Friday, July 12, 2019

Revisiting British motorcycling, with Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh may have ridden a Douglas motorcycle,
like this one from the 1925 Douglas overseas brochure.
Before "Downton Abbey" conquered American television audiences there was "Brideshead Revisited."

Aired on PBS in 1981, the BBC miniseries based on Evelyn Waugh's 1945 novel "constituted the biggest British invasion since the Beatles." That was the opinion of The New York Times in 2011, 30 years after "Brideshead" appeared.

Americans loved the fashions, the style, the accents, the wit and the dissipation of its young protagonists.

I remember the furor over the miniseries, although at the time my wife and I couldn't watch much television. When we eventually streamed it, "Brideshead," and, by extension Waugh, certainly made an impression.

I didn't get around to actually reading any of Waugh's writing until just the other day, when I ran across a reference to "Men At Arms," his probably semi-autobiographical tale of wartime service in the British Army in 1940. I got the book and wasn't disappointed.

It's a wry account of an angst-ridden upper-class man anxious to get into the war so that he can bring significance to his miserable life by being killed.

Unfortunately he finds that it's a rather "exclusive" war — cannon fodder need not apply, at least not to a "good" regiment.

Looking to learn more about Waugh I found Duncan McLaren's book "Evelyn!" McLaren is a Waugh fan so dedicated that he recounts the author's life as a sort of travelogue, tracking Waugh's movements early in his development.

On his website EvelynWaugh.org.uk McLaren documents Waugh's travels by motorcycle, going to the trouble to map his rides. McLaren even figures out the true location of a striking 1926 photo of Waugh on his motorbike.

While Waugh is his real interest, McLaren's research becomes a delightfully appalling story of British motorcycling in the 1920s. Drawn from Waugh's diary, it's easy to read the account as Waugh's own joyful celebration of his disasters, incompetence and alcohol fueled fun.

Waugh's first motorcycle was a Douglas, purchased for him in Sussex Place, London. Told that it was best to learn by trial and error, Waugh spent an hour on the bike and the next day set out.

"Part of the lamp fell off, the front brake and stand broke off, as did the number plate," McLaren writes. "Apart from that the journey was hunky dory!"

The next ride would include a long walk to purchase a new tire. Returning at night without lights in rain and wind the motorcycle kept sliding. Of course by then Waugh would also have been well lubricated internally himself, making things worse.

His next trip was a bigger disaster. Rain, of course. Then a nut came off the clutch and it cost more than he wanted to spend to replace it. Then the bike just stopped.

Waugh took a taxi to a mechanic, who retrieved the motorcycle and told him he had sheared off a Woodruff key.

The repair was made but Waugh couldn't pay, so he left his silver hip flask as security. (First, of course, he emptied it.)

On his way at last he was misdirected and took a wrong turn. His lights stopped working and he rode in darkness until he could get more carbide for the lamp.

McClaren guesses that Waugh himself would have been so horrified by his experience that friends could convince him to sell the Douglas and buy a Francis-Barnett.

The story goes on, for mile after mile, and if the Francis-Barnett is a more dependable motorbike Waugh remains the most drunken of riders.

McClaren eventually compares Waugh to Mr. Toad of Toad Hall."

As Kenneth Grahame wrote of Toad, in "The Wind in the Willows:"

"...all sense of right and wrong, all fear of obvious consequences, seemed temporarily suspended."

So McClaren's step-by-step travelogue is both cautionary and highly entertaining. I recommend it to anyone who appreciates Waugh.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Royal Enfield Flying Flea motorcycles jumped into America

Magazine advertisement shows military and civilian versions.
It helped win the war, but could the Flying Flea win over America?
You might have thought Royal Enfield dropped its "Flying Flea" motorcycles into America by parachute. Not quite. But the U.S. distributor did make use of Royal Enfield's wartime service to sell the little motorcycle in the United States after World War II.

I spotted this old advertisement, from The Motorcyclist magazine, in a CraigsList ad for an original Model RE in Virginia. The seller thoughtfully included a photo of the 1940s advertisement for the Model RE in his own ad.

The old ad shows a Flying Flea in its parachute cage, and others falling from the sky, under parachutes, behind a Model RE (as the civilian version was called).

"It had to be good then..." the ad reminds readers. "Now Royal Enfield comes to AMERICA... better than ever!"

Side view of 1940s Royal Enfield Model RE.
Royal Enfield Model RE offered for sale on CraigsList in Virginia.
Royal Enfield's modern presence in the U.S. market dates back only to 1995, when the made-in-India Bullet began being officially imported by Classic Motorworks. The earlier made-in-Britain Royal Enfields, including the original Interceptors, had been imported in the 1960s. And, in the 1950s, English Royal Enfields were even sold in the U.S. branded as Indians.

But few remember Royal Enfield's attempt, just after World War II, to bring the Model RE, Model G and Model J to the United States through Whitehall Distributors in New York.

Side view of 1940s Royal Enfield Model RE.
With fluted muffler and tank shift, the Model RE did not look modern.
Graham Scarth, chairman of the Royal Enfield Owners Club, UK, calculates that just over 2,600 Royal Enfield Model REs were sent to the U.S. from 1946 through 1949.

Was that a success? Period advertisements I've found show they were offered for sale in 1947 for $325, which equates to more than $3,700 in today's money! That seems like a lot for a 125cc, two-stroke, three-speed, single-seater, with an amusingly tiny looking front brake and a tank shift, but no electric starter and no rear suspension.

By October, 1948 one Miami dealer was clearing them out at $99 each — still the equivalent of $1,000 today.

Side view of 1940s Royal Enfield Model RE.
The two-stroke Royal Enfield motor derived from a DKW design.
Help was coming: The British pound was devalued by 30 per cent on Sept. 18, 1949, making British exports much cheaper in the U.S. and setting the stage for the post-war British Invasion of the U.S. by Royal Enfield, Triumph, Norton and BSA motorcycles.

The cheaper pound came too late for the hopelessly obsolete Model RE. (Its descendant, the somewhat more modern Royal Enfield Ensign, would have some success selling as the Indian Lance, starting in 1955.)

But never mind. The Model RE, with its tank shift and standard tire pump on the chain guard, remains fascinating to me.

Rear view of 1940s Royal Enfield Model RE.
Royal Enfield Model RE had lights, speedometer, tool kit and a tire pump on the chain guard.
Its tie to the famous Flying Flea remains a powerful memory. In 2018 Royal Enfield would use the Flying Flea to promote its limited edition Pegasus model, in a salute to Britain's World War II airborne forces and to the brand's own wartime history.

The Model RE for sale in Virginia looks great, as its photos show. And you can't beat the enthusiasm of that 1940s ad:

HERE's the motorcycle you've been wanting! American GI's overseas were amazed by the outstanding performance of these world-famous motorcycles under adverse wartime conditions. Thousands were convinced that this was the motorcycle they wanted in civilian life. Even before the war's end the manufacturers of ROYAL ENFIELD began receiving your inquiries.

Now you can buy a ROYAL ENFIELD in America! Today the ROYAL ENFIELD factory is producing postwar variants of the same ROYAL ENFIELD models that made wartime motorcycle history. The famous Lightweight model — used so extensively and efficiently by Airborne Forces and other branches of the Allied Services which required a machine of unusual mobility, easy to handle over any terrain — is now Model RE. With its 125ccc, two-stroke engine, this machine is low in cost, economical to operate, ideal for either country or urban use. Other ROYAL ENFIELDS are Model G — 346cc — and Model J — 499cc.

Write Whitehall Distributors today for complete information and the name of your nearest ROYAL ENFIELD dealer.

Notice to Dealers: Don't miss the opportunity to represent this famous motorcycle in your territory! Sales potentials are enormous. Aggressive advertising will promote this already well-known and well-liked motorcycle. Write Whitehall Distributors today for details.

Please patronize our advertisers

Translate this blog