‘Buying British’ was once a buy-word for resilience and grit: a country punching above its weight for two hundred years, a country of Nelson, Wellington and Churchill. It was, and is, a country of invention. Bar the US, it has the most Nobel laureates of any country in the world. The Land Rover epitomised British engineering: simple; tough; enduring; powered by British fortitude. At some point, however, the wheels fell off. Now if you buy British, the reaction is more, ‘oh . . . well, that’s . . . brave!’ Apropos of nothing, enter stage-left the Royal Enfield Bullet.
In 1955, Royal Enfield set-up shop in Madras (now Chennai). As Japanese motorbikes dominated and British bikes were found wanton, India rescued the 500 Bullet, pumping out 25,000 of the machines annually. And amazingly, they continue to do just that - it is the longest running motorcycle in history to be in continuous production. So then to buy one straight from the dealership, as a novice motorcyclist, in India, where the gear-shift is still on the right (one-up, many down) and the back brake is on the left, and then try to drive in Indian traffic – which we can attest, is like a swimming in a tempest of pure chaos – well, that is brave. Enter stage right adventurer Jac Furneaux. The scene is set.
Over a video-call to Bristol, UK, Jac relates a story of her recent ride on her trusty-steed, twenty-one years after she first purchased it in Madras. ‘It doesn’t like to be ignored. It needs company. Any oil in the cylinder goes into the wrong place if it’s not being used.’ It takes only minutes, including introductions, to uncover that famous British engineering excellence: breaking down by simply standing still. Bring British and having owned a Land Rover that fell-over almost every day for year, and then owning a formidable Toyota Land Cruiser, we suggest that turning the key in the ignition and knowing that your vehicle is about to start is worth its weight. Jac ponders, like we’ve asked if her favourite pet gets too old whether she would put it down. ‘It has crossed my mind, especially when it doesn’t budge. Every time I go to ride it, I do wonder ‘hmm, will it start today?’ Sometimes it starts, sometimes it doesn’t. I have some mechanical knowledge, so do my own oil changes, can swap out the brakes, clutch etc but I only have a basic toolkit with me. The other day I had planned to visit a friend, but the bike wouldn’t start, so had to catch the bus. Was a bit late, but no matter.’ Attesting to its character, and Jac’s, there is a certain lamentation knowing that at some point on a long ride there will be an inevitable breakdown. On the other hand, Jac is probably on first name terms with every mechanic with a street corner shop from Madras to Anchorage: twenty countries, seven years, all on this remarkable 500 Bullet.
The motorcycle, even in the year 2000, still retained a kick-start. At 168kg dry-weight, it’s light for its age, easy to handle and manoeuvre, but very much built for longevity rather than speed: it’s twenty-two horse, single-carb maxes out at 125kph downhill with its air-cooled four-speed single-cylinder pumping for all its might. ‘Made like a gun’ it proudly announces on Enfield Australia website, although what type of gun is unknown, perhaps more water-pistol than Kalashnikov. As one of our favourite excerpts from motorcycle news attests, ‘the Bullet 500 can’t really go fast enough to test its chassis to the limit, which is probably a good thing.’ It is though undoubtedly a hardy machine, perfect in a hardy country for a people that have hardy wrists of iron, with tinkering of various components not only necessary but expected, which is undoubtedly part of the appeal. If it’s not leaking oil somewhere, it probably isn’t British.
There are other quirks too such as handlebar mounted compression release (??) to aid starting, drum-brakes that enable the owner to stop on a sixpence, as long as said sixpence is the size of a football field. There is a ‘neutral finder’ on the right near the heel, allowing effortless location of the much-needed non-gear. I’m disappointed to see that Jac doesn’t have the quintessential manual horn down by her left knee, echoing the 1930’s from whence the bike originated. The styling though clings to its origins, and the current crop of Bullets are striking in its classic British racing green, and that beautiful sweeping single chrome tailpipe, curving artistically around the front of the engine. A design that has remained since 1935.
Travelling worldwide, Jac comes across as the type of formidable person that will make the best of any situation, a match made in heaven for the Bullet. Asking about the worst country Jac has visited on her travels, we instantly know what the response will be. Jac nonchalantly bats the question away. ‘None! I loved all of them. Riding a motorcycle in all these countries was a joy, nothing but fun! Never would I have imagined that twenty-one years on from buying the bike in India, on my fiftieth birthday, would I still be riding the loyal Royal Enfield’. The team at Shepsters have Jac’s book on order, and can’t wait to read of her travails both on and off the motorcycle – pirates boarding a catamaran across the Straits of Mekala sound particularly thrilling and dangerous, as well as the excitement of then being threatened to be thrown overboard by the Captain for bringing him bad-luck. And we thought simply riding a pre-war designed Bullet was challenging enough!
We asked Jac for advice to would-be motorcyclists eager for a big trip following months of lockdown worldwide, sometimes for the third time if you’re in Europe. ‘A lot of people are afraid, and they let fear control them. They are constantly stumped with what ifs and its negative connotations, instead of being more optimistic. What if it all goes wrong? True, but what if it all goes right? Just have fun, remain curious. Get rid of the GPS and keep that child-like ‘I wonder what it’s like?’ even if you’re just talking about the brow of a hill or an unmarked road.’ Whether the Bullet actually makes it down that road or up that hill, is probably part of the adventure.