We take Royal Enfield’s newest cruiser back to its roots!
The year was 1996 (I was in sixth class in school back then!) and the place was the Auto Expo in New Delhi. Royal Enfield had just taken the veil off its first-ever cruiser motorcycle, the Citybike 500, which was the one that laid the template for the Lightning 535, Thunderbird, Thunderbird X and now the Meteor 350. What you see in on these pages, ladies and gentlemen, is the very motorcycle that took centre stage at the Auto Expo, 25 years ago!
A few months after the Expo, a 20-something year old rode the bike down to Pune from Delhi, with his father sitting pillion. It was a six-day sojourn punctuated by visits to Royal Enfield dealerships along the way and delayed by a flooded bridge in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh. To those in Royal Enfield circles and rider groups, Baljeet Singh Kochhar is that friendly, down to earth rider who is smiling perpetually and will show up even at 3am if your bike has broken down and you are stranded by the road.
He is also popular as someone who loves collecting and working on old-school two-wheelers, He is also popular as someone who loves collecting and working on old-school two-wheelers, which explains the excellent condition of his 25-year old motorcycle. It still has the original paint and working meters and lights! Even the 500cc air-cooled lump comes to life in a single kick. Ever the enthusiast, Baljeet agreed to join us for a ride, allowing us to welcome what is the first-ever long term test motorcycle at TURBOCHARGED and also Royal Enfield’s latest, the Meteor 350! Post the customary greeting Baljeet marvelled that his motorcycle needed little coaxing to start despite not being used for a long time. Talk about character. As we headed out I noticed the ease with which Baljeet is pulling away on his two and half decade old motorcycle. Once outside the city, we took a break where I ask him about it. In a typical Punjabi tone, Baljeet replied, “Vadiya chaldi hai” before admitting that time has robbed the bike of some of its performance. Interestingly Baljeet has participated in a few dirt and drag races on it back in the day and also won a few accolades!
He was even gifted an Amal performance carburettor for his Citybike by the famous ‘Bullet Bose’ – if you don’t know who Bullet Bose is, you don’t belong to your Royal Enfield! Subhash Chandra Bose is the old man’s full name, who is another legend in Indian motorcycling, but I’ll save that for another day. Back on the move, I have no problem keeping up with Baljeet on the Meteor, its tall gearing and torquey motor allowing it to settle into a relaxed rhythm.
We soon reached the outskirts of Pune, a hilly area dotted with tiny hamlets. And that’s where I got a good opportunity to soak in Baljeet’s motorcycle. The old lady is still a beaut. Its teardrop fuel tank sits at a steep angle while the ape hanger handlebars, stepped seats and padded backrest look properly retro. The dual-tone pinstriped handlebar has a unique ‘Enfield’ logo, just Enfield, not Royal Enfield – the Royal prefix was added later. In comparison, the Meteor is a perfect example of how Royal Enfield’s designs have evolved with time and looks very appealing with its large windscreen, wide handlebars and comfy two-piece seat and pillion backrest.
The new Royal Enfield logo encased in chrome sits prominently on the tank – this is the Supernova variant and I think the Meteor looks best in this guise. The Citybike isn’t devoid of features either. Its twin-pod instrument console includes a tachometer and fuel gauge. The Meteor misses out on a tachometer but gets more modern stuff like a semi-digital instrument console, Bluetooth connectivity and separate pod for navigation. Baljeet is kind enough to allow us to ride his prized possession, provided we kick start it ourselves! I am apprehensive, having heard about the back kick old-school Enfields were notorious for. It is unfounded and more to do with a technique that involves a decompression lever. Get it right and you are rewarded with a one kick start. I obviously took a few tries but thankfully did not shatter my kneecap in the process. Boy am I glad my long-term Meteor has the convenience of a thumb starter!
Riding the Citybike needs you to rewire your brain to the fact that the gear lever sits on the right and the brake pedal to the left. It takes a couple of kilometres to get used to. On the move, the laidback riding position and soulful thump get you into a relaxing mood. You tend to forget that the brakes are non-existent (it is a 25-year-old bike after all). There is a lot of mechanical noise but it is more symphony than cacophony. In comparison, the Meteor is far more refined and easier to ride.
The proverbial thump is a lot more subdued and less mechanical and there’s no way it can match the charm of the Citybike’s thump. That said, the Meteor has its own charm as a modern-retro, given the refinement, build quality and comfort. Even Baljeet nods in agreement after a spin on the Meteor 350. It’s a bike that promises to take Royal Enfield’s legacy forward, particularly in the cruiser space. As we pull over and Baljeet is back to telling me stories of his experiences with the Citybike, I cannot help but take my eyes off the two motorcycles parked together. They’re both several generations apart, but what binds them is how endearing they can be, instantly. Both have their own distinctive charm and both are the perfect recipe for some great story-telling. And that’s the other thing Royal Enfield is known for, besides being a motorcycle manufacturer, no?