The Royal Enfield Bullet has been more than a bike for many generations and it's no surprise that its old-world-charm and appeal has only grown over the years. In our country, the Bullet has been the a symbol of machoism and motorbike travel, so much so that the company even went on to name one of their models, well, Machismo. During the time when Bullets started regaining their popularity, Eicher Motors marketing strategy largely revolved around "The Trip" campaign and the company actively organises many rides throughout the year to reinforce this image. The fact that Royal Enfields have been synonymous with motorbike travel in India, I think has more to do with the legacy left behind by these machines than the machines themselves. A rabid fan base equivocal about all things plastic or Indo-Jap crap has well lent itself to the bike's popularity. The Royal Enfield Bullet was a revolutionary machine for its time, but in 2014, I'm not so sure.
Now before the thumpers come at me with their goldies blaring, let me put things into a little perspective. I love Bullets, I absolutely do—at least the ones with the old CI engine—with gears on the right side and neutral finders. I'd like to believe there's a reason why even 15-20-year-old cast iron engine Bullets still sell for about 80% the cost of new UCE bikes. As a kid, I grew up listening to the story of my uncle riding all the way from Mumbai to London on his '67 Bullet in 1977 (Overdrive September 2013 issue). As much as I loved my '92 CI Standard 350, I don't own it anymore, and probably will never buy a Bullet because I don't find them practical or better suited for touring than many other bikes available in the market right now. Here are five reasons why I think so.
1. Reliability: New or old, Bullets are just as reliable as your luck will allow. There have been numerous instances of people reporting issues with brand new bikes but this one on their website forum is a classic. With Royal Enfields, you can forget about quality control or any real support from the company. It's up to you and the Bullet expert mechanic in your area, who will soon be your best friend given the amount of business you'll be generating for him on a regular basis depending on how much you ride.
2. Speed: I know, touring is not racing but roads in India have come a long way since the 1960s and we actually have highways now where triple-digit-speeds can be safely sustained on a motorcycle all day long. More speed means less time on the saddle, less fatigue and more time to explore places at your destination. Also, riding a Bullet fast is going to exponentially increase your visits to the aforementioned mechanic.
3. Maintenance: Whether you buy a new bullet or an old bullet, you will have to deal with maintaining the bike. An easy way out for a lot of new bulleteers to avoid this is to not ride the bike much at all. I've heard of people not riding their bikes in the rain to avoid damaging the chrome, to people who opt out of every ride because their bike is not in the condition to take on any trip at the moment. In fact, you'll spend more money maintaining a Bullet if you really use it than maintaining most small cars.
4. Cost doesn't justify the quality: Starting at over a lakh and averaging at 1.5 lakhs, Royal Enfield must take a serious look into the quality of their bikes, given the cost. In a trip to Spiti last year, the newest bike in our group, a Classic 500, barely 2.5-years-old and completely serviced before the trip, crossed the Kunzum pass with ease—in a truck. Why? Because its crankcase cracked after hitting a rock in Chota Dara. This Bullet also came back in a pickup truck from Rohtang due to some failure in the wiring, and I also met another chap in the Manali RE service center who got his brand new Desert Storm all the way from Pangong Tso Lake in a truck because of some problem in the bike. This guy was pretty happy doing that though. Different people, different tastes. The other two bikes in our trip, a nine-year-old Karizma with 60,000km on the odo and an old Pulsar 200 made through the entire trip without any real issues or preparation before the trip.
5. Have you ever tried pushing a bullet?: This one especially applies to your excursions in the hills. Bullets are known for their stability and weight-carrying capabilities. But the same weight can become quite a pain in some other circumstances. With a Bullet, the chances of you having to push it, as opposed to any other bike, increase and if you ever have to push a Bullet with a flat tyre, all that machismo will have to come into play to keep you motivated at the task. In those Himalayan bike trip plans that you've made, you will have to push the bike on more than one occasion. Here's hoping you have an idea of what it takes to push a Bullet before that.
All said and done, people who want to buy a Bullet will buy a Bullet. It's not a practical decision, it's love, and it's beyond logic. But for those of you who are looking for the best bike for touring, there are more practical and easier-to-live-with alternatives to help you achieve your goals. Look out for them!