the perfect pair
Two iconic brands, Royal Enfield and Land Rover are considered to be the 2 wheeled & 4 wheeled version of the other.
Royal Enfield Bullet 500 Desert Storm Vs Land Rover Defender 90 Heritage Edition.
Words by Sean Muir & Chris Harris
Take a good look at this breathtakingly beautiful pair – it will probably be your last. These machines, as agricultural as they may seem, have a lot in common. They’re distinctly British, distinctly original and they’ve both been in continuous production for around 70 years.
They’re also incredibly – and unashamedly – rudimentary in this fast-pace era of modernity, performance and safety. Sadly, that means it’s lights out for the Land Rover Defender due to tougher European regulations for pedestrian crash safety that render the iconic four-wheel drive’s exterior design obsolete. Pessimists will point out how the Land Rover Defender and Royal Enfield Bullet haven’t evolved, which is why the naysayers buy SUVs and probably don’t own bikes, let alone get it. The optimist and hopeless romantic, however, will praise the fact that the pair have defied change, and that’s something few vehicles, two wheels or four, can claim.
Of course they’re old and flawed compared with anything modern, but that’s not the point. Instead, the Defender and Bullet embrace simplicity, honesty and charm. For me, it’s like riding and driving pieces of automotive history where flaws become delights. Ironically, both British brands are now Indian- owned, but whereas the Defender as we now know it is heading to heaven, the Bullet putts on and the future looks bright for Royal Enfield.
As a rider and former 4×4 guy, Sean, what are your thoughts?
A little known fact about four-wheel-drives is that most of the journalists who write about them also ride motorcycles – though usually under the cover of darkness. It’s a strange phenomenon but one that makes perfect sense. At their core, motorcycling and four-wheel-driving represent the same things: freedom and utility. And there are few combinations that better demonstrate the parallels than Land Rover’s Defender Heritage Edition and Royal Enfield’s Desert Storm. Before airbags and ABS, the spiritual forefathers of these British brutes were serving the empire. Most astounding, though, is how little each has changed since they first saw civilian mud under their tyres after WWII.
The Bullet, which the Desert Storm is based on, has the longest production run of any motorcycle, while the Defender is based on the original Land Rover Series I – inspired by WWII’s Willys MB – and was still largely hand-built until production ceased last year. Fittingly, both these special editions also have wartime-inspired paint schemes – the Desert Storm’s Sand paint and the Heritage’s Grasmere Green. But the similarities run much deeper than a coat of paint.
“The Defender and Bullet embrace simplicity, honesty and charm.”
Or coat of mud. I normally don’t care about getting test cars and bikes dirty in the name of good photos, but I’m feeling pretty guilty about dirtying this Defender, given only 2654 examples were built, of which just 69 came to Australia. Every single one – 90 and 110 wheelbase variants – sold out months ago. This Defender 90 Heritage Edition is priced from $54,900 (plus on-road costs), which is relatively expensive, but the smart money would have been to buy one and park it as an investment because word on the street is they’re already fetching more than $100,000 second-hand.
We’ve both done plenty of off-roading and, needless to say, the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel Defender is extremely capable when the going gets seriously tough – not that we really tested its mettle. On the other hand, I expected to see you do a spectacular faceplant in the mud attempting to get the Enfield through the slop but, with the trials knobby tyres fitted, it kept you upright. Too bad about your back, though. With a chopped rear guard and no front to allow room for the bigger rubber on this quasi-custom example, prepared by Royal Enfield Australia, you looked like a victim of a nasty vindaloo. Priceless.
Someone had to get his hands/ face/back/legs/undies dirty while you enjoyed the comparative plushness of the Defender, with its almond cloth seats, rubber mats and aluminium- finish air-vent bezels, clock and door handles. Was that a subwoofer I saw? Luxury. Seriously, though, I didn’t doubt the Enfield. We’ve been getting to know each other – and it already feels like we’re old mates. There’s something so simple, intuitive and bullshit-free about the connection you make with this bike. And at $8990 rideaway, it’s well within reach of your average buyer. I have to admit, though, when I first saw you behind the wheel of the Landie, I was jealous. It’s the kind of thing you just want to run your fingers over. It’s beautiful, rivets and all. But, once on the sprung seat of the Enfield, I knew where my butt belonged.
It’s slow and it’s hard to handle with the soft knobbies, but when you give it a handful and the 499cc single-cylinder engine starts to rattle and pop… Jeez, what am I doing here in front of the keyboard? I’m going AWOL. Time for another lark about town.
“There’s something so simple, intuitive and bull****-free about the connection with this bike.”
You’re right about a sense of familiarity with the Enfield. Perhaps it’s the intuitive and relaxed ergonomics or the endearing honesty of its engine which promise continent-crossing durability. Slowly but surely. I felt like I’d slipped into my grandfather’s boots during his years in the British Army against the Japanese, putting along the Thai-Burmese border, minus his string of generous girlfriends. The Bullet is compact, just like the original, and that’s because it’s not really a retro bike but a genuine, upgraded vintage motorcycle. If it worked for a dashing Cyril Harris of Moulmein, it’ll work for you in Melbourne. My grandfather also clocked up countless hours behind the wheel of a Willys Jeep and, later, the original Series I Land Rover, and yet, here we are, almost 70 years later, comparing the pair. And in terms of refinement, the Enfield makes the Land Rover seem like a Range Rover.
Swapping two wheels for four, the first thing you notice is the Defender’s cramped driving position. The ultra-high perch, with limited support and adjustability, has you up close to the flat windscreen and pedals, and you sit hard-up against the door. For the bigger boned, it’s like stuffing cottage cheese into a Spam tin. But it’s easy to criticise the Defender’s spartan interior, particularly compared with plush modern vehicles or even the Defender’s conceptually similar rival, the Jeep Wrangler. Yes, it’s cramped but, like riding the Enfield, it’s simple and bullshit-free, as you say, Sean. I like it a lot. No wonder the Defender has a global cult following. Once you accept the modest pace and purposeful, utilitarian role of each, you learn how to drive and ride them: short-shift through their prehistoric gearboxes and use the torque. Do that and you can get them chugging along nicely.
You can take the man out of the mud, but you can’t take the mud out of the man.
Chugging is the perfect word. There’s no sense of urgency with either of these vehicles – there’s no pressure to speed, and no real ability to do it anyway. The irony is that the vehicle that’s ceased production is probably the safer of the two – at least for the rider/driver. True, the Defender doesn’t have airbags, but it does have stability control, traction control and ABS. Even its common-rail turbo-diesel is sophisticated when you compare it to the Enfield’s fuel- injected single pot, which rattles the mirrors so much they’re almost unusable. About the most modern things on the Enfield are the 280mm front disc and electric start, which complements the period-correct kickstart. The rear brake? A 153mm drum. But for all its shortcomings, the Enfield, for me, is by far the most fun to be around. And unlike with the Defender, you don’t need to feel too guilty about covering it in mud.
If there were a four-wheel drive you could truly compare it with, it would be the Defender’s forefather, the Series I Landie. I was lucky enough to drive one during my time at 4X4 Australia, and I can honestly say it’s still my all-time favourite – forget your new Ford Rangers and Toyota Hiluxes. Bouncing around on the farm, with no seatbelt and no roof, hands gripped tightly to the oversized steel steering wheel – now that was driving. But you’d almost never see one of those on the roads today – and production? Tell him he’s dreamin’.
Meanwhile, we’re off having the time of our lives on what’s basically an engine on two wheels, with little more than a helmet and a smile.
Yep, they’re inadvertently simple pleasures that have endured more than half a century of increasingly tighter bureaucracy and consumer demands for performance and safety. The sad fact that the Defender as we know it has been discontinued demonstrates the strict parameters put on vehicles whereas motorcycles, no matter how basic, still represent true freedom. Rest in peace, Defender. And long live motorcycles.