A post about the issues that I faced with my Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 on my ride across India.
Several people who have watched the videos of my motorcycle tour in 2016 have been asking me about the issues that I faced with my bike on the trip. I’m fairly certain that a lot of the people who have asked me questions on this subject are owners of Royal Enfields themselves. Because, no matter how much you may love the Royal Enfield brand, its legacy or their machines, anyone who knows anything about RE knows that more often than not, something or the other is bound to go wrong with the bike.
I would have loved to have been able to respond to these questions in just one sentence. Maybe by saying something like “I had no issues” or “the bike was perfect throughout the trip”. If that is too idealistic, then I would have liked to have at least been able to say that “my foot peg came loose once, but other than that all was good”. Instead, here I am writing a whole blogpost on the subject. In case you haven’t already got a sense of how things played out (spoiler alert) I had a lot of issues with the bike.
In chronological order, here’s a description of all that went wrong, where and when it went wrong and how things were eventually fixed. There were one or two things that I could have avoided if I had taken better care of the bike (I realise this in hindsight). I will point this out wherever it is applicable.
1. Fuel Indication System Failed
This has been a constant issue on my Thunderbird. I’ve changed the system three times and it has always failed within 300-1000 kilometres thereafter. I’ve heard other Thunderbird owners complain about this too.
This time, the fuel level indication system that I had changed in preparation for the trip went crazy a few days before my trip itself. I have by now given up on the system entirely and didn’t bother to change it. I know it will fail again. As a result, I needed to tank up after every 350 km (in the hills) or 400 km (in the plains), just to be cautious.
2. Dead Battery
My battery conked out on my second day in Himachal Pradesh. I was in Prashar, a remote village way up in the mountains, and my bike refused to start. It took immense amounts of patience, and even larger amounts of effort, to kick start my almost frozen bike and ride it back to civilisation. One of the cells of the battery was dead so recharging it wasn’t an option and I had to replace it.
The 14Ah battery that is used on the Thunderbird is more expensive than the batteries on other bikes and also harder to find in smaller towns. I got lucky and was able to find one in a town about 10 kilometres away from Dharamasala. It was the last piece in the town, and the only one I found on the entire route from Mandi to Mcleodganj. It set me back by INR 2400, which was a whopper of an unexpected expense on a trip that was being done on the tightest of budgets.
3. Chain Issues
I learnt the importance of regular lubrication of the chain on this trip. It’s something I had never bothered with before and on this ride I paid the price for it. Issues with the chain started when I made my way back to Nainikhad from Bairagarh, and occurred at frequent intervals thereafter. I needed to constantly lubricate and tighten the chain. Eventually, the chain had to be replaced when I was in Kutch.
I could have probably avoided this issue if I had lubricated the chain after every 400-500km and checked tension on it more frequently right from the start.
4. Rear Brake Failure
This is a big one and specifically applicable to those riding the Thunderbird 500 since it has a disc brake at the rear. My rear brake failed completely while I was on my way to Leh from Kargil. It was one of the scariest moments of my ride and I really thought I was going to go right off the edge of the winding mountain road. The brake didn’t work for another 4 kilometres. I eventually stopped and discovered that the rear disc was very hot. After I had let the bike stand still for about an hour or so, and after some constant pumping of the brake, it began to work again.
I got this looked into in Leh (after riding very slowly and cautiously all the way there). The mechanic told me that other people have faced this issue with the rear disc when the brake overheats or if the pressure system malfunctions. I changed the rear brake pads at Leh and did not face this issue thereafter. It’s something that I would warn all Thunderbird riders to be careful about.
5. Rubber buttons on the Console
The Thunderbird has 3 small rubber buttons on the speedo-odo console, which control the hazard lights and the display on the digital dial. It turns out that these are quite easily susceptible to malfunctioning upon continued exposure to foul weather. While my settings control buttons only work sometimes now (after much effort), the hazard light button almost never works (unless by fluke).
I haven’t bothered fixing these because I was told that the whole unit would need to be changed. Yet another compromise.
6. Wheel Bend
Wheel bend, of some degree, is likely when you take these bikes onto trails. Thankfully, I did not do anything to cause severe damage to my rims or tyres. After a few days in Himachal, my bike developed a pull to the right side, so I couldn’t ever let go off the handlebars. But I was able to ride the bike through the entire trip like this, and it wasn’t a huge issue.
I’ve tried getting this fixed a few times after the trip, but I haven’t yet been successful. I intend to seek the expertise of yet another person to try and resolve this before my next trip.
7. Busted Fork Seal
The rubber seal on the front right shock absorber broke when I was crossing Khardung La the second time (on my way back to Leh from Nubra Valley). I noticed this when I found fork oil all over the front wheel, the bike and my boots. Fortunately, this happened when I was very close to North Pullu, so I only needed to ride 30-odd kilometres of smooth rode to reach Leh and get it fixed. If this had happened anywhere else, it would have been a huge problem because this isn’t the kind of thing you can carry spares to fix en route.
I had to replace the entire fork seal kit along with the fork oil. This wasn’t cheap.
8. Malfunctioning Starter Relay
When I reached Jodhpur (on the way back to Chennai), the starter relay on my bike malfunctioned. The bike was continuously starting (as it does when you press the electric start button) even when the ignition was off and the key was pulled out. It basically failed to cut off power from the battery to the starter motor.
Again, I was fortunate with timing because this happened when I was less than a kilometre away from my home for the night. I was able to disconnect the battery (and thereby kill power to all systems) and then push the bike to a place for the night.
Even though this issue didn’t persist the next morning, the motor was now unreliable and I needed to replace it. Another thing that wasn’t cheap.
9. Air Filter
My air filter had obviously taken a beating over the course of the ride. I had to change it at Vadodara, while on my way back. Of all the issues I had on the bike, I think this was the most legitimate and acceptable.
10. Clutch Plate
Mumbai was a major mechanical stop for the bike during the return journey. I had noticed that the clutch had become sluggish, so before the need to replace the clutch plate arose, I opted to have it removed, filed and fitted back. The filing of the teeth of the wheels sharpens the grooves and allows it to be used for longer. I am still using the same clutch plate.
However, you should know that if you decide to work on the clutch plate, the engine oil needs to be drained out of the bike, and won’t always be in a state to be poured back in. Even though the bike wasn’t due for an oil change, I had to change the engine oil as a result of this process and that ended up being an additional expense.
11. Water in Fuel Tank
One would hope that by now, a brand like Royal Enfield, that knows that its bikes are used by a lot of moto-tourers would at least ensure that their fuel tanks are completely waterproof. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Over time, the tank seems to become more welcoming (not in a good way) to rain water.
I ended up with over a litre of water in the tank after a fairly ordinary night of rain in Mumbai. This problem persisted until I bought one of the TipTop rain covers and sealed up the fuel cap (which is a very ugly but practical solution).
The fuel tank obviously had to be flushed in order to remove the water, which is a time-consuming and painful process, and of course, also costs money.
12. Spark Plugs and Adapter
Both spark plugs needed to be changed in Mumbai.
The adapters that connect to the spark plugs also had to be cleaned and dried on several occasions because water tends to get into them in the rain. Once the adapter is wet, your bike usually won’t start. This became a part of my daily morning routine while I was riding through Maharashtra in the monsoon.
13. Fuel System/Ignition Coil
By the time I was half-way to Goa, I had a constant issue with the fuel supply on the bike. While riding at a constant pace, the bike would backfire and the engine would often go off, as if there was no fuel in the tank. By the time I reached Chennai, this issue had become so bad that I could barely ride 5 kilometres before the bike would turn off.
This issue has been looked at several times by at least 2 RE service centres in Chennai but is yet to be fully resolved. Replacing the ignition coil improved things a bit but the issue still persists to a certain degree. I am still waiting for RE to fix this. They’ve charged me a whole lot of money but have done a pretty terrible job so far. I will avoid any further rant about Royal Enfield’s quality and service support for now.
If any of you have the number to a really good RE mechanic in Chennai who can work on the 500 EFI engine, please do share details with me by leaving a comment below.
14. Nuts and Bolts falling off
The thought of nuts and bolts falling off might seem like a minor thing, but it can be quite inconvenient depending on which ones you lose. I lost one of the nuts on my side stand which proved to be a real pain because it meant I had to dismount the fully loaded bike and put it on the centre stand each time I stopped. If you aren’t carrying spares of the right size and don’t have a mechanic (of any kind) close by, this could be quite problematic.
It’s a good idea to check the visible nuts and bolts on your bike frequently.
15. Breather Pipe
This is another regular problem on my bike. Surprisingly, the breather pipe I used for the Ladakh ride lasted for the entire journey up and down. However, before and after the trip, I’ve had to change the pipe, every 1500 kilometres (on average). I don’t know whether it’s because of an inconsistency with the quality of the hoses provided by Royal Enfield, but each pipe that I use lasts for a different amount of time, even when the bike is subject to similar use in similar weather conditions.
If you’re riding a Thunderbird, I’d recommend carrying more than one spare breather pipe.
16. External switch for LED lamps
This one isn’t a RE-specific issue, because it relates the additional LED lights that I installed on the bike. The external switch that I used to control these lights failed upon being exposed to rain. I had to replace the switch twice on the trip.
I’ve now installed a slightly more sturdy switch and coated several parts of it with silicon to improve water resistance. I’m hopeful that this will make it more durable. Carrying spare switches might be a good idea though.
17. Replacement of all hoses and tubes
I had replaced all the hoses and rubber pipes on the bike before I started the trip and needed to replace all of them again after my return. Thankfully, they lasted through the trip, but I would consider replacement of these as a part of the repairs arising as a result of the trip.
Apart from the things listed above, I needed to change engine oil several times during the 15000+ kilometre trip. I’ve not mentioned that as a part of the list because I think it counts as regular maintenance required for the bike. I also needed to top up on brake oil once.
So, that’s the list of the repairs that the bike went through during the journey.
The problem with issues like these arising on a trip is that they not only impact your trip budget significantly, but also affect what you do with your time in the places that you visit. Instead of exploring a city, there were times when I was only looking for a mechanic or spares or spending all my time getting things fixed. I guess it’s all a part of the adventure, but I can’t help but wish that REs would be more reliable and durable, at least some of the time.