|A Triumph Daytona, obscured by a fence.|
Will the day come when we forget that British motorcycles were ever anything special?
Perhaps even those who buy Royal Enfield motorcycles will forget the name originated in Britain, and associate the brand only with India.
After all, far more Royal Enfields have been built in India than Redditch ever imagined. And England's final jewel in the crown, the Royal Enfield Interceptor, went out of production 45 years ago.
British brands in general slipped from dominance of the world motorcycle market a long time ago. The final "glory years" for made-in-Britain motorcycles were years of riding on reputation.
Even if reliability did improve at the end, no other nation's motorcycles have forged such a lasting link to leaking oil and lousy electronics.
The world's attention span might have withered even earlier if the Rocker and cafe racer culture hadn't combined to give British motorcycles one last burst of excitement back in the Swingin' Sixties.
If the social upheavals that fueled the youth rebellion of the 1960s had come, say, 20 years later, the Rockers might have been riding Japanese motorcycles. (They would presumably have been a lot less grease stained as a result.)
I turned recently to the book "The History of British Bikes," by Roland Brown. This is a 1999 book, picked up at a bargain on the Internet.
|The History of British Bikes.|
"Roland Brown's first proper motorcycle was an elderly 650cc Triumph Bonneville. Although it broke down on his first ride and again on many other occasions, it triggered a life-long love of British bikes."
He opens his book by cheering the rebirth of Triumph and looks forward to a bright future for British brands — but not renewed dominance. The unspoken message of this history book, naturally, is that the past is the reason we love British bikes.
As for Royal Enfield, Brown's book mentions the made-in-India Bullet but concentrates on the spiffier Royal Enfield Constellation, a big, powerful twin he calls "fast but flawed."
Naturally, the book celebrates the technological pioneers among British motorcycles and the glory they won.
And what stories they are: Rem Fowler, riding a Norton in the very first TT event on the Isle of Man in 1907, spent so much time changing tires, drive belts and and spark plugs that he decided to quit — only to be informed by a spectator that he was leading the race by half an hour. He went on to win his class.
But there is also a guilty pleasure in considering the "what ifs" and "if onlys" of history. I like these even better.
If British motorcycles didn't leak like a "Royal Oilfield" then they had mediocre brakes (Ariel Leader), fragile valve gear (ABC), were swallowed up by corporations (AJS, BSA), or killed off by war (Brough Superior, Levis, New Imperial).
The wonderfully named Douglas Dragonfly was "heavy, expensive and not particularly fast." The James firm's concentration on lightweight motorcycles made it particularly vulnerable to the leading edge of Japanese imports.
When the British motorcycle industry presented a Sunbeam S7 to World War II Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery at the London Motor Cycle Show of 1948, the firm's stand collapsed. The industry just never got a break.
Even when they were awful, British motorcycles were memorable. Motorcycles from England and the failed British motorcycle industry itself are likely to remain worthwhile reminders of what can go wrong as well as what can go right.
As long as people ride on two wheels, these stories will remain just too precious to forget.