Royal Enfield - A Colorful Motorcycle History

Bikers who love the history around motorcycles should enjoy the colorful story behind Royal Enfield.

Boasting the honor of being the longest continuously produced motorcycle, the road this iconic motorcycle brand has taken would make any midday soap proud. Royal Enfield appears and even contributes to various motorcycle moments throughout biker history. Riding its own twisting road, it started as a British motorcycle manufacturer only to have fate taking the brand to India, its current home.

The Royal Enfield name started in the corporate halls of Enfield Cycle Company which manufactured bicycles, lawnmowers, stationary engines and of course, motorcycles.

More notably however, the Enfield Cycle Company began business as a weapons manufacturer, most famous for the Enfield rifle. This legacy is reflected in the company logo of a cannon and their motto, "Made like a Gun".

This phrase is often thrown around with a smile among owners of Royal Enfield motorcycles.

Royal Enfield delivered its first motorcycle in 1901 which boasted a 239 cc engine. Just to put this date into the motorcycle timeline, Royal Enfield produced their first motorcycle two years before William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson built their first bikes for the general public.

By 1910, Royal Enfield was using 344 cc Swiss Motosacoche V-Twin engines, or large-displacement JAP and Vickers-Wolseley engines. Two years later Royal Enfield Model 180 sidecar combination was introduced with a 770 cc V-twin JAP engine which was raced successfully in the Isle of Man TT and at Brooklands. To this day, the Isle of Man TT includes a racing class of motorcycle and sidecar.

1913 Royal Enfield 425cc

The First World War helped Royal Enfield’s production with the company supplying large numbers of motorcycles to the British War Department as well as winning a supply contract for the Imperial Russian Government. For these models, Enfield used its own 225 cc two-stroke single and 425 cc V-twin engines as well as producing an 8 hp motorcycle sidecar model fitted with a Vickers machine gun.

The company would need these profitable years to carry them through the lean times between the two world wars. In 1921 Enfield developed a new 976 cc twin and three years later the first Enfield four-stroke 350 cc single using a Prestwich Industries engine was launched.

One of the more notable motorcycle moments came in 1928, when Royal created its famous Bullet model. The Royal Enfield Bullet was originally a British overhead valve single cylinder four-stroke model which would go onto earn the title of the longest production run of any motorcycle, still being built today. The motorcycle’s name was taken from the company’s links with their small arms factory.

It enjoyed many features which would become familiar to the motorcycle world such as the center-spring girder front forks and a saddle-type fuel tank. It had an inclined engine with exposed valve gear featuring four valves per cylinder with 350 cc and 500 cc options.

Common to motorcycles of this period, it also featured a rigid rear-end, necessitating a 'sprung' seat for the rider, which resulted in the iconic look of the motorcycle that is much replicated today, even though the sprung seat is unnecessary in modern models.

As famous as the Bullet would become, the motorcycles Royal Enfield produced for the British war efforts in the Second World War and how they would build them are simply fascinating.

In order to establish a facility protected from the wartime bombing of the region, an underground factory was set up, starting in 1942, in a disused "Bath Stone" quarry with an estate of prefabricated buildings constructed to house workers.

The motorcycles produced during this time were WD/C 350 cc sidevalve, WD/CO 350 cc OHV, WD/D 250 cc SV, WD/G 350 cc OHV and WD/L 570 cc SV. One of the most well-known Enfields was the Royal Enfield WD/RE, known as the Flying Flea, a lightweight 125 cc motorcycle designed to be dropped by parachute with airborne troops.

Royal Enfield WD/RE - the Flying Flea

The post war world was hungry for transportation leading to Royal Enfield producing basic motorcycles such as single cylinder ohv 350cc model G and 500cc Model J, with rigid rear frame and telescopic front forks. It must’ve felt like all-Enfield all the time with the motorcycle market enjoying a large number of factory reconditioned ex-military sv Model C and ohv Model CO singles sold off as surplus by various military services.

Throughout the decade following the Second World War, Royal Enfield set what could be considered modern motorcycle standards.

In 1948, a groundbreaking development in the form of rear suspension springing was developed, initially for competition model "trials" models, which could be considered modern enduro type machines. This feature would be offered in the consumer version of the Model Bullet 350cc, a single cylinder OHV, giving the model a comfortable ride and making it a popular seller. So much so, they developed and sold a 500cc version.

This 500cc model is one of the motorcycles built by the India manufacturers who would take the Royal Enfield name into modern times.


Royal Enfield's Bullet over the years - 1939 (350), 1953 (500) and today's motorcycle

Another mark in motorcycle history came in 1949 when Royal Enfield’s version of the now popular selling parallel twins appeared. This 500cc version was the forerunner of a range of Royal Enfield Meteors, 700cc Super Meteors and 700cc Constellations. Offering good performance at modest cost, these sold widely, and the 700cc Royal Enfield Constellation Twin would be considered as the first Superbike.

How Royal Enfield rode into a chapter of motorcycle history enjoying a current revival came about from how the British licensing system worked. In Britain, anyone sixteen years or older could have a ‘learner’ license which allowed them to ride anything 250cc or smaller without passing a test. Not surprisingly, Royal Enfield produced a number of 250 cc machines, including a racer, the 'GP' and a Scrambler, the 'Moto-X', which used a modified Crusader frame, leading link forks and a Villiers Starmaker engine. The Clipper was a base-model tourer with the biggest-seller being the Crusader, a 248 cc pushrod OHV single producing 18 bhp.

Between the smaller motorcycles and war surplus bikes, British youth took to two-wheels as their American equivalent did to inexpensive cars. This created the age of the café racer.

Just as American teens did with their cars, British youth customized their motorcycles for speed and handling rather than comfort with the aim of taking quick rides over short distances. These distinctive motorcycles were illegally raced between transport cafés along the newly built highways in and around British towns and cities.

It was also during this time Royal Enfield established the connection with India which would allow the brand to survive. As with the war time prosperity, this turn in the Enfield history owed its success to government contracts.

Royal Enfield motorcycles had been sold in India since 1949. By 1955, the British based Royal Enfield partnered with Madras Motors in India to form 'Enfield India' allowing the new company to assemble under license, the 350 cc Royal Enfield Bullet. Under Indian law, Madras Motors owned the majority of shares in the company, a fact that would play a major role in the brand’s survival.

Eventually, the tooling was sold to Enfield India so that they could manufacture components and by 1962, all components were made in India.

Ten years after this initial agreement the Indian government started looking for a suitable motorcycle for its police and army, for patrolling the country's border. The Royal Enfield Bullet was chosen and the Indian government ordered 800 350 cc model Bullets.

After a few years, the company started producing the 500 cc Bullet. Eventually Enfield India would dominate its home market.

Royal Enfield or Indian Motorcycle

Many motorcyclists would be surprised to know Royal Enfield actually has a two-wheeled with connection the famous Indian brand.

The production of Indian Motorcycles had stopped in the Springfield factory in 1953. The company who owned the rights turned to Royal Enfield and from 1955 to 1959, Royal Enfields were painted red and marketed in the United States as Indian Motorcycles.

But Americans were not impressed by the badge engineering and the marketing agreement ended in 1960, and from 1961, Royal Enfields were available in the US under their own name.

Fun fact, the largest Enfield 'Indian' was a 700 cc twin named the Chief, like its American predecessors

Back in England, what could be called the original factory built café racer was born in 1965. The 21 bhp Continental GT featured a distinctive red GRP tank, five-speed gearbox, clip-on handlebars, rearset footrests, swept pipe and hump-backed seat. It sold well with its race-styling including a fly-screen resembling a race number plate which doubled as a front number plate mount.

This motorcycle continues to be built to this day.

Royal Enfield continued to design and build a range of motorcycles from its 250cc models to performance bikes used in professional racing. But as with American manufacturers, Royal Enfield faced stiff competition during the onslaught of Japanese motorcycles in the late sixties and early seventies. Offering simple, reliable and inexpensive motorcycles, Japanese motorcycle manufacturers impacted American and British motorcycle manufacturers alike.

Its response to this challenge was the Royal Enfield Series I and II motorcycles. Made largely for the US market, it sported lots of chrome and strong performance, completing the quarter mile in less than 13 seconds at speeds well above 105 mph. While it became very popular in the US, Royal Enfield couldn’t meet the demand leading to the British motorcycle manufacturer shuttering its operations in 1967.

An End and a Beginning

However, Royal Enfield India had been producing its own motorcycles since 1962, building the Royal Enfield Bullet and other single-cylinder motorcycles. The company continued to successfully build a range of motorcycles until 1994 when it merged with the Eicher Group, an automotive company in India.

As with other motorcycle manufacturers, the worldwide financial issues in the 1990’s put pressure on the surviving Royal Enfield. By 2013 the company opened a new primary factory on the strength of increased demand for its motorcycles and in 2015 acquired UK motorcycle design and manufacturing firm, Harris Performance Products.

Royal Enfield currently sells motorcycles in more than 50 countries and in 2015 surpassed Harley-Davidson in global sales. It could be this success which brought about an aggressive marketing plan by Royal Enfield to increase its international motorcycle sales. Its goal, to become the leader in the global mid-sized motorcycling.

To realize this achievement, Royal Enfield has spent $80 million building two factories and technology centers. The motorcycle manufacturer also took direct control of the North American market, distributing its product at the beginning of 2016.

To lead this charge, Rod Copes, a former executive at Harley-Davidson responsible for Asia and other emerging markets was appointed president of Royal Enfield North America. The goal, to have 100 dealerships throughout the United States.

With this move, Royal Enfield, one of the few manufacturers to find success in India which is considered the largest motorcycle markets in the world, has turned its focus on the market that has made the image of bikers what it has become. It also starts another chapter in the exciting history of the Royal Enfield brand.

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