By Ian Chadwick, (Royal) Enfield Bullet 500 rider,
NOTE: This brief history is cobbled from different sources, so it is far from complete and may contain inaccuracies for which I apologize in advance. If you have other knowledge that can improve this page, or can recommend good source material to me, please send email at the address below. Thanks.
Royal Enfield started making bicycles and unpowered vehicles in the United Kingdom circa 1898, under the name Enfield Cycle Company. Their first motorcycles were produced in 1900 using other companies' engines. One of their models had the engine in front of the steering head. Production stopped in 1905 and restarted in 1910 when they made a 425cc V-twin (2.25 hp). It had the advantage over many contemporay motorcycles of having a mechanical oil pump, rather than a hand-pump that had to be primed constantly.
Other bikes were produced, including one with a 770cc JAP engine. They didn't start using their own engines until 1914 when they released a 225cc two-stroke single and a 425cc V-twin (inlet over exhaust). After WWI, they produced a larger 976cc twin and continued to produce their two-stroke 225cc (the two-speed 225L, which continued in production until 1929, with several models, including a "ladies' model" with an open frame for women wearing long skirts).
In 1924 they launched their first four-stroke 350cc single using a JAP engine. That was soon replaced by their own 350cc side-valve and overhead-valve engines. By 1927, Royal Enfield was producing a 488cc with a four-speed gearbox. In 1928, they manufactured a new 225cc side-valve bike and in 1931, a four-stroke single was offered. Several machines were produced in the next decade, from a tiny two-stroke 146cc Cycar to an 1140cc V-twin in 1937.
In 1936 the Enfield 'JF' was considered a superb, smooth machine with a very modern and efficient four-valve engine. It produced 19bhp. Cost cutting saw the engine reduced to two valves before the war. During WWII, the company made bikes for the Army, but had few production changes.
The grandfather of the Bullet was first produced in 1931: a four-valve, single-cylinder was introduced, given the name 'Bullet' in 1932. It had an inclined engine and an exposed valve gear. The 1935 G model was the first that assumed the 'modern' look, with vertical cylinder, cast-in pushrod tunnel and eventually fully enclosed valve gear. It had a gear-driven magneto and double-ended eccentric oil pump. Over the next few years the single would sport two, three and four-valve cylinder heads. It was re-introduced in 1949, but as an all-new bike.
In 1939, the 570cc model H and sidcar cost 60 pounds in its day. It had a top speed of 53 mph. A contemporary Enfield model, the K, a side-valve V-twin, had 1,140 cc. The model H was removed from production after 1940.
In 1948, Royal Enfield came out with a 500cc twin (Enfield's 25bhp answer to the Triumph Speed Twin; stayed in production until 1958) and in 1949 launched the 350cc Bullet (the 499cc version was launched in 1953 but was not as popular). Both had swingarm suspension. Another slew of machines followed in the 1950s, from a 125cc two-stroke (1952), a 250cc OHV single (1954), the 650cc Meteor twin (1952... one source lists it as 692cc) and the Crusader series in 1957.
There was some retooling and redesign done at the English plant (Redditch) in 1955 to modernize the Bullet (including changes in the gear ratios in 1959). Between 1956 and 1960, the Bullet was released in several models, including a 350cc Trials "works replica" version, and a 350cc "Clipper" model. Technically the engines and power trains were the same (except for bore size) and the only differences were in exhaust, seating, instrumentation, handlebars and gas tank. A lot of technical improvements were also made in that time, including moving to alternator charging (1956) and coil ignition (1960). The 350cc model continued in production, but the 500cc model was dropped in 1961. An "Airflow" model was also made briefly, with a fairing
Several mototcycle models were made by Royal Enfield in this period including a 250cc Clipper (1955 onwards); 250cc Crusader (1957-62); Crusader Sports (1959 onwards); 250cc Trials (1962 onwards); Super 5 (1962 onwards); Continental (1963 onwards, a popular 250cc cafe racer); Meteor Minor (1958-61); Meteor Minor Sports (1960-62); 500 Sports Twin (1963 onwards); Super Meteor (1956-62); Constellation (twin with dual carbs, 1960 onwards) and Interceptor (twin with dual carbs, 1963 onwards).
Between 1955 and 1959, Royal Enfield sold singles and twins in the United States under the Indian name. They were remodeled for the American market mostly by bolt-on accessories. But Indian fans never warmed overly much to the 700cc Meteor (vertical twin four-speed) in its Indian guise and not as many were sold as the both companies had hoped. The 500 twin was exported in high numbers to the US. A high-compression 500cc Fury was also sold (?date), which was the same as the Bullet, but with a different (1.5 inch GP) carb.
In 1960, the badge arrangement with Indian ended, so Enfields were no longer sold under the Indian marque (RE rival, British AMC company, acquired the Indian Sales Corp. in 1959) . In 1961, Eddie Mulder won the Big Bear Enduro on an Enfield, which gave the company a new foothold in the U.S. under its own name and started a new marketing of the product. Models available in the U.S. that year included a 700cc twin and six street scramblers, ranging from the 250cc Hornet to the 500cc Fury (essentially the Bullet) to the 700cc Interceptor. Elliot Shulz also dominated the half-mile dirt track in Los Angeles on an Enfield that year. Enfields won 31 out of 39 races in 1961 and had several spectacular victories in 1964.
The UK company was sold in 1962 and the Bullet line discontinued, although other models were produced. The new owners offered a two-stroke 250cc cafe racer, the Continental GT, but although the company staked its name on them, it wasn't popular. The V-twin was enlarged to 736cc. In 1967 they closed the Redditch factory where Bullets had been made, but continued to make the 736cc Interceptor (a parallel twin grown in size from the original 1948 500cc twin) in another plant in Bradford-on-Avon. By this time, the English motorcycle market was under considerable pressure from Oriental manufacturers who were selling powerful, cheap bikes to an eager market.
The new owners weren't successful. They couldn't make the company work to their financial satisfaction. Royal Enfield closed its doors at last in 1970. About 200 of the remaining Interceptor engines were sold to Rickman to power a Rickman-Metisse racer, produced in limited numbers in the 1970s.
Royal Enfield (England) went the way of most Brit bike makers: falling into financial collapse (by this time, inexpensive but well-machined and powerful Japanese bikes were flooding the US and UK markets). But Enfield India continued to churn out Bullets just the way they were made in England in 1955. Forty years later they still do. Last year they acquired the name Royal Enfield for their own use.