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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

James Dean rode Royal Enfield across U.S.

Actor James Dean rode a Royal Enfield motorcycle across the Eastern United States. He made it where he was going but the motorcycle did not.

No one knows what happened to the Royal Enfield.

The story of James Dean and his Royal Enfield 500 twin is in the book James Dean: At Speed, by Lee Raskin. It's a short story, but with a lot of interesting details about the actor who epitomized '50s cool, loved speed and eventually died in his Porsche.

According to Raskin, Dean's first adventure with motorized speed was on his 125cc CZ motorcycle. At 15 he was the only kid in the small town of Fairmount, Ind. to have his own motorcycle. He rode fast and performed stunts.

He loved that motorcycle but in December, 1953 he traded it for a used Royal Enfield 500cc vertical twin. It may have been a 1950 model, Raskin writes. Dean was 22 years old and had dropped out of college to pursue acting. He'd had roles on television, walk-on movie appearances and been chosen for the prestigious Actors Studio in New York City. He had only two more years to live, but he was about to get his big break.

Dean was in Fairmount on Christmas break from rehearsing for the play The Immoralist. Positive reviews of this 1954 production would bring the important calls from Hollywood. But, first, Dean planned to ride the Royal Enfield from Indiana back to New York City. Obviously, since he had to get back to work and the weather was cold, this wasn't going to be a pleasure trip.

The actor outfitted himself with an aviator's leather helmet and a hood to cover his face against the cold, with just slits for the eyes.

Dean was told that the Royal Enfield's motor had just been rebuilt and would need to be run in. Maybe he took it easy, maybe he didn't. But, when trouble came, he was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike — a high-speed road — so perhaps he was impatient.

Somewhere near Carlisle, Penn., in subfreezing temperatures, the Royal Enfield began loosing power. Just outside of Harrisburg the engine stopped and Dean coasted to the side of the road. The state police called for help and Paul Roof of Hunzinger Motorcycles came to get Dean and the Royal Enfield. The problem was a burnt exhaust valve.

Since getting parts would take a few days, Roof offered to feed Dean at his home, and found him a room in a boarding house. Dean admired a Indian Warrior TT that was on sale at Hunzinger's and decided to trade. Roof valued the broken Royal Enfield at $300 and Dean sent for $400 from his acting wages.

When the money and title to the Royal Enfield came in the mail, Dean completed the deal for the Indian and finished his trip. He had the Indian serviced at a garage in Greenwich Village, where aspiring actor Steve McQueen worked as a mechanic. But that is another story.

1951 Royal Enfield 500 Twin

Raskin says no one knows the VIN number of Dean's Royal Enfield or what became of it. Dean covered about 550 miles on the Royal Enfield.

5 comments:

  1. WHAT A GREAT STORY!

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  2. James Dean rode a Royal Enfield cross-country and possibly had his Indian serviced by Steve McQueen? How much more excellence can you pack into one story?! Great details too. I love this blog.

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  3. Thank you, Chris. I appreciate the support.

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  4. What a GREAT blog on R-E motorcycles by David Blasco. Thanks for including the whole story of James Dean's brief but exciting ride from Fairmount, IN to Harrisburg, PA -- including a great map! This was a previously unpublished story --verified by a tape recording from the owner of Hunzinger's Motorcycles in Harrisburg, PA. to Dean historian Phil Zieger of Fairmount, IN. I appreciate your giving full credit to James Dean At Speed and its author, Lee Raskin. James Dean Lives! Vroom, Vrooom!!!

    Lee Raskin, Author, James Dean At Speed. available on Amazon.com, Ebay or directly through the author, who will sign and inscrible to all R-E owners and other marques too! Special discount will be $30.00 USD, including shipping to US. For Europe and other Continents shipping will be at set postal rates.
    Contact Lee at lee@leeraskin.com

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  5. Update 2017...Time flys by when you're having fun! I get all kinds of questions about James Dean's motorcycles. The Royal-Enfield is the least known bike that James Dean owned....and David Blasco's blog tells it all. Nothing to add...the R-E is still MIA. My contact info has changed however...yoy can find all my James Dean books on www.leeraskin.net Vroom Vrooom!

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