Advertisement
BBC TopGear
BBC TopGear
Advertisement feature
WELCOME TO HYUNDAI’S HAPPINESS MACHINE
View the latest news
Advertisement Feature

A quickfire history of Royal Enfield

Join us for a two-wheeled history lesson on the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in production

A quickfire history of Royal Enfield
  • 1893 Bicycle brochure Enfield No.1 Light Roadster 7.jpg

    As the end of the 19th Century approached, the business had diversified and was manufacturing bicycles under the name Eadie Manufacturing Co after their co-founder Albert Eadie. When a contract was landed in 1892 to supply rifle parts to the Middlesex-based Royal Small Arms Factory, it was decided to celebrate this union with a bicycle for the general public. Royal Small Arms Factory was based in Enfield, and so the Enfield bicycle was born. Within a year the word Royal was added, and the Royal Enfield name was established. Along with the name came the tagline ‘Made Like a Gun’, hinting at precision manufacturing and reliability, attributes that would stand Royal Enfield in good stead later in its history.

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • The first Royal Enfield “motorbike”

    In 1899, the first powered vehicle rolled off the Enfield production line. Remember, the first bicycle was called the Royal Enfield, but at this time the company was still trading under the name ‘Enfield Cycle Company Ltd’. By the turn of the 20th Century, internal combustion was quite literally booming, and it was logical to add petrol power to the bicycles Enfield was already producing. By using one bicycle frame and four wheels, the Enfield Quadricycle proved popular. Powered by a single cylinder engine producing just 2.25 hp, the four-wheeled wonder made a name for itself when it competed in the inaugural Royal Automobile Club 1000-mile trial around the UK in 1900.

    Just one year later, Enfield were ready to make their motorcycling debut. The first engine boasted 1.5hp of power and was based on a Ducommun (of Alsace) design which Enfield took on and planned for their first motorcycle. The motorcycle itself was designed by a French automotive engineer Jules Gobiet in partnership with Bob Walker Smith, known as RW Smith. The 242cc single cylinder engine was mounted above the front wheel and in front of the handlebars. A toothed leather drive belt fed the 1.5bhp of available power to a large drive wheel at the rear and a comfortable cruising speed of 19mph was possible at just 1500rpm. Looking back, it’s easy to see why “motocyclettes” proved so popular, especially when you consider the 94mpg economy.

  • The growth of the Royal Enfield name

    Over the next 20 years Royal Enfield grew its range significantly, adding larger capacity V-twin models, two strokes and a step-through model built specifically for women. The 297cc Lightweight V-Twin model completed the John O’Groats to Land’s End trial (traversal of the whole length of the island of Great Britain between two extremities, in the southwest and northeast) in the UK in 1910, adding to the growing reputation of the company. By the early 1920s, fuel tanks were slung under the top spar of the chassis and had grown in width, changing gear with your feet rather than the previously complicated hand change system was also adopted, and Royal Enfield were viewed as innovators in the marketplace.

    Royal Enfield also produced motorcycles and a Service Sidecar for use during World War One. The 6hp model came in several variants, including an ambulance and a model capable of mounting both Vickers and Maxim machine guns. Apart from supplying bikes to the War Office, Royal Enfield also delivered motorcycles under contract to the Imperial Russian Government. By this stage the Redditch factory had grown and now occupied 18 acres. It was so large that it had its own Fire Service, comprising production staff who also trained as firemen. These staff were put to the test in 1925 when fire ravaged the main building. Thankfully the flames were brought under control and the factory was rebuilt.

    The most famous Royal Enfield of all appears. The Royal Enfield Bullet, possibly the most recognisable model from RE’s history, was unveiled in 1932 and made available with three engine capacities; 250, 350 and 500cc. The Bullet has remained in production ever since and is regarded as the longest living motorcycle design in history. Royal Enfield were called upon during WW2 and produced motorcycles under license for the War Office. One brief was to supply the fledgling British Parachute Regiment with motorcycles that were capable of carrying messages and signals before radio communications could be established. The motorcycle also had to be capable of withstanding a landing under parachute, so they could be dropped alongside Airborne troops. Early testing proved this to be a difficult task and beefed-up cages had to be built to stop wheels buckling and frames cracking. Eventually the ‘Flying Flea’ was ready, a small capacity (126cc) two-stroke machine capable of running on multiple fuels. Extra work was undertaken to silence engine noise as much as possible and about 8000 were produced.

    The extra strain that manufacturing was under due to the war effort meant that Royal Enfield had to build extra factories around the UK to meet demand. At one point there was a factory 90 feet under the ground in Upper Westwood in Wiltshire, as well as the Calton Hill factory in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Flying Flea was used in several beach landings during the war but was typically delivered four at a time from the back of a glider rather than under a parachute as per the original War Office brief. With the war over, Royal Enfield turned its attention to meeting the huge demand for personal transport at home. The unused stock of Flying Fleas were repainted and repurposed for civilian use, while tens of thousands were manufactured at Redditch. Known as the Model RE, it later gained telescopic forks (RE2) and a larger engine as it evolved into the Ensign and Prince. Meanwhile, the Bullet gained swinging rear arm suspension and was produced in huge numbers of both 350 and 500cc. It was the first production motorcycle by any manufacturer to have this trademark suspension, and within just a few years all other manufacturers worldwide had followed suit.

    Advertisement - Page continues below
  • Royal Enfield takes off in India

    In the late 1940s, India was proving to be an import hotspot for bicycles and motorcycles. KR Sundaram Iyer and his nephew K Eswaran Iyer had built a formidable business doing exactly this in Madras. When Madras Motors placed an order for 500 Bullets on behalf of the Indian Army in 1952, the Redditch factory had a new No.1 customer. In 1955, a legally binding partnership was formed between Madras Motors and Royal Enfield and Enfield India was born. Tooling from the UK factory was shipped across to India, as well as CKD (Completely Knocked Down) Bullets and Ensigns in their thousands from Redditch to Madras (to this day, CKD Royal Enfield’s are being shipped to plants in Argentina, Colombia, and Thailand for local assembly.) By the early 1960s, Enfield India was manufacturing everything in-house.

  • Royal Enfield continues its innovative journey

    Back in the UK, Royal Enfield were shooting for the stars. The Meteor, Super Meteor, Constellation, Interceptor and Bullet models all looked and sounded out of this world, but it was the Continental GT that eclipsed everything when it was launched in 1964. The iconic cafe racer shape still grabs attention now. The clip-on bars, long fuel tank and humped seat unit proved to be absolutely timeless, and the Continental looked as good outside London’s iconic Ace Cafe back in the 1960s as it does today. Royal Enfield continues to innovate. The late-’60s was a tumultuous time for any British bike manufacturer. In short, Honda and the Japanese big three entered the market, cars were more affordable, and suddenly motorcycles were cheaper, more reliable, and faster than they’d ever been. The Great British biking industry struggled to keep up, Royal Enfield included. By 1970, all UK manufacturing of Royal Enfields had ceased. Thankfully business was booming in India and in a bizarre twist of fate, in 1977, Enfield India began exporting the 350 Bullet back to the UK for sale.

    As innovative as ever, Enfield carried on building motorcycles and building their fanbase. Even the quirky Taurus diesel managed to find fans during its nine-year production run. A buyout by the Indian Automotive company Eicher Group in 1994 was the first chapter in Royal Enfield’s modern story. Today, Royal Enfield has the capacity to build hundreds of thousands of motorcycles in Chennai each year. There’s even a new UK R&D facility just 50 miles away from the old Redditch factory. The Interceptor 650 Twin launched in 2018 has been a bestseller in the UK and absolutely personifies what’s great about motorcycling. It’s fun to ride, is affordable and looks great. Meteor, Bullet, Interceptor and Continental GT models all thrive in today’s retro-hungry motorcycle market. The addition of the rugged Himalayan in 2016 means Royal Enfield owners can enjoy riding on or off-road all over the world. The future looks bright too in 2020, Royal Enfield filed a trademark for the name Flying Flea. Given the demand for lightweight electric commuter bikes, it’s likely that a plug-in version is on the cards. Royal Enfield has produced millions of motorcycles over the past 120 years, expanding horizons and changing lives for generations of motorcyclists. Still shooting straight and true, Made Like a Gun indeed.

More from Top Gear

Loading
See more on Royal Enfield

Subscribe to the Top Gear Newsletter

Get all the latest news, reviews and exclusives, direct to your inbox.

By clicking subscribe, you agree to receive news, promotions and offers by email from Top Gear and BBC Studios. Your information will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

BBC TopGear

Try BBC Top Gear Magazine

subscribe