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Friday, April 30, 2010

Royal Enfield motorcycles were designed
when 'good' was as good as they got

My 1999 Royal Enfield piston at 40,000 miles; still OK.

Older Royal Enfield motorcycles are perhaps the only consumer products you will ever see advertised as imperfect. Leaks, loud valves and missing horns (fell off) are almost a point of pride with this bunch. Surely, it makes sense to boast about problems when you try to sell the motorcycle?

Well, probably not. But it happens a lot. For instance, the recent ad on CraigsList, in which the owner reveals that the motorcycle "needs work; nothing about these bikes is ever perfect."

He sounds discouraged. But his discouraging words aren't likely to put off many people interested in an iron barrel, kick start, four-speed motorcycle built to a 1955 British design. If that's what you want, Royal Enfield is the only place you can get it, at least in the United States.

Of course, you can visit a Royal Enfield dealership and buy a new model, with electric start, fuel injection, five-speed transmission and valves that adjust themselves. Same great looks; far fewer hassles and a two-year warranty, too.

But maybe living a hassle free-life is just not you.

If you're the kind of person who used to buy big American cars (they don't make 'em like they used to), you remember that things used to fall off, rusting began before you left the dealership, and the styling was out-moded a year later. But the engines and transmissions, the heart of the things, seemed to want to live forever.

Fifteen years ago, my friend, screenwriter and wit Douglas Kalajian, sat inside a new Japanese car at the Miami Auto Show. He touched the ash tray, which rolled out on ball bearings as though it was a safe deposit box at Fort Knox. Then he'd push gently and it would retract, slowly, magnificently, with dignity.

"It's perfect," he said. "It's just perfect."

It truly was marketing genius, because it left no doubt that this perfection must extend to everything else about the car. After all, if the ashtray was perfection, how great must be the engine?

Royal Enfield motorcycles, like most things created in their day, were good. They were honest. They would not last forever without repair (as Japanese products imply they will), but they could be repaired and rebuilt and repaired again. Nothing would fall off that you could not put back on.

They gave you a tool kit, and they expected you to learn how to use it. That, too, was marketing genius. You, the owner, were to be involved.

And that is the appeal of Royal Enfield motorcycles.

2 comments:

  1. Good to hear your piston is still good at 40k! Great post David. During the past 2 years, I've tinkered with my Enfield to get it to the point where it shifts accurately and runs and idles beautifully. I told my buddy who rides a new Bonneville about this gratifying feat and he said, "Oh no, now you've jinxed it!"

    "Nope, I've attentively and diligently worked to get it to this condition. It's current satisfying state is just a mechanical fact, supported by good maintenance."

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  2. I'm reminded of a bumper sticker I once saw on a Jag E-Type - "All parts falling off of this car are of the very finest British manufacture".

    Sure, Enfield valves clatter, they leave little spots wherever they go, they're slow and require a bit of extra love, but would we have it any other way? I know I wouldn't.

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