The needle nudges 140. Hands tingling, I slow down to 50 and am instantly transported 10 years into the past. The slow thumping reminds me of my first partner in crime for Motorcycle Physics experiments. It all began with, of all the things, a Bullet. It refused to wheelie depsite my desperate, pleading efforts. It wasn't all that fast. Not until my life depended on retardation did it feel way too fast. It was as agile as a 200 kg block of iron. Er, which it was. Sunday mornings were spent cleaning it, and being a Bullet, there was always a lot to clean on the it. There was usually more oil on the outside of the engine than on the inside. I used to look at other motorcyclists' trouser bottoms and wonder why they weren't black. It seemed only natural, you see. The Classic 500 doesn't do any of these things.
What you see in these pages is a Bullet too. No matter what names Royal Enfield sticks onto their bikes, they will always be called Bullets. Well, at least I will. And ever since the Classic 500's launch, I was looking forward to see how much of the Bullet essence it retains. And it pleases me no end to state that it retains what Bullets are renowned for - character. It's a misunderstood attribute, this character. Character should make a motorcycle more involving to ride, and not make it blow a fuse, loosen its tappets and leak five litres of oil every 100 kilometres, which Bullet-folk have resigned themselves to believing. The Classic 500 changes all of that. I cannot thank RE enough for making it look the way it does. I've always held that the Thunderbird's cruiser styling was not the right way to go. Enfields were always streetbikes, cafe racers and scramblers in the old days, never cruisers. The aptly named Classic is, quite simply, a thing of beauty. Close your eyes and think of a British 500 single. Isn't this what comes to mind? The right proportion of paint and chrome on those evergreen curves and lines, that high-ish exhaust pipe, single sprung seat and minimal decals make this the best-looking Bullet yet. It manages to look smashing even in that Meru cab green. An elderly gentleman ambled up to me at a traffic light and asked, 'What model? What year?' 'New model. This year,' I replied and the look on his face said it all. RE has nailed it on the head this time. The chrome is much deeper than before and paint quality is the best-ever from RE. The Look. Check.
Now for the other most important thing - the thump. The beat of the 500cc worth of exiting gases is fantastic. There is no more of that noisy clatter from the engine as there was on the earlier Thunderbirds and LB 500s. The sound is almost as good as the old cast-iron engines, with the valvegear providing mild accompaniment. The Thump. Check.
So, the Classic 500 retains the two most important aspects of the Bullet character. And then it adds a whole lot more to it. This is the first Enfield that does justice to the deprived upper reaches of that familiar speedometer. The new fuel-injected 499cc single-cylinder Unitary Construction Engine pumps out 27.2 bhp @ 5250 rpm and 4.21 kgm @ 4000 rpm, more than enough to keep you grinning from ear to ear. It's as smooth as a 500cc high-compression single is going to get and at no time does it feel strained. The combination of fuel injection and an integrated gearbox (no more excessive transmission lag) along with more efficient internals harness the twin spark plug engine's power pulses in manner that was alien to Bullets in the past. Throttle response is unlike any RE bike till date - immediate and precise - and power comes at you from all directions right from the word go. Now, 27 bhp actually feels like 27 bhp on the Classic 500. Which means that pops wheelies with more ease than I can hold them and spin its wheels hard, leaving long, black welts on the tarmac. Is this a Bullet?! Let that torque loose and the 500 roars to 60 kph in 3.6 seconds and breaks through the 100 kph barrier in 10 seconds. The maximum I could take the bike was to 130 kph, though there was a bit more shove left before I ran out of road. And the Classic ignored all the abuse I could dish out, remaining tight and ready to go throughout the duration of the test. Heck, not even a single misfire! My Bullet would've spat its valves out through the exhaust pipe and choked on its piston if I rode it the way I rode the Classic 500.
Gearshift quality has improved and shifts have more positive feel now. Shifts are also quicker and work with the overall shorter gearing to allow the Classic 500 to accelerate like a chromed bat out of an old English town. However, false neutrals are still part of the package. But I'm not complaining. Every missed shift sent high-quality renditions of the piston's oscillations up my spine and into my brain, breaking the dam of time and bringing memories of flat-out rides flooding back. A Bullet isn't a Bullet without those vibes giving you goosebumps, is it?
Enjoyable handling has always been a Bullet trait, even on my Bullet. Boy, did it corner! And the Classic 500 is even better, with its new 90/90 front and 110/90 rear 18-inch MRF Zappers that grip quite well. It loves sweepers just as much as before and has become more friendly with switchbacks. The reduced diameter of the wheels and the more rounded profile of the tyres make it flickable and it also retains the stability. Ride quality is as good as before and while overall feel has improved by a lot, it's not ideal.
Our test bike had a loose steering head which resulted in a mild swaying wobble above 100 kph. Shouldn't be a problem on other bikes, though. Also, though the 280 mm front disc is powerful, there isn't much feel through the lever, which compounds the task of the front forks that feel too soft for the bike. A firmer front with more feel is what's needed here. This is the only real complaint I have with the Classic 500.
There are other things, like the flickering right-side pilot lamp, an indeterminable rattle coming from the front end, mirrors that vibrate too much to be of any use and pegs that seem to be too wide when you put your foot down. But I really don't care about these things. These are teething troubles that every Bullet comes with and are meant for you to take care of. You make it perfect the way you want it. At Rs 1,31,527, ex-showroom, Mumbai, the Classic 500 is fantastic value for money, given its Ninja 250-rivalling performance and exclusive appeal. What's more unbelievable is that I got 29.6 kpl in spite of not taking it easy even for a second! Brilliant! With a gentler right hand, you will go farther for sure. Anyway, at this price, I'd have liked to see better suspension and stickier Avon tyres too.
If reminding people of the past is this bike's purpose, I'd say it's a smashing success. If being a smashing performer is this bike's purpose, I'd say it's even better. Riding the bike left me with the feeling of being back on my old Bullet. The feel, the smell and the tingling sensation that remains with you long after you've gotten off the saddle - it's all there. Just that the Classic 500 takes the experience to another plane. A Bullet that finally goes like one, looks better than a sackful of gold, has a sound that reminds one of the golden age of motorcycling and throws no tantrums? Thank you very much Royal Enfield, for the best Bullet I've ever ridden.