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.

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