You might think the Royal Enfield Bullet and the sidecar-rigged Ural Bavarian Classic are motorcycles, but they're really time machines. They've transcended all temporal boundaries, coming to you directly from the aftermath of World War II. (Or, if you prefer, they'll take you back to that time.)
After WWII, the Russians dismantled an entire BMW motorcycle assembly line and carted it home as war booty. They reassembled the equipment in Irbit, Russia, where they've been assembling the BMW-based Ural ever since. Not much has changed in the intervening decades.
In 1993, Ural America began importing Urals into the United States. Since 1998, U.S.-market Urals have been assembled Stateside from components shipped from Russia, and also from other suppliers such as Wiseco, which now supplies high-quality pistons to replace the pot-metal Russian slugs.
Royal Enfield built its first motorcycle, a three-wheeled contraption with a de Dion engine, way back in 1898 in Great Britain. The original Bullet single was launched in 1931. The model G Bullet, introduced in 1949, featured an alloy cylinder head and a swingarm rear suspension.
Enfield's first U.S.-market motorcycles were sold in Indian dealerships. Toward the end of its tortured existence, the floundering Indian Motocycle Company sold Indian-badged Royal Enfield Interceptor parallel twins Stateside.
From here the Bullet's history gets confusing. When Indian collapsed, Enfield inherited an Indian (the motorcycle) factory located in India (the country), which Enfield used to build 350cc and 500cc versions of the Bullet. The parent company went belly-up in England, but the upstart Indian Enfield factory flourished, and the Indian Enfield Bullet has been in constant production since 1955. The bike you see on these pages is virtually identical to the Model G Bullet of 1949.
The first thing you notice about the Ural is a tank-mounted sticker with the word "warning," flanked by a pair of skull-and-crossbones symbols. The warning reads: Left-hand and right-hand turns can be dangerous. This is true, but just going straight on a sidecar rig can be plenty exciting in its own right.
The Y2K Ural is more powerful than previous versions. It tops out around 65 mph-roughly 15 mph faster than earlier models-but it could still use more oomph for freeway duty thanks to a sidecar rig's handling idiosyncrasies. See, you need to use the throttle to turn. Throttle on, move right. Throttle off, move left. If you try to force the rig to turn, it'll resist. Turn left without dropping the throttle, it understeers. Turn right without giving it some gas, the chair comes up-and keeps going up until you give it some power, which can be a problem if there's no more power to be had.
The Ural is crude compared to modern bikes, but it has an earthy, proletarian charm, like Russian vodka or a fresh potato. Old ladies smile at you when you ride by, and children in minivans wave as they pass you on the freeway. By the way, when you ride a Ural on the freeway, everybody passes you, even minivans full of screaming rugrats.
Riding the Royal Enfield has its own kind of charm, but it's more like the charm of haggling over prices with a street vendor in New Delhi. The Bullet isn't some sanitized version of the 1949 motorcycling experience-this is the real deal, complete with all the warts, dripping fluids and physical pain that experience entails.
Much of that pain comes from starting the thing. To ride the Bullet, you must first master the procedure. 1: Find top dead center with the kickstart lever. 2: Press the compression release lever on the handlebar and move the piston ever so slightly past TDC. 3: Give it just a wee bit of throttle and kick. Repeat as necessary. Forget using the choke. The carb, manufactured by a company called Ciikcarb India, is much too crude a mixing device to offer any serious help with the procedure.
The main culprit here is the Bullet's poorly geared kickstart mechanism. The lever doesn't move the piston far enough for it to complete a stroke. When warm, the Bullet usually starts on the second kick. But if it's hot or cold, starting is a Zen-like meditation.