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Friday, July 21, 2017

Book review: 'Motorcycling in the 50s' carries you back

"Motorcycling in the 50s" is a book that ought to be of interest to every Royal Enfield motorcycle owner. Originally published in 1995, and recently freshly reprinted, it also is now available on Kindle.

Author Jeff Clew brings alive an era in Britain when the motorcycles that inspired today's Royal Enfields enjoyed their greatest popularity.

Clew should know. He was there, as a motorcyclist from 1946 on. In "Motorcycling in the 50s" he gives readers a feel for what it was like to be there at that time, in that place.

What we all want when we ride our Royal Enfields is to experience what it was like "back in the day." Riding a vintage motorcycle (or one barely removed from the 1950s, like the Royal Enfield) gives you a feeling for the experience, the author admits.

"Motorcycling in the 50s"
But Clew wants to add more: he wants to give a feel for the setting, the times. And he succeeds.

Britain was a nation on two wheels (or three, counting sidecars) in the 1950s. But challenges abounded.

Gasoline rationing didn't end until 1950 and returned after the Suez Crisis. Until 1953 the only gas available at all was "pool petrol" of a dismal octane rating. Oil had to be changed seasonally, as multi-grade oil was unknown.

Plenty of ex-War Department motorcycles were available for sale in the 1950s, but many of the exciting new models coming out of factories were "for export only" to help pay the country's war debts.

In any case, the buying public was conservative and price conscious, so Britain's most innovative designs (Clew cites fascinating examples) went begging.

War surplus riding gear was plentiful, but while dashing, was often not suitable. Ex-RAF gauntlets had wiring for heating, but the 6-volt electrical systems of motorcycles couldn't power them.

RAF goggles on the other hand were excellent, but expensive, as were ex-USAAF leather flying jackets. Leather RAF flying helmets were useless in rain.

Real motorcycling helmets (as worn by police) were used only on the track. If you rode home with one you strapped it to the motorcycle.

"It was not the done thing to be seen wearing a helmet on the public highway..."

Clew decries the image of danger and disrespect for the law motorcycling began to acquire in the 1950s.

Among other effects, it created public demand for limits on motor size for young riders. The sudden demand for 250cc learner bikes caught the British motorcycle industry with little to offer (Royal Enfield re-entered the 250cc market in 1954).

The resulting tide of sub-250cc foreign imports was the last thing the British motorcycle industry needed.

Despite the shortcomings and hardships "...we took it all in our stride and revelled in the much lighter density of traffic on our roads, when motorways were unknown."

Of researching the book, Clew writes, "...it was, for me, largely a trip down memory lane, recalling many happenings that, in one way or the other, have left an indelible impression in my mind. That I shared those memories with a whole generation of motorcyclists made this book possible."

He is the author of many books, including "J.A.P.: Vintage Years" and "Edward Turner — The Man Behind the Motorcycles."

You may wonder why I, an American, care about motorcycling in the 1950s in Britain, when motorcycling in the United States in that period would have been far different.

Well, my first car was a 1958 MGA. Driving cross country I realized "this car is not from around here." What would it have been like to drive (or ride) these British machines where they were intended to be used, I wondered.

Now, at least, I know what it would have been like to ride my 1999 Royal Enfield there in 1955.

1 comment:

  1. Jeff needs to get over to Hitchcock's now and go through the treasure trove of Royal Enfield material they acquired from Matt Holder. I'll bet a lot of that "stuff" has never been previously revealed. That would make a good read.

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