Friday, July 3, 2020

When Indian sold Royal Enfields to Americans

Cover of Indian brochure presenting the 1953 Royal Enfields.
In '53 Royal Enfields were Royal Enfields in the U.S.
I thought I knew the history of Royal Enfield motorcycles in the United States. I've just learned I was wrong about that.

This much I knew: Royal Enfield motorcycles rebadged as Indian motorcycles were sold in Indian dealerships in the United States from 1955 to 1959. Along with the Indian badges came American-sounding model names.

The 500cc Royal Enfield Bullet became the Indian Woodsman and Westerner. The 250cc Clipper became the Indian Fire Arrow and Hounds Arrow. The 500 Twin became the Indian Tomahawk. The 700cc Meteor became the Indian Trailblazer, Apache and Chief. The two-stroke Ensign became the Indian Lance.

There was even a role for the 350cc Bullet, as the basis for the three-wheeled Indian Patrol Car for meter maids.

Then, for 1960, the Indian connection ended and Royal Enfields were marketed under their own brand and model names.

An amazing history. But here is the part of it I didn't understand: Royal Enfield's tie-up with Indian in the U.S. didn't wait unitl 1955.

The realization came when I noticed an eBay ad from Pennsylvania for a vintage brochure entitled "Indian Presents... The 1953 Royal Enfield."

So, in fact, the 1953 and 1954 Royal Enfields sold in the U.S. were sold as Royal Enfields, with their own model names, at Indian dealerships!

The brochure boasted that "Indian distributes the complete line of Royal Enfield Models." A chart lists specifications for the Meteor 700, 500 Twin, 500 Bullet, 350 Bullet, Ensign, Model J2, Model G, Model RE and Model S51. These are all Royal Enfield model names.

Illustrations in the brochure show the Royal Enfields in Royal Enfield, not Indian, markings. But the brochure itself is "Distributed by Indian, Springfield, Mass."

The explanation for this came from Graham Scarth, chairman of the Royal Enfield Owners Club UK:

"From 1946-'49 Royal Enfields were sent to Whitehall of New York, the company run by the former Dutch importer. Mr Stokvis was a Jew who fortunately escaped from Holland to the U.S., running Whitehall until he returned to Holland during 1949 to continue where he left off back in Rotterdam.

"British company Brockhouse then took over Royal Enfield sales in the U.S. and they owned the Indian brand name during the 1950s. They sold Royal Enfields badged as such through to 1954 and, as the brochure shows, sold them through the Indian dealerships. From 1955-'59 they had Royal Enfield make the Indian-badged versions exclusively for them.

"The Indian name passed to Associated Motorcycles (AJS/Matchless) for 1960 and they received the last 200 (Royal Enfield-made) Chief machines, no doubt ordered by Brockhouse and having to reluctantly accept them as part of the take-over deal.

"From 1960 on, Royal Enfields were then sold under their own name in the USA through four distributors, although there are a few sent to them in 1959."

The potential for confusion didn't end, however, because Indian dealers kept right on selling new Apaches, Trailblazers, Tomahawks, Westerners and Woodsmans. But now these were Matchless motorcycles, not Royal Enfields.

The 1960-'61 Indian brochure Graham emailed me shows that, unlike the rebadged Royal Enfields, these model names appeared on motorcycles that clearly still carry Matchless (not Indian) badges.

There was one exception: the big 700cc Chief still shows its "Indian" markings. It was the last of the U.S. Indian-labelled Royal Enfields.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Back in '65 you didn't tell this guy to get a Vespa

Young motorcyclist has a cigarette after a race.
Maynard Hershon at Nelson Ledges in 1965.
In a recent blog item I admitted to being thrown for a loop — and nearly thrown off — when my Royal Enfield Bullet ran out of gas in an intersection and I was too flustered to switch to "Reserve." 

That got reader Maynard Hershon remembering what things were like back in the days before gas gauges were common, and riders couldn't just get on a cell phone when problems arose. He writes:

I've been riding all these years, almost 60 years now, and almost every bike I've owned has had a petcock (or two) and most have had "reserve" positions. I cannot ever remember a bike going on reserve in traffic at an inconvenient time.

Speaking for us older riders, veteran riders, we did not ride to ride in traffic. We rode to get out of traffic, to get outta Dodge, to get out onto country roads or rural highways where we could relax and not serve as targets for every bozo driver.

If you'd have suggested to us that an entire generation of motorcyclists would own bikes to use in cities, we'd have thought you were crazy. Who'd waste a good motorcycle going from traffic light to traffic light?

Now we have 10,000, 12,000, 15,000-dollar motorcycles with 100-mile fuel ranges. They're URBAN bikes. They have over 100 horsepower, six gears, three brake discs, on and on — and they're for the same tasks at which Vespas have always excelled. No one rides them any distance.

When I had my '06 Triumph Thruxton, I could not get over how soon the bike went on reserve: 110 miles, give or take. So I asked other Bonneville and Thruxton owners about how far they could go before they hit reserve, and none of them knew. They never paid any attention. They never left town on their trendy, retro-British roadburners.

Still unsatisfied, I wrote someone at Triumph asking what the deal was. The response: "That's right in line with the model's job description." It's an urban runabout.

David, that was years ago, and I still can't get over it.

When I started riding, and we're talking about 1962 and a Honda 250 Hawk, a cool sport bike of that era, not many guys traveled on motorcycles.

Harley guys did, the few Guzzi guys did, BMW guys did, but British bikes were far too unreliable. More guys raced their Triumphs and BSAs than traveled more than from town to town.

But a 650 Triumph or BSA or a Norton (there were very few) or Royal Enfield (even fewer) was a big, fast motorcycle — and could do anything. There were no Interstate highways, or very few, so you could not sustain much more than 75 mph anywhere, and even to do that meant cracked parts, some of them critical.

Fender stays, the fenders themselves around the mounting bolts, oil tank brackets, bulb filaments, anything hung out from the bike any distance that would resonate with the ever-present vibration would eventually break. So if you rode any distance, you had to carry tools and spares.

You came to know which of the pieces of your bike would cause problems and you found ways to prevent those problems. Riders would share their solutions with other riders.

The bikes were so unreliable they "made mechanics out of riders," as the Guzzi guys say. You couldn't just take your bike to the dealer. Your bike wouldn't make it to the dealer.

You'd be stuck somewhere with a broken motorcycle and you had to help yourself. Plus there was so much work, you could never afford to pay a dealer to do it. It was understood that you did all but the major overhaul stuff yourself.

In the '70s, I would ride from the San Francisco Bay Area to SoCal to watch the races at Ascot Park. I'd ride British bikes. I'd carry lots of tools and spark plugs and I'd do a thorough check-over before I left so I wouldn't be holding up my Honda and BMW-riding friends along the way.

Once I rode a CH-model Sportster. I ran out of gas on Highway 101 and had to push the thing a mile or so on the road shoulder in the dark to a gas station. Today with far fewer stations, you might be in real trouble.

Buying a bike that ASSUMES that you won't take a trip on it seems so limiting to me, David, especially a bike that is so capable in other ways. And so expensive.

Maynard Hershon has been riding motorcycles since 1962 and writing about them since 1985. Of the photo above he writes: "Here I am in 1965 at Nelson Ledges Road Course in Ohio. I have just raced my Ducati Diana 250, gone oh-so slowly, and I'm having a post-race cigarette. I borrowed the leather pants, gas money for the VW van I drove to the track and probably that cigarette. My friends rode from Bloomington, Ind., to watch me ride on the Bultaco Metralla and Yamaha YDS-3 you see behind me."

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