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.
Once the Bullet fires, you experience a plethora of sights, sounds and smells. You see your own fun-house reflection in the chromed tank. You hear the racket of the barely muffled pushrod single in all its cast-iron glory. You smell raw gas, exhaust fumes, oil and, oddly enough, curry.
Once underway you motor along in a stately fashion, aware every second that you're riding a machine from a bygone era. If you lean into the wind you can even pass a few vehicles. I passed an old bluehair in a Cadillac and a guy driving a diesel-powered Dodge Ram pickup pulling a trailer full of cinderblocks, although after dicing with him through a few stoplights he retook me on a long straight. A Ford Festiva with three fresh spark plugs will humiliate the Bullet in a stoplight dragrace, but at least the little Enfield will pass a cow, a fact not taken lightly in India.
Handling is the Bullet's strong point. Sure, the suspension and frame are antiquated, but the bike's light weight (Enfield says 370 pounds dry for the 500cc) goes a long way toward making up for such shortcomings. Once up to speed, the Bullet is a nimble little beast.
Unfortunately, the loose collection of cogs that passes for a tranny on the Bullet made it difficult to exploit the bike's feathery mass. Thanks to some ill-sorted linkage moving the shifter to the left side for the U.S. market, the shifter's throw is about four inches, which is about an inch further than the average human ankle can pivot. Shifting the stubby lever from neutral to first is the one shift that can be performed without a double-jointed ankle. After that, all bets are off.
The Ural's transmission is no model of perfection either, but it has a handy reverse gear, engaged with a separate lever when the tranny's in neutral. You'll look way cooler backing up to your local coffee shop than you would if you had to dismount and push your rig back up to the curb.
The Keihin CV carbs work pretty well, and the Ural starts right up on the coldest mornings-though it takes a minute or two of throttle blipping before it will idle. Ural America includes a battery charger with each bike (along with three tool kits, a tonneau cover and a tire pump) but it was never needed; nor was the easy-to-use kickstarter.
The CV carbs are improvements, but the switch to a conventional telescopic fork in place of the Earles-type hydraulic leading-link fork previously used is, I think, a step backward. The Earles fork was more stable in a sidecar application. Another step backward was the deletion of the spare tire mounted on the chair's trunk lid. While we experienced no tire problems, we would have appreciated the extra weight, since it helps stabilize the chair in right-hand turns. It looks cooler, too.
In fact, the same sticker that warns against turning also says an unweighted chair should be avoided like a nuclear power plant in Chernobyl. After some experimentation with ballast, we settled on several 30-pound pails of cat litter. This stabilized the rig and increased its curiosity quotient. While unloading 90 pounds of litter to make room for a passenger, one onlooker commented, "Man, you must have a cat that craps up the wall."
We found a few nits to pick with the Ural. The chrome plating on the exhaust headers looks like Juicy Fruit wrappers. (You can actually see the metal through the plating.) The sidecovers appear to be made from the same material as take-out-food containers (chrome covers are available, though). And the carbs get in the way of planting your feet on the pegs. Such nits aside, the bike performed well during our test.
The chair itself is one of the best on the market. Fit and finish are excellent, and both the tub and frame are made from sturdy, heavy-gauge steel. Passenger accommodations are top-notch, and the storage area behind the seat will hold more cat litter than you can shake a stick at, though we wish it was lockable.
The Enfield's fit and finish look good from a distance, but come up a bit short on closer inspection. We had a few problems with our Bullet test bike, too. It overheated in stop-and-go traffic, causing its clutch to cease functioning. The throttle stuck open once, too, though it wasn't the cheese-whizzing experience it might have been on a ZX-12R; there was plenty of time to unstick the cable before approaching the next intersection. Our other failure forced an early end to the Enfield portion of the test. While performing the procedure, the kickstart lever came loose and fell off, fudging splines on the lever.
The Bullet is for people who want to relive-or more likely just live for the first time-the authentic classic bike experience. It harkens back to a less stressful time, a time when chuffing along an empty country lane was its own reward. Which is fine if you happen to live along an empty country lane. But if you live in a busy urban area, you'll soon discover it ain't 1949 no more. Like most exports from India, the Enfield is a curio, a conversation piece. As an object of curiosity, it functions quite well. Pull up to your local hangout on a Bullet and you'll generate the Deluxe model's $4495 worth of conversation.
The Ural generates at least as much conversation, and it has a practical side, too. At $8156, it's the cheapest way to get yourself into a ready-to-roll sidecar rig. Harley is the only other manufacturer to offer a complete sidecar rig in the United States, but its setup will run you upwards of $30,000, depending on which Electra Glide model you choose to power it. And Harley's chair comes up a bit short against the Ural unit. Rather than metal, Harley's sidecar is made of fiberglass, and it uses a leaf-spring suspension in place of the Ural's independent shock. The Harley sidecar doesn't have nearly as much storage space as the Ural. Sorry, but the sidecar advantage goes to the Rooskies.
Buying just the Ural sidecar and mounting it to a more powerful bike would result in a more useful rig, one capable of freeway duty. But in reality most of us have neither the time nor the mechanical aptitude to roll our own sidecar rigs. Besides, if you build your own from bits and pieces you won't get the Ural's nifty reverse gear. For the casual sidehacker on a budget, that pretty much leaves the Ural as the only practical store-bought rig. And after spending some time with the Bavarian Classic, we'd have to say that's not such a bad choice.
Royal Enfield Bullet Deluxe
|Type ||air-cooled single-cylinder |
|Valve arrangement ||pushrod, 2v |
|Displacement ||499cc |
|Transmission ||4-speed |
|Weight ||370 lb. (fuel tank empty) |
|Fuel capacity ||4.1 gal. (16L) |
|Wheelbase ||53.5 in. (1372mm) |
|Seat height ||30.0 in. (760mm) |
P.O. Box 917, Faribault, MN 55021(800) 201-7472www.enfieldmotorcycles.com
Ural Bavarian Classic
|Type ||air-cooled opposed-twin |
|Valve arrangement ||pushrod, 4v |
|Displacement ||649cc |
|Transmission ||4-speed plus reverse |
|Weight ||690 lb. (fuel tank empty) |
|Fuel capacity ||5.0 gal. (19L) |
|Wheelbase ||58.0 in. (1470mm) |
|Seat height ||31.0 in. (787mm) |
P.O. Box 969, Preston, WA 98050
(800) 832-2845; (425) 222-7739 fax