Friday, February 28, 2020

New book explores Royal Enfield's pre-war history

Man standing with vintage Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Author Peter Miller with his 1930 Royal Enfield Model B 225cc side-valve, found very rusty in the loft of a barn and now maintained in oily rag condition. It "kindled an interest in Royal Enfield that would ultimately lead on to the writing of the book."

Peter Miller's new book "Royal Enfield The Early History - 1851 to 1930" is a big, handsome, hard-cover of 280 pages, richly illustrated. In most cases it was the first time I'd seen many of these illustrations.

The book tells the Royal Enfield story year-by-year, highlights interesting Royal Enfield personalities, contains a complete chronology of Royal Enfield through the period, and a comprehensive spread sheet of Royal Enfield motorcycle models of the day including displacement, bore, stroke and even cost. It finishes with a bibliography and a useful index.

The jacket describes Peter Miller as the owner of three Royal Enfields. Previous books by him cover the Welbike, Morgan three-wheeler, Brough Superior and The Famous James Military Lightweight motorcycle. Quite a range of very unusual machines.

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.

Cover of book.
"Royal Enfield The Early History - 1851 to 1930"
by Peter Miller.
Fans of Royal Enfield motorcycles will be surprised that the book includes a wealth of information about the Royal Enfield bicycles that got the company rolling. Farther on, there's attention to Royal Enfield sidecars and even commercial sidecar outfits. These were more important in Royal Enfield history than I realized.

I was frankly pleased to read in the forward of this formidable history of Royal Enfields that "Competition is discussed only when relevant to the ongoing story of the machine's development." By no means is racing ignored in this book but it never comes to dominate.

"I am not a fast rider," Peter wrote me, in an email, "and take greatest pleasure from pottering on early bikes to enjoy their individual idiosyncrasies and the challenges of riding them well.

"Early Enfield machines were well designed, well built, often innovative and a pleasure to ride. I believe they don’t receive the appreciation they deserve and would like to think my book might go some way to remedying this."

The very early history (back to the 16th Century) is dealt with quickly. That simplifies things somewhat, but Royal Enfield remains a complex story. Families of people with the same name complicate things.

George Townsend leaves the company on his death to his sons, George Townsend Jr. and half brother Foster Townsend.

It is Foster who brought into the company one of the early boneshaker bicycles, inspiring the needle making firm to think about moving into production of bicycle parts. By 1891 more than two-dozen different bicycle designs were being made, although some look nothing like you'd expect.

How about a geared front-wheel-drive bicycle with a backbone frame instead of the expected diamond shape?

Brace yourself for the curious three-and four-wheel machines that are coming, eventually with motors.

By 1910 there are a bewildering number of models, helpfully sorted by the book. The field-gun motif on the front sprocket of bicycles appeared this year. An oil-bath chain guard seems like a fine idea. Full-fledged automobiles are in the catalog and motorcycles are back in, after being dropped in 1906.

Gearbox, slipper clutch, cush drive, chain drive, oil pumps, patented "spring" handlebars, a flirtation with water cooling — innovations are coming fast.

"Much of my research for the book was carried out using the factory scrapbooks and photograph albums held by the Redditch Library," Peter wrote me.

"This proved invaluable as it provided opportunity to view photographs of prototype machines and to gain a greater insight into the development of the various models."

"There is considerable scope for error," he notes in the book, as the company's illustrations may be touched up, photos show only prototypes, changes are made during production and period brochures are usually undated.

And human beings keep coming and going.

And they are fascinating people. R.W. Smith was given a seat on the BSA board in 1907 but retired after two years for reasons of ill health. Yet he went on to become managing director of Enfield Cycle Company, a position he would occupy until his death a quarter century later.

Similarly, Albert Eadie is said to be in poor health in 1907 and resigns from the board of directors of Enfield Cycle. Yet he accepts appointment to the board of BSA, becomes managing director of its bicycle and motorcycle departments and lives until 1931!

"Albert Eadie and R.W.Smith were true pioneers of mechanized transport and don't receive the full recognition they deserve," Peter wrote in his email to me.

"They established profitable cycle and motorcycle manufacturing industries and produced early powered tricycles and quadricycles. They were unfortunate to fail in their ambition to become a major manufacturer of automobiles."

In the book, he writes that, in taking the Royal Enfield story up to 1930, he meant to complement the book by Gordon G. May, "By Miles the Best," which carries on from 1930 to 1970.

But he is unable to resist a peek at 1931 models (as these would have been designed in 1930) and even into 1932, probably because  — very unusually — Royal Enfield released a chart for that year showing performance figures and power curves for its motorcycles. It would have been a shame to leave that out.

He continues on to note the Birth of the Bullet in 1932, the death of managing director Frank Walker Smith (the son of managing director R.W. Smith) in 1962, the creation of India Enfield in 1956 and the demise of the UK based company in 1970.

But thoroughness is not the only joy of this book. I was delighted by diversions into unfamiliar areas.

The Townsend's saddle that combined the framework of the bicycle seat with its springs, for instance. Or the impressive Royal Enfield automobiles. Or the unknown (to me) connection between Royal Enfield and Motosacoche.

I finished reading the book and immediately went back and read it again.

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