Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Classic Royal Enfields shine at the Barber Museum

Motorcycle on display stand.
It's fun to see a motorcycle like the one you ride displayed in a museum.
Royal Enfield motorcycles of the past are among the more than 900 historically important motorcycles on display at the Barber Vintage Motorsport Museum in Birmingham, Ala.

I was lucky enough to get to see them recently in the company of my daughter Anna and wife Bonnie. It was Anna's idea we visit the Barber museum. She knew I'd love it when she first toured it with her husband Matt and his family.

The immense and sparkling museum building holds more than 1,600 vintage and modern motorcycles and racing cars, and the largest collection of Lotus racing cars. The museum says 99 per cent of the motorcycles in the museum can be run "within one hour."

The motorcycles date from 1904 and include 140 brands from 16 countries. Signage relates their fascinating features and stories. We took a "premium" tour ($15), which gave us access to the workshop restoration shop and to the many personal stories told by the guide.

Vintage motorcycle on top of wooden crate.
Photographing a 1910 Pierce Four motorcycle. Fewer than 15 survive.
Particularly interesting was his explanation for the appearance of the various motorcycles. Some are, he admitted "over restored." In its early days Barber made them look as good as they could, not necessarily how they came from the factory. Modern paint. Better chrome.

Now the museum tries to keep the bikes looking like they were the day they were leaned against the wall in some barn and forgotten. A motorcyclist who traveled the world was delighted to see that his mount, when placed on display, "still had the bugs on the windshield."

That rider ultimately determined that the only thing the museum had done to alter the motorcycle's condition was "they emptied my water bottle," our guide told us.

Royal Enfield motorcycle with diesel motor.
A Sommer diesel Royal Enfield. Top speed: 62 mph.
Our tour started on the bottom floor, home of the restoration shop. There I spotted a Sommer diesel-powered Royal Enfield. Pre-unit Royal Enfield Bullets are frequently used for diesel conversions around the world and the Sommer, made in Germany, is probably one of the best of these. It looked like it was meant to be a diesel.

Nearby was another vehicle I've long wanted to see: a 1959 MGA twin-cam sports car and behold, the twin-cam motor was right there on a shelf in front of the car. Only 2,111 twin-cams were made. (My first car was a 1958 MGA, the far more common push-rod version.)

Twin-cam motor in foreground with sports car behind it.
MGA twin cams were produced for 1959 and '60 only.
Then it was to the top of the multi-story Barber Museum on an elevator past motorcycles displayed on towering racks.

Among these was a 1998 350cc Royal Enfield with "Super Bullet" on the tank. It was close to my own 1999 Bullet in appearance, but with the gearshift on the right as they were in the home market in India.

Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle on display rack.
The 1998 Royal Enfield Bullet at the Barber Museum is a "Super Bullet."
A 1964 Interceptor came into sight as we walked down from floor to floor past literally hundreds of fascinating motorcycles. This one had a sign, describing how Royal Enfield stayed ahead as British twins grew past 650cc in the 1960s, bringing the Interceptor to a nominal 750cc.

"For a comparatively small company, Royal Enfield was very advanced with their technical designs," the sign noted. "This U.S. market version has the high bars and small tank that was so popular at the time." It looked marvelous.

Blue and chrome motorcycle on display stand.
1964 Royal Enfield Interceptor is the stunning highlight of the museum, for me.
A 250cc Continental GT cafe racer was displayed on what could be described as a "tree" of motorcycles. This was the first factory made British cafe racer. It looked small compared to the other "ornaments" on the tree. Easy to imagine how it would have inspired a lithe young man in 1965.

Cafe racer displayed on rack with other motorcycles.
A Royal Enfield Continental GT cafe racer of the 1960s.
The Continental GT of that era was actually the result of safety legislation. With many thousands of Baby Boomers suddenly coming of riding age, Britain limited new motorcyclists to machines of 250cc or less, until they passed a riding test. By 1971 it was apparent that manufacturers like Royal Enfield had started building fast, sexy 250s for the young and the limit was dropped further, to 125cc.

Vintage Royal Enfield motorcycle on display stand.
Daughter Anna sizes up a tidy 1926 Royal Enfield 250cc Sports Model.
Far from sexy (but delightful to see) and far removed in time was the 1926 Royal Enfield 250cc, a two-stroke with two-speed hand shift. Top speed: 35 mph.

"Typical '20s commuter, probably giving over 100 mpg," its signage crowed. "These little 250s were very popular, with low running costs and easy to service, and were quite well constructed. The large diameter external flywheel helps to smooth out the characteristic erratic running that two strokes have at love revs."

It's not every day I get to show off by pointing out an external flywheel to my wife and daughter. (The motorcycles were the stars at Barber but I was happy to share in their reflected glory.)

Illustration of a Royal Enfield Sports Model of 1927.
The two-stroke Model 200 of the 1920s had cush drive in the rear hub, just like my 1999 Bullet.
I found a 1927 Royal Enfield brochure that gives a better view of the external flywheel. It also shows the appealing curve of the two-into-one exhaust pipes.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Last living U.S. World War I vet rode a Royal Enfield

Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I. This blog item about a U.S. veteran who served in that momentous war first appeared in 2011. It is reprinted now in memory of all those who served the cause of freedom.

Frank Buckles of West Virginia died Feb. 27, 2011. At age 110 he had been the United States' last surviving veteran of World War I. His is one of the hundreds of thousands of graves at Arlington National Cemetery.

Frank Buckles.
During the war, Buckles drove ambulances and motorcycles for the army in England and France. We now know that one of those motorcycles was a Royal Enfield.

"Among other tasks, he delivered messages by motorcycle. His first ride was a two-cylinder, belt driven Douglas," reporter Andrew Jenner wrote for the Page (County, Va.) News and Courier, after interviewing Buckles in 2008.

Jenner went on to quote Buckles:

"It would go about 25 miles an hour," he says. (Brief pause for effect.) "Downhill."

The reporter writes that "eventually, he was upgraded to a Royal Enfield that could attain a more satisfying 50-some mph."

Six-horsepower Royal Enfield V-twins were in wide use by the allies during World War I, as documented by blogger Jorge Pullin in his Royal Enfield Virtual Musuem. Perhaps Buckles was issued one of those. In Buckles' own online biography he specifies that the motorcycle had a sidecar.

It is certain that it was a Royal Enfield motorycle.

"I don't specifically remember him saying that," reporter Jenner told me when I reached him by phone in 2011, "but I'm sure he did, if that's in there." Jenner said he was impressed by Buckles' good health and great memory during the 2008 interview.

"He could remember a date and days of the week from 70 years ago."

The interview was informal. "I just called him up like you would anyone. I think I was the last one to be able to do that. Not long after he really started to get a lot of attention and had to get a handler."

President Obama and vice-president Biden attended Buckles' service at Arlington in 2011. There's now a website devoted to Buckles. It is dedicated to restoration of the memorial to veterans of World War I in Washington, D.C.

Jenner's article in the Feb. 28, 2008 Local Life section of the Page News and Courier is the best evidence I could find that Buckles rode a Royal Enfield. Buckles seems to have mentioned this at least one other time but the dates in that account don't correspond to World War I.

Newspaper article confirms Buckles rode a Royal Enfield.
John Sanford, a Royal Enfield owner who lives in the area, read Jenner's article in the newspaper and kept it in mind, even naming his own 2005 Royal Enfield Deluxe "Buckles." Doubting his memory, in 2011 he contacted the News and Courier, hoping to get a print-out of the article.

"They surprised me by giving me an uncirculated issue, which I mailed today to Doneen at Royal Enfield for the Company History Book," Sanford wrote in March on the Royal Enfield Community Forum. (He signs himself there as "bymilesthebest.")

John Sanford's motorcycle, the one he named "Buckles."
Doneen Viall at Classic Motorworks was kind enough to share the newspaper with me. After reading it I shipped it back to her. It really does belong in a museum.

It's amazing to think that the longest-lived U.S. veteran of that long-ago war rode a Royal Enfield. It's more important to remember that, in just seven-and-a-half months  in that war, the United States suffered 116,000 killed and 204,000 wounded. Sadly, it did not turn out to be the war to end all wars.

Buckles himself survived World War I unscathed but his wars were not over. He was working in Manila when the Japanese attacked in World War II, and spent three-and-a-half years in a prison camp. A man worth remembering.
John Sanford and his other Royal Enfield motorcycle.

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