Friday, October 11, 2019

Royal Enfield and sidecar are natural combination

Vintage illustration of a Royal Enfield with sidecar.
The famous 6 hp Royal Enfield and sidecar combination.
Blogger Jorge Pullin has called the Royal Enfield 6-horsepower sidecar combination the motorcycle "for which nothing was impossible."

His My Royal Enfields blog recounts myriad examples of these Royal Enfield outfits of the 19-teens and twenties overcoming obstacles, winning competitions, fighting wars and proving their general utility.

In fact, Royal Enfield was so closely identified with motorcycle sidecars back then that magazine writers reviewing solo Royal Enfields felt compelled to explain that, yes, Royal Enfield would sell you a motorcycle alone.

Recently I was delighted to examine a Royal Enfield and sidecar photographed on a vintage post card. The post card is in the Lang Collection at the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Maine. This Royal Enfield was identified by Richard Miller, who blogs at Red Devil Motors, as a 6 hp model from about 1913.

Royal Enfield and sidecar as they appeared in vintage photo.
The post card's circa 1913 Royal Enfield and sidecar were well used by the time of the photo.
(Lang Collection Photo, Owls Head Museum)
Curious about what it must have been like to ride such a machine, I found a slightly later (1917) owner's manual for the 6-horsepower Royal Enfield sidecar combination on the Barnstormers New Zealand website.

This explained much.

For instance, the small protuberance seen poking up above the flat tank just the other side of the top frame rail is the glass dome of the drip-feed lubrication system. The rider — even while in motion! — uses an adjacent valve to adjust the rate of oil flow visible in the glass dome to 30-40 drops per minute.

This so-called "automatic lubrication of the engine" is powered by "suction." So, while the oily glass dome can be unscrewed for cleaning, it must be returned carefully — as "unless all joints are air-tight, the system will not work."

Owner's manual illustration of 1917 Royal Enfield with sidecar.
The slightly more sophisticated looking 1917 6 hp Royal Enfield and sidecar.
To my surprise, the manual contains very little about the Royal Enfield sidecar itself. Designed and made by Royal Enfield, and fitted to coupling lugs brazed to the frame when it was formed, the sidecar was apt to give few problems. Apply a bit of furniture polish every so often and you'd be fine.

The motorcycle was more complex. Supplied in either 6 hp (770cc) and 8 hp (965cc) form, the V-twin motors were marked "Enfield" on one side and "JAP" (for J.A. Prestwich and Company, the maker) on the other. Although Royal Enfield did not make the motors, it did recommend its own formula "Royal Enfield motor oil" to lubricate them.

The starting procedure requires adding oil and petrol to the separate compartments of the tank, adjusting various taps and levers, and making sure the two-speed gearbox is in its "free engine" (Neutral, to you) position. Use the oil pump plunger on the tank to give the motor a shot of lubrication before starting. The "extra air lever" is closed for starting. You will open it for normal running.

It is "very important" (I bet it is!) not to advance the ignition lever fully before starting. That's because you are about to grasp the starting crank (not a kick starter — a hand crank) with your delicate right wrist. If this thing kicks back it's going to hurt.

With your left hand you use a handlebar lever to raise the exhaust valves. Now, quickly rotate the starting handle and simultaneously drop the exhaust lever. "The engine should then fire immediately."

Now all you have to do is ride the thing.

Draw the gear lever gently backwards towards low gear, being careful not to stall the motor. As speed picks up push the lever "sharply" forward into high gear. Gradually open the extra air lever as the motor warms.

Control speed with the throttle lever on the handlebars. Don't use the valve lifter to reduce speed, you'll pit the valves! In traffic you will have to put the gear lever in neutral occasionally to shed speed. Probably there wasn't much traffic in 1917?

Mind the lubrication! If you encounter a steep hill you'll need to use the oil pump plunger to give the motor an extra dose of Royal Enfield oil.

Complication: this same pump can send shots of oil to either the motor or to the gearbox. You'd better know to which the oil is going. The tap that controls this is out of sight beneath the tank. Move it forward to oil the motor, backward to oil the gears.

Meanwhile, remember to watch where you are going.

By the way, all this motor oil you're using isn't being automatically recycled back into the tank. It's accumulating in the crankcase and will have to be drained out about every 300 miles. The manual is silent on the question of whether you can then pour the used oil back into the tank. The manual does recommend adding lubricating oil to the tank "through a gauze strainer, so that foreign matter cannot enter."

It's easy to make fun and complain about all the complications of riding a vintage motorcycle. In fact, Royal Enfield had solved many of the problems other motorcycles of the time dished out. Chain drive was far superior to the maintenance hungry belt drives others used. And the "cush drive hub" in the rear wheel (still a feature of Royal Enfields decades later) eliminated "the usual shakes and jars associated with chain drive."

Other conveniences: a tire pump atop the tank, and a detachable rear mudguard to make removing the rear wheel easier.

And here's one trick you wouldn't try today: if you run out of petrol, "endeavor to get a supply of paraffin."

You then lift the front wheel, tilting the machine to the rear so that the very last of the petrol flows into the carburetor and allows the motor to be restarted. Use its heat to warm the paraffin, pour it in, and get going again!

Or, so the manual claims. But, then, it also suggests testing for water in the petrol "by pouring a little of the mixture into the hand, when the petrol will evaporate and the water remain."

Friday, October 4, 2019

Royal Enfield flat-tank motorcycle seen on old post card

Two men on vintage flat tank motorcycles in cold weather.
A Royal Enfield and another motorcycle out riding on a cold day. But when? Where?
(Lang Collection Photo, Owls Head Museum)
Two well-turned out gentlemen ride vintage flat-tank motorcycles with sidecars on a cold day in this post card shown me by the Owls Head Transportation Museum in Owls Head, Maine.

One of the motorcycles has "Royal Enfield" on its tank, but all else is a mystery.

Full credit to Richard Miller, author of the Red Devil Motors blog for identifying these motorcycles, their era and even where the photo was made. Skip to his response to me (in boldface at the bottom of this item) if you just want to know the answers.

But first, here's a closer look at the Royal Enfield and its rider.

Vintage photo of rider on flat-tank Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Note the very flat, and battered, front and rear mudguards.
(Lang Collection Photo, Owls Head Museum)
The men are so thoroughly bundled to the neck that we know they intend to ride, not just have their photos made. This is supported by the fact that both have their goggles on their caps, and the caps are turned backwards, with the bills in back to allow fast travel. Although the day is cold, it is not winter. The trees have leaves on them.

The gentleman on the clearly labelled Royal Enfield, left, may be wearing a military overcoat, but his companion on the right is in civilian clothes.

The museum told me that this unused post card has a "K Ltd." logo on the message side, in the "stamp box" where the stamp is supposed to be pasted. The Internet suggests this marking might appear on privately printed post cards, from 1919 to 1936 and may be related to the Kodak company, which would have produced the photographic paper for the card.

That might establish that the photograph was taken between 1919 and 1936, although the motorcycles themselves look older than 1919.

The sidecars are mounted on the left, so we know they were intended to be ridden on the left side of the road — in the UK for instance.

The Royal Enfield's license plate begins with the single letter "I," but is otherwise unreadable. The letters "RI" appear on the motorcycle on the right. But England seems to have had a particular bias against the letter "I" (perhaps because it could be mistaken for the numeral one) and so neither of these plates corresponds to England. Northern Ireland did use the letter "I" in some combinations but not "IR," so we don't seem to be there, either.

The Royal Enfield has a sidecar made of wicker, for light weight. Although wicker sidecars were in use from the very early days of motorcycling, this is not one of those. This one is more than just a chair with a wheel. It has a torpedo shape, for streamlining, and it appears that a purpose made tonneau cover is loosely stuffed into it. Perhaps the person who took this photo has just gotten out of the sidecar?

The lighting equipment on both motorcycles is carbide gas lamps; archaic, but still used into the 1920s.

Period illustration of a 1914 Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Period illustration of a 1914 Royal Enfield 6 hp V-twin.
The Royal Enfield's resemblance to a 1914 Royal Enfield 6-horsepower V-twin seen on Sheldon's EMU is obvious. You see it in the motor details, the shape of the flat tank, the bend in the top bar of the frame dropping down from the headstock, the handle of the "coffee grinder" two-speed gearshift above the tank and the visible crank-start handle (not a kick starter but a crank!) visible behind the rider's leg.

The floorboard for the rider's foot appears identical to the one in the post card. The handlebars are similar, but the Royal Enfield in the post card may have an extra brace between the bars.

The round tube under the floorboard seen in the post card must be a muffler. The 1914 illustration has the muffler there, too. The motorcycle in the Owls Head post card and the 1914 Royal Enfield on Sheldon's EMU both have a false rim on the rear wheel for the brake. There are caliper brakes on the front wheels. Front suspension in both cases uses the distinctive Enfield single spring.

On the other hand, the post card motorcycle has flat, blade like fenders instead of the rounded shapes on the 1914 illustration.

There is no chain guard (it might have fallen off) on the post card Royal Enfield; the 1914 Royal Enfield illustration shows a noticeable chain guard.

I could not identify the other motorcycle in the post card at all except to note that its motor is enormous, such that a notch is cut into the bottom of the flat tank to accommodate it.

But it was no mystery to Richard. Here is his email to me:

It's a lovely image. You are quite right about the rather large engine in the machine on the right, it's a 810cc Excelsior, one of the largest singles ever made. They made the model in 650 or 810cc sizes; the 810 had the cutaway in the petrol tank. I would say the year is 1913.

The Royal Enfield is, I think, a 6 hp model and probably from the same year as the Excelsior. I'm fairly certain it is a pre-World War I machine. Both bikes seem to be well used so it is hard to say when the photo was taken. Mind, with the quality of roads in those days I guess machinery would age quickly.

As to where the photo is taken, you are quite right the RI number is not a UK one. Mainland Britain does not use the letter I in reg numbers and the code doesn't correspond to Northern Ireland. (I did have to look this up, I'm not that much of a nerd!) 

On the basis that it's not UK, but the countryside does look very similar, I checked out Irish number plates — RI corresponds to Dublin and was issued from 1903 to 1921.


Reading Richard's note I'd conclude that these are World War I era motorcycles photographed in Ireland after the war. In fact, I wonder if the well-used Royal Enfield might have been a military surplus motorcycle from that conflict, given the flat, sheet-metal fenders. The flat shape would have kept it from jamming with mud at the front.

My thanks to Sarah Dunne, archivist and librarian at Owls Head Transportation Museum for sharing this extraordinary image with us.

Here is a photo of the 1914 Excelsior 810cc single from the website.

View of a 1914 British Excelsior motorcycle.
Photo of 1914 British Excelsior 810cc motorcycle.
Note the "cut out" in the flat tank to clear motor.

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