Friday, March 15, 2019

Johnny Brittain, a riding ambassador for Royal Enfield

Scene inside cafe with smiling men gathered around Brittain.
Veteran Royal Enfield trials rider Johnny Brittain accepts a helmet
from company leader Siddhartha Lal at the Ace Cafe London in 2013.
(Photo by David Blasco)
John V. Brittain, born in 1932, died this month. I learned of his death in this tweet from Royal Enfield:

"Legendary Royal Enfield trials rider, Johnny Brittain, passed away 7th March after a short illness. In an illustrious career that spanned 15 years, he won an unparalleled 13 ISDT gold medals. He will be missed by all of us at #RoyalEnfield."

I'd met Johnny Brittain thanks to Royal Enfield. It was September, 2013 and I was at the historic Brooklands race track in the UK at Royal Enfield's expense. I was just one of a flying squadron of international writers invited to the press launch of the new Royal Enfield Continental GT 535 cafe racer.

I took a seat near the front of the room at the press conference, hoping to get photos of the speakers. Two gentlemen were conducted to seats just to my left and it was apparent they were special guests.

The fellow at my left shoulder proved to be Roger Boss, the Royal Enfield marketing executive who'd enthusiastically backed creation of the original Continental GT, back in its day.

Roger pointed to the other man and said, "And he's a famous trials rider!"

That man was Johnny Brittain, and while I knew his name and that he was deeply associated with Royal Enfield's competition history, I knew next to nothing about trials riding. Later I would read this:

"Johnny Brittain was the mainstay of the Enfield trials team through the 1950s and beyond, as well as performing to gold standard in the ISDT with monotonous regularity... Enfield took a good proportion of the trials honors in the postwar era and the main credit for this has to go to Johnny Brittain." That's from Roy Bacon's book "Royal Enfield, The Postwar Models."

According to the website TrialsGuru, Johnny Brittain won the equivalent of the British trials championship in 1956 and "competed in 15 consecutive International Six Days Trials, winning 13 gold medals for his country."

His father "Vic" Britain, a Royal Enfield trials rider of the pre-war years, had retired from competition after the 1948 season. Johnny's association with Royal Enfield began in 1950, at age 18, earning a trials gold medal on the 350cc Bullet. 

In a Forward he wrote to Bacon's book, Johnny Brittain wrote:

"My ambitions were to be a good trials rider and an ambassador for the Royal Enfield Company."

His was an association with Britain (the island) that Royal Enfield of India clearly means to keep alive.

Royal Enfield's press launch of the Continental GT took us from Brooklands, to the Ace Cafe in London and on to Brighton These are sites where the "Suicide Club" Rockers of the 1950s and '60s  made the cafe racer the peculiar sort of British motorcycle everybody wanted.

"In launching this new model," I wrote in 2013, "Royal Enfield (India!) missed no opportunity to associate itself with the long ago history of Royal Enfield (Britain)."

Royal Enfield president and CEO Siddhartha Lal was at every venue, in black leather jacket. He joked that he had hoped to be the first rider on a Continental GT to be cited for exceeding the speed limit in Britain.

Sure, Royal Enfield of India has gone on building the Bullet for half a century after the Brits stopped building them in Redditch, England. But it was exciting to me ̬ actually touching — to see that the company strongly meant to preserve and nurture that heritage.

Instead of churning out, say, Harley clones, Royal Enfield would keep on building distinctively British motorcycles. The Continental GT 535 proved that.

And so did a quiet scene I witnessed later, back at the Ace Cafe at the end of the day with Royal Enfield.

Without fanfare, Royal Enfield executives and historian and author Gordon May gathered in the busy cafe around Johnny Brittain. In a quiet voice, Lal thanked him for coming to the press launch and presented the famous rider with a bright red Continental GT helmet as a memento of the day.

Seeing no photographers I raised my camera over my head and got off two quick shots. Both are terrible.

That's OK. It wasn't a photo op; it wasn't done for the press. It was a moment of appreciation for a veteran whose life well represented Royal Enfield and helped connect Royal Enfield motorcycles with Britain, no matter where they are made.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks to Roy Bacon's book, "Royal Enfield, the Post-war Models," Johnny Brittain became the defacto face of Royal Enfield. Sid Lal hitched his wagon to a star and it's paying off for the RE and RE enthusiasts world-wide. RIP Johnny.


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