Friday, September 13, 2019

A Royal Enfield Chief and a Spring day in Maryland, 1962

Royal Enfield Indian Chief motorcycle photographed in 1962.
Made by Royal Enfield in England, this Indian Chief was loaded with accessories.
(L.L. Graham Photo from the archives of the REOC UK)
A spanking new looking Royal Enfield Indian Chief, photographed in Maryland in 1962, caught archivist Bob Murdoch's eye.

What were these photos doing in the files of the Royal Enfield Owner's Club, UK?

With them was an envelope from a Kodak Processing Lab, addressed to a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. There was his name, L.L. Graham, and his address at the enormous dormitory at the academy, and the postmark. But nothing else.

"During my on-going trawl through the REOC archives I found a box of color slides from March, 1962," Bob wrote in an email. "I don't know how these transparencies came to us, but guess that they were donated at some point in the past.

"A bit of Google research suggests that 'MIDN' (Midshipman) L.L. Graham, who is based at Bancroft Hall navy (dormitory) in Annapolis, Maryland may be the proud owner of this very tidy Indian Chief. He's so proud of his new bike that he has used a whole reel of film on this subject.

"I just wonder if any of your blog readers might recognize Mr. Graham, his bike or even his partner?"

Royal Enfield Indian Chief motorcycle photographed in 1962.
Handsome guy, pretty girl and white-wall tires.
(L.L. Graham Photo from archives of the REOC UK)
His partner? One of the photos shows a man and woman with the Chief.

Was the man in the photo Midshipman L.L. Graham? Or was L.L. Graham the photographer? Was the Indian Chief motorcycle even his?

I fully expected that, even if I found the one-time midshipman, it would turn out that the motorcycle was long gone and little remembered, the photos just casual snapshots taken on a pretty Spring day in Maryland.

Boy, was I wrong.

I left messages for a man the Internet seemed to think matched (other L. Grahams have served their country in the Navy, but some too long ago to be a midshipman of the 1960s).

Did I have the right man? And even if I did, would he bother to respond to questions about a 60-year-old roll of film?

The reply from Larry Graham was far better than I'd hoped.

Royal Enfield Indian Chief motorcycle photographed in 1962.
Whoever owned this Royal Enfield Indian Chief shot a whole roll of color slides of it.
(L.L. Graham Photo from the archives of the REOC UK)
"David, wow that photo sparks some memories. Very brief initial response to your questions:

"In 1963 I was a graduating Midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. That photo was of a classmate, Chuck Patterson and his girlfriend on weekend leave at a home in Bethesda Md., just posing for the photo.

"The Enfield Chief was my bike that took me cross country to Texas, then on to Coronado, Calif. for UDT Training (bike in storage, me off to Vietnam).

"Lots happened between 1963 and 1970 with bike in and out of storage as needed. In 1970 bike came out of storage and became the beginning of my collecting Enfields (mostly Chiefs). Ended up with 50 or so, started the Enfield owners club here in the U.S. and eventually (1985 or so) boxed up my whole collection and shipped it to a fellow in England.

"Probably some of my personal papers and photos were in the boxes of manuals, club records, etc. that were tossed in the shipping containers full of accumulated parts.

"Haven't thought about that era in a long time but that Enfield Chief was in the middle of a lot of life and adventure."

Royal Enfield Indian Chief motorcycle photographed in 1962.
Note the Maryland temporary tag.
(L.L. Graham Photo from archives of the REOC UK)
Needless to say, I couldn't let it rest there. I felt privileged to have contacted a man trained in UDT (the Underwater Demolition Team, the "frogman" forerunners of Navy SEALS); someone who'd owned so many Royal Enfields and had even started a club for them in the United States.

And that shiny new Indian Chief in the photos had indeed been his, and important to him. My request for more information brought this:

"Well, maybe a few more comments about motorcycles and the Enfields. The motorcycle industry was in a tough transition around 1960 to 1970. A few used police Harleys were available from the dealers around the country for about $500 but they were hard to keep running. The British were struggling to make inroads with the vertical twins and American open roads were less conducive to the BSAs, Triumphs, etc. and BMW was dependable but not cheap.

"Royal Enfield was sort of a back-room brand, 700cc was more respectful to a young cowboy than the 250cc and 500cc machines and when Indian tried to break back in the market with the 700cc Indian Enfield Chief it was a match to drool over for me.

Royal Enfield Indian Chief motorcycle photographed in 1962.
Black, shiny and only $600; it was a motorcycle to drool over.
(L.L. Graham Photo from archives of the REOC UK)
"Black, shiny, and $600; who needs a girlfriend?

"Only real problem was the head gasket. Every few hundred miles the head gasket between the cylinder and head would start a high pitch squeak and get worse steadily until it was a full blown pop, pop. No problem, actually. One just needed to learn to be a reasonable capable mechanic. They were pretty basic machines.

"After 1970 the Japanese bikes started to take hold and as nostalgia for the Indian Enfield Chief started to set in I made it a challenge to locate and buy every Royal Enfield bike I could find in a barn, storeroom, garage, or hay pile anywhere in the USA.  Usually $50 to $150 each. A couple of closed down dealerships turned up on the northeast coast and lots of original parts came with the packages.

"When the total of complete and partially complete machines totaled about 50 (12 of which were the Chiefs) and the contacts made during the searching grew, I just started a national club sort of like you did your blog and held several Enfield centered rallies in my little home town in Texas.

"After a few years I moved on to other interests, sent all the club stuff to some of the other members who picked up and improved the effort, and sold all of my remaining collection of bikes and parts to a distant club member in England.   

"As a fringe pleasure at some point a young Brit named Tim Elborne found my name through the club, shipped his Enfield Interceptor and set of mechanic tools over to New York and rode across the USA stopping for several weeks here in Texas where there was free food, lodging, and taste of Texas.

"Times have changed, of course, but those were good times in so many ways."

It's an evocative story that helps bring alive an era that sometimes seems to have slipped from memory.

But maybe Larry Graham's greatest gift to memory is that photo made so long ago of a handsome midshipman, a pretty girl and a shiny Royal Enfield Indian Chief.

I'm glad it still speaks to us.

7 comments:

  1. very nice!Hoping the new Meteor is set up like the chief

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  2. Great article just sold my Chief and others to Hitchcocks.

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  3. Really enjoyed this story. Seems like the first Enfield club I had knowledge of may have been Mr. Graham's, and I may even have some of the newsletters from that club. Good researching on your part.

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  4. An excellent story - Well done you and Well done Mr. Graham.

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  5. Great story! Many thanks. It would be fun to find out who bought the bikes in England and to see what happened to them (hint, hint).

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