Friday, July 21, 2017

Book review: 'Motorcycling in the 50s' carries you back

"Motorcycling in the 50s" is a book that ought to be of interest to every Royal Enfield motorcycle owner. Originally published in 1995, and recently freshly reprinted, it also is now available on Kindle.

Author Jeff Clew brings alive an era in Britain when the motorcycles that inspired today's Royal Enfields enjoyed their greatest popularity.

Clew should know. He was there, as a motorcyclist from 1946 on. In "Motorcycling in the 50s" he gives readers a feel for what it was like to be there at that time, in that place.

What we all want when we ride our Royal Enfields is to experience what it was like "back in the day." Riding a vintage motorcycle (or one barely removed from the 1950s, like the Royal Enfield) gives you a feeling for the experience, the author admits.

"Motorcycling in the 50s"
But Clew wants to add more: he wants to give a feel for the setting, the times. And he succeeds.

Britain was a nation on two wheels (or three, counting sidecars) in the 1950s. But challenges abounded.

Gasoline rationing didn't end until 1950 and returned after the Suez Crisis. Until 1953 the only gas available at all was "pool petrol" of a dismal octane rating. Oil had to be changed seasonally, as multi-grade oil was unknown.

Plenty of ex-War Department motorcycles were available for sale in the 1950s, but many of the exciting new models coming out of factories were "for export only" to help pay the country's war debts.

In any case, the buying public was conservative and price conscious, so Britain's most innovative designs (Clew cites fascinating examples) went begging.

War surplus riding gear was plentiful, but while dashing, was often not suitable. Ex-RAF gauntlets had wiring for heating, but the 6-volt electrical systems of motorcycles couldn't power them.

RAF goggles on the other hand were excellent, but expensive, as were ex-USAAF leather flying jackets. Leather RAF flying helmets were useless in rain.

Real motorcycling helmets (as worn by police) were used only on the track. If you rode home with one you strapped it to the motorcycle.

"It was not the done thing to be seen wearing a helmet on the public highway..."

Clew decries the image of danger and disrespect for the law motorcycling began to acquire in the 1950s.

Among other effects, it created public demand for limits on motor size for young riders. The sudden demand for 250cc learner bikes caught the British motorcycle industry with little to offer (Royal Enfield re-entered the 250cc market in 1954).

The resulting tide of sub-250cc foreign imports was the last thing the British motorcycle industry needed.

Despite the shortcomings and hardships "...we took it all in our stride and revelled in the much lighter density of traffic on our roads, when motorways were unknown."

Of researching the book, Clew writes, "...it was, for me, largely a trip down memory lane, recalling many happenings that, in one way or the other, have left an indelible impression in my mind. That I shared those memories with a whole generation of motorcyclists made this book possible."

He is the author of many books, including "J.A.P.: Vintage Years" and "Edward Turner — The Man Behind the Motorcycles."

You may wonder why I, an American, care about motorcycling in the 1950s in Britain, when motorcycling in the United States in that period would have been far different.

Well, my first car was a 1958 MGA. Driving cross country I realized "this car is not from around here." What would it have been like to drive (or ride) these British machines where they were intended to be used, I wondered.

Now, at least, I know what it would have been like to ride my 1999 Royal Enfield there in 1955.

Friday, July 14, 2017

What Royal Enfield needs more than a twin: reliability

Royal Enfield promised reliability back then. It's even more important now.
Reliability was a selling point for Royal Enfield in 1952.

The cover of Motor Cycling magazine for December 20, 1951 carried a Royal Enfield advertisement wishing "sincere and hearty Greetings to sporting motorcyclists the world over, for Christmas and the coming year."

The ad went on to claim that "Royal Enfield reliability means maximum mileage with minimum maintenance."

The headline promised "You'll log Trouble-Free Miles in 1952!"

The smiling rider waving to admiring friends from his Royal Enfield 350 certainly seems confident.

I wish I could say I feel that confident when I take my 1999 Royal Enfield Bullet for a ride. I have no special reason to be worried that my Royal Enfield will let me down.


There have been 66 years of progress since that Royal Enfield ad appeared in Motor Cycling. Yet my Bullet looks a whole heck of a lot like the Royal Enfield in the illustration.

Can I really expect reliability from a Royal Enfield Bullet, now made in India, where it was seemingly frozen in time in 1955?

After all, the issue of whether the British motorcycle industry could stand up to Japanese competition in reliability was settled, in the negative, by 1980. Building a 1955 British design in India probably does nothing to change that impression.

The Royal Enfield Bullet has improved greatly since mine was made. The Bullet has added a Unit Constructed Engine (made of alloy not iron), five-speed transmission, electronic fuel injection, electronic ignition and disc brake. It is built in new or modernized factories. All good things.

But standards have not stood still, either.

In 2015, Consumer Reports magazine  surveyed U.S. motorcycle owners and concluded that only 11 percent of new Yamaha motorcycles need work in their first four years. Suzuki, Honda and Kawasaki ranked next. Harley-Davidson owners were twice as likely as Yamaha owners to have problems. Surprisingly, the U.S. maker Victory did almost as well as the Japanese brands.

But a whopping 40 percent of BMW owners could expect troubles in the first four years of ownership, the magazine reported.

Royal Enfield owners weren't surveyed, but if a prestige brand like BMW experiences such a high rate of problems, what can Royal Enfield owners expect to experience?

I actually suspect Royal Enfield might do fairly well in such a survey. Royal Enfields cost much less than BMWs, and Royal Enfield owners might dismiss minor flaws that would disappoint BMW buyers.

Reliability doesn't mean what it did when I was a toddler. Back then, a product that "never wore out" meant that, with careful break-in and constant maintenance, it could be rebuilt as often as needed.

Today, reliability means a product that is perfect right out of the box, accepts any abuse, requires little or no maintenance ever, and yet lasts longer under these conditions than the owner would want to keep it.

Not only will it not need to be rebuilt in that time period, it may not even be repairable.

"There are no consumer serviceable parts in this appliance," appears on the bottom of many household products.

Can Royal Enfield live up to the expectations of consumers growing up in this environment?

I hope so.

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