Current News: The Bullet Recharged

If you're a keen reader of The Vintagent's 'Current News' – and why on earth wouldn't you – you'll remember that in February 2019 I wrote a piece about the Charging Bullet, a 1961 Royal Enfield converted to electric power by young engineer Fred Spaven. Well, almost a year later, I'm writing about another electrified Bullet, the Photon.  Electric Classic Cars is behind this new conversion: their bread and butter work is in converting classic four-wheelers to battery power. VeeDubs feature highly, as do Minis, Range Rovers and Porsches, but they'll convert virtually anything on four wheels from the 1950s a price. Heresy? Well maybe, but apparently some well-heeled owners like the idea of owning a genuine classic with none of the associated driving or maintenance hassles – no carburetor, no manual choke, no clutch or gears, no constant maintenance, just turn the key and go, but keep the classic style.

The Photon was created in the workshops of Electric Classic Cars of Newtown, Wales. [Peter Henshaw]
Company founder Richard Morgan isn't a biker, but his father is, and currently rides a Yamaha Tracer.  As reliable as the Tracer is, he wanted something with even lower maintenance: “The cars we do are certainly low maintenance,” said Richard, “so I thought, let's do a bike.”

Direct Drive

The Photon is the result, based on a brand new RE Bullet Classic without its 500cc engine and five-speed box. In their place are four 2.5kwh lithium-ion batteries from LG Chem, hidden under  3D-printed panels, which fill the void well. Most electric motorcycles, like Zero, mount the motor where a petrol bike's gearbox would be, but Richard Morgan chose to move it to the rear wheel hub. These hub motors are usually restricted to scooters, but for the Photon, the 13Kw motor is water-cooled – coolant supplied from a front mounted radiator with twin fans and pumped into the motor's centre. Electric Classic Cars don't quote a torque figure, but a similar 14Kw hub motor claims 'more than 300Nm.' That's not as tarmac-shredding as it sounds, because you've only got one gear, but it's still a muscular rotational effort. Of course, as it's in the hub, the motor drives direct, so there's no chain, belt or shaft to worry about. As for the essential electronics masterminding the power delivery and charging/discharging process, they're squeezed into what used to be the Bullet's fuel tank. Apparently every square inch of space inside is used, which I would say amounts to a masterpiece of packaging.

Clean packaging of the battery and electrical components makes for a harmonious mix with the venerable Bullet styling. [Peter Henshaw]
Otherwise, this is very much a standard Bullet, with the same tubular steel frame (though a subframe is bolted on to help support the batteries), 35mm telescopic forks and twin rear shocks. Which means if you really want to convert it back to petrol power you could, though I imagine it wouldn't be a five-minute job.

Big Torque

At 200kg, the Photon weighs about the same as a fueled-up Bullet 500, so it feels quite familiar as you swing aboard, especially as the view from the rider's position is all stock. There's no kickstart or pushbutton: turn the key, wait for the speedo to dial up and a green LED to show, twist the grip and you take off silently – in fact, the Photon is even quieter than other electric motorcycles because there's no chain noise.

The bit in the middle is all battery: the motor is in the rear wheel, with plenty of juice for the Photon to cruise at 70mph. [Peter Henshaw]
I remember the Charging Bullet accelerated quite gently up to about 20mph, after which speed would start to build. The Photon acts the same up to 10mph, then just takes off. It's far quicker than any Bullet – petrol or electric – and whips up to 50-55mph with alacrity. Twist the grip at 30mph on the edge of town, and it's doing 40mph in about three seconds, fifty in another three. This isn't superbike performance, but it's enough to be fun. Over 55mph, acceleration is blunted a little by the barn door aerodynamics of an upright riding position, but speed just keeps on building and the test bike – a 5000-mile prototype – was still accelerating at an indicated 70mph. The bike is limited to a true seventy because holding higher speeds would blow a big hole in the range. Either way, it'll happily hold its own on main roads, though may be a bit out of its depth on motorways.

Testing the Photon: the same weight as a standard Bullet, the same handling, but no noise at all, or vibration, oil leaks, maintenance... [Peter Henshaw]
Back on urban streets, like any electric the Photon is supremely easy to ride. No clutch, no gears, no engine noise, just a smooth, progressive and silent take up of power. The bike is well balanced at low speeds so it's dead easy to slip up the outside of traffic queues – you just have to be sure the lead car has realized you're there, because they won't have heard you... The standard Bullet is about as far from a sports bike as it's possible to be, and the Photon is much the same. That's no bad thing: it's a slow steerer but very stable, whether in a straight line or around bumpy corners. The non-adjustable telescopic forks aren't exactly top spec but they do the job, as do the twin rear shocks. Michelin Sirag tyres, with a chunky tread pattern suggestive of adventure bikes, cling well.

The ideal setting: town riding. With a likely 80-mile range, plan ahead before heading into the woods, but there's plenty to enjoy about the Photon in town, including its great styling. [Peter Henshaw]
The days of drum-braked Bullets are long gone, so the Photon has a 280mm front disc with four-pot caliper, and a 240mm rear. The front stopper felt a bit wooden, but it was strong enough for the bike's performance and the rear was nice and progressive. Actually, there are three brakes, because the Photon also has regenerative braking, which feels like engine braking when you close the twistgrip, as well as putting a small amount of power back into the battery. What you can't do is adjust the amount of regen, unlike say, a Zero, on which you can dial it up or down on their phone app. Talking of regen, I have fond memories of the Vectrix (remember that?) That pioneer e-scooter had a two-way twistgrip, and the further you pushed it beyond closed, the more regen and the harder engine braking you got in return. With practice you could ride through town without touching the conventional brakes, just doing everything one-handed on the grip...but I'm getting sidetracked.

Love the logo...made especially classic with the somber gold over metallic green/black paint. [Peter Henshaw]
More crucial than any of this of course, is exactly how far the Photon will go on a charge, because for all the advances in battery technology in recent years (with more capacity crammed into smaller spaces), it's still a limiting factor. With only a short winter's afternoon to test the Photon I didn't have time to do a proper full-to-flat mileage test, so I asked Richard Morgan: “About 100 miles.” That sounds a tad optimistic. ECC's test rider told me he had ridden the bike a round trip of 80 miles at 50-60mph. What we do know is that a Zero S 14.4 claims 120 miles on a standard mix of town running and 70mph cruising – it's got 40% more battery capacity than the Photon's 10kwh, so an 80-mile range does look achievable...all other things being equal.

Easy to manage, with excellent brakes and power. If you want classic styling for your electric commuter, the Photon nails it. [Peter Henshaw]
The Photon comes with a 7kw onboard charger and Type 1 connector, which Richard Morgan says will deliver a full charge in about 90 minutes. Again, that sounds a little optimistic, but without having seen it happen I can't say either way. So, the Photon is still far from having a 'petrol' range, but you could have a pleasant couple of hours ride out, recharge over a long lunch and ride a couple of hours home. A battery level gauge is included in small digital panel set into the standard Bullet speedometer, and there's a more accurate version under the right-hand side panel, next to the charge inlet. The Bullet must be the only new motorcycle on sale with an ammeter – on production versions of the Photon it'll show power draw and regen charge.

Good Looker

A pleasant design aspect of  the Photon is that it looks mildly customized. Dark green paintwork (red and blue will be production options) with gold coachlining and black rims, are all quite classy. The headlight is LED and the front indicators are built into the the Bullet's little running lights, and very neat they are too. The quilted solo seat (no dual seat option) blends in well and Richard Morgan is planning to offer matching pair of leather panniers to carry to extra batteries, boosting the range by 50%.

If a pannier battery back will increase the range 50%, then longer trips are possible, making a weekender out of a commuter. Contact the makers to inquire. [Peter Henshaw]
We haven't discussed price yet, and that's the difficult news, because the Photon will cost around £20,000 in the UK. There's not much to compare it with, though Fred Spaven was charging £7000 for his conversion to a customer bike. Put another way, the Photon is about twice the price of the entry-level Zero S 7.2, and still way more than the bigger-battery 14.4. So to buy a Photon, you'll have to really, really want one. It may find success as a niche product, sharing garage space with an electrified Porsche 911 or VW Camper. If the retro electro style appeals, it could suit someone perfectly.


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

From Russia With Love

The Norton-Villiers-Triumph Motorcycle Factory in the USSR

It's July 1974, and Norton Villiers Triumph (NVT) is fighting for its life. This last chance saloon has been set up out of what was left of the British motorcycle industry – the mighty BSA has collapsed, Triumph's Meriden factory is slated for closure and Norton, with the Commando's glory years behind it, is desperate for new capital. The British Government agrees to put some money in to save the industry, but only if these disparate parts merge under the leadership of Dennis Poore, boss of Norton.

Oh the ignomy! Great rivals become bedfellows through sheer hubris, as the British Empire collapsed, along with its mindset of natural superiority, as those it looked down upon flourished, and overwhelmed their industry. Triumph survived only because a wealthy property developer had no attachment to history, and transformed the brand with 'Japanese' production and design methodology. Norton, the saddest case of all, is dragged through the mud by a charlatan and fraud, and appears doomed. [Michael Jackson / NVT]
Maybe it was a bit much to expect these erstwhile rivals to make a go of it and herald a new dawn for British bikes. Certainly the hurdles to success were huge. Triumph, Norton and BSA all suffered from building outdated bikes and lacked the capital to invest in new ones. There was mistrust between the players, even between BSA and Triumph, which had been part of the same company since 1951. Workers at Meriden refused to lie down and take their redundancy payments. Strikes, blockades, management indecision and lukewarm Government backing followed...a complicated situation got ever more messy...and so it went on.

Women workers at the Meriden Triumph factory hold a funeral for the brand on Sep 14, 1973, after Dennis Poore announced to the factory workers that the shop would be closed, and Triumph production moved to the BSA plant in Birmingham. The workers immediately staged a sit-in, and blockaded the factory for 18 months while working out a plan with the UK government to keep the brand alive in Meriden. The Triumph Engineering Co, or Meriden Co-op, was born, and production continued, but without enough investment for development. [Today In Motorcycle History]
However, in 1974, NVT thought it had a long-term answer to survival, not in expanding production at home, but extending it abroad. NVT's Director of Overseas Planning Peter Deverall wrote a report assessing the chances of setting up production in four countries. The idea was that any or all of them offered lower manufacturing costs than Britain and thus a better return on investment. They were Iraq (known as Project D50 inside NVT), Poland (D52), Yugoslavia (D53) and most intriguingly of all (D51) the USSR.

War & Peace

By this time of course, the Soviet Union was a major manufacturer of bikes, with a long history stretching back pre-revolutionary Russia. A few two- and three-wheelers were imported by individuals in Tsarist times, and in 1913 a project got underway to build a lightweight bike in Moscow though the outbreak of a revolution put a stop to that.

Motorcycling in Russia, and the Soviet Union, goes way back. Here's a group of Moscow riders in 1932 on a variety of machines. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Fast forward a decade or so. The Tsar has been executed and the Bolshevik regime is consolidating power, having won a civil war and beaten off foreign forces trying to undermine the revolution. In Moscow, a group of engineers launches the Soyuz, the USSR's first motorcycle, a 500cc four-stroke saddle-tank single with three-speed hand change gearbox. Production lasts less than a year, but the early 1930s would see mass production of the Izh-7, a 300cc two-stroke influenced by DKW, the British influenced AM600 side-valve single and the A750 V-twin. All three were taken up by the Soviet military as despatch bikes, while the future archetypal Russian military motorcycles were already waiting in the wings.

A wild mix inspired by the BMW R11 pressed-steel chassis and Harley-Davidson WL motor, the PMZ A-750, the first Soviet military motorcycle, designed by Pyotr Mozharov, and built in Podolsk. The first prototypes appeared in 1933, and production started in 1934. [Vintagent Archive]
There's a piece of folklore which goes that as the German armies swept across Russia in 1941, they were amazed to be met by Soviet troops mounted on flat-twins which looked uncannily like BMW's R71 side-valve flat-twin. Now the official Ural factory line was that civilian R71s were smuggled through Scandinavia in 1940 and rapidly put into production to meet the looming threat of a Nazi invasion. It's possible, but the consensus now seems to be that the R71 transfer wasn't quite that undercover. The Nazi/Soviet Pact of August 1939 (which in the event just bought the Soviets a couple of years before Hitler invaded) soon led to an economic agreement – Russian raw materials in exchange for German technology, which probably included a licence to build the R71. Certainly the M72 – the Russian military version of the BMW – soon became an integral part of the Red Army, leading to the M73 with sidecar wheel drive.

The foundation of a very long production series, the Izh (Ural) M-72, a clone of the BMW R71. The M-72 was built from 1942 through the mid-1950s in exactly this form, although many versions of this machine were developed, with different engine capacities, overhead-valve and even supercharged engines, and later, a swingarm chassis, etc. Over 3 Million Urals have been built. [Irbit Motorcycle Museum]
These, along with the DKW-based two-strokes, 600 single and 750 V-twin were mostly built east of the Urals, part of the rapid evacuation of industry eastwards so that it could keep churning out materiel even as the Nazis advanced through western Russia. Flat-twin production was swiftly set up in Irbit, where Urals are built to this day, and nearly 10,000 were made during the war. That sounds a lot, but it's worth remembering that the Red Army actually used many more Harleys and Indians shipped in from the USA, not to mention Ariel, Norton, Matchless, BSA and even Velocette singles.

Postwar Soviet endurance races were conducted with all manner of motorcycles: these are Izh 50 two-stroke singles based on the DKW RT175 pattern, being prepared for a dirt-road context in the early 1950s. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The war devastated parts of the Soviet Union, but the Soviet-occupied zone in Germany included the DKW factory, the largest in the world just before the war, and motorcycle production picked up from the late 1940s and early '50s. In fact, a whole range of bikes (as well as scooters, mopeds and autocycles) were built in factories scattered across the USSR, each one specialising in one type. So 125cc two-strokes came out of the Minsk plant, 125/175s from Kovrov and 350cc singles from Izhevsk – all of these were two-strokes, basic utility machines which reflected the Soviet priority for cheap transport rather than consumer frivolities.

Soviet racing also included a series just for women! It was documented by only one Western journalist - Anke Eve Goldman - who corresponded regularly with the competitors. Read the story here. [Vintagent Archive]
As for the flat-twins, these were still built in Kiev as well as Irbit, with bikes finally released to the civilian market from 1954. In 1957 the M72 was replaced by the overhead valve M52 and the old side-valve tooling was shipped off to China, where Chang Jiang restarted production, and kept it up for decades. As late as the 1990s these were being offered brand new in the UK for (if memory serves correct) about £2500. They were certainly cheap, but I think the warranty covered parts only, which owners were expected to fit themselves!

The 1948 M35-K racer that (remarkably) won Best in Show at the Concorso di Motociclette Villa d'Este in 2013. It was developed from the BMW R71 clone in production during WW2, but with a 350cc capacity and overhead-valve cylinder heads. [Concorso Villa d'Este]
Meanwhile, the Ural plant carried on making ohv flat-twins as 500s, 650s and 750s, and as late as the 1980s there were even plans to expand production to 200,000 a year. Then came Perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rapid privatisation of most state enterprises. Ural was bought up by a group of US-based Russian-born entrepreneurs, and the bike was transformed (for the West) into an upmarket curiosity, with German / Japanese electrics and a much higher price. It's still with us.

Socialist Realism

Soviet bikes might have started off as basic transport, but the regime actually encouraged motorcycle sport, this being seen as a means of motivating the masses at home and winning prestige abroad. Speedway was very popular in the the USSR, with a successful national team, as was its offshooot of ice racing. Unlike speedway, the latter used spiked tyres and the same riding techniques as road racing, though if you came off, the flying spikes would have proved a hazard... Then there was ski racing, with skiers towed behind the bikes on snow – I can't decide who was braver, the riders or the skiers. Motocross was popular (mud in summer, snow in winter) while the Soviet motoball team often won the European Championship. There was road racing too of course, and modified (even supercharged) versions of the BMW clones were raced, and in the mid-1960s one Soviet factory (Vostok) even developed its own 350 and 500cc DOHC four-cylinder racers, though their only podium place was a third at the 1965 East German GP.

The first experiments with OHV cylinder heads on the M-72 platform began in the early 1940s, and this 1949 prototype looks much like production Urals of the 1980s and '90s. [Vintagent Archive]
Socially too, motorcycles were part of everyday life. Colin Turbett's book ('Motorcycles & Motorcycling in the USSR') contains lots of family photographs in which Soviet-made bikes feature as props. They weren't necessarily the focus of the picture, but suggested that with such a prized possession, the family had arrived. Picnics, parades, the Wall of Death, Moscow State Circus, the art of socialist realism – motorcycles feature in all them. You might get three generations grouped around the family bike, or an optimistic young couple or a group of lantern-jawed men out picking flowers for their wives. And there was at least one Eastern Bloc motorcycle movie, Dangerous Curves (1959), a comedy which saw a woman mistaken for her motorcycle racing sister.

The British are Coming

So, back to circa 1974 and Norton Villiers Triumph, then surviving on its ageing pushrod twins and triples. It desperately needed a new generation of bikes to survive, but was just as desperately short of money to put them into production. Veteran industry designer Bert Hopwood had come up with what he called a modular range of singles, twins, triples, fours and even a V-5, but these would need about £20 million to put into production. Norton had its Challenge water-cooled 750 twin in development, but again that needed money to move forward.

The Triumph Quadrant engine: effectively two Tiger 100 motors, inheriting all the complication involved in keeping them oil-tight. [VMCC Archive]
In these straitened circumstances – so different from the lavish spending on Daytona race teams and the Umberslade Hall R&D centre just a few years earlier – there was an atmosphere of making the best of what was available. This was especially true of the new (modestly sized) engineering centre at Kitts Green, where Doug Hele and his team had managed to come up with a four-cylinder prototype. Mike Jackson, Sales Director at Norton, takes up the story: “It was a sort of homework project. In spare moments they had converted a T150 into a four cylinder by adding an extra cylinder. Dennis Poore was shown it and must have liked it because he didn't say they'd been wasting their time.” This was the Quadrant, a 987cc four which was said to have clocked 125mph in speed tests. Could it be true, a British four to beat the Japanese?

Factory testers found the Quadrant fast, but everyone knew there would be trouble keeping them fast. [VMCC Archive]
Unfortunately, the Quadrant was still an elderly pushrod engine, just like the triple it grew out of, and like that it would be complicated and expensive to make, with lots of mating surfaces needing machining for oil tightness. If it had got as far as a production line, the Quadrant would probably have been more expensive than the Japanese opposition and within a few years, slower into the bargain. However, there were those within the company who clearly thought that the big torquey four could form the basis of a production plant in the USSR. NVT's original planning document – now held at the Vintage Motorcycle Club library – details the thinking behind it. Some of it made a virtue of necessity. Air cooling? “Readily adaptable to wide variations of climate.” Pushrods? “Shorter engine...better cooling...easier maintenance...” And so it went on.

Another view of the Quadrant prototype, which is now on display in the National Motorcycle Museum in Birmingham. [VMCC Archive]
Actually, the Russian Quadrant would have seen some changes, such as metric threads and electronic ignition. With 1970s USSR in mind, the motor was in a very mild state of tune, with a low 8.5:1 compression to cope with 86 octane fuel and a single carburetor, offering 65bhp at 7000rpm. The three-cylinder Trident's 5-speed gearbox and diaphragm clutch were retained, while the document promised that Isolastic rubber mounts – the Commando system – would feature as well. There was a no-nonsense steel backbone frame and full enclosure for the final drive chain – perhaps a generation of Soviet mechanics brought up on shaft-drive Urals wouldn't have been so hot on chain maintenance.

There was another change from the original Quadrant prototype. By the 1970s, sidecars were an eccentric sideline in the West, but in Russia they were still part of everyday transport. So the Russian Quadrant would be offered in sidecar form, not with the chair simply bolted onto a solo, but with its own integrated three-wheel chassis, car-type wheels and the choice of passenger or load-carrying space.

Factory concept drawings byNVT stylist Mick Ofield, for a Soviet-built Quadrant sidecar unit, as a one-piece utility machine for families and work. [VMCC Archive]
Finally, NVT envisaged that the Quadrant would be made in unprecedented numbers, with 2500 bikes being churned out of the new factory every week. Just for comparison the Trident had averaged less than 100 a week over its seven-year life... That meant the Russians would need to turn out 100,000 individual parts and 200,000 pressings each week. In the Soviet way the plant would make most of these inhouse, thanks to its own forge and aluminium foundry, not to mention countless presses, pipe benders, milling machines, heat treatments...NVT's document detailed them all. It was virtually a blueprint for a complete factory complex, and someone at NVT put in an awful lot of work.

The Aftermath

Alas, the Russian Quadrant never happened, and we don't know why. The document may never even have made it over the Iron Curtain – who knows. Of NVT's overseas schemes, that for an Iraqi factory scheme seems to have got furthest, envisaging a BSA B50-based bike, but that too faded away. As for the original Quadrant, when NVT was being closed down, Mike Jackson was tasked with selling off the various prototypes, and offered the four to Doug Hele (by then working for outboard manufacturer British Seagull) since it had been his baby. He didn't want it, and in the end it was sold to Roy Richardson, then in the process of planning the National Motorcycle Museum. It's still there, and whenever I see it, I can't help but think of the Soviet motorcycle which might have been...

Sources: Apart from the NVT document, Colin Turbett's 'Motorcycles & Motorcycling in the USSR' was an invaluable source of information. Published by Veloce Books, it covers USSR bikes from the 1930s up to the collapse of the Soviet Union, including sections on sport, military bikes and UK imports. ( Also 'Norton Villiers Triumph' by Brad Jones covers another neglected part of bike history ( Finally, it's long out of print, but 'Military Motorcycles' by David Ansell has loads of information, if you can find a copy online.


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

Rags to Riches – The Bullet Story

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.


Tough on the Streets!

By Peter Henshaw: Edited by Paul d'Orléans

Street scrambler – lovely name, isn’t it? Evoking images of a rugged machine to thread between rows of snarled traffic, bunny hop off over gridlock and power up the nearest set of steps to park – cool as you like – in front of the office. The street scrambler’s prime time was the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when motorcycles were selling a movie-fed dream. Films like The Great Escape and On Any Sunday hinted that bikes could leap their way to freedom, and that an endless summer of dirt paths and desert dunes with movie stars were yours for the price of a motorcycle.

The King of Cool, Steve McQueen on the actual 1964 ISDT Triumph TR6 Trophy he rode that year as a member of the US team, tooling around the streets of England before the event in East Germany. ['McQueen's Machines']
The fact that desert trails were only within reach of riders living in LA (or Marrakech) didn’t matter, because the suggestion of a bike that could do rugged off-road stuff if you wanted (if the rider had skills to match) was an alluring ideal. And it all fitted well with the 'getaway' culture of the time, a desire to escape the humdrum daily existence of modern worklife.   The origins of the street scrambler style reach much further back than the 1960s, to the original multi-use machinery, typically called Clubman models, offered by various factories beginning in the late 1920s.  Much like 1960s street scramblers, these were machines that could be ridden every day, but the addition of slim mudguards and high exhaust pipes made them suitable for off-road trials or dirt trail riding, to the standards of the day.

Even George Brough knew the appeal of street scramblers: his original 1924 Brough Superior SS100 had high exhaust pipes, and were ridden extensively in off-road endurance competitions.  George himself was a regular winner at such trials, as were riders in other countries, like Germany in Austria, as here.  [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
The key points of what made a street scrambler then as now are the same.  Design cues typically included high-level exhaust pipes (exiting one side or both) with a stylish heat shield, wide handlebars, and often a smaller fuel tank and small headlight.  Trials tires (Dunlop Universals or Goodyear Grasshoppers) were the final cue, although few Japanese street scramblers of the 1960s bothered, in an acknowledgement their machines were designed for style over actual functionality.  Before the 1960s, if a motorcycle was styled as a street scrambler or enduro or trials machine, it was as good as you could find, given the technology, except for a few standouts like the original 1949-58 Triumph TR5 Trophy.  The split between 'real' enduro motorcycles and street scramblers, while they were visually nearly identical, didn't happen on a mass scale until the 1970s, when motorcycles became more specialized, suspension travel lengthened, and a motorcycle labeled 'enduro' was expected to be suitable for competition.

The off-road Clubman style, á lá Francais: a 1936 Peugeot 515 with high pipes. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Street scrambler style was long associated with British twins, with models labeled 'C' (competition) or 'T' (trophy or trials) or 'CS' (competition scrambler) to indicate their intended use.  As I'm a big fan of Triumphs in particular, it's the Meriden bikes I'll focus on in this article. But of course Japanese manufacturers found their greatest success in the 1960s with street scramblers, especially Honda's CL series, which sold in the hundreds of thousands.  Street scrambler style even played a part in the look of the Harley-Davidson Sportster. What street scramblers never did was cross the border into four-cylinder territory: there was no high-piped Honda CB750CS, and while the street scrambler look might have been strictly cosmetic, even fantasies have their limits.

1930 enduros, Swedish style: a pair of experimental Husqvarna OHV V-twins used for the ISDT that year, but sadly never offered to the public. Their engines were developed into their famous GP racers, as ridden by Stanley Woods. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
An American Story

To find the origins of the street scrambler we have to rewind nearly 100 years, to pre-war Britain. As early as the late 1920s, British and European factories offered high-pipe 'sports' or 'competition' models that could be ridden off road, that were equipped with trials tyres, slender mudguards, smaller tanks and small headlamps. When Edward Turner revamped Triumph’s singles (originally designed by Val Page) in the mid-1930s, he added high pipes to the Tiger 70, 80 and 90. Together with a good dash of chrome and flashy paint, he established a look that Meriden would draw on for another 40 years... and Hinckley Triumph styling does to this day.  Turner's gorgeous lines were inspired by English trials bikes, singles that were small and lightweight, and the contemporary Clubman style of mixed-competition machines. Street scramblers I would argue came from adaptation for American competition  – desert racing in the West, enduros in the East.

An American compromise? Definitely an adventure in style: this is 'Jack', who built several British-based customs in the 1940s in California, with definite street scrambler style, with a bit of American bob-job cues thrown in. It's a c.1948 Norton ES2 with high pipes and inverted Velocette fishtail mufflers! [The Vintagent Archive]
With the exception of the International Six Days Trial (ISDT), a typical British or European trial tended to cover fairly short distances over very difficult terrain.  American off-road events like the Big Bear Scramble tended to be long-distance endurance races, with less nadgery low-speed going, and more relentless high-speed rides over rough terrain. A typical British or European trials bike was small, light and manoevrable, but an American desert racer needed speed and power as a high priority, along with ruggedness and acceptable weight. In the 1950s, there was one British bike that fitted this bill better than any other – the Triumph Trophy line. The Meriden twins dominated desert racing in the States through the ‘50s and ‘60s, and did more than any other brand to inspire the street scrambler look, though early on in the 1950s, Triumph styling was all about function rather than form.

The original and still best? The 1950 Triumph TR5 Trophy, with rigid frame and square-barrel all-alloy top end derived from the wartime generator unit. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Triumph that rough-riding Yanks first loved wasn’t designed with them in mind at all. The TR5 Trophy was intended as an ISDT competitor, and very successful it was too, winning on its 1948 debut. But the production Trophy came fully equipped for the road, and turned out to be a supremely versatile bike, able to compete in hill climbs and club racing as well as trials and scrambles, not to mention commuting to work during the week. Although it had been designed for a purpose, it undeniably had a beautiful form as well as functionality. The siamesed high-pipes on the left-hand side, its silver tank, and tidy square-barrel 500cc twin-cylinder motor, were all set in a short-wheelbase rigid frame that gave a compact and purposeful look, while Edward Turner's styling set it all off.

The Trophy, evolved. The 1957 TR6 Trophy, with 650cc engine, built to cater to the American hunger for more power and off-road use. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Americans loved the Trophy, as well they might, given the alternatives: it had a responsiveness and balance that a heavyweight Harley-Davidson or Indian could only dream of. A Matchless G80C single had more power for the longer desert races, but the low compression TR5 Trophy (just 25bhp from a 6.0:1 compression) was easier to ride, and still fast enough to be competitive. And perhaps most importantly, it made a decent road bike.

Bud Ekins was the most famous endurance rider in the US in the late 1950s, and was contracted to ride Triumphs...because they were winners! Here he sits with his highly modified pre-unit Triumph after winning the Big Bear: note the massive dents in the front rim! American long-distance racing was no picnic, and the experience gained served Bud Ekins and his brother Dave well in the ISDT. [The Vintagent Archive]
Soon the Americans wanted more power than a 500cc motor could provide, and Meriden obliged with the TR6 Trophy-Bird, so called because it married the beefy 650cc twin of the Tiger 110 (and a new alloy cylinder head) with a Trophy-style chassis, plus a smaller fuel tank, quickly detachable headlight, 20-inch front wheel and waterproof magneto. The Trophy-Bird really worked too, taking the top three places in the gruelling Big Bear Enduro of 1956. One of the riders was Bud Ekins, who would long be associated with Triumph, and made that famous leap in The Great Escape when Steve McQueen’s insurers allegedly forbade the star from doing it himself. The TR6 Trophy-Bird was a real hit with Western US competition riders, but in the East, where enduros were shorter, the lighter TR5 was still preferred. But Triumph still managed to sell ship-loads of TR6s to the Easterners, by giving it road tyres, smaller wheels and an 8-inch front brake. Designed to ride on the road, but with the same rugged looks as a desert sled, this was arguably the first true street scrambler.

The Harley-Davidson XLC was sold for one year only as a pure Scrambler in 1958, then lights were added the following year to make the most popular motorcycle in the H-D lineup, the XLCH. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
With British 650 twins dominating desert racing in the late 1950s, Harley-Davidson noticed it was missing out. It still did well in traditional flat-track racing, but really needed something to rival Triumph in the deserts as well. The new-for-1957 XL Sportster was too heavy and had weak forks, but a group of Californian dealers persuaded Harley-Davidson brass to build a competition version.  In 1958 the XLC was a stripped-to-the-bare-bones sports machine, with a tiny fuel tank and a solo seat. Only a few hundred were made, but it did lead directly to the XLCH road bike, which looked much the same – in some years it even had high pipes. The bijou fuel tank incidentally came from the Hummer, Harley’s 125cc copy of a pre-war DKW 125 two-stroke. Brochure pictures showed the XLCH dashing along forest trails, and of course very few did that, but they had the street scrambler look, something of which has stayed with the Sportster ever since.

Scramble the Bonneville

The 1965 Triumph T120C Bonneville Scrambler with optional high-pipes - useful on the bayou streets of Louisiana! [Peter Henshaw]
A few years later, Triumph had hit trouble with the original T120 Bonneville. Why? Because Britain’s flagship hot rod twin was, in its debut 1959 year, (whisper it) a bit of a lemon. Not in its rip-roaring performance, but because Triumph dressed it up like the touring Thunderbird, with valanced mudguards and graceful headlight nacelle. Sales failed to take off in the States until it was restyled for 1960 along Trophy-Bird lines: slimmer mudguards, gaitered forks, chrome headlight and with low or high-level pipes to order. With high pipes, it was called the ‘Bonneville Scrambler.’

A competent enduro motorcycle used primarily as a street scrambler by current owners: the Rickman-Triumph Metisse was so good-looking it remains in production even today. [Mecum]
Of course, Triumph wasn’t alone in catering to trends in this way. BSA, Norton, Matchless, AJS and others all produced their own desert sleds – real or replicas – at first for the American market only. Norton offered beautiful 500cc and 600cc twin enduros in the 1950s (the original N15 and Nomad models), before building the hairy Atlas-powered Scrambler in the mid-60s, and the hybrid P11 and G15 models.  In the 1970s, the Commando S and SS also had high pipes in proper street scrambler style. BSA’s take on all this was the Firebird 650, a high-pipe version of the road going Lightning.  BSA entered  the 1950s with the genuine desert sled version of the A10, the Hornet, but later models gradually became a styling exercise.

Other brands, other street scramblers: the 1959 Norton Nomad was a beautiful and rare model, built for two years only, using the Dominator 500 or 600cc motor, in the ES2 swingarm frame, with long Roadholder forks, slim alloy mudguards, a small tank, and siamesed exhaust. [The Vintagent Archive]
The Japanese were paying attention too. Suzuki, Yamaha and Kawasaki all offered street scrambler versions of their two-stroke singles and twins in the late 1960s, but Honda got there first. From 1962 onwards, the CL series were street scrambler versions of Honda road bikes, complete with Triumph-like forks, smaller tanks and all the usual styling cues. To launch the model, they asked Bud Ekins to ride one from Tijuana to La Paz in Baja, but Bud's contract with Triumph made that impossible.  His brother Dave Ekins actually had more ISDT Gold medals under his belt, but was not as famous (not the sailor-swearing, hard-drinking best pal of McQueen like his brother Bud), but was free for the promotional ride.  He brought Bill Robinson Jr, another experience desert racer, along for the ride, and Honda's Wester Sales Manager Walt Fulton flew a plane to deliver supplies along the way, as the route lacked towns, fuel, food, and even roads for much of the 1000 miles down the Baja peninsula.  The success of this ride, the first ever motorcycle trip down Baja, launched the CL72 to huge sales success, as well as kickstarting the whole Baja racing concept that carries on to this day.

Dave Ekins in La Paz, Mexico, on the completion of his 1000-mile non-stop run down the Baja peninsula in 1961. The bike is a Honda prototype of the CL72 Scrambler, and the run was a promotional stunt dreamed up by the US Honda importers. Note the missing taillamp: Dave's bike got off easy , but his partner's machine holed a piston after an air cleaner was knocked off halfway down the road. []
Clearly, while not a proper motocrosser, the little Honda was capable of being ridden off-road, and in 1961, there was still not much difference between a street scrambler and a scrambler or enduro bike. Eventually Honda offered a complete range of CL street scramblers, in 125, 250, 350 and 450cc versions, and a modified CL350 won the Baja 1000 in 1971.  The same year that Honda won the Baja, BSA/Triumph launched its much trumpeted new range, which in reality was the old one in new clothes. But there were street scrambler versions of just about everything including a promised all-new 350cc twin. Projected as a Triumph Bandit and BSA Fury, this DOHC 350 never reached production, but if it had, there would have been street scrambler versions in both BSA and Triumph forms.

The immortal Ducati 450 R/T, as seen in the Concorso Eleganza Villa d'Este in 2019. Street scramblers at a Concours? You bet! [Paul d'Orléans]
This Italians were watching too, hoping to catch a few sales in the American market by offering stylish street scramblers.  Even MV Agusta built the the 250B Scrambler, an extraordinarily expensive, high-style street scrambler: you know a bike was never meant for competition when the added weight of twin exhaust systems is considered a styling bonus.  Ducati also had its eye on the US market, and beside its famous 1960s single-cylinder cafe racers (the Diana/MkIII/Desmo line), were their more popular Scramblers, with longer suspension travel, smaller tanks, high handlebars, and high exhaust pipes.  Yes, a few were raced in the USA, but mostly they were coveted for their looks.

The 1968 MV Agusta 250B Scrambler: too much style (and too much expense) for some: only 52 were built. [John Goldman Archive]
The early 1970s was the beginning of the end for the street scrambler, at least in their first incarnation. As two-strokes began to take over off-road competition on both sides of the Atlantic, the glamour of big-twin desert sleds began to wear thin, and any aspiration of a street scrambler towards passing as a competent motocrosser looked silly. With the advent of a new generation of 750cc road bikes, the 650 twins weren’t the fastest thing on the road any more.

The Triumph TR5T of 1973 combined the chassis of the BSA B50 MX with the Triumph single-carb 500cc twin motor, making a surprisingly good off-roader with terrific street scrambler styling. The factory built a few with ultralight components, and won Silver in the 1973 ISDT. [Hockenheim Museum Archive]
Triumph revisited the street scrambler concept with the under-appreciated 1973/4 TR5T Trophy Trail (which did well the 1973 ISDT, albeit in a highly-modified factory form), and then inflated it 1980s style with the silly and extremely rare 1981/2 TR7T Tiger Trail.  But these were extremely limited-production machines, and were ridiculed in their day for not being pure enduros or capable of winning races, and the whiff of failure hangs about them still, deserved or not.  Today, we are having a second look at these machines, and they are rising in collectability from rock-bottom to cult status, with a consequent rise in demand.  All because...

They're Back!

As with just about every other aesthetic trend of the 1960s and '70s, street scramblers have come back. The first signs of the revival appeared in the early 2000s, with new takes on street scramblers being one important facet of the booming independent custom scene, or 'alt-custom' scene, made famous at Wheels&Waves, the Handbuilt Show, and the Vintagent's own 'Custom Revolution' exhibit at the Petersen Museum. For a new generation, the big factories built boring motorcycles, and were too deeply up their own behinds in designing only ever-faster sportsbikes, fugly cruisers, and middle-aged tourers, each covered in all-plastic-everything.  In a world of ever-busier and more restricted roads, the priorities of motorcycling were edging away from hyper-performance that no one could use, to making a personalized aesthetic statement. Street scramblers became an important part of a customer-led revolution in motorcycle culture, as customizers transformed totally unsuitable street bikes into knobby-tired, fenderless, high-pipe faux-enduros.

BMW's double take on the custom motorcycle scene: the prototype RNineT Scrambler with graphics by Ornamental Conifer, and a surfboard! As seen during the 2015 edition of Wheels&Waves in Biarritz, France. [Paul d'Orléans]
It took a few years, but the big factories finally woke up to the contrast of their own slowing sales versus an exciting custom scene. Triumph was far ahead of the rest of the industry when it introduced their Scrambler in 2006. It was no more than a standard Bonneville with high pipes, but just like in the 1960s, it pressed all the right buttons, became a hit, and is a best-selling part of Triumph's line up to this day. In 2019, TT racer Guy Martin even recreated the Great Escape leap on a brand new Scrambler, albeit with a lot of weight taken off. Other manufacturers large and small got in on the act, including BMW and most notably Ducati, who launched their own Scrambler as a complete sub-brand in 2015, with styling cues taken from its own 1960s single-cylinder Scrambler.  It's Bologna's biggest selling model, which must say something about the desire for a Great Escape in the 2010s.

David Beckham posing with a new Triumph Scrambler. [Triumph]
With motorcycle genres so distinct today, and hyper-functionality required for every style of machine (sportbike, enduro, MX, tourer, etc), the street scrambler is a welcome alternative.  They are popular for the same reason they were the biggest sellers in the 1960s: they're cool and fun.

It's no wonder Fonzie rode a Triumph Trophy: it was always the coolest. And, Bud Ekins supplied the 1952 Triumph TR5 Trophy to the producers of 'Happy Days'. [eBay]


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


Blue Junior Flying Scooter Display Team

Not many people know this, but when Japan finally started building its armed forces back up again after being devastated in the Second World War, it pledged to never again use them for offensive purposes. So the army was a renamed the 'Ground Self-Defence Force' and tanks were labelled 'special vehicles.' Even in today's tense world, Japan has its own Army, Navy and Air Force, but they are only permitted to start shooting if someone attacks them first. However, this didn't stop the Japanese Air Force setting up Blue Impulse, an acrobatics team just like other Air Force teams like the RAF's Red Arrows. Nor, inspired by that, did it stop the Air Force ground staff forming their own display team...but as none of them have a pilot's license, they do it all on Honda scooters - the Blue Junior display team.

Immaculate formation flying from the Honda Dio squadron, complete with spinning propellers. [Japanese Air Staff Office]
As with any display team, the Blue Junior perform slaloms, twists and twirls, without leaving the ground and at a terminal speed of 25mph. Just in case, the 'aircraft' are fitted with stabilizers. One might assume these are bolted on to avoid crash landings or because the riders hadn't learned to balance. The real reason: the extra fuselage/bodywork means team members can't put their feet down, and need the stabilizers to stop the flying scooters from toppling over when stopped.

The tiling Honda Gyro 3-wheeler needs no stabilizer wheels...but has them just in case the dogfight gets hairy. [Japanese Air Staff Office]
But we're being unkind, because team members had to go through two months of training before they were permitted to perform with Blue Junior, and they had to practice two or three times a week to keep up to scratch. Set up in 1993 by ten maintenance crews, Blue Junior has performed at many air shows and festivals, including the Japanese Air Force 60th anniversary celebrations, though obviously not with the original crew. "Everywhere they go, aircraft buffs and kids gather round the scooters – they are very popular," said Japanese Air Staff Office spokeswoman Mariku Yasui. "As there are few humour-oriented activities here," said one team member, "we feel a sense of achievement and delight, seeing how spectators enjoy the show."

[Japanese Air Staff Office]
As for the "jet" scooters, the open tops are based on the Honda Dio, a two-stroke fifty with ten-inch wheels that was never sold in Europe. The swish three-wheel enclosed scooters are based on the Honda Gyro Canopy. If you've never come across a Gyro, this was a three-wheeler scooter (one front wheel, two rears) with a hinge in the middle so that it could tilt around corners like a motorcycle. It sounds weird...and indeed it is. The original idea was patented by a Mr George Wallis of Surbiton, south London in 1966, and BSA later used it as the basis for its Ariel Three, launched in 1970. The 50cc Ariel, of which BSA expected to sell thousands, was a flop and later blamed as being responsible for the company's collapse. That wasn't the end of Mr Wallis' tilting three-wheeler. The concept was licensed to Honda, which launched the tilting Stream in 1981, and followed up with a whole family of floppy three-wheelers. The Gyro, which hit the streets in 1990, came with a roof and large cargo box, so it was very popular in Japan for sushi deliveries.

Maximum lean angle reached - safety wheels aground! [Japanese Air Staff Office]
To transform the Gyro and Dio into planes, the team built a cunning construction of GRP and plywood over an aluminum frame, which in turn was bolted onto the scooter. The results look... plane-like...especially the propellers on the flying Dio's, which were powered by automobile windshield wiper motors. Blue Junior – the perfect way to defuse international tensions.

[Japanese Air Staff Office]
The Blue Impulse team has been flying since 1960, which makes them older than the RAF's Red Arrows, which started in '64, but it's the French who started the trend in 1931, with the Patrouille de France display team (America's Blue Angels were founded 15 years later, in 1946 - pd'o).  Blue Impulse first used F86F Sabre jet fighters and are now onto Kawasaki T-4 intermediate trainers (yes, the same Kawasaki). They performed at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and have inspired Red Impulse, a mercenary air team featuring in an anime cartoon series, not to mention Aerowings, a flight simulator for Sega's games console.

Believe or not, Britain has its own version of Blue Junior, but it couldn't be more different. The Purple Helmets live on the Isle of Man, are experienced enduro riders and perform their stunts dressed in brown raincoats, dark shades and with deadpan expressions.
Blue Junior is immaculate, uniformed and highly disciplined: the Purple Helmets are none of these things, but do manage some amazing stunts on a collection of old Honda C90s and tatty trail bikes. It's hard to explain, but one involves a naked man playing the piano while riding in a sidecar...have a look!


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


The Electric Folder

By Vintagent Contributor Peter Henshaw


If asked about iconic British transportation brands still producing vehicles, you might say Norton, Triumph, Morgan, or Jaguar, as all of them (give or take a few bankruptcies) are still going strong in the 21st century. You could add Brompton to that list, as it ticks many of the same boxes. Britain's biggest cycle manufacturer is quintessentially, well, British. It's survived against all odds and builds a bike that engenders fierce loyalty among its thousands of owners. They also happen to build one of the best folding bikes ever produced, and now there's an electric version. Britain's cycle industry followed its motorcycle kin into the gloom in the 1970s and '80s, with factories closed down and workers laid off, but many big names survived, finding it profitable to re-badge imports. What manufacturing was left included a few low-volume specialists like Moulton. But a Cambridge engineering graduate named Andrew Ritchie designed a cool folding bike in the 1980s, and began to build it in small numbers out of a railway arch workshop in West London. He named it after the nearest main highway – Brompton Road.

Spot the difference between a regular Brompton and this e-bike? No major redesign, just a discreet add-on. [Peter Henshaw]
Folding bikes are a very tricky design challenge – they have to be light enough to carry, quick and simple to fold, sturdy enough to ride, and compact. Countless attempts have come and gone over the decades, all in search of perfection, but very few have come close. They were either too heavy or too flimsy, too cumbersome or too tricky. I had an all-aluminium Bickerton once – light as a feather, but ride it hard and it flexed like a willow in a hurricane. You know the phrase 'hinged in the middle' as applied to motorcycles? The Bickerton actually had a hinge in its middle, and handled like it. The genius of Andrew Ritchie's Brompton was that it ticked all the boxes, folding down really small, was light enough to carry, and was still a practical little bike to ride. Word got round, Brompton moved out of its railway arch into a proper factory, then a bigger one, and built 44,000 bikes last year. They’re aiming for 100,000 bikes in 2020, and Brompton is that rare thing in the early 21st century, a British manufacturing success story, by capturing a timeless urban chic.

The e-Brompton

Brompton couldn't ignore the electric bike revolution, and for years there were rumours the company was working on an e-bike. While a great folding bike, the Brompton had a limited range of gears that made for hard work in hilly cities. Meanwhile, lithium-ion batteries and compact motors were making e-bikes, or pedelecs, a no-brainer solution for commuters. Last year, the Brompton e-bike finally started production. Typical for the company, it includes quirky touches: rather than buy a well-proven Chinese hub motor, Brompton developed its own, in partnership with the Williams Formula One race team.

Still packable into a trunk or train, plus the power pack. Longer distance commuting is possible now [Peter Henshaw]
At first glance, the e-Brompton looks like a standard model, and apart from the front hub motor, no clues reveal this bike has an extra boost: there are no wires, switches or bulky battery to interfere with the all-important foldability. The battery clips onto the bike's standard front luggage carrier, and the controls are integral into its top surface. In a way, that's very neat, because there are no straggling wires up to a console on the handlebars, but it's also very tricky to change power levels or switch the lights on while on the move, as you have to lean right over the front of the bike to reach the controls. In fact, I'm sure there's a warning the handbook prohibiting just such foolish behaviour.

The pedelec present: currently electric-boost bicycles are the largest EV segment worldwide, with Yamaha alone having sold 4 Million of their PAS pedelecs worldwide [Brompton]
The Brompton conforms to European e-bike legislation in that there's no throttle, so power only kicks in when you turn the pedals – a torque sensor by the bottom bracket does the trick here. So from rest you select power level 1, 2 or 3 and set off. Within one revolution of the pedals the motor comes on stream and you're away. It might all sound seamless, but an entire pedal stroke without power feels like a long time on a hill start, or when pulling away from the lights with traffic breathing down your neck.

In action! Same old Brompton cool/geek vibe: utterly practical and now a little more flexible. [Peter Henshaw]
Everything you've heard about e-bikes is true, and the Brompton is no exception, endowing you with supercharged legs, wafting you up hills and taking the sting out of headwinds. Level 1 is a bit weak, but OK on easy going, but 2 gives a real boost and 3 appears to be in warp drive territory – I even got torque steer a few times on loose surfaces. Whichever level you're on, the power tails off at 15.5mph, in line with the law – this is bicycle, not a moped.

As compact as a suit bag, but a bit heavier [Brompton]
Neat touches to the e-Brompton include powerful LED lights that work directly off the battery, and they take so little power they won't go dim when the battery's low. The battery itself clips on and off easily, only weighs about three kilos and has a USB charge point for phones. And being a Brompton, the bike folds down into a neat compact package in about 20 seconds (much less with practice). Five blue LEDs atop the battery tell how much juice you've got left, the last one flashing when you're down to about 3 miles worth – the test bike managed 27 miles in all, and of course you can charge it at any domestic socket, or top it up over lunch. Just remember to take the charger with you.

No restrictions on carrying an e-Brompton on public transportation [Brompton]
It's not all good news. Thanks to that motor, the bike without battery weighs 14kg, which is far from lightweight if you need to carry it any distance. Bromptons have always been famed for their decent front bag space, but the standard bag on the e-bike is 90% battery – a bigger bag costs £130 extra. Talking of money, the Brompton isn't a cheap bike any more. The basic non-electric range starts at £745 and the e-Brompton costs £2595 for the two-speed version. What you get is a well-engineered little bike that looks cool, goes really well, and as a folder, is compatible with just about any other mode of transport you care to name. Is this the birth of another British transport dynasty?

Not so easy access to the controls - don't try this on the move! [Peter Henshaw]

Brompton Electric

Price: £2595

Motor: 250 watts

Battery: 300Wh

Transmission: 2-speed

Weight (with battery): 16.6kg


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


The Commando Miracle

By Peter Henshaw

It normally takes two or three years to design and prototype a new motorcycle. Using existing components saves time [as with the Ducati Monster - ed.], but even with cutting corners, the process takes many, many months.  But the design engineers at Norton-Villiers, Bob Trigg and Bernard Hooper, were given just eleven weeks in 1967 to come up with a new model for the aging Norton lineup.  There was no time to develop a new motor, so Norton's existing 750cc twin-cylinder engine was a given, but they had to find a way to tame its fearsome vibration.  Trigg and Hooper came up with the Norton Commando, a hastily designed stopgap that became an icon, keeping Norton afloat for the best part of a decade. And, let's just repeat this, they did it in eleven weeks. How was this possible?

The original 1949 Norton Model 7 Dominator, designed by Bert Hopwood to correct some of the Triumph Speed Twin's faults.  Like the Speed Twin did with the Tiger 90 chassis in 1936, the Model 7 engine fit into Norton's International chassis, and carried the post-war Manx aesthetic. It was never as sexy as the Speed Twin or Tiger 100, though. [VintagentArchive]
A Troubled Past

The roots of the Commando story stretch back to 1949, when Norton launched the Dominator, a 500cc parallel twin to rival Triumph's incredibly successful Speed Twin. Norton's twin was drawn up by Bert Hopwood, one of the giants of Britain's postwar motorcycle industry, who tried to cure a few flaws in Edward Turner's Triumph motor.   Turner's engine had a tendency to run hot, it was mechanically noisy, and it leaked oil through its many components - especially the separate rocker boxes and pushrod tubes.  Hopwood's Norton twin had well splayed exhaust ports to improve airflow, a single chain-driven camshaft to reduce noise, plus integral pushrod tubes and rocker mounts to prevent (some of the) leaks.

The new Norton parallel twin Model 7 Dominator was well received, but Bert Hopwood left Norton before it went on sale, in frustration over the company's fixation with racing its increasingly outdated big singles. Six years later he was invited back, as Managing Director, in a bid to turn around the company's ailing fortunes. With a new emphasis on road bikes, talented engineers like Doug Hele were promoted or brought in; tighter financial controls were introduced and a deal was done with Joe Berliner to distribute Nortons in the growing North American market.  A smaller twin was introduced, the 250cc Jubilee, and Norton made a £300,000 profit in 1958.

Despite the profits, Norton's parent company – Associated Motorcycles (AMC), owner of Matchless, AJS, James, Villiers, and Francis-Barnett – was leaking cash, and absorbed Norton's profits into the group. In the summer of 1966 AMC reached a crisis point, and when a deal to source working capital from Joe Berliner fell through, the company went bust.

Dennis Poore in his early racing years [Wikipedia]
That's when Dennis Poore stepped in. As the owner of Manganese Bronze Holdings, he'd been eyeing AMC for some time, and was able to buy the company cheaply during its bankruptcy. Poore was an interesting character: unlike much of the British motorcycle industry's management, he came from upper-class stock. Educated at Eaton and Cambridge University, he was a Wing Commander in the RAF during World War II before making money in the City and following a sideline as a successful racing car driver. Full of energy and charm, he must have seemed like just the chap to revive Britain's number three (after BSA/Triumph) motorcycle brand.

Mr Poore wasted no time, dropping the slow-selling James and Francis-Barnett lines from the AMC stable as well as Norton's smaller Jubilee, Navigator, and Electra twins. He knew what the trimmed-down Norton-Villiers division needed was a new flagship motorcycle. The Norton Atlas 750, launched in 1964, was a torquey beast – the biggest British twin on the market, with the Royal Enfield Interceptor – but it suffered appalling vibration above 5000rpm, because the increase in engine capacity came via a long-stroke crankshaft: there was no money to design new crankcases for a short-stroke 750cc engine, or add modern balancing shafts.

The Norton P10 prototype, which proved mechanically unsound, as well as having an ugly engine design - unacceptable for a Norton.  Despite the chaos of the British industry in the 1960s, the P10 engine should never have left the drawing board. [Peter Henshaw]
Norton had been developing a replacement engine that looked ideal on paper.  The 'P10' was an 800cc parallel-twin with double overhead cams and a five-speed unit-construction gearbox. To quell vibration, the engine was mounted in rubber.  But the prototype P10 turned out to be a lemon: the camshafts were driven by a single long chain which rattled and shed rollers,  the engine was heavy, and it leaked oil. “It would go out on road test,” recalled test rider John Wolverson later, “and when it came back it looked as if someone had poured a gallon of oil all over it.” The rubber mounts allowed the engine to shift under acceleration, jumping the sprockets in the lower gears. Finally, to add insult to injury, it made no more power than the Atlas.

A redesign got underway in early 1967, aiming to have the new bike ready for the Earls Court Show in September. It would use the P10's bottom end with a new top end using two short timing chains and simple bucket-and-shim tappets.  While this was heading in the right direction, there simply wasn't time to develop this all-new engine in six months.  In desperation, Poore summoned design engineers Bob Trigg and Bernard Hooper to a board meeting in London. Both were young, with impressive pedigrees: Trigg had cut his teeth at BSA and Ariel before joining Norton-Villiers, while Hooper had worked with the renowned Hermann Meier on racing two-strokes.

Bob Trigg recalled, “We were would told that if we didn't have a new bike at Earls Court that year, the company would go bust. And we couldn't have a new engine, so we would have to use the Atlas, due to lack of time and money.” And one more thing, they had to find a way to eliminate the big twin's vibration, which was increasingly unacceptable in North America. It was, to say the least, a tall order.

The Isolastic system used to keep engine vibration from the rider, using a totally rubber-mounted engine, gearbox, swingarm, and rear wheel in one unit. The frame used a single large spine downtube that carried oil, a design dating back to the Pierce Four of 1909!. [NorVil]

On the train back to Birmingham, they got to work. Trigg suggested rubber-mounting the engine to combat vibes, which of course had been one of the P10's bugbears, but Hooper thought he had a solution. Engine, gearbox and swinging arm, as a single unit, would be rubber mounted, but with the swinging arm mounted solidly to the engine to overcome the chain pull problem. If the whole assembly was kept in a single plane fore and aft, the wheels would stay in line, and there was a chance the bike would still handle well.

Back at his drawing board, Bob Trigg got to work. Rubber specialists Metalastic were too busy to help, but did tell him that the rubber had to be a high enough rate to absorb the vibration – if the rate was too low, the vibes would simply destroy the mounts. In quick time, an initial prototype was put together and tested on the factory's internal roads. The new system did cut vibration, but only over 6500rpm. Norton's Engineering Director Stefan Bauer, who had little motorcycle experience but was a lateral thinker, told them to slice the mounts in half. Trigg thought that would reduce their life, but did as he was told – now they cut vibration over 4000rpm. Again, Dr Bauer said, slice them in half.

“We took the bike up the road,” said Bob Trigg, “and it was like being in an aeroplane, bumping along at low revs and then at 2300rpm it would smooth out. And that was great, because you could still feel a big twin under you at very low revs, but it took all the hassle out of vibration when riding.” At that point, the Norton Commando was born.

The winning team: a publicity shot of the Norton-Villiers design team with their handiwork, a leap forward in 1960s design, and a path forward for Norton, at least temporarily. Love for the Commando is still strong, and keeping one on the road is easier today than in 1970. [NorVil]
Nearly There

Given the time constraints, Bob Trigg assumed they would modify Norton's existing Featherbed frame for the new bike, but Dr Bauer insisted they design from first principles. Dismissing the hallowed chassis as “a Christmas tree,” he sent Trigg back to the drawing board, and the result was elegant: a frame with almost every tube straight, which weighed only 24lb. Some existing parts were retained, like Norton's excellent Roadholder forks. Then there was the Atlas engine, a long-stroke iron-barrel vertical twin of 745cc: the design harked back to Hopwood's 1949 original, but as a 750cc it was bursting with torque and power - a claimed 58bhp at 6500rpm, not that anyone could ride it at those revs. The Atlas's separate four-speed gearbox was carried over too, but the Commando did get a new diaphragm clutch to reduce lever effort and a triplex primary drive with single-bolt alloy cover.

As the summer of '67 drew to a close, the final touches were made. Bob Trigg had already given the Commando its distinctive canted forward engine with rear shocks at a similar angle, but Dennis Poore wanted radical styling to match the new concept, calling in the design consultancy Wolff Ohlins. They came up with the one-piece seat and tail unit blending into the tank – the Commando Fastback.

Not everyone loved the Fastback styling, which was inspired by American flat-track racing practice of the fiberglass unibody.

Hastily sprayed a shotgun silver metalflake, and with just 1000 test miles under its belt, the prototype Commando made it to Norton's stand at the Earls Court Show in September. Years later, Bob Trigg reflected on those manic eleven weeks, “I worked all the hours God sent and lost over a stone in weight, but we did it. We all worked on it as a good team, and we couldn't have done it any other way.”

The Commando was a miracle of expedience, as it became a motorcycle for the ages, but it could only have been built under the direst of financial and time constraints.  It won 'Motorcycle of the Year' for five years running in Motorcycle News reader's polls, and even hardened journalists were amazed how good the Commando turned out to be. There should be a lesson for future designers in the story, but perhaps the lesson is one of management: Dennis Poore applied the pressure, and Norton's development team produced the diamond.

Norton's advertising of the Commando blended two types of Eros: alluring females and the promise of raw power. [NorVil]


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


The Charging Bullet

Words and Photography: Peter Henshaw

Fred Spaven is not your average classic bike restorer. True, he does commute to work on a BSA Bantam, and his shared workshop contains various British and early Japanese bikes as well as Frazer Nash parts and (when I visited) an ex-Jochen Rindt F1 project. But the Cambridge engineering graduate is young and wants to do something about climate change.

Based on a 1961 Royal Enfield Bullet chassis, the Charging Bullet looks vintage on the go. [Peter Henshaw]
"Being ecological was the reason behind building the electric Bullet," he told me. "I wanted an electric bike I could do my daily commute on, which is 18 miles each way. I originally bought the Bullet to ride around the world, and I did use it for a bit, but it wasn't very good, and when I took it apart, everything was shot. It had been exported new to India in 1961 and came back to the UK in 2009. In between times it had suffered decades of bodging – the crankcases were unusable, the gearbox, everything."

No classics were harmed in the making of the 'Charging Bullet'

That's when the inspiration for an electric conversion took hold. Fred found secondhand Nissan Leaf batteries were the cheapest way to do it – over 350,000 Leafs have been built so far, so the batteries are cheapish and available. Better still, they come as self-contained boxes about the size of a laptop, so they can be stacked. It took a lot of research to find a suitable controller and battery management system, and he settled on a Saietta brushed DC motor. It was also important to him that the conversion was reversible, so he designed a subframe which would fit the existing engine mounts.

That's right, you can relax, because no classics were harmed in the making of the 'Charging Bullet' as Fred calls it.  Re-converting to the original four-stroke single would be relatively straightforward. Two big alloy plates were cut to accommodate the twelve Leaf lithium-ion batteries, stacked in the big steel box which sits in the engine bay. Together, they add up to 6Kwh, and to put that in perspective, a typical electric moped has around 2Kwh, while a Zero offers 14.4Kwh.

The boxes holding the goods: batteries below, controllers above, motor behind. [Peter Henshaw]
A smaller box contains the all-important controller and battery management system, which do the clever stuff of power/torque delivery, and ensuring the batteries aren't drained or charged too fast. The motor displaces the gearbox spot, and has direct drive to the rear wheel – being electric, there's no need for a clutch or gearbox.  And despite the electronics, this is a simpler machine than a standard Bullet, with far fewer moving parts. "I wanted to make it as simple and efficient as possible, and since gearboxes have mechanical losses, direct drive by chain is the most efficient way of doing it. And I had to make the most of everything, to maximise range."

Quiet country lanes remain so with an e-Bike. [Peter Henshaw]
By the summer of 2018 the Charging Bullet had covered a few hundred test miles around Herefordshire, part of the borderland between England and Wales. In November he rode Britain's 'end to end', 1400 miles from Lands End to John o' Groats, partly to prove the concept, partly so that filmmaker Finn Varney could document the trip. In short, it all appeared to work, but is the electric Enfield a practical proposition or just an interesting one-off?

E-asy Rider

Climbing aboard the Charging Bullet feels very familiar, with the same classic upright riding position as a standard Bullet, similar weight to the petrol-powered original, and even the view from the seat has barely changed, complete with headlight nacelle and single speedo. Only a couple of LED warning lights, plus a charge-meter in place of the ammeter, suggest that something is different.

Somewhere in your future is a bank of electric charging stations. Embrace it? [Peter Henshaw]
This is confirmed on startup, because there's no kickstart. Instead, you turn the key on the left-hand side, there's a loud click, a green LED lights up, and you're good to go. Twist the grip and the e-Bullet takes off silently but slowly.  At 20mph it reaches its stride, and  acceleration improves as the speed builds – overall I'd say it was quicker than a 350cc Bullet, though when crossing a couple of busier roads I would have liked smarter acceleration from zero. Of course, being electric, it's all completely smooth and seamless, not to mention silent. There's a very faint whine from the motor and a gentle rustling from the chain but that's it, and once over 30mph, all you get is wind noise. What you miss in the sound of a thumping four-stroke single, you gain in being able to hear what's going on around you, especially in traffic.

The power delivery works well around town: performance was enough for mid-town traffic, and is very controllable, with the smoothest, most gentle of pick-ups from less than walking pace. The Bullet is a small, slim bike by modern standards, so it's easy to filter through traffic.  With such easy power delivery, this would make be a great learner's bike, and by the same token, the low speeds power delivery would make this a decent trials bike. Out of town, the e-Bullet accelerates up to an indicated 55mph, though it felt slightly faster, and it's happy to cruise at 40-50mph.  This was the right speed for the Herefordshire lanes and quiet roads I was riding on, and it was all very restful. An adrenal-booster this is not.

Not the most beautiful of conversions, and examples like this have been built since the 1920s, as batteries and electric motors grew more powerful. [Peter Henshaw]
Electric motors have very little engine braking, but the Bullet does have regenerative braking, which switched the motor into a generator, directing braking energy into the batteries by drawing current to  slow down.  While taht sounds like a path to perpetual motion, in practice regenerative braking replaces only a fraction of the energy of forward motion, adding 5-10% to the total range in hilly country.  I'd have preferred this bike's system to work through the rear brake pedal or reversible twistgrip, than the separate 'regen' button installed.

If you like Royal Enfield Bullets, this one handles like all the others. At around 180kg, it weighs about the same as the 350cc original, and weight distribution isn't much different either. That translates into good steering and secure handling on its Avon tires, with no twitching, wallowing or other unpleasant stuff. The drum brakes are pure '60s classic, which means you get a progressive but not very strong rear brake and an OK front. It's also worth reminding yourself there's no big four-stroke single engine braking.

That looks familiar. But what's the meter on the left? [Peter Henshaw]
As with any battery-powered device, the crucial question is, how far can I ride? Fred reckons on a realistic range of 40-50miles, and after I'd ridden 31 miles over a real mix of urban and open roads, the state of charge meter was showing just over 25% battery left. So 40 miles to flat looks realistic, and more for urban use.  That's not far, but realistically enough for commuting or Sunday pleasure rides. And remember, Fred has ridden this bike from Lands End to John 'O Groats: all over the world, the network of charging points is growing fast, and it's getting easier every year to make long trips on e-bikes. A full charge takes four hours on a standard charger, or two hours on a faster one. So you can't cover 300 miles a day, but for commuting, or the typical classic bike ride of 30 miles to a pub and topping-up the battery over a leisurely lunch, it would do. In the UK a full recharge costs about £1 at domestic rates, so the e-Bullet would also be cheap to run – it's giving the equivalent of 350mpg.

The juice: thanks Nissan for producing millions of these. [Peter Henshaw]
I liked the Charging Bullet. It's very well engineered, works well and would make a practical classic commuter, though if you want a turn-key conversion it's certainly not cheap. With the big squared-off boxes it looks a bit like prototype rather than a production bike: a period fairing or false fuel tank covering the boxes would go a long way to improve the looks. Then again, the bike isn't pretending to be something it's not. Otherwise, an electric classic could well be the way to keep riding old bikes, especially in cities which are increasingly likely to ban ICE cars and bikes in the not too distant future. The Charging Bullet is one option for future-proofing our heritage.

Would you like one?

Fred Spaven is now offering the Charging Bullet as a conversion to customer bikes, at around £7000. A more affordable option is a kit of parts which owners can fit themselves. 'I would supply the subframe, adaptor plate, plus boxes for the batteries and electronics,' says Fred, 'and tell customers where they can buy the motor, batteries, controller and so on. Then I'd offer as much advice as they need to put it together.' He stresses that there's no cutting and shutting of the original bike, and that it's completely reversible.

Is it missing the point?

Surely the whole point of a bike like the Bullet is the visceral feel of its thumping petrol-powered single and the way you interact with it via the clutch, four-speed gearbox and twistgrip. Next to that, some would say, the electric version has lost its four-stroke soul. As the owner of a diesel-powered Bullet, I can understand that, and the Charging Bullet, seamless and silent as it is, does lack the ICE sounds, smell and feel that we all love.

The logo: you can order or build one too! [Peter Henshaw]
But look at the way the world's going. Many countries have pledged to ban new ICE sales within the next 10-20 years. Major cities are looking to ban their use altogether, and with the overwhelming scientific evidence on urban air quality and global climate change, that's hard to argue against. There's no doubt that as mainstream ICE use tails off, we'll be able to carry on using our old classics, albeit with restrictions on fuel, mileage and where we can ride them. In that scenario, the Charging Bullet offers the chance to carry on riding an old bike as much as you want.

What it's all about. Changes are coming: you can kick and scream, but government regulations will definitely affect vintage riders too. The Charging Bullet is one adaptation strategy. [Peter Henshaw]


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