Friday, January 10, 2020

Why Royal Enfield gave up on motorcycles in 1906

Group of men standing with 1901 Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Royal Enfield's odd 1901 motorcycle. Its designer, far right, thought rear-wheel drive would cure stability problems actually caused by the front-mounted motor. With fuzzy thinking like this, Royal Enfield was out of the motorcycle business by 1906.
 Royal Enfield recently boasted on Facebook that "we have been continuously making motorcycles since 1901." That's not true. But we know what they mean. 

Royal Enfield's website is more careful, claiming motorcycle production only "since 1901." That is strictly true, although it implies motorcycle production has been continuous. It's the word "continuous" that is the problem. 

The first Royal Enfield motorcycle did appear in 1901. It looked more like what we would call a moped today, but back then it was almost as good a motorcycle as you could find. 

Only "almost as good" because another manufacturer had figured out that the motor belongs low in the frame, not way up in front of the handlebars — and those other guys had patented their discovery. Royal Enfield was stuck with a high center of gravity that could lead to wipe outs on dirt roads. 

The odd fact is that Royal Enfield had been building motor vehicles — three and four wheelers that looked a bit like cars — since 1898. If anything, the early company seemed more interested in cars than in motorcycles.

Proof of this is that, for 1906, Royal Enfield actually ended its new-born motorcycle production to concentrate on cars. No new Royal Enfield motorcycle would emerge from the factory until 1910.

It's all in the new book, "Royal Enfield, The Early History 1851-1930," by Peter Miller. It's a big, 280-page hardcover book rich with information and illustrations. I was delighted to receive it as a Christmas gift.

Cover of book "Royal Enfield The Early History."
"Royal Enfield The Early History"
by Peter Miller.
The book is subtitled "Automobiles, Cycles and Motor Cycles." We all know Royal Enfield was an early maker of bicycles and today it is known for its motorcycles, still made in India after production ceased in England.

But the company's foray into the automobile business — and the way that disrupted motorcycle production — was for me one of the most confusing things about Royal Enfield history.

The facts are that Royal Enfield ceased motorcycle production at a time when too many companies were jumping into the business, chasing too few buyers. Demand for Royal Enfield cars fell too but remember, by 1906 Royal Enfield was an established builder of cars, and its cars — no longer mere quadricycles — were big, up-to-date, and handsome.

Its motorcycles, however, had only just come along and, although innovative, weren't fully developed. Royal Enfield couldn't seem to decide if they should have two speeds, or one; chain drive, or belt; air or water cooling. A photo of the 1905 Royal Enfield motorcycle in Miller's book looks like a steampunk's bad dream, with six prominent exposed sprockets.

By the end, only two models were offered.

"Neither proved popular with the buying public," Miller writes.

Motorcycles weren't making money. They were an easy business to give up.

Still, it probably should have been clear that making automobiles was a stretch for the Enfield Cycle Co. Ltd. as it was then known. As a bicycle maker it lacked heavy duty press and foundry equipment. Early car frames were of tubular steel but when automobile designs eventually called for pressed steel frames these had to be bought in, as did cylinder blocks, crankshafts, camshafts and crankcases. Even the bodies were made by outside suppliers.

Cars weren't making money for Royal Enfield either.

The company's chosen solution to this dilemma seemed like a gamble, even to observers at the time. The automobile business was spun off, as the Enfield Autocar Company.

The split had a physical component. The Enfield Cycle Company moved to a brand new factory on Hewell Road in Redditch, specially designed for cycle making, leaving the Enfield Autocar Company to the Hunt End works, which were being updated to make motor vehicles.

Although otherwise separate, with their own boards of directors (mostly the same people), both companies would continue to use the brand name "Enfield." Both would even use the "Made Like a Gun" slogan and logo.

Part of the deal was that the Cycle Company would refrain from building cars and the Autocar Company would refrain from making cycles.

The Cycle Company did well, as pedal powered bicycles were still money makers. But it didn't take long for the Autocar Company to crash. Its new 15-horsepower car attracted orders at the Olympia Auto Show of October, 1906, but it was February, 1907 before the Hunt End factory could fill the first order. The Autocar company went into receivership a few days before Christmas, 1907.

It was purchased by automobile maker Alldays & Onions, which moved production to its own works in Birmingham. "Enfield" cars would continue to be produced into the 1920s, but not in Redditch, and they would mostly be just upscale versions of Alldays & Onions cars.

In other words, the later history of "Enfield" cars involves Enfields produced by a completely different firm, one actually in competition with the Enfield Cycle Company. (Alldays & Onions made bicycles and motorcycles under its own name.)

An ugly moment came in 1913 when Alldays & Onions briefly produced the (literally) ugly "Enfield Autorette," a three-wheeled cycle car. There are photos of this strange conveyance in Miller's book.

Remember, under the 1906 agreement the Autocar Company, now owned by Alldays & Onions, had no right to produce cycles under the name Enfield.

When Enfield Cycle complained, Alldays & Onions got huffy.

In response, Enfield Cycle created an experimental cycle car of its own, the Royal Enfield Cyclecar, with four wheels — like a car — which only seems calculated to piss off the Autocar Company.

It was attractive.

In fact, compared to the ugly Enfield Autorette, the Royal Enfield Cyclecar was gorgeous, with a sleek body, full fenders and long running boards. Again, there are photos in Miller's book.

After this proposed car appeared in a magazine Alldays & Onions dropped its Enfield Autorette, replacing it with an actual car, the Enfield Autolette.

A decade later the story came full circle.

In 1924 Alldays & Onions went into receivership itself (partly the result of sinking too much money into the proposed Enfield Bullet, a car powered by a five-cylinder airplane style radial engine).  Out of this receivership the Enfield Cycle Company bought back the full rights to the Enfield name for a "very reasonable figure."

Not only was the Enfield name back with Royal Enfield, but the company now had the right to produce motorcars itself — although it was "not thinking of doing so."

Royal Enfield would return to making motorcycles for 1910. These were V-twins of steadily improving design, and they would make money.

"From this point the company would enjoy a period of sustained growth and profitability, which can be attributed to the manufacture of motorcycles," Miller writes.

All this drama and I'm only up to page 80 of his book. I look forward to many interesting stories in the chapters to come.

If you're in the UK you can get the book directly from the author. Elsewhere get it from Hitchcock's Motorcycles or Royal Enfield Books.


  1. Thanks for sharing, it's fun to learn more about the early R/E history.

  2. A comment just in from Jorge Pullin: "Remember the Paris disaster of 1906 and the Bullet of 1908."


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