Friday, March 13, 2020

The heroic Dutch man behind the Royal Enfield Flying Flea

Three riders on small motorcycles lean into a corner.
Joop Van Heusden, left, in the three-rider team he formed to campaign the DKW RT98.
First of three parts.

For the Nazis, cruelty was always the point. It puffed them up. It demonstrated their power. It hid their weaknesses.

One case in point is of a little motorcycle the world called "Das-Kleine-Wunder" (The Little Wonder).

In the years before World War II, the German DKW RT98 was a big seller in the Netherlands. Tax laws there favored the little motorcycles, and the Dutch importer had a clever technician on staff who not only promoted the RT98, he raced it and improved its design.

But the Dutch importer had directors who were Jewish. That was reason enough for the Germans to suddenly pull the distributorship in 1938, and award it to a competitor.

It was disgraceful, although nothing to compare to what was happening inside Germany and what was yet to come during the war.

The slight was resented by the firm and by the young (only 30 at the time) technician. What they would do about it was audacious.

Incredibly, their response would eventually result in German soldiers having a near-clone of the DKW descending on them from the skies.

This was the Royal Enfield Flying Flea, landed by parachute and glider with British airborne forces to serve as an instant mount..

When they asked Royal Enfield to build the Model RB125 (the Royal Baby) for civilians, the technician and his employer only intended to create a replacement for their lost DKW. Their revenge actually became a weapon.

The center of the story is the young technician, who would lose his life in 1943 to a German bullet.

It is a remarkable story. Remarkably, it is being documented by a descendent of the technician, himself Dutch, and an associate of today's Royal Enfield company.

"The man who was responsible at the Dutch importer for the RB125, the predecessor of the Flying Flea, was my great uncle Joop van Heusden (also known as 'Motor Joop')," Jurgen van Son wrote me, in an email.

"Eighty years later I have the privilege to work for Royal Enfield Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg)," he wrote. His job is in marketing and communications.

Jurgen started as a motorcycle mechanic, salesman and shop manager, but he didn't learn about his great uncle until this century. He became editor of a scooter and lightweight motorcycle magazine and realized that his own life seemed to follow the pattern set by Motor Joop.

In 2019 he even began representing the Royal Enfield, bringing the brand "back in the family."

He sent me a trove of material about his great uncle, including a 2019 article from the Dutch motorcycle magazine Classic & Retro, and magazine articles "Motor Joop" himself wrote during the war for Motor magazine in the Netherlands.

One article about Joop notes that he had "an iron will and a deep sense of justice." That might help explains how he reacted to the loss of the DKW business, and, possibly, even how he would die.

Man standing next to large motorcycle of the day.
1935 photo of Motor Joop and an Ariel motorcycle.
He was the acknowledged expert in the Netherlands.
Joop was the Netherlands expert on Ariel motorcycles when the business was taken over by NV R.S. Stokvis & Zonen (Sons).

In December, 1934, Stokvis presented him something new: a railway car full of tiny motorcycles of less than 100cc each.

He first got to try one in the spring of 1935 — it stalled immediately. He found that a dash of gas would get it launched and he quickly became enthusiastic.

So enthusiastic was he that three, including one for himself, were entered in an off-road race, although he had never competed in any race, let alone cross-country.

The little motorcycles were kept behind a shed until time for the race, for fear that when organizers saw them they wouldn't  allow them on the track with real machines.

Joop worried that some joker in the crowd might grab his rear fender and hold him back at the start. Few thought they would finish.

The three started from the back. Fifteen laps later Joop was startled that onlookers were urging him to go faster — it wouldn't go any faster! He came in seventh out of 17 and was surrounded by people who wanted to know where they could buy an RT98.

Joop took the RT98s into more and bigger competitions, with himself as team leader. "Unprecedented results were soon achieved," Joop wrote.

There were other light motorcycles, but in the Netherlands the DKW RT98 was the success story.

"The numbers with which they were sold spurred even greater effort," he wrote. "No means were left unturned to prove the usefulness of light motorcycles in general, and no opportunity was left unused to increase the quality and the properties of the whole higher and higher."

Joop's suggestions for improvements were heard at the factory in Germany. He wrote:

"The finish had to be embellished and made to last: simply put, but it meant making the whole durable stainless and varnishing three times before it went into the muffler furnace.

"Special 'luxury' models had to come with separate piping and many chromed parts. What a layman can hardly imagine. What is a beautiful finish for a tank? What color should it be?

"Whole parades of complete laymen were led along tables with many types of tank designs, and the result of 'popular opinion' was surprising...

"The technical qualities of the whole had to be improved: sprockets widened, pin switch became claw switch, magnetized iron became magnetic steel, varnished coils were impregnated in vacuum tanks. Rim profiles were changed, spoke thicknesses had to be changed...

"I mentioned that no opportunity was left unused to demonstrate the possibilities with light machines, but what this single sentence entailed in work and what this required from the dedication and labor-power of my closest technical helpers is truly not in evidence."

This helps us understand what it meant, in 1938, for the very profitable DKW franchise to be yanked away and awarded to a competing firm.

And it demonstrates the depth of knowledge Joop had to offer Royal Enfield when the moment came to cross the channel to Britain.

Part 2: The Royal Baby is born.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you for this splendid article.
    More can be found on my website:
    http://www.jgvanheusden.nl/Motor Joop.htm

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If that link doesn't work, you can reach it at this link. The site is in Dutch but if you right-click on it in your Chrome browser you should get an option to translate to English.

      Delete
  2. That's an exemplary article, and explains why I keep checking in here from time to time. It's also a very timely one, since it seems Royal Enfield has recently trademarked the "Flying Flea" model name (among others), presumably as a prelude to releasing some small and medium capacity models soon.

    ReplyDelete

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