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Friday, March 18, 2016

Royal Enfield's 1958 wind tunnel test a publicity stunt?

Heroic looking rider on Royal Enfield in wind tunnel.
It is one of the most dashing photographs ever of a man on a Royal Enfield motorcycle. The picture appeared to document a turning point in motorcycle design — but it could have been just a publicity stunt.

The photo caption describes a wind tunnel test of a 500cc RoyalEnfield fitted with the company's new Airflow fairing. The test was at a Bristol Aircraft facility in England. The caption is dated Oct. 31, 1958, although it's unclear whether that was the date of the test or the date of the press release.

A similar photograph of the motorcycle being readied for testing in the tunnel appears in the Nov. 6, 1958 edition of Motor Cycling magazine.  Blogger Jorge Pullin includes that clipping in his item, "Cheating the Wind."

The Motor Cycling caption reads:

"Extensive testing in laboratory, workshop and wind tunnel lies behind the Bristol-made Royal Enfield fairing. Our photograph shows an example being prepared for 90 mph tests in one of the tunnels at Filton, Bristol."

Royal Enfield shown being readied for test in Motor Cycling article.
The photo of the test is full of drama. Our leather suited and helmeted hero sits astride his shining, streamlined Royal Enfield just ahead of the vanes of the wind tunnel. His head is cocked forward, his eyes focused straight ahead through goggles. His lips are set in determination.

The lighting is, to say the least, dramatic.

Somewhat less dramatic, Royal Enfield enthusiast Chris Overton points out, is the fact that the passenger peg is partly down and the motorcycle is fitted with very non-aerodynamic looking saddle bags.

Chris recently alerted me that another enthusiast, Robert Murdoch, has done some research into Royal Enfield's long ago visit to the BAC wind tunnel at Filton.

He contacted the Britol Aero Collection Trust, which is trying to create a major aviation heritage museum at Filton. (Centerpiece of the museum will be a British Airways Concorde, the last of the breed to fly.)

Bob's account is that a volunteer at the heritage organization tracked down a former wind-tunnel worker who remembered the motorcycle test.

This man's memory reportedly boils down to this: the test results were dreadful. Tufts of wool taped to the motorcycle fairing didn't show that the fairing worked. Wind tunnel workers vetoed a suggestion that the tufts be further taped down in a convincing way to make a better photo.

"A slightly different version than what was fed to the motorcycle press about their new Airflow fairing!" Bob wrote.

The Daily Mail called it the "Royal Enfield Overflow."
Royal Enfield did in fact make substantial claims for the Airflow. In one Daily Mail article reproduced by Jorge Pullin, the firm reported an 8 percent top-speed improvement for what the article called the "248cc Royal Enfield Crusader Overflow."

Gasoline consumption fell 20 percent, the article claimed.

Yet another article went so far as to claim the Airflow provided helmet-like protection to the rider's body in a crash. Highly unlikely.

Keep your cap on: Airflow's real advantage.
The Airflow's one real advantage would be weather protection. For instance, the deeply valanced front fender fitted to Airflow models was surely unaerodynamic, but it would have collected lots of road mire.

Most convincing to me is the fact that the Airflow fairing allows the rider to sit upright. It's not designed as primarily a performance accessory.

Oh, there was one more advantage claimed at the time: the Airflow fairing incorporated a glove box, like a car. Well, a place to keep the goggles, I suppose. Or even gloves!

The Airflow might have seemed an appealing offering to combat the growing popularity of scooters in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Daily Mail quotes Royal Enfield's Major F. W. Smith this way:

"The best features of the safe, honest-to-goodness motor-cycle and the stylish-looking scooter converge in this new design of ours."

That at least seems true. Author Roy Bacon summed up the Airflow this way in his book "Royal Enfield, the Postwar Models:"

"For a while it looked as if the public would follow this trend to combine motorcycle handling with scooter protection, but in a short space of time it was to reverse. Scooters were to fade from the scene and motorcycles went down the cafe-racer route to clip-ons and rear-sets."

2 comments:

  1. Looks like RE picked up where Vincent left off a few months earlier when they tested the Black Prince and Series D models in 1954. RE was fortunate enough to have a balanced product line and the cash to live another 12 years.

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  2. British motorcyclists never took to the closed, streamlined designs and they were soon discontinued. Vincent ruined themselves with their enclosures and had to revert to offering them in stripped, naked form. Even Triumph had to eventually ditch their "bath tub" designs. It was a case of designers thinking they knew best what the public wanted. This patronising attitude eventually led to the demise of the British industry.

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