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Friday, April 22, 2016

Old Royal Enfield gearbox shows how things changed

It's a Royal Enfield gearbox but some parts looked unfamiliar to me.
Most modern Royal Enfield motorcycles look pretty much like Royal Enfields did 75 years ago. It's a big part of their appeal. But in fact they've changed a lot, and looking at old ones is occasionally startling.

It's sort of like looking at an old picture of myself and realizing "Wow! I had hair on my head back then."

That's how I felt when I came across this rusty Albion gearbox, for sale on eBay in Alabama.

It's labelled "Royal Enfield" and some aspects look as familiar as the gearbox on my 1999 Royal Enfield Bullet.

There's the neutral finder. There's the kickstart lever. And, of course, this one shifts from the right as any old British gearbox would.

Here's a closer look. What's that swing arm at the center of the box?
But what's that other lever on the face of the box? Oh my gosh, that's the clutch mechanism on the outside of the box. On my Bullet that is completely hidden inside the outer gearbox cover.

What is it doing hanging out in the breeze? Vulnerable to dirt and impact?

And what is that mysterious pipe on the bottom of the box, plugged with a bolt? A drain plug?

What's that pipe at lower left doing there?
No.

Royal Enfield enthusiast Chris Overton took a look at the photos, and his guess is undoubtedly correct.

"I think the elaborate 'drain' you see is the oil filler pipe. Piece of tube that would slope up to a cap when the gearbox is in a bike.  My guess is the cap is removed and oil added until the level is up to the top of the tube.  More convenient than our 'modern' gearboxes where we pour oil in one plug hole until it runs out another."

Here's that fitting as it would be seen from underneath the bike.
It does slope upwards, as a filler pipe would.
Cute. Again, this lump — only somewhat shielded by the rest of the box at the bottom of the bike — strikes me as somewhat vulnerable.

Graham Scarth, chairman of the Royal Enfield Owners Club, dates this gearbox as being "from postwar model G or J."

In its present condition it may never see the road again. As an artifact, though, it has its own appeal.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Time left behind the "most modern" vehicles of the '50s

1950 Nash Statesman for sale on Hemmings.
It's hard not to smile when you look at this 1950 Nash. Beauty was not its mission. Still, these cars have their admirers, me among them.

My friend, writer Douglas Kalajian, spotted this one for sale on Hemmings in Monterey, California and noticed that the seller was offering it for $16,000 or in trade for a 1950s era Indian motorcycle, built by Royal Enfield.

"You could get an item out of this," Doug said. He clearly wanted to see me try.

John Moulton, seller of the Nash, was willing to explain his ad.

"I’m not looking for a Royal Enfield as such, but a Royal Enfield rebadged as an Indian. I had a ’55 or ’56 500cc thumper when I was a kid and I’d like to find one now. I’ve attached two photos at the Monterey Kar Kapades show in ’68 of the one that I built."

John's 1956 Indian Woodsman custom.
He was 20 years old in 1966 when he customized that Indian Woodsman, built by Royal Enfield in England for the U.S. market.

"Like so many of my other vehicles I have no idea where it is now. I belong to the Early Ford V8 Club and one of the members in San Luis Obispo has one he used to race, but he doesn't want to sell it," John wrote.

John's custom Indian on show in 1968.
John knows cars. He is one of the founders of Marina Motorsports, a non-profit service club that presents "The Little Car Show" annually in Pacific Grove, California to benefit the Pacific Grove Library, the Pacific Grove Youth Center and the Veterans Transition Center.

The Little Car Show,
Aug. 17, 2016
The show features model-year 1991 and older, micro, mini and arcane vehicles with no greater than 1,601cc displacement, or electric power. The 2016 show will be Wednesday, Aug. 17.

"How would you tie Nash, Royal Enfield, and Indian together?" John asked.

Well, they're all products of the 1950s and, as in the case of Indians built by Royal Enfield, the Nash is under appreciated in the U.S.

Nevermind that the Indians built by Royal Enfield were far more modern than the U.S. models they replaced.

As for the Nash, grant me this: it certainly has presence even today. You could say it looks colossal and not be wrong.

Indeed, it's appearance demands attention, but its styling is not ostentatious. The lines are extremely simple, the grille appropriate, the bumpers obviously formidable but not outrageously heavy.

In fact, I think this Nash perfectly justifies its model name: Statesman. You can visualize it measuring up to a Rolls Royce at an international conference — but you'd probably chuckle at the thought.
1950 Nash Statesman made a weighty impression.
While a Rolls would seem to belong parked outside an embassy, to most minds the Nash is a cartoon character. It was the product of a minor automaker and it was marketed as having fold down seats you could sleep on — not the kind of claim Roll Royce was making.

Nash seats fold down but was this a high-class feature?
The essential problem is that bathtub styling didn't catch on. Packard and Hudson tried the tubby shape, too, but Nash stuck with it the longest and it became part of the Nash Rambler identity right into the 1960s. On tiny cars like the Metropolitan, bathtub styling was cute rather than forbidding.

The 1950 Nash designers clearly meant to capture the appeal of a sleek airliner, which hid its internal structures from the wind under a smooth skin. They called the look Airflyte.

Airliners, though, never had to back up and so didn't need usable rear windows.

Streamlining looked right — on an airplane.
I can imagine men being comfortable, even feeling secure, staring out the view slits of a rolling gun turret. But women drivers would surely have imagined this thing was too big, visibility too poor.

Visibility matters in another way, too. Women of the 1950s (of all eras, probably), took care with their appearance. They didn't all dress in gray flannel. What was the point of arriving in a new car if no one could see her new dress?

Nash would learn that women had something to say about what car the family purchased. The taller, airier Ramblers and Metropolitans to come would provide better all-around visibility.

They'd be smaller, too, or seem so.

Rear vision was not a selling point.
Of the 1950 Statesman, John's ad notes that it "Looks heavier than it is. Weighs 3,183 pounds." That's surprising, isn't it?

Ultimately, despite the armored pillbox look, there's still something friendly looking about the original bathtub Nash.

Maybe that's why we smile at it.

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