Royal Enfield's Classic 500 is a two-wheeled time machine
Updated: May 29, 2021
It's almost impossible to buy a bad motorcycle these days. They're all packed to the rafters with modern technology, are ultra-reliable and more capable than ever before. And that's not just the high-end bikes, it's the cheap and cheerful ones too. Case in point: Ducati's entry-level Scrambler now comes with Bosch cornering ABS, a system that'll calculate how much grip your tyres are capable of and metre your braking input to keep you upright if you suddenly need to put the anchors on mid-corner. Only a few years ago that kind of technology was only ever fitted to high-end bikes.
But there's an exception or two to this rule, and Royal Enfield's Classic 500 is one of those. It's definitely not a good motorcycle, at least not mechanically anyway. The only technology it comes with is fuel injection and ABS, and that's only to satisfy European legislation – in other words, the only reason it's got any modern technology whatsoever is so that it isn't illegal. Oh, it also has disc brakes.
The Classic 500 is styled as if it's straight out of the Second World War. And that's because, more or less, it is pretty much straight from that era. It's a bicycle with a 500cc, 27hp engine. That necessitates huge mud guards, spoked wheels, skinny tyres, pea-shooter exhaust, a single seat and that rather distinctive headlight unit with a nacelle. Viewed side-on, you've got the idiosyncratic shape of the Royal Enfield engine with the large, bulbous air-cooled cylinder head, and the three different visual levels of the seat, the tank and the headlight each higher than the other. It's actually quite easy on the eye, especially when parked up on its centre stand.
The technology the Classic 500 has isn't visible – you can't see the ABS system and you wouldn't necessarily know, at a quick glance, that it has fuel injection. That is to say the packaging's fairly good. Those boxes on each side near the rear wheel aren't for keeping your sandwiches and air raid shelter maps in; they house the air-box, ECU, fuses and a toolkit. The dashboard has nothing other than a speedo, a couple of warning lamps and an ignition switch. Fuel gauge? Nope. Tripmeters? Forget it. Tachometer? 404 Not Found.
This extreme lack of anything modern continues on the further your eyes wander over the Classic 500. Adjustable brake and clutch levers? A locking fuel cap? Adjustable suspension? You've already guessed: it has precisely zero of these things. And what's that weird lever on the left handlebar? A choke. But, as we know from earlier, this is a fuel-injected bike, so why does it have a choke? Well, it isn't a choke, it's a fast idle switch, which possibly hints at the level of sophistication, or lack of it rather, in the injection system. And that other lever on the right-hand side down by the engine? That's a kick-start. Worry not, though, the Classic 500 does actually have an electric starter motor if you don't fancy the true Dad's Army experience.
By all accounts, the Classic 500 is very much exactly as it was when it was first made all those years ago. It really hasn't changed. There's absolutely no abstraction layer between you and the machine; there's no attempt to hide what's actually going on as bits of metal fly up and down and rotate. This is a real, genuine, unashamed, #nofilter motorcycling experience. Pull the clutch lever and you feel the mechanism inside the clutch basket prizing the clutch plates apart. Click the gear lever up and down and you can feel every degree that the dogs rotate through to drop new gears into place. Kick it into life and you will quite literally see the bike vibrating as the plant pot-sized piston lazily reciprocates up and down, shaking the mirrors, numberplate, indicators and the rest of it as it emits a noise somewhere between a sewing machine and a portable generator from what must be the world's largest exhaust silencer. Put-put-put.
As always, the proof's in the riding, and just because the Classic 500 has next to no tech and is a bit of a two-wheeled time machine from the past doesn't mean it can't be an enjoyable ride. GQ made sure to give the generator-cum-sewing-machine a very thorough test – and actually one of the most thorough tests we've ever given a motorcycle. Day riding, night riding, A roads, B roads, pillion riding, city roads, motorways and even a few gravelled tracks were ridden, totalling nearly 1,000 miles in all.
The first few miles are interesting and take some serious adjustment. As much as a sniff at the front brake and the front of the bike will dive like your token drunken, overweight mate at a pool party. A whiff of gas and the front will do the exact opposite and bring the forks back to the top of their travel. The suspension's basic... very, very basic. It crashes into potholes and boings and bounces its way over speed humps, not helped by the sprung seat, like an old American car with leaf springs. If leaf spring suspension was a thing on motorcycles, the Classic 500 would have it. The throttle connection is so-so if somewhat wooly, but the fuelling's all right – after all, Royal Enfield have had a while to sort that out. This is not a modern motorcycle and it's very different from one.
But you get used to it. And you become OK with the fact that changing gear is about as accurate as stirring a spoon in a pot of jam. You'll change into fifth and then try to change into a non-existent sixth gear, because the lever doesn't give away that there are no more cogs to select from and of course there isn't a gear position indicator. The gaps in the ratios between gears are, at times, about as vast as the Grand Canyon and there are times where there is no gear that quite suits the speed you're going. You also get to know exactly when you've exceeded 83mph because, at that speed, it develops a speed wobble. You also learn to appreciate that the indicated speed is perhaps accurate to about five per cent because the needle on the speedometer moves back and forth like a seismograph, so the faster you go, the more inaccurate it gets.
After a hundred miles or so, you end up just laughing at the Classic 500. Laughing at how dreadful it is but simultaneously how amusing it is. You can take liberties with the throttle, twisting it right the way to the stop, and nothing dangerous happens. Corners which you'd otherwise take with caution can be ridden at full throttle. The way it bounces over bad road surfaces and seems to sort of dance and squirm below you is ridiculously entertaining, because it just doesn't handle like any other bike out there.
The redline is found all too often and unexpectedly every time, and rather than just bouncing off a limiter, the engine bogs and makes a noise as if you've stuffed a bunch of carrots into the throttle body. You come to love the fact that every time you brake, lean or accelerate, the fuel light illuminates for a brief second as fuel sloshes around and activates the binary on/off reserve fuel circuit, making it really quite useless – not that it matters, though, as the Classic 500 seems to manage about 90mpg, meaning it'll do about 270 miles to a tank, which is very, very impressive.
The question, of course, is whether the Classic 500 experience will wear thin fast on you or continue to be a barrel of laughs forever more. Obviously, only you can make your mind up on that one. For GQ, it genuinely didn't wear thin – even after 1,000 miles – but given the choice to take another bike with, say, heated grips, a gear position indicator and even something as simple as a tripmeter, clearly we'd take that choice every time. Well, almost every time, because even in 2019, there's still a time and a place for the Classic 500.
Author: Rich Taylor