Revolution exhibit]. Sidecar manufacturer Watsonian Squire was now the UK importer, with a strong technical background and understanding the Bullet’s limitations. So rather than doing a hard sell, they would vet potential owners. If these had mechanical sympathy and enjoyed setting tappets on a Sunday morning, then they would enjoy Bullet ownership.

The amazing Musket II custom by Max Hazan, as featured in our Custom Revolution exhibit at the Petersen Museum, built using a Musket V-twin motor based on two Bullet top ends on newly manufactured crankcases. [Max Hazan]
Crises & Updates

However, back in India things weren’t going so well. Despite the Bullet having a virtual captive market, the company was in desperate straits. A series of diversifications on borrowed money had left them severely in debt, not least by its venture to build two-stroke Zundapps under license. Enfield of India probably would have gone down the pan, had it not been for Eicher Limited, one of India’s manufacturing giants. Eicher’s boss Vikram Lal was a Bullet enthusiast, recognised the bike still had potential and took a stake in the company.

Not the high point of the story: the Fantabulus scooter was built in an attempt to diversify and add market share. [Cartoq]
[Editor’s note – a little back story on Enfield of India vs. Royal Enfield.  When Royal Enfield went bust in 1971, their name, rights, and spares were purchased by Matt Holder of Aerco Jig and Tool.  Holder’s son David inherited the trademarks for Royal Enfield (as well as Vincent, Velocette, and Scott), and his  Velocette Motorcycle Company manufactures spares for older Royal Enfields, inside the former Triumph export warehouses in Coventry. In 1989, Eicher Limited approached Holder with an offer to purchase the Royal Enfield name, so Enfield of India could trade as – and label their bikes as – Royal Enfields: David Holder rebuffed their offer. In 1992 Eicher applied for the British trademark for Royal Enfield, which they were granted.  David Holder sued, but lost the court case, as the Holder family traded under the Velocette Motorcycle Co. as the umbrella for Vincent, RE, Scott, and Velocette spares production.  Thus, Eicher Limited gained legal sanction to brand their motorcycles Royal Enfield from 1992.]

Most of the (now) Royal Enfield’s diversifications were sold off to concentrate on the Bullet, but it wasn’t a fairytale turnaround, and the company suffered another financial crisis in 2001. It had one last chance, and received it in the form of Siddhartha Lal. Son of Eicher’s boss, ‘Sid’ was a young manager with engineering training and was also a Bullet fan: as the new CEO of Royal Enfield he would be key to the company’s turnaround. True, the company had finally started giving the Bullet some serious updates. AVL of Austria was brought in to redesign the venerable pushrod engine, which re-emerged with an alloy barrel, higher compression, lean burn combustion, electronic ignition and a left-foot gearshift – by Bullet standards, this was radical stuff. It debuted on the Indian market A350 Machismo (yes, all 18hp of it) which wasn’t a great success.

The 2002 Royal Enfield Thunderbird: an improved machine. [Royal Enfield]
Fortunately, better was to come. The Bullet’s worst features were its ponderous four-speed gearbox, weak drum brakes and lack of electric start. The factory sorted out a decent front disc in-house, but turned to two little known British engineers – Stuart McGuigan and John Crocker – to develop an electric start and a five-speed gearbox. These two had skills. Working for a military research establishment near Swindon, they had developed a four-valve diesel motorcycle based on the Bullet bottom end (later moving to a Kawasaki KLR base) and were hands on, practical engineers. Together, they came up with an effective push button starting which was grafted onto the Bullet 500, and a five-speed gear cluster that fit into the existing casing, offering a far better gearchange and the choice of left- or right-foot shift.

Nor were the Indians idle, launching the cruiser style Thunderbird in 2002, which included the five-speed and front disc, and proved to be a hit on the home market. In Britain, Watsonian came up with a string of Bullet based specials – trials-style bikes, cafe racers, flat trackers – which kept up public interest, and the factory added the Sixty-5, a Bullet whose styling owed more to the 1960s than the ’50s while the Electra X brought all the updates together in one bike. Royal Enfield and the Bullet were finally on the path to recovery.

The Electra-X model incorporated all the improvements to the original design, but was still a pre-unit construction machine. [Royal Enfield]
New Era

None of the updates were enough to hide the fact that the Bullet was still basically an upgraded 1950s motorcycle: it was still a maintenance-intensive long-stroke pushrod single with a separate gearbox. Once again, RE turned to McGuigan and Crocker, who argued that the way forward wasn’t a short-stroke overhead cam high revving engine, but a modern reinterpretation of the old one.

This was not a new idea. As Vintagent readers will know, back in 1983 Harley-Davidson launched the Evolution V-twin. This looked and sounded very much like the original Harley motor, but was stronger, more reliable, needed less maintenance and didn’t leak or burn oil. It also helped turn H-D round. Royal Enfield’s equivalent, launched in 2008, was the UCE (Unit Construction Engine) and just like the Evolution it made great strides in reliability, oil tightness and general lack of hassle. Hydraulic tappets and a primary chain tensioner cut down on maintenance while fuel injection on export 500s did the same for emissions.

The first unit-construction Royal Enfield Bullet, the Thunderbird Twinspark. [Royal Enfield]
The home market got it first, in the carb-fed 350, while exports followed with the fuel-injected 500, which came as the new retro-style Classic. Until now, the Bullet hadn’t really pandered to the retro market because…well, it already was retro. But the Classic underlined the bike’s long roots with a thorough restyle owing more to the 1930s than the ’50s. And it got a good reception – the 500cc UCE still only claimed 27bhp and the Bullet was still a low-revving single which vibrated at speed, but for many more mature born again bikers, this new generation of singles was just the ticket.

A customized Bullet on the streets of Mumbai, from Thierry Vincent’s 2009 project “Chai Racers,” on customizers in India. [Thierry Vincent]
However, it very nearly all went horribly wrong. In the summer of 2009, just six months after the Classic 500 went on sale, one of them seized up on a test ride at 70mph. Fortunately, the rider wasn’t hurt, but it’s the sort of incident that causes fear and quaking in corporate boardrooms. It turned out that a manufacturing fault in the gearbox could cause gears to jam on the shaft, potentially affecting every single UCE made up to that point. To its credit, the factory lost no time in coming up with a fix, a kit of parts that mounted the gears on bushes. Every bike had to be recalled, which in the UK affected about 800 machines – some already sold, some in dealer showrooms and others still on the boat from India – all of which had to be dismantled. In the USA, Classic Motorworks recalled another 200. Fortunately, it seems the recall was a complete success, but it could have been very different.

The Continental GT, a revamp of the factorys original cafe racer, which was never a Bullet, but there you go: it looks great. [Royal Enfield]
In the long-term, it didn’t matter, because burgeoning demand for the UCE Bullet meant Royal Enfield was soon ramping up production to keep up. Output tripled to 74,000 by 2011, and a massive new factory at Oragadam, opened two years later at a cost of $24 million, would enable even faster growth – in 2014, production broached 300,000 and would double again to over 666,000 in 2016, while work began on a third factory. Compared to traditional Enfield India production, these figures were stratospheric. And still, Royal Enfield is the smallest major motorcycle manufacturer in India.

By 2017, RE’s sales equalled Harley-Davidson, KTM, BMW, Triumph and Ducati combined.

But then, this was a very different Royal Enfield from the one that had struggled to build 20,000 Bullets a year, truing up frames with a blowtorch and hammer. Under Siddhartha Lal, the company had global ambitions, and Sid’s stated aim was to become world leader in the 250-750cc sector – 50% of that market would mean sales of around a million bikes a year. Sceptics pointed out that this would take at least ten years and need a wider range of bikes with a bigger engine. Fortunately, RE already had this in hand.

The longest production run in the world? At least for the name it is. [Peter Henshaw]
The Continental GT cafe racer, launched in 2013, was more than just a Bullet variant, with its own frame designed by Harris Performance in the UK. Truth was, with 29bhp from the 535cc UCE engine, it was barely any faster than a Classic. But that didn’t matter, because it looked the part and did wonders for Royal Enfield’s image. The GT was followed by the Himalayan adventure bike and the 650cc twins, all of them fruits of Anglo-Indian co-operation, thanks to the new R&D Technical Centre in Leicestershire. By 2017, Sid was able to tweet that RE’s sales were equivalent to those of Harley-Davidson, KTM, BMW, Triumph and Ducati combined. “Let that sink in for a second,” he tapped. It wasn’t until late 2018 (when sales broke through the 800,000 barrier) that growth began to slow.

Meanwhile, in export markets at least, the Bullet, overshadowed by a new generation of RE’s, was fading into the background. But this little bike had been transformed from a limited production Brit single to – nearly 90 years later – as the basis for one of the world’s biggest motorcycle makers. Does that make it the most successful motorcycle model of all time? Discuss.


Peter Henshaw is a writer in England.  His book, ‘Royal Enfield Bullet: The Complete Story’ will be published by Crowood Press shortly.