Friday, March 12, 2021

Bertil Hult: An unknown Royal Enfield hero of the 1920s

Expedition at Royal Enfield London dealership.
The expedition visits Royal Enfield's depot at 48 Holburn Viaduct, London.

They didn't make it.

Stockholm to Cape Town and back again, the whole length of Europe and Africa, twice, was too far in 1929, the roads too rough (or non-existent).

It probably didn't help that the vehicles were big, sidecar equipped Royal Enfields that were, even then, obsolescent, and burdened with trailers and even a radio communications set. (Who, in 1929, were they going to call?)

One lone man of the four who set off didn't give up, pressing on alone into Africa on one of the Royal Enfield combinations after his companions quit. 

Expedition visits Royal Enfield Redditch factory.
The expedition mounted in photo at Royal Enfield factory in Redditch.

His Royal Enfield broke down, and he was racked with malaria. But his stirring story would inspire admiration when, two years later, he published a book about it entitled "Through the Land of Adventure."

The book is rare now, and in Swedish, but the tale it tells nevertheless fascinated Andreas Papadakis, a member of the ever enthusiastic Royal Enfield Owners Club International Greek Branch.

(The Greek branch planned to sponsor the REOC International rally in Greece this September, until the pandemic forced rescheduling it to 2022.)

"After many years of research I finally got the book, published in Stockholm in 1931, by Bertil Hult," Andreas wrote me in an email.

Smiling man holding Bertil Hult's book.
Andreas Papadakis with Bertil Hult's book, at last.

"I believe it is the oldest book ever written dedicated to Royal Enfield travels! It was really hard to find and after many years I felt lucky!"

Bertil Hult was a Swedish journalist. He set off from Stockholm March 24, 1929 with photographer Ake Burstrom, mechanic Oskar Gustavsson and wireless operator Kai Thorenfelt. They rode through Northern Europe to Britain, to visit the Redditch factory and the London service center of Royal Enfield.

It seems obvious from the markings on the side of the sidecars that Royal Enfield sponsored the "Swedish-English Expedition on Royal Enfield Motor Cycles" to some degree. No doubt the machines were serviced in Britain, but the expedition was already falling apart.

Kai Thorenfelt argued with the others and left the team. The remaining three continued their journey to Barcelona, where the 1929 Universal Exposition was in progress. There the hardships already experienced caused Burstrom and Gustavsson to retire. That left only Hult with, obviously, all of Africa still ahead of him.

From Gibraltar he rode down the west coast of Morocco, according to one account written in English. It sets out this route:

One motorcycle posed alone.
Bertil Hult's lone Royal Enfield and pith helmet in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

At Cape Juby, Morocco, he had to turn around because there were not even camel tracks to go after. From Casablanca a new try by going southeast to reach Bechar, Algeria... because of acts of war, he has to turn north.‎ From Oran, Algeria goes the next attempt to get south. Now he manages to reach Bechar via Saida and Ain-Sefra, Algeria. From here you can reach Goa on the Niger River via Beni-Abbes, Algeria... Here the... malaria-sick author makes his way home to Sweden.‎

The single run from Oran to Goa on the Niger River in Mali, if that is in fact what Hult managed in the end, is by itself 2,000 miles. 

Hult seems to have encountered no end of difficulties.

Man stands next to motorcycle in desert.
Bertil Hult and his Royal Enfield far from Stockholm, far from Redditch.

I wonder about his motorcycle. Royal Enfield's 976cc side-valve V-twin sidecar machine was nearing the end of its production life then as the company focused more on singles. Royal Enfield had made its reputation on sidecar tugs, up to this point, but was moving on.

Was the machine a weak link? Hult's Royal Enfield would be picked up by a truck.

Andreas has promised more details as he translates from the Swedish.

Book cover of "Through the Land of Adventure."
Hult's 1931 book.


  1. Replies
    1. Very nice interesting photos of the expedition in Britain.

  2. Reads almost like one of Theodore Roosevelt's adventures a few years earlier. These are still great stories. Thanks for posting it.

  3. It took a lot of grit to even start a trip like this. 1929 was a wild time! Thanks for the article - CW -


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