'Made like a Gun':Romancing the Royal Enfield Bullet in the service of the Indian Armed Forces

The record-breaking Tornadoes display team of the Army Service Corps was formed in 1982, debuting at the 9th Asian Games in New Delhi. It has since participated in more than 1,000 major international and national events, always riding Royal Enfield Bullets. 

Col Anil Bhat (retd) Nov 29, 2022
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Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle (MC)

“JHA-JHA-JHA-JHA-JHA-JHA-JHA-JHA” is the unmistakable signature sound of the Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle (MC), which this writer recalls from his boyhood days in the 1950s in New Delhi. All despatch riders from the Indian Army. Navy and Air Force were riding this MC, which has stood the test of time on all kinds of terrain, temperatures, altitudes, and soil conditions as obtained in India and also got categorised as the ‘military motorcycle’.

The Royal Small Arms Factory in Enfield, London, being one of the oldest motorcycle manufacturers, supplied MCs for dispatch riders during World War II. The British Army’s use of Royal Enfields was considerable, including motorcycle ambulance outfits with the sidecars converted to stretchers. However, the machine gun sidecar was the most prominent development. In December 1914 the first Royal Enfield machines were delivered to the British Army to form the 5th Motor Machine Gun Battery. These highly manoeuvrable outfits carried Vickers machine guns mounted on a strengthened sidecar platform. Eyewitness reports from battlefields near Ypres in 1915 talk of the “invaluable service” that a battery of Royal Enfield motorcycle and machine gun outfits gave, countering wave after wave of enemy attacks.

Earlier, the Indian Army was using Triumphs and BSAs which had many mechanical drawbacks and a high rate of wear and tear. So these motorcycles were declared redundant and the government floated tenders for new motorcycles. Apart from supplying durable, reliable and better-performing motorcycles, another condition laid down was that, at a later stage, the production of the bikes had to occur in India. In this way, the government would be able to supply motorcycles to the army while promoting industrialisation in India. The British manufacturer agreed to the terms and conditions of the tender and presented the 350cc, 4-stroke Royal Enfield Bullet. When the Indian Army officers tested the bike, they felt it was way better than the previous machines. The British manufacturer got the first order from the Indian government and decided to open a factory in Madras (now Chennai).

An event that completely changed Royal Enfield’s future was the first India-Pakistan war soon after Partition in 1947. Border skirmishes continued after the ceasefire, especially in the deserts of Rajasthan and the remote, mountainous region of Jammu and Kashmir. The Indian Army needed a motorcycle capable of patrolling these inhospitable tracts.

Madras Motors, formed in 1942, imported small quantities of bicycles and motorcycles from Royal Enfield. When the owners visited the Royal Enfield factory in Redditch and saw the 350cc Bullet, the first British motorcycle with swinging arm rear suspension, they were very impressed. They placed an order for 82 machines, which were despatched from the Redditch factory in November 1950. They proved themselves inimitably suitable for the harsh conditions along the frontier and disputed territories. A total of 500 machines were ordered in 1952 and then a further 700 bikes were needed in double-quick time and ready for immediate use without the obligatory running-in period.

Enfield India

In 1955, Royal Enfield partnered with Madras Motors in India to form Enfield India and started assembling the bike locally in the country. The 350cc Bullets were sent from the Redditch factory in kits for assembly at the Madras plant. Soon, the tooling was sold to Enfield India so that they could also manufacture components locally. By 1962, the Bullet used in the country was completely made in India. However, the 1955 model remained almost unchanged for years and Madras produced over 20,000 Bullets annually.

In 1990, Royal Enfield collaborated with the Eicher Group, an Indian automotive company. In 1994, Eicher fully acquired Royal Enfield and the Redditch company became an Indian company. After that the company started working on the mechanical advancement and upgradation of the bikes. 

Royal Enfield was not doing well in the market when it was acquired by the Indian firm. However, the strategies of its new CEO Siddhartha Lal worked and the company restarted its progress. New models were also introduced and today it is one of the most profitable companies in the market.

After 1990, other two-wheeler manufacturers also started introducing more advanced products in the Indian market. However, the Indian Army stayed with Royal Enfield and is still using its motorcycles. A relationship of so many years with a team serving the nation at its best adds a patriotic value to the brand as well.

It was sometime in the 1960s that the Indian Army’s motorcyclists began using Royal Enfield bikes for amazing stunts on special occasions like the Republic Day parade. The reputed Sweta Ashwa (meaning white horse- the MC riders of the Corps of Military Police) team of the Indian Army also holds the Guinness Record for balancing 48 people on a 500cc Royal Enfield, shattering the previous record of Brazil's Army Corp in the process.  On 22 September 1995, 'Shwet Ashwa' created a world record and entered its name in the Guinness book of world records, when it put a pyramid of 133 persons on 11 motorcycles which traversed a distance of 350 meters, at Bangalore.

Trick motorcycling

The record-breaking Tornadoes display team of the Army Service Corps was formed in 1982, debuting at the 9th Asian Games in New Delhi. It has since participated in more than 1,000 major international and national events, always riding Royal Enfield Bullets. The record-breaking run's complete footage from 2017 can be found on https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/14sw4BG0OxyuoOo8UqvuZbiuo2APevDqd?usp=sharing. The record is 58 people on a single motorcycle, a Royal Enfield Classic 500. Apart from the teams mentioned, India Army’s Corps of Signals, central armed police organisations Border Security Force (BSF) and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) too have maintained trick-motorcycling teams.

Women officers of the Indian Army and women officers and constables of the Border Security Force and Central Reserve Police Force have also excelled in trick motorcycling.  

 Writer and Royal Enfield Historian Gordon May has written books, including ‘Overland To India: An 8400 Mile Adventure On A 55 Year Old Motorcycle’  and 'How many people can you fit on a motorcycle? '

 Royal Enfield’s Central Brand Officer Mohit Dhar Jayal told this writer: “Across generations and geographies, Royal Enfield motorcycles have served the (Indian) Armed Forces with distinction, living up to the company's motto: 'Made like a Gun'. In the decades to come, we aim to maintain this tradition of service by adapting our resilient, battle-tested product DNA in line with a rapidly evolving military context.”

(The author, a former spokesperson of the Defence Ministry and Indian Army, can be contacted at wordsword02@gmail.com)

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