Update: I bought one: Enfield Himalayan Index Page
In the 1990s, long before retro-looking bikes became a thing, buying and running a locally built Enfield Bullet around the Indian subcontinent caught on with Western tourists. It was a proper adventure all right, tinged with a certain ‘open face and goggles’ romance.
Always sick; never terminal was how one early AMH contributor described running her Bullet around India and back to the UK. It staggered home, but she sure met a lot of roadside mechanics along the way. Jacqui Furneaux is another intrepid Bulletriste, covering over 40,000 miles across the planet. At bike shows visitors literally get a kick out of trying to start her old bike.
As a travel bike I can very much see the appeal of a low-revving, low consumption, low compression, low priced, low saddled plodder – now more than ever. But you want low maintenance on that list, too. With my desert riding background, reliability, economy, durability (and lately, comfort) have long trounced anything else.
Now, 30 years after taking a clapped-out Bullet up the Khyber became a travel biking niche, we’re told the Indian economy booms and RE are booming with it. It’s India, not China, who’s now the world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer. Annually, 17.5m bikes (albeit mostly <125s) are sold there. In the US it’s just half a million, and on the home market RE sell more bikes in a year than all other manufactures can manage across Europe.
Released in 2016, the Himalayan was RE’s first stab at a do-it-all, adventure-styled machine. It wasn’t just yet another restyled spin-off from the Bullet range, but it did retain some of the Bullet’s better DNA, a 411-cc, long-stroke, two-valve single recalling a 1960s BSA thumper.
Unfortunately many found that the Himalayan’s first iteration – the BS3 carb model (reviewed here) paid a little too much homage to the slapdash nadir of the Brit bike industry. A litany of widely reported faults and failures saw production suspended, problems addressed and assembly workers spanked and retrained. In 2018 the BS4 version was released abroad, with some Western export markets (notably not Australia and NZ) getting fuel injection and in Europe, Euro 4-compliant motors come with the now-mandatory ABS.
The near-new bike I tried came from Hartgate in Mitcham. They’ve been around since before I started riding in the mid-70s, but these days sell only Chinese and Taiwanese 125s and scooters, plus Benellis and with a special part of their showroom designated for Enfields.
What they say
Royal Enfield’s most versatile motorcycle, able to take riders almost everywhere they want to go – on road or off-road. The only motorcycle you will ever need. The Himalayan combines outstanding versatility and all-day comfort for all rides. Long-travel suspension, natural upright riding position, a durable and torquey engine all add up to a comfortable ride for you, whether it’s on the highway, city streets, or remote mountain roads. The Himalayan is fit to be your only motorcycle.
In a line
Give it a look; it’s much better than you might expect.
• Feels easy to ride and manoeuvre, despite the 194-kg kerb weight
• Low seat height (800mm; 31.5″)
• Indian build quality looks solid
• Efi motor starts and fuels smoothly
• Great price
• Pirelli MT60 tyres (as opposed to some obscure brand)
• Suspension surprisingly firm
• Can’t verify economy yet, but 15-L tank should be good for 400km.
• Love the tank bars as supplementary baggage racks
• Comes with slim tail rack and centre stand
• Soft seat foam (for my weight)
• Feels like a tall first gear (for off-road)
• LCD display hard to read
• Screen a bit small (for my height)
• Front end felt a bit heavy (it is)
• 3000-miles valve checks
• Front brake lacks bite
• A bit cramped for me at 6’1″
• Low, 220-watt alternator output
Pulling away from Hartgate’s, the seat was nice and low but felt way too soft. I could see it being agony in an hour or two, but I’ve had that on BMWs costing twice as much. At 6’1″ I was also a bit cramped between the stepped seat which angled me forward a little, and my knees are just an inch from the tank rack bars. Removing peg rubbers might provide more leg room and I’d have turned the bars back a tad. The gear change lever also felt too short for my size-11 Blunnies, but I soon adapted. The clutch was light, the gears clicked reassuringly and fuelling felt glitch-free. It’s an effortless bike to ride, with the power of a Jap 250 single or a Chinese Mash 400.
It may only have the 24-hp of a 2nd-gen CRF250L, but on paper it puts out nearby 50% more torque at just 4250rpm, 2500rpm lower than the Honda. Riding along the flat A24 towards Box Hill in 40- and a brief 60mph limit, I can’t say I noticed the torque, but the bike never felt under-powered or noticeably vibey.
Pulling away from lights, I did find myself consciously slipping the clutch to get over the tall first gear – or maybe to avoid stalling an unfamiliar bike. While you don’t want to sacrifice too much of the modest 82-mph top speed, for off-roading I’d consider dropping a tooth to 14T on the front.
The front end felt oddly sluggish (maybe the tyre was soft, or you can feel those 194kgs?) and I was surprised to learn the rims are steel. To be expected on Bullets, but I didn’t think modern bikes use steel wheels any more. Minimising unsprung weight has a big effect on efficiency, acceleration and suspension. But then cheek-distorting acceleration isn’t really a Himalayan’s USP and perhaps the wheels’ flywheel effect helps maintain momentum once up to speed.
As had been widely reported, despite a steel braided line the front brake lacks bite (perhaps the ABS dulls response) while the rear may have a little too much, but up to a point the non-switchable (but probably disable-able) ABS ought to iron out ham-fisted braking. It didn’t engage in a bit of a panic when a car pulled out across a dual carriageway. Not had one of those in a while…
Both for road riding and when manoeuvring it in the woodland mud for photos, I find it hard to believe it really weighs 194 kilos wet (it does). That weight is clearly set low which, along with the low seat, will make a big difference in control and confidence on rough terrain, as well as picking it up when the terrain gets the better of you. And yet you still get a reasonable 220mm (8.5″) of ground clearance which makes the Himalayan a rare and much sought-after thing: a functional trail bike for shorter legged riders who don’t want to have to settle for a TW200. I stood up on the pegs and – with the usual risers added under the narrow-ish bars – would find gripping the slim bike sustainable on the trail.
The dash’s lit section usefully shows time of day; ambient temperature, then gear position, odo and trip metre (and average speed), plus ‘side stand down’. But apart from the gear position it’s too small and messy to easily read at a glance. Chances are, familiarity will improve reading skills.
To the right below the small rev counter (red-lined at 6500rpm) is the digital compass. It’s a gimmicky nod to the bike’s adventurous intent, but as many users have found, most of the time it’s way off. If ‘CA HO’ flash up, recalibrate the compass by pushing the bike in a circle four times while patting your head. It may have to be done fairly regularly so I’d sooner rely on the sun or of course, a GPS compass, if orientation is that important.
Talking of plugging in accessories, the Himalayan’s claimed 220w alternator output is not so impressive when you need heated grips and a heated vest approaching the north face of Kanchenjunga. Fitting a switch to the always-on headlights may help, as well as fitting LED lighting.
The fit and finish looked pretty good, but only time will tell how it all holds up. Zinc paint brushed over rusty headers looks clumsy. Welds (left) are robotic and if some of that near-200-kilo heft is in the subframe, that’s right where you want it for load-carrying duties off road.
By the book you need to dealer adjust the valves every 3000 miles (only two and they’re easy screw and locknut jobs) to keep the two-year warranty running. Unless they’re made from the final remnants of 1970s monkey metal, it’s hard to think a low-revving bike like this needs the tappets done twice as frequently as recommended oil changes, but valves clearances tend to tighten not increase. Some say its a way of subsidising the low purchase price.
Unusually for an efi bike, there’s a cold-start lever on the left bar, and the air-an-oil cooled engine comes with a big oil cooler. Some say the ambient air temp sensor under the seat could do with repositioning to give a truer reading away from the warmed up engine, but one thing I’d definitely add is an engine temp sensor, like the Trail Tech one off my WR250R, right.
For the money, spec and intended use, very little comes close to the Himalayan’s simple, agricultural charm. Comparing it with the BMW 310GS (right; also Indian built), Versys 300, Suzuki 250 V-Strom or Honda CRF250L misses the Himalayan’s distinctive niche. Riders aren’t buying Hims solely by its displacement category, and to its credit the Himalayan isn’t a repurposed high-revving road bike motor slotted in an adv-styled bike. It was planned from the ground up ‘fit to be your only motorcycle.’
I’d say its low-seat and low rpm characteristics have more in common with Honda’s unfashionable but quietly popular NC twins, Yamaha’s stillborn SR400 (left; dropped in 2017) or your Chinese-made Mash 400s and the like.
It’s closest true competitor is the now seemingly discontinued Mash 400 Adventure (right) / WK Trail 400, which used a 400cc Chinese Shineray engine based on the old Honda XBR500. You may find new, end-of-line Mash Advs in the UK for the same price as a Himalayan. The frames on these Chinese mini Advs are different from the many twin-shock road models, but the motor’s the same.
All of an hour spent on the Himalayan pretty much matched what I’d read and seen, but not what I thought. Cynically, I assumed testers where being a bit soft on the old-style thumper, but after the ride I warmed to the concept too.
People will say ‘Just a bit more power and it would be perfect’ and my experience with similar-hp 250s, loaded up at modest altitudes can leave nothing in reserve at 50mph. Sure, you’re still moving forward, but on busier roads and steeper hills, that speed can make you feel vulnerable which induces fatigue over a long day. But out in the slower-paced AM Zone the Himalayan ought to slip right in. The added capacity over a typical Jap 250 only delivers more torque and less revviness which will certainly help on rough trails. Elsewhere, the hefty weight and low power may leave you struggling in headwinds and on long climbs.
Maybe it’s just nostalgia but I’ve had bikes like this in mind for years. Something like my old Triumph T140V or XT500. My GS500R project or more recently, XSR Scrambler were attempts to realise it, but despite weighing less than RE’s claim, the XSR sure didn’t feel lighter.
The Himalayan is the first mid-sized thumper that could fit the bill as a long-range travel bike, much more than the variously badged Shineray 400cc equivalents mentioned above and of course, much more than the CRF450L. By now there’s enough Himalayan chat and know-how online, much of it in India.
Setting off for a long trip what would this bike actually need? Handguards, a bigger screen, a rack for panniers (£500 fitted; right). The upswept pipe might hamper an ideal pannier position low down (here’s one solution) but the nifty tank racks mean less bulk at the back.
People looking for the ideal light weight, low-displacement travel bike are comparing it with BMW’s 310GS, but only because they’ve come out around the same time and are also Indian made. Knowing the 310 quite well now, as a travel bike I’d sooner get a Himalayan.
Jan 2019: I bought one.