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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Royal Enfield military motorcycles in World War II

Is that a Royal Enfield military motorcycle in this movie?
Yes, that's a Royal Enfield motorcycle the soldier stands astride, directing traffic, in the 1943 movie "The Gentle Sex."

Consensus on the Internet is that it is a Royal Enfield, probably a Model WD/C or CO.

Its rider is a woman, shepherding her convoy of lorries through wartime England in this movie with its mildly suggestive title.

No sex in this one, just gender. The film glamorizes the lives of women in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) of the British Army. There's not much glamour either, although the young women are pretty enough, even in their lumpy uniforms.

At one point the female motorcycle dispatch riders dismount and come prancing, helmets in hand, to a briefing. Their running looks more like ballet than the lumbering jog similarly burdened men would have performed.

The convoy departs, guided by ATS motorcyclists.
"The Gentle Sex" is a well made picture, directed by Leslie Howard, who also provides the ironic "they think they're helping, I suppose" narration.

It was Howard's last film before his death in June, 1943, when the passenger plane in which he was a passenger was shot down by German fighter planes.

Obviously meant to encourage women to help out in the war effort, the "Gentle Sex" rises above the usual "you're in the army now" cliches. For one thing, it's realistic.

The movie's primary drama revolves around a grueling 400-mile drive with vital war supplies. It's not exactly flying Spitfires, but it's no piece of cake either.

And some of the women do encounter the Luftwaffe. You see their variety of reactions when the "mixed" (male/female) anti-aircraft battery they're assigned to makes a kill. Mere propaganda would have been content with one reaction.

The military equipment on view in these wartime films is one of the reasons I watch them. This is what 1943 must really have looked like.

ATS recruits get their first look at army life from a U.S. truck.
One example: the U.S. trucks that are seen with "Left Hand Drive NO SIGNALS" on the tailgate.

Did you know that ATS women pronounced it as an acronym: "ats"?

Friday, October 17, 2014

'Indian Summer' motorcycle documentary now on DVD

The motorcycle documentary "Indian Summer" is a pleasure to watch.
The Royal Enfield content is slim: limited to one Big Head hillclimber ridden by young Bruce Gagne, who explains how American Indian motorcycles were, briefly, built in Redditch, England by Royal Enfield.

But this doesn't lessen the appeal of "Indian Summer," a 1994 documentary by Timothy Cataldo. This precious film has just become available as a DVD on ($14.99).

In this film it's always fall, the leaves are always changing, the setting sun always glows softly. The men are young and brave and the women are young and slim. Motorcycles climb hills, spin around and crash through the walls of death. But mostly they just clatter along country roads. And it's all good.

"Indian Summer" is a gently paced documentary about American Indian motorcycles (so named  not to capitalize on native Americans but because these were the pioneer American motorcycles).

It's a documentary of interviews with experts on the American Indian motorcycles, with flickering background footage of Indians in action.

Cataldo could teach Ken Burns something. Instead of a droning narrator we have individuals (I stopped counting at 20 separate interviews) who love the old Indians, each standing next to one motorcycle telling what he knows:

Why the Indian Four was important. Why the 101 Scout remains the most revered American motorcycle. What it was like to get a call from Steve McQueen and not know who he was, except that he loved motorcycles.

It's the loving "they never should have gone out of business" attitude toward Indian motorcycles that comes through every time.

"Indian always had the heart of the American rider," one subject notes. Our movie maker knows it to be true.

Cataldo, who in 1994 was young and green and using the first footage he shot when he got a movie camera, makes a great documentary not because he cares so much about Indian motorcycles as because he clearly cares so much about his subjects.

They're shown in their shops and garages, maybe with crooked teeth and stubble, but with emotion in their voices that identifies them as the shining knights who rode these machines in their days of glory.

Back when the average motor car did 35 mph max on a good road, and less on a bad road — of which there were many — motorcycles could could maneuver around pot holes; you could adjust the sidecar to keep it out of the horse cart ruts.

But this is not just a ride down memory lane. There's hard information here too. The triumphs and failures of the critical du Pont years are described by du Pont descendants themselves!

Some of those interviewed in 1994 are no longer with us. This documentary is a priceless artifact. Full disclosure: I got my original copy for free, a copy from the Gagnes. It's a favorite of mine.

"Indian is mostly just a feeling," Cataldo concludes.

What a feeling.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

1950 Phil Irving review of the new Royal Enfield Bullet

The Royal Enfield Bullet, reviewed in 1950.
The legendary motorcycle engineer and writer Phil Irving reviewed the then brand new Royal Enfield Bullet for The Age newspaper of Melbourne, Australia on Aug. 3, 1950.

By that time, Irving already had worked for Vinicent, Velocette and Associated Motor Cycles, designing motors, suspensions and sketching entire motorcycle designs.

He wrote a technical column in Motor Cycling magazine and would go on to write "Tuning for Speed" and other books. He died in 1992, still president of the Vincent HRD Owners Club.

His 1950 review found the 350cc Bullet tractable and comfortable, with its plonking motor and spring frame.

Brakes were only average, but he found the distinctive neutral finder "a boon at crossings."

Click on this link to read Phil Irving's review of the Bullet.

Irving didn't complain about the motorcycle's looks, although the massive front fender shown in the accompanying photo spoils the appearance for me.

The engine was not broken in, so speed runs were limited, but Irving judged acceleration from 20-50 mph to take about 12 seconds, with top speed probably 72 mph.

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