In the 1990s, long before retro-looking bikes became a thing, buying and running the real thing, a locally built 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 people along the way. Jacqui Furneaux is another intrepid Bulletriste, covering over 40,000 miles right 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 always trounced anything else..
Now, 30 years after taking a clapped-out Bullet up the Khyber became a travel biking niche, e’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 sleeved down and restyled spin-off from the Bullet range, but it did retain its 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 (tested 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 then retrained. This year the BS4 version was released abroad, with some 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 REs.
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 its look; it’s much better than you might expect.
• Feels light to ride and manoeuvre, despite the claimed 194-kg kerb weight
• Low seat height (800mm; 31.5″)
• Indian-made build quality looks solid
• Efi motor starts and fuels smoothly
• Great price
• Pirelli MT60 tyres (as opposed to some obscure brand)
• Suspension surprisingly well damped
• Can’t verify economy, but 15-L tank should be good for 400km.
• Love the tank bars as supplementary baggage mounts
• Comes with slim tail rack and centre stand
• Soft seat foam (for my weight)
• Tall first gear (for off-road)
• LCD display hard to read
• Screen a bit small (for my height)
• Front end felt a bit heavy
• 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 too soft for my weight. 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 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 was 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-odd hp of a CRF250L and similar, but on paper it puts out nearby 50% more torque at just 4250rpm, 2500rpm lower than the Honda. Riding down 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 found myself consciously slipping the clutch to get over the tall first gear – or maybe to avoid stalling the unfamiliar bike. While you don’t want to sacrifice too much of the modest 82-mph top speed, for off-roading I’d drop a tooth to 14T on the front.
The front end felt oddly sluggish (maybe the tyre was low?) 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. In case you don’t know, reducing unsprung weight (basically, wheels and their attachments) has a much greater effect on efficiency, acceleration and suspension response than saving a much larger mass of sprung weight (the part of the bike which moves with the suspension). But then acceleration isn’t really a Himalayan’s USP and perhaps the wheels’ flywheel effect helps maintain momentum once at speed.
As had been widely reported, despite a steel braided line the front brake lacks bite while the rear may have a little too much of it, 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 on the inside of the dual carriageway decided to give way to another pulling across. 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 weighs 194 kilos wet (lower online figures are available). That weight is clearly set low which, along with the 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 amount of ground clearance which makes the Himalayan a rare and much sought-after thing: a functional trail bike for the shorter legged rider 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 the 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 all too small to read easily at a glance.
To the right below the small rev counter (red-lined at 6500) is the digital compass. It’s a 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, a bit like a GPS. It may have to be done fairly regularly. I’d sooner rely on the sun or 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.
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 where you want it for load-carrying off road.
By the book you need to service 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 monkey metal, it’s hard to think a low-revving bike like this needs the tappets done twice as frequently as recommended oil changes.
Unusually for eft, there’s a cold-start lever on the left bar and the air-cooled engine comes with a big oil cooler. Some say the ambient air temp sensor could do with repositioning to give a truer reading away from the hot engine, but one thing I’d definitely add is an engine temp sensor, like the Trail Tech one off my WR250R, right. To preserve engine longevity you want to know how hot things are getting at high speeds or on slow, gnarly trails.
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 it solely by its displacement category, and to its credit the Himalayan isn’t a repurposed high-revving road bike motor. It was planned from the ground up to be the Himalayan – ‘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 watched about it. Cynically, I assumed testers where being a bit soft on the old-style thumper, but after the ride I must say I went soft too and warmed to the concept.
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. 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 which will certainly help on rough trails. Elsewhere, the hefty weight and low power made 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. By now there’s enough Himalayan chat and know-how online, albeit for the older BS3 or carb model, and 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 could 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 at the same time. Knowing the BMW a little (and about to spend a month riding with some in Morocco), as a travel bike a Himalayan would suit me more.