Exclusive: ‘The biggest difference between the new and the old Bullet is the person riding it’: Mark Wells

Chief Product Design Head at Royal Enfield Motorcycles Mark Wells tells Autocar Professional what went in recreating a modern retro-themed all-new 2023 Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle.

By Chandan B Mallik calendar 21 Oct 2023 Views icon6913 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
Exclusive: ‘The biggest difference between the new and the old Bullet is the person riding it’: Mark Wells

Chief product design Head at Royal Enfield Motorcycles Mark Wells travels between the company’s UK and India design centres quite frequently and he was involved in the all-new J1 Bullet project. Wells first began collaborating with Royal Enfield on a number of projects including the Classic 500/350 and the Continental GT535 in 2001, when he ran his own industrial design consultancy. The production version of the Gen 3 Royal Enfield Bullet was launched earlier in the month at the Vallam plant in Chennai. Wells spoke in depth with Autocar Professional about the various aspects of the Bullet project that can trace its origins to the year 1932.

When you see the new Bullet motorcycle in the flesh, what comes to your mind?
The team has nailed it in a nutshell. Somebody said to me earlier, what's the biggest difference between this and the old Bullet? I said, the person riding it. That's the biggest difference in perception. You change the persona of the vehicle; you change their values in life — all those things are different. And I think that's the biggest difference and we wanted to retain the essence of what the Bullet motorcycle has always represented.

What were the limitations when the project started, given its long heritage?
You've only got to change those things a little bit and you can make a difference to how a bike feels. But the difference between the old UCE Bullet and the old UCE Classic was that they weren't beneficial. You didn't have modern features like EFI or ABS. I cannot tell you how much it blows my mind that 20 years ago a couple of youngsters in a shed in Northumberland made some shapes on an engine and there are now over four million impressions of that in the world. Honestly, it's so unbelievable.

What were the challenges in designing the retro-themed Bullet?
As you know, the Bullet heritage goes back all the way to the 1930s. The bike we love today in India came in the 50’s and is based on a design that came in 1948. Post WWII, a small team of engineers at Redditch started experimenting with swing arms. The Bullet was the first bike in the world to have an articulated swing arm. If you look at the shape of the bike and at the frame, you will notice this triangular toolbox that is reminiscent of a hardtail. If you think of old British bikes prior to the Bullet, the frame will extend to the rear axle and there will be no rear suspension. In 1948, our engineers lifted that triangle up and rotated it around and then put a shock absorber in the back and that transformed the handling of the bike. That rising line from the top of the rear frame right up to the nacelle up front is critical in all Bullet designs and we have faithfully retained it in this J frame architecture.

Given that the architecture is also shared in the Meteor and Hunter, did you need to tweak the set-up to create a more legacy Bullet like feeling?
On handling, both Meteor and Hunter give you that mid-corner confidence. I think it's important that there is a difference between the Meteor, Hunter and Bullet. I think the Hunter is a bit more youthful and a bit more about handling and direction changing. We came down that hill path and that bike (Hunter) was so clickable and easy to change direction. And I think, obviously, that slightly stiff spring on the back pushes the back end up and makes sure you put that weight over the front end all the time.

So, I get that the stiffer suspension will make the ride quality harsher, but that's the trade-off. So, we don't have any plans to change that. As always, we're constantly looking at the feedback from customers and evaluating, do we need to make changes? Can we improve that without losing manufacturers? There are no changes in the J Series engine mapping in the new Bullet.

How difficult or easy was it to design or package the new Bullet given its iconic status?
As part of the design language and design story, there were visual elements that are sacrosanct to the design direction. So clearly, you know, number one is the proportion of the stance, well-defined arrival position, it was those visual cues, you immediately know it’s a Bullet, as soon as you see it. Details like the Tiger Eyes, the headlight nacelle, teardrop tank, the hand painted pinstripes, the bench seat, the thump from the engine — all of those things are what the Bullet stands for.

The new frame for the Bullet is shared with the Meteor and Hunter models in the line-up.

And with this new model, all those elements are intact. There is virtually nothing that carries over. And when you compare this bike to the outgoing UCE model, we have, obviously, the J1 engine. The J1 engine is in our other models already, we know how much of a step forward that is in terms of refining, in terms of quality, in terms of noise, vibration, harshness, all of those things are a massive step change. We’ve got the new chassis combined with a good suspension package, improved riding position that offers a really plush, really nice ride.

And, you know, these are all again a big step up from previous bike’s features and so is the brake performance. We have bigger 19-inch wheels, 300 mm front discs and 270 mm discs at the rear that again, offer real confidence to the rider.

So this is almost like the jewel in the Bullet’s crown, you know, we’ve taken inspiration, we have been the heart of all of the original models, we take inspiration from that.

In branding and design of a product, the perception can be different. What would you say about that?
If you’re a car guy rather than a bike guy, one of the examples I always give to illustrate the difference because you know, when people say to me, what's the difference between this and other similarly engineered models in the line-up like the Hunter or Meteor?

There are differences, obviously, in terms of the visual, the stance, the proportion, the colours, but the biggest difference is the mindset of the rider of the bike. So, somebody who rides a Bullet is someone who’s got a certain persona, a certain image about them, and they want to project that to the world in a certain way.  There can be no compromise on that.

And the analogy I make from the car world is you know, if you look at a Land Rover 90, you get very much the sort of the army green, white steel rims and that’s the car that you see the aristocracy in England who carry shotguns and go shooting or hunting or fishing.  And that’s the image, you know, that’s the image and the persona, and then you know who is driving that vehicle.

Now, come to the Defender. It’s a matte silver with black alloys, it uses the same chassis, same body panels, the same engine, but slightly different interior and trim pieces, but fundamentally the same vehicle. The person that drives that vehicle has a very different image — it could be a young rapper like Stormzy, or a character from Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

 It has the same gangster image to it and it’s got a very, very different persona when you compare it to the other one, and I think that’s the same with the Bullet’s persona.

Now, if you think of a Bullet as a classic machine versus the Meteor and Hunter, the Hunter offers a very different image as there’s a certain level of competence and masculinity and machismo that comes with the Bullet. I think is really important to what the Bullet is.

This interview was first published in Autocar Professional's October 15, 2023 issue.

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