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Friday, September 23, 2011

Royal Enfields and the golden age of British motorcycles

The golden age of the British motorcycle industry coincided with my childhood, and this is just the period addressed in Mick Walker's 2010 book, "British Motorcycles of the 1940s and '50s."

If you grew up in America imagining that British motorcycles were the sleekest, fastest, coolest machines on earth — as I did — you were experiencing precisely the feelings Britain hoped you would.

Walker's slim (just 64 pages!) pamphlet style book explains this brief moment in history in clear, 1-2-3 fashion.

Britain built more motorcycles for use in World War II than any other nation. Royal Enfield alone, one of the smaller firms, built tens of thousands (more about this below).

Battered and nearly bankrupt by war, Britain would continue this production in peacetime, shipping its very best designs to the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe (in that order, Walker points out). Foreign sales would bring in the cash to pay off wartime debts.

A sidelight is that the home market would not be ignored. Instead of new machines, the British buyer would get fully refurbished and repainted War Department leftovers, good as new and with a warranty.

The book reproduces a fine advertisement for ex-W.D. Royal Enfields in overhead valve, side valve and two-stroke models.

Imagine being able to buy a real Royal Enfield Military motorcycle
just out of the service, and at a bargain price.
The exported British motorcycles would achieve fame and fortune abroad, but here were the seeds of the industry's destruction: design problems, if they cropped up, would appear only months after production and on the other side of oceans.

I'm reminded of something Roger Bywater, one-time development engineer at Jaguar, wrote of a flaw that seemingly guaranteed that every single Jaguar XK engine sent to America would fail:

"No knowledge of this had seemed to penetrate the factory environment."

For British motorcycle manufacturers — as for Jaguar — an added problem was that many parts came from outside suppliers, such as Lucas, who were put under crushing pressure to constantly cut the price of their goods, even at the cost of quality.

Although "British Motorcycles of the 1940s and '50s" covers many British brands, Royal Enfield turns up repeatedly. It is instructive to see how Royal Enfield models fell into line with their domestic competition.

Of the little RE model, Walker writes: "In fact, in the author's opinion the factory should have gone a stage further and given the machine four instead of three speeds. This surely would have given the little Enfield a distinctive edge in the commuter sales war of the early 1950s."

It would have taken more than an extra speed in the gearbox to save the British motorcycle industry and Walker doesn't dwell on the end of the golden age.

In fact, he points out that sales of British motorcycles peaked in 1959, even before the full impact of competing motorcycles from Japan and wide availability of cheap small cars like the Mini.

Why, then, should it end at all, when the British motorcycle industry had done so many things right, including capturing forever the imagination of a young boy growing up in  Kirkwood, Mo.?

Walker gives us the answer in a single sentence:

"...the success of the British motorcycle had been due not only to its designs and production facilities, but also to its senior management — sadly a position that was to deteriorate from the mid-1950s onward."

Recommended reading.

By the way, Walker is also the author of the 2003 book "Royal Enfield: The Complete Story."

UPDATE: I originally quoted Walker's statement that Royal Enfield built 29,000 motorcycles during World War II, "mainly RE two-stroke." Graham Scarth, chairman of the Royal Enfield Owners Club, corrected me on this. He wrote: "The ledgers we have record nearly 12,000 Model C 350cc side-valve machines, over 25,000 Model CO 350cc overhead-valve machines and nearly 7,000 of the Model RE Flying Flea. There were (other) models produced for the military, but we do not have complete records for these. There will have been more of the Model C also, as there was an earlier ledger that the REOC does not have."

1 comment:

  1. Me too! Born in 1945 I "had to" own a British bike - first bike was a 1959 Triumph Thunderbird, later a 1953 Matchless 500 cc while stationed overseas. The Matchless was the perfect bike to go bar hoping - if you drank too much, you would forget to retard the spark and one failed kick start would send you over the handlebars and lying on the grass looking at the stars, sober.

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