Friday, November 27, 2015

Old-time photos of vintage motorcycles tell stories

Royal Enfield Ensign circa 1953, pictured on Red Devil Motors blog.
Old-time photos of people posing with motorcycles is one of the endearing regular features on the vintage motorcycle blog Red Devil Motors.

Author Richard Miller presents these intriguing and sometimes mysterious photos as he finds them. Often he is able to identify the brand and era of the motorcycle but finds he can't explain the circumstances under which a photo was taken.

The people in the pictures stare out at the camera, perhaps enjoying the pride of new ownership, or the fun of sitting on daddy's motorcycle, or sharing a joke that they themselves would ever really ride a motorcycle.

"I like these images of regular folks and their bikes," he explained in one post. "Family snaps," he calls them.

"The everyman's camera wasn't a precision instrument back then and in the pre-digital age you had to take a picture and then hope it came out well. If it didn't you probably kept the photo anyway as it had cost you. Very few are the photos taken by the common man of the era that are fine in artistic quality but they all tell a story and are snapshots of a lost time."

I asked Richard where he finds the old photos he posts.

"I've been collecting old bike photos and brochures for a good few years now," he replied in an email.

"Some could rightly level the accusation that I'm not at all discerning in my gathering of old motorcycle paraphernalia but I prefer the term eclectic. It all has its place and the obscure and humdrum /gray porridge I find rather more interesting to document than endless pictures of the glamour bikes. For me often the social history is every bit as interesting as the engineering."

I recently got that feeling paging through stacks of nearly forgotten family photos of my own. There, amid teenage photos of my now adult daughters, were several of me on my Royal Enfield Bullet. Based on the date on one, these could only have been taken the day I brought the Enfield home.

My daughters greet my new Bullet in 2001.
My wife Bonnie must have shot them. I had forgotten they'd even been taken. I was delighted to see them and surprised by the information they provided. How do you like the work gloves I pressed into duty because I didn't yet have any proper motorcycling gloves?

But mostly what is apparent to me is that my family recognized what an important moment it was for me — a moment worth preserving on film.

I hope that will come through to whoever sees these photos in the distant future.

Daughter Anna poses, but never really rides.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Vintage Royal Enfield ads and artwork sold style

Typical Royal Enfield artwork of 1936.
Advertising and catalog artwork for Royal Enfield motorcycles in the era before and after World War II was surprisingly consistent. If you page through the Vintage Motorcycle Art Archive on Flickr you'll find that Royal Enfield typically used art portraying handsome, well dressed riders enjoying their motorcycles.

Suits and ties (not leathers) for the gentlemen. Dresses for the ladies. The artwork was so standardized that the human and motorcycle models used became almost recognizable from ad to ad.

"Made Like a Gun" (often labelled as a trade mark) was the standard slogan, although this occasionally gave way to "By Miles the Best" and other phrases.

Ad copy, if there was any, would typically praise the benefits of motorcycle ridership (as epitomized by the Royal Enfield).

It's hard to knock this consistent technique when you contrast the apparent floundering about taking place at, for instance, Ariel. This British motorcycle manufacturer had attractive and interesting products on offer, but its advertisements seemed to ignore these.

Ariel used artwork of women to attract notice and these ladies were not always conservatively dressed.

One stunner of an Ariel ad featured a woman in a beret and scarf, but little else — and no motorcycle at all!

She's lovely; what does the motorcycle look like?
Could it be that Ariel considered its actual products best left out of sight?

The most distinctive Ariel design of the period was the Square Four, with four pistons clustered in a single, vertical motor. Regardless of how well it worked in practice, it seemed obvious to some shoppers that an air-cooled motor with no air flow to its center would not last long.

Nevertheless, the Square Four, in various sizes, was produced from 1931 to 1959. If it scared you, well, Ariel had singles and twins for sale as well, and these had good reputations.

One glorious period came during World War II itself, when the civilian market for motorcycles ended completely. The War Department had rated Ariel's products only fair but, with the enormous material losses at Dunkirk, Ariel W/NG 350 single-cylinder motorcycles were ordered by the thousands for the army, air force and navy.

It was during the war that my favorite Ariel advertisement appeared. For once, the ad department was right on the mark. The ad showed glass being removed from an Ariel showroom as a young man prepares to depart (for war?) on his Ariel.

Ariel redeems itself with a courageous ad from 1941.
The copy: "When once more the glass of fashion returns to our windows, the mould of form so long associated with the ARIEL will again take price of place on the roads of a victorious country. In the meantime, we are doing all we can to speed that happy day."

This was in 1941, still a long way away from "that happy day." The steadfast confidence, courage and patriotism conveyed by the ad is unmistakable. If it did not sell motorcycles (all available were going to the military anyway) it must have increased good will.

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