Gone, But not Forgotten: Royal Enfield Bullet 350
“Don’t rev it! I’ve just got the block and piston done,” warns my neighbour Imtiaz. This 1967 Bullet 350 is his pride and joy, inherited from his father who’d served in the police, and has been in non-stop use for 50 years. Growing up, I remember all the lovely old Parsi uncles and aunties in my society grumbling about the noise his bike made. And much to the exasperation of our society’s managing committee, for the past five decades it has also been marking its spot. As every Bulleteer will remind you, “Bullets don’t leak, they mark out their territory.”
Save for the trademark (character-building?) oil stains on the engine, this bike is immaculate. Bullets need tender loving care and first-name-familiarity with the mechanic but when TLC’d they do respond beautifully. But before we head out, where to insert the key? Much head scratching later Rohit, our photographer, finds the ignition in the right-hand-side panel (oh, on these bikes you lock the handlebars using an actual Godrej lock).
Then the whole starting procedure. Once upon a time, when my long-term test bikes were a stream of constantly evolving- and-breaking-down Bullets, decompressing the cylinder was second nature. Not any more, as a solid back-kick reminds me. Much huffing and puffing later the Bullet is thump-thump thumping away at what feels like five revs per minute. The exhaust note is delicious, far better than the emission/ sound-regulated Bullets/Classic 350s of today, and a million times better than the ridiculous Rocket pipe I’d slapped on my first Machismo.
More memories. The gear lever is on the right and true-blooded Bullet riders would get first gear by using the heel of the boot to lift up the lever. And then it would promptly fall into neutral while you hunted for second. Or third. Or any gear for that matter. Acceleration, as I remember, was nothing to write home about – a good thing because the brakes worked on a hope and prayer.
Most of my early career as a biking journalist was spent evangelising these Bullets. A man’s bike, as I often muttered to myself, while trying to replace another snapped clutch cable. I had a ringside seat to the AVL-ing, UCE-ing, gear lever swapping, and what-noting to the pre-war 350 motor. Gas shocks were greeted with a cheer not heard since Independence. 15 years ago I rode with 40 Bullet enthusiasts to Pakistan to watch a cricket match – we called it the ‘Road to Peace’. Not surprisingly the border guards told us to get our bikes back to Amritsar and take the train to Lahore. It remains the only cricket match I’ve watched in a stadium. And then I grew up and moved on.
While I was not looking, Royal Enfield’s sales have doubled every year. Its parent, Eicher, is the most valuable two-wheeler company in India. And, now, there’s a new bike that can crack the tonne. I fear a rekindling of that old love affair coming about!