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Friday, December 19, 2014

Royal Enfield crossed paths with the Wright Flyer

The 1903 Wright Flyer, on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
(Photo by Greg)
Some Royal Enfield employees spent World War II and many postwar years laboring underground in a once secret bomb-proof factory in England.

Oddly, the quarried passageways that sheltered the Royal Enfield workers as they produced precision weapons  and motorcycles hid another secret: the boxed up treasures of British museums, sent there to be safe from the Luftwaffe.

Among those irreplaceable artifacts was a precious American object, one that today is the pride of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

It was the first airplane, the Wright Flyer, restored as it was when Orville and Wilbur Wright first flew it at Kittyhawk, N.C. on Dec. 17, 1903.

According to the Smithsonian Institution, "During World War II, the airplane was kept in an underground storage facility near the village of Corsham, approximately 160 km (100 miles) from London, where various British national treasures were secured. The Flyer was not stored in the London subway as has been often asserted."

What was the world's most famous airplane doing hiding in a tunnel in England during the Battle of Britain?

The Flyer might have been safer across the ocean at the Smithsonian. But an argument over who had flown first had prevented that.

In 1903, before the Wrights left for Kittyhawk, the then secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel Pierpont Langley, built his own winged machine.

Although this only succeeded in crashing into the Potomac it had a rebirth in 1914. Engaged in a patent fight with the Wrights, Glenn Curtiss finally got Langley's machine to actually fly.

The museum's insistence that this, then, must have been the world's first flying machine deeply offended Orville Wright, the surviving brother. In 1927 he sent the Flyer to the Science Museum in London.

The Smithsonian backed off its claim in 1942 and Orville relented. The Flyer returned to the United States in 1948.

It's a curious story, well told in Lawrence Goldstone's new book "Birdmen: The Wright Brothers, Glenn Curtiss and the Battle to Control the Skies."

Fascinating to me, of course, is the Flyer's obvious debt to the bicycle shop the Wrights ran back in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. If ever there was a tribute to chain drive, the Flyer is it.

Curtiss's own connection to motorcycles is well known: before he flew he manufactured motorcycles and motors for motorcycles. Curtiss is the inventor of the twist-grip throttle.

In 1907 he designed and rode a V8-powered motorcycle to an unofficial world record that stood until 1930. That motorcycle is on exhibit in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, one floor down from the Wright Flyer.

Record setting Glenn Curtiss V8 motorcycle on display at the Smithsonian.
(Photo by Cliff)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Dania Beach Vintage Motorcycle Show: Jan. 31, 2015
features the Harley-Davidson Sportster

The Harley-Davidson Sportster is the featured class at this year's Dania Beach show.
The American motorcycle that would be Brit is the featured class at my favorite local vintage motorcycle show.

The Ninth Annual Dania Beach Vintage Motorcycle Show is Jan. 31, 2015 at Frost Park in Dania Beach, Fla. You get that great Florida weather, 300 vintage motorcycles competing in a variety of classes, motorcycle skill team, field games, vendors, antique bicycles, live music, food and swap meet.

Featured class this year is the Harley-Davidson Sportster. It's bound to be a controversial choice.

Created to battle the British invasion of post-war motorcycles, this American iron icon is always a great way to start an argument.

"If you want to know how much history you can pour onto two wheels, look no further than the Harley-Davidson Sportster. How many bikes can you name that outlasted Elvis, the Beatles, the Cold War, and TV's 'Law & Order'?" writes Mark Masker in "History of The Harley-Davidson Sportster: Pursuit of Xlence."

"No other Harley has as long or rich a story as the Sportster line. The bike's tale runs the gamut from racing to touring and everywhere in between."

Derived from the Harley-Davidson Model K in 1957 to compete with the British, the Sportster XL offered overhead valves, a unit motor, swing-arm rear suspension, telescopic front forks, and a transmission with a foot shift, on the right, just like the Brits.

Displacement steadily increased, to bring competitive speeds, and Harley kept building the Sportster, even as the competition from England dropped away. Harley competed with the new Japanese motorcycles by staying old fashioned. A five-speed transmission came in 1991 and belt drive in 1993, but not until 2004 would the Sportster get insulated motor mounts to curb vibration.

Fans of British style motorcycles always kind of liked the Sportster. Maybe that's why fans of other Harley-Davidsons often don't. But there was another reason as well.

"Harley-Davidson also debuted the Sportster Hugger in 1988 and changed the bike's image dramatically," Masker writes.

"All of you out there who hate the Sportster label of being a women's or beginner's machine have the Hugger to thank for that. Why? Because H-D aimed the Hugger at bringing women and beginning riders into the fold. Its lowered suspension brought the seat height down to 26 inches so that little people could sit on it with both feet touching the ground. For some reason, the Motor Company tripped over its own shoelaces by not advertising it toward women to draw them in and actually buy it. Still, the reputation has stuck despite the XL's rich heritage as an early super bike and race machine."

I asked Clare Frost — with Clive Taylor one of the organizers of the Dania Beach Vintage Motorcycle Show — why the Sportster was chosen as the featured class for the 2015 show.

"Well, as you know, a lot of our spectators are Harley folks and it seems when we put an American-made bike on the shirts they sell out. AND we are making it new and old Sportsters to show how they have been through the years. Also, I got a lesson on the K model Harleys, and even though they are not Sportsters, I think we are letting them into the theme area to show the history.

"BUT, next year, Clive says he is the boss and the theme will be pre-unit English and that his 1939 Triumph will be on the shirts!"

I think the Sportster is an inspired choice as it is a landmark Harley model that gets far less respect than it deserves. In fact, it gets a lot of grief! I would think this show would interest Sportster owners across the nation. Must be a lot of those.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Vintage Royal Enfield ads sold the joy of riding

"The Home of the Royal Enfield — Bicycle" is the title of a lovely 1913 advertisement showing the Royal Enfield factory in Redditch, England.

I came across it on the Vintage Bicycling blog.

Redditch, home of Royal Enfield.
Yes, it's an ad for bicycles, but it goes on to claim "Today there is no cycle or motorcycle which may be more fitly labelled HIGH GRADE than the evergreen Royal Enfield."

And why is that?

"Picture to yourself a manufacturing town set on a hill right in the heart of the beautiful Midland country. A town with as little sign of manufacturing smoke and dirt as possible, and all around rolling pastures and woodlands. Imagine pure country air, tree-topped hills and a factory set at the foot of them. That is Redditch — and the factory is the home of the Royal Enfield bicycle."

"...The environment of the Royal Enfield workers ensures good work, for one of the soundest industrial truths is that good working conditions make for good craftsmanship."

That's probably true; hopefully the workers who build today's Royal Enfields in India enjoy good working conditions.

This much is true: the description of the Redditch countryside certainly captures the appeal of motorcycling on a Royal Enfield motorcycle.

And here's part of another delightful 1913 Royal Enfield advertisement, again spotted on Vintage Bicycling.
Think of the days you can spend a-wheel on Royal Enfield.

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