Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Royal Enfield for King and Country

You might wonder how a biker bar in America can survive, devoted to a single brand of obscure British motorcycle that is only imported today in small numbers from India.

The Three Down bar did well enough, with its single draft beer and single-entrée menu. Until "Speed" walked out leading half my customers, I little imagined any of them would go anywhere else. I expected bickering and pettiness, but never desertion.

The love of the Royal Enfield motorcycle itself would keep them here, I thought.

The only way for Americans to understand this is to consider the Jeep. The very symbol of victory in war, the Jeep was slow, simple, purposeful and plucky. Romantics can still buy a Jeep today that looks very like the original and is nearly as uncomfortable. (Unfortunately, Americans let their love for the Jeep entice them to buy SUVs, which are soulless rolling palaces in comparison).

Everything the American army did with the Jeep, the British army had expected to do with the motorcycle. Royal Enfield motorcycles in gray paint had been fixed as dispatch vehicles, equipped to carry wounded soldiers, and even attached to machine guns mounted in sidecars.

These looked very purposeful. As a tribute to them, Royal Enfield today sells civilians a model it calls "The Military," painted gray and equipped with metal courier boxes for luggage. You have to supply your own Tommy gun, of course.

The crucial moment for British motorcycles came at the battle of Dunkirk. Trapped on the coast of France by the German army in 1940, the British escaped to fight again in one of the great evacuations of all time. There was time to bring off only the soldiers; they left their equipment, including their motorcycles, behind.

To replace the material lost in this disaster, the British motorcycle industry, including Royal Enfield, had to produce as never before. By the end of the war, British motorcycles were established as supreme, across the Dominions and even in America, where they were soon exported.

Of course, they were only children in those days, but my regulars were old enough to remember the newsreels of motorcycles at war and peace. They would accept no substitute for the British motorcycle. Unfortunately, it now seemed that many of them would just as soon share their love of the genre with one another in a bar with a good sound system, a full menu, and half-a-dozen different beers on tap.

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