Bite the Bullet & Buy an Enfield

Features Issue 39 Aug, 2010
Text by David Irwin / Photo: Naresh Shrestha

If you haven’t seen one, you must  have heard it. The distinctive  thump, thump, thump of a long stroke, single cylinder motor cycle, the Royal Enfield “Bullet”. The sound alone is enough to pull the heart strings of  torcyclists. Its look is just sheer classic. Standing tall and strong, the Enfield has everything that a street wise, fashion conscious rider wants - everything except perhaps reliability. If you choose to ride a piece of history, you have also to accept that the technology is old and cannot compete with the high revving engines of Japanese bikes. Such is the charm of the Bullet that I could not resist. When a friend left Nepal, he rode his bike to my house. How could I say no! That was the beginning of a long love affair and an introduction to the Himalayan Enfielders.

The Himalayan Enfielders was established in 2001 by a group of like-minded Bullet owners, Siddartha Gurung, Rakesh Prasai, Pramod Shrestha (Goofy), Sabin Basnyet, Chandra Man Pun and Binod Chhetri. In those days there were not so many Enfields in Kathmandu Valley. If you wanted to buy one you had to go to India, or buy one second hand. Worse than that, there was no workshop for maintenance, and spare parts were difficult to obtain. The only shop that sold them was located near Bhimsen Tower – a single grubby room behind the façade of a coffee bar. It was usually closed and the man who ran it seemed not to care. Fed up with this poor state of affairs, the Enfield boys decided to open their own workshop, which is located in Lazimpat, down a small alley that gives access to the Israeli Embassy. If you ever go there, you’ll know it because the security staff of the Embassy try to stop all vehicles from entering the alley.

The workshop was an immediate success. At last, there were mechanics that knew and understood the fickle Enfield, and had the necessary tools, parts and know-how to keep them on the road. For me, and other riders, this was a godsend. But more than that, here was a group of enthusiasts who shared a common interest that spanned all nationalities. Go any time to the Himalayan Enfield workshop and you straight away meet guys and girls from all over the world, just hanging out, chatting, while their bikes get fixed. In short, the workshop soon became a club. Not a club in the formal sense. You don’t join, nor is there a membership card. No, the spirit of the Himalayan Enfielders is all about friendship, being together, sharing a passion for motorcycling, and above all, owning and riding the Enfield Bullet.

Going for rides is the club’s main activity. Anyone with a motorbike can join. It doesn’t have to be an Enfield. But once you have ridden in a pack of Enfields no other bike will do. Before the club was established, I was a solitary rider, seldom venturing beyond the limits of the Valley. I had no idea of the sheer joy of riding with others. It’s hard to explain why. Maybe it’s the increased sense of identity -   the strong feeling of togetherness. You watch the guy in front, evaluating the line he takes on corners, noting when he brakes or changes gear. The guy behind does the same. You ride with the pack and try not to fall behind. If you breakdown or fall off, it doesn’t matter. There’s a mechanic at the rear, with a truck full of spare parts, sticking plasters and crutches. The best is the sound. Imagine 30 plus Enfields roaring through a wayside village. People rush out of their houses thinking that some disaster has befallen them!

The Himalayan Enfielders first ride was in August 2001. About 20 bikes participated in a day trip – far more than expected. It was a great success. Encouraged, the Enfielders organised the first “Peace Ride” to Pokhara and back in March 2002. This is now an annual event, every March, although it’s now re-named the “Nepal Ride” (No success was achieved with gaining peace, in Nepal or elsewhere for that matter). I participated in the 2003 ride - a glorious event. With a police escort, lights flashing and sirens wailing, more than 50 bikes departed from the Shangrila Hotel. We roared through town, heedless of traffic lights on red, out to Thankot and beyond, finally reaching Lumbini on the same, very long day.  At the gates of Lumbini, each bike and rider was blessed by a reception committee of monks and led to a restaurant for extensive liquid refreshment. After an unusual night’s sleep in a prayer room we were given an early morning blessing at Lord Buddha’s birth place before riding up to Tansen for lunch. The same day we descended the tortuous bends down to Pokhara in the rain. Although greasy, the road surface was good. Thankfully, nobody fell off before reaching a reception, in a smart hotel, with speeches from local dignitaries and numerous cups of tea followed by welcome drinks of the “harder” variety. We were so tired, we couldn’t stand up – and so dirty we didn’t know where to sit! The next day was Holi. We rode around town as a moving target for a multitude of kids armed with buckets of water and powered paint. No-one escaped. If your bike wasn’t red, it was by the time we finished. The final ride was back to Kathmandu, playing dodgems with the buses along the way. One of the tasks of the lead-rider is to forewarn oncoming traffic, and to my surprise, they actually pay heed. Trucks and buses pull over, to smile and wave as we passed by. The day after we arrived back the war in Iraq started. So much for peace!

So what is it that attracts sane people to buy a piece of antiquated junk that cannot outperform a Hero Honda?
I ask this of myself, and of others who ride with me. I get a variety of responses, but common  to all, is a strong desire to be different, to stand out in a crowd, to be the one on that noisy bike. It’s the sound that’s special. When in top gear, every thump of the engine propels you about 30 metres, which means that you never get that irritating whine that characterises Japanese bikes. In fact, to sit on an Enfield, you feel powerful. You feel great. The Bullet is not alone in this respect. The Himalayan Enfielders welcome any riders, but in particular those with vintage bikes, and there are many within the Valley, lovingly restored by owners who are proud to ride along with Enfields. Perhaps this is the key. It’s the sense of history that attracts people to the club. To ride a Yahama is not the same. For one thing, you can be pretty certain that you will reach your destination with a Yamaha. This is not always the case with an Enfield, or any other old bike. Why not put your trust in fate. It’s the getting there that’s important, not the arrival. Do it in style - so much better!

History of the Bullet
Manufactured in Redditch, UK, the Bullet was the culmination of designs that date back to 1933. The classic 350 cc model made its debut at the Earl’s Court motor show in 1948 and was an immediate success. Its big brother, the 500 cc came along later, in 1953. In 1955, a satellite factory was established in Madras, India, to meet demands from the Indian Army. When the UK factory closed in 1970, the Madras plant continued production. In 1994, Enfield India was acquired by the large engineering group, Eicher, which has since made a number of improvements to the bike. However, despite these, its distinctive appearance remains unchanged and provides an opportunity to enjoy the privilege of riding a “classic” reproduction bike.

Interview with Siddhartha Gurung (founder member of the Himalayan Enfielders)

How did the Himalayan Enfielders start?
Around 2000, a group of us were riding Enfields. At that time there were no workshops for repairs, so we decided to open our own. Soon after, we organised a ride with about 20 bikes. From that moment people started taking interest in Enfields, and came to the workshop to ask about the bikes, get them fixed or just hang out. We organised a Peace Ride in March 2002, down to Pokhara and back, just for one night. It was a success so we decided to make it an annual event. In 2003 we were more ambitious and organised a 4 day trip, riding to Lumbini, Tansen and Pokhara. This year, we intended to ride to Sauraha, over the Raj Path, but couldn’t because of a bandh. We just went to Pokhara.

How many members have the Himalayan Enfielders ?
We don’t have official members. I mean we don’t give them cards or anything like that. We just invite people to join us on rides. Anyone with an Enfield, or even without an Enfield, can come. It’s a very loose formation. A few years ago, it was rare to see an Enfield on the road, now you see lots, about 200. Before, we knew all the bikes and their riders, and would give them a wave as we passed.  Today we still know most, but not all - but we still wave. If you see another Enfield on the road, you always wave. It’s like a brotherhood.

What kind of person rides an Enfield?
A person who likes to go out, but does not conform in a Nepali way. Someone who doesn’t care when people shout why buy such a big bike that consumes so much petrol. The Enfield is something different, I mean, my first bike was an Enfield, I learned to ride on it, and it’s a good feeling compared to other bikes. It stands out from others - it’s an old classic bike. My father used to ride one. But more than anything, it’s the sound, it’s beautiful. There’s no other bike that makes this sound.

Interview with Jigme Gaton (Enfield rider)
What’s the difference between an Enfielder and the rider of a Hero Honda?

We all weigh more, and there are no Hero Honda clubs. With the Enfielders, there’s a real sense of community. It’s a family. They’re just great guys who have good, clean fun. It’s what the “Hell’s Angels” started out to be, before they got violent and weird. Enfielders are pure and innocent.

What do you like and dislike about your bike?
I have a 350 cc, and I want everyone to know that it’s just as good as a 500 cc. It made it to Tibet and back and it was just as good as the 500 cc bikes. Most of all, I like the way it looks. Its classic - like the advertisement – you’re riding a piece of ancient history. It reminds me of bikes from my youth, in the 1960s, but I never got to ride one until I came to Nepal. I come from California and you will never see anything like this. What I don’t like is the mechanics! If you have a mechanic with you (on the back), yes, the bike is reliable - except for my damn clutch. They keep telling me that it’s my fault. I bought the bike about a year ago, and yet the clutch keeps going. Every time I bring the bike in the mechanics say its just you, you’re a dud rider!

Did you ever have an accident on your Enfield?
When I was riding through Tibet, with the Himalayan Enfielders, I was so tired I just fell off. I was exhausted, de-hydrated, and there was loose gravel on the road – the Enfield is not good on gravel. I fell asleep, or lost concentration, I can’t remember exactly, and the next thing I know, I was on the floor. No serious injury, but the bike never forgave me.

 Interview with Binod Chhetri (founder member of the Himalayan Enfielders)

What’s the fascination of riding an obsolete bike that was designed in Britain, back in the 1950s?

It’s fun to ride and it’s powerful enough to carry me. There’s nothing like having 350 cc between your legs. And the sound too. Pure joy!

Interview: Lakshman Pun
Your bike looks different?
It’s more like a trail-bike. I changed the front forks, rear suspension and the tyres. I wanted to make it more comfortable. The original shock absorbers don’t work nicely. After this modification, I don’t feel the ground or road, in fact, now it feels like flying.

What attracted you to ride Enfields?
I studied in India, and a lot of my friends have Enfield bikes. When I finished my studies I returned to Nepal. My brother is one of the partners in Himalayan Enfield so I bought an Enfield. Why not? There is power, and the sound of power – the noise of an Enfield!

Interview with Rajesh Gurung “Jesh” (Enfield rider)
Why did you buy the new version of the Enfield, with 5 gears?
One of my friends told me about Enfields and when I heard the sound it makes, it was so good. Everywhere I went, if I heard the thump, thump, thump of the Enfield, I would turn my head and say, hey look at that! I thought, OK, let’s go and check out an Enfield tomorrow. I just had to buy one.  My dad said better to get this new model because the gears are on the left, like most bikes. Also the engine is different, somehow smaller, which gives it a better pick-up. And it has 5 gears. Nice. I bought it in January 2003 and on my first ride out of the valley, crashed it. I was OK, but my bike suffered. The headlight was gone, sidelights were wrecked, handle bars are mangled and holes in my petrol tank. The mechanics of the Himalayan Enfielders did a great job to fix it, and now it looks like new again.

Interview with Joseph Sebastian (Enfield rider)
You have the classic 350 cc Enfield. Why did you choose it?
I’m in love with them. I’m Indian, and we have plenty of them there. For the last eleven years I have lived in Nepal, but I didn’t buy an Enfield until recently because there was no proper workshop or after-sales service. I was waiting for something to happen, and it happened. When the Himalayan Enfielders started I decided to buy the classic 350 cc model, in sexy black with gold liner. I’m very happy with it. I can’t ride it as much as I would like, but I feel great when I do. It’s like a man and a machine combination. And to be a member of the Enfielders is good. You get in touch with other people who love the Bullet and talk about meaningful things, like nuts and bolts – things that really matter in life!

Interview with Shihir Rai (Singer and potential Enfielder)

You came on the ride but you don’t own an Enfield! Why?
My friends always ask me to come, so I did. This is my first time. I’m riding Jesh’s bike. It’s great. I really enjoy it. After today I will definitely buy an Enfield. I’ll go for a 350 cc, it’s not so heavy. A black one like Joseph’s. I’m a singer, and I’ve just put a new band together called the “Good Foot”. I promise, at the first performance, I will promote the Enfielders by having my new bike on stage!

Ashutosh Shrestha (Enfield rider)
How long have you been a member of the Himalayan Enfielders?
I joined the club a couple of months after it was established. Since then I hung out with the guys and did most of the rides. It’s a new kind of group, at least in Nepal - not like the local crowd. It’s different. There’s a common interest, not only in motorbikes, but also in social aspects, after the rides.

I notice that all the riders are men. Are there no women Enfielders?
Actually it’s pretty hard to get Enfield chicks. For a long time now we had no chicks on the rides. Maybe it’s because today is Sunday and they’re all working?

Choose your Enfield
The Royal Enf-ield Bullet 350 Standard has proven itself over 45 years in the toughest of conditions. Finished in Black colour this motorcycle retains the classic bike appeal with tank emblems and deep valance mudguards. Now with a heavier crank and glass wool silencer.

The Royal Enfield Bullet 500 is a favourite of those looking for a reliable machine to tour the country.  Developed on the existing 350 package the 500 adds the grunt needed for overtaking on the highways while loaded with a pillion and luggage. Finished in Black colour this recently upgraded model features disc brakes and electric start.

The Royal Enfield Bullet Thunderbird features a lean burn engine with a 5 speed left foot shift gearbox and a CV carburettor. This attractive looking machine also features optional disc brakes.

The new Electra 2004 combines the above features of the Royal Enfield with a transistor controlled ignition, metallic paint, rolled chrome mudguards, gas filled shock absorbers, high handle bars, a lockable battery cover, optional disc brakes and electric start. Available in Red, Silver, Blue and Black.

The Royal Enfield Machismo offers all the mechanicals of the Thunderbird mated with the classic looks of the Royal Enfield range. A selection of well matched accessories is available for this bike.