Friday, December 17, 2021

Royal Enfield's Project Origin 1901 replica runs and rides

Royal Enfield replica 1901 motorcycle.
Royal Enfield historian Gordon May with the 1901 replica.

 Project Origin at Royal Enfield created the just-unveiled replica of the company's very first motorcycle, of 1901. And here is the big news about it:

 It Runs and Rides!

 ...although not yet at the same time.

 But that day will come, Royal Enfield historian and a member of the global brand team, Gordon May told me.

 "We want this bike to be used, ridden," he said.

 The official story of Royal Enfield's Project Origin is on the Royal Enfield website. Gordon was kind enough to tell me some of behind-the-scenes elements that made it possible to create a working replica of the 1901 Royal Enfield using only the information found in period photos and advertisements and learned from vintage motorcycle experts Gordon contacted.

 The replica motor has run, with the motorcycle on rollers, and Gordon has ridden the machine about two miles, he estimates, under pedal power. (He got up to some speed, too, on the downhill part.)

Carburetion and gearing still have to be worked out, but it's amazing Project Origin came together in only about a year, just one day before going to EICMA, with employees working as volunteers.

Royal Enfield Project Origin replica.
Royal Enfield bases its claim to 1901 origin on the original of this replica.

And it IS a big deal. You may have noticed that the date "1901" comes up a lot when Royal Enfield describes itself.

The website explains:

"The brand's famous slogan, 'Since 1901', is a testament to the replica's importance and rich heritage to Royal Enfield. The year 1901 also carries considerable weight in the motorcycle world as it makes Royal Enfield the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in production to this day."

So, sure, the 1901 Royal Enfield motorcycle is in the history books, along with a famous photograph of it. But no actual remaining 1901 Royal Enfield motorcycle is known to exist.

Gordon hasn't found one, and he has been watching for one for 20 years.

Gordon was making an on-line historical presentation for Royal Enfield employees about June, 2020, when he challenged the company to recreate the iconic missing motorcycle.

Period photos and ads on bulletin board.
Gordon May's bulletin board captures "treasure hunt" for information about the 1901.

Five minutes after he ended the talk his phone rang. It was Simon Warburton, now chief program manager at Royal Enfield, in effect accepting the challenge.

The first on-line meeting to plan the replica was by August, 2020, Gordon recalls. The Project Origin replica was unveiled at EICMA in November of this year. The replica was impressive, but not finely tuned enough to be shown running under its own power.

Probably no one on the project ever thought it would be easy, even with modern computer programming power. The famous photo of the 1901 machine was projected onto a wall, to full size.

Gordon said engineers figured the wheels would have been the standard size for the time, and calculated other dimensions from them. That would help with the frame, anyway.

Original photo 1901 Royal Enfield.
The original 1901 Royal Enfield with designer Jules Gobiet, right.

The brass, hand-bent and soldered "tank" (incorporating compartments for fuel and oil and separate spaces for the battery and ignition) would require outside help. Old fashioned tools and techniques would be used to make it. Too much heat on the soldering iron at any point could destroy the entire thing, Gordon said.

A motor, at least, should be relatively easy to source, as Gordon found that "everything ever published, including in my books," identified it as a Minerva, a common clip-on motor of the day.

Except it wasn't a Minerva.

The go-to Minerva expert Gordon found said it didn't look like any Minerva he'd ever seen. The 1901 Enfield crankcase was horizontally split; a Minerva is vertically split, not a small difference.

A Royal Enfield advertisement of the day describes the motor as an "Enfield" motor, and so it apparently was.

Photo of 1901 Royal Enfield on computer.
Sources were limited but engineers mined it for information.

Now what?

Royal Enfield didn't exist in a vacuum in 1901, of course, and it already was making motorized tricycles and quadricycles with De Dion motors. A motor patented by Ducommun, in Alsace, most resembled the motor in the 1901 Royal Enfield. The bore and stroke of the Enfield motor appeared in an advertisement. So, with a De Dion-Bouton head, Ducommun's lead to follow and some known dimensions, the game was on.

Is the resulting Project Origin a precise replica? No. For one thing, it's metric, for the convenience of the engineers and their computers.

There are other differences. The 1901 originally had a surface type carburetor (air passing over petrol) but this was replaced even at the time with a more familiar (but still crude) spray carburetor. It's that recreated but vastly inconvenient spray carburetor that Project Origin now needs to dial in.

The trembler ignition of the day sparked so over enthusiastically that it was replaced for the moment with coil ignition for Project Origin (safer around gasoline). The replica's long drive belt, originally rawhide, is replaced by a V-belt.

It's that unique long drive belt, passing from the high-mounted front motor, behind the rider's leg to the rear wheel, that so identifies the 1901 Royal Enfield in pictures.

The motor, clamped to the headstock of the frame up near the handlebars, would have driven the front wheel in other designs of the era. However those had a tendency to make the front wheel side slip.

Jules Gobiet, designer of the 1901 Royal Enfield, thought rear-wheel drive would overcome that tendency. 

(Gordon says his ride on the replica felt stable enough, requiring only very wide turns. Riding under power, however, will require mastering controlling speed with an exhaust valve lifter, adjusting timing with a lever, and allowing for the chuff-chuff-chuff of very low rpms.)

A better solution for Gobiet would have been to mount the motor lower, as part of the frame, but a company named Werner had patented that. 

By 1903 Royal Enfield had found its way around that patent, and the long drive belt was replaced by a more familiar looking chain drive.

And the rest is history. Here's Royal Enfield's Project Origin video.


  1. Indian makes a big splash about being around since 1901, but they weren't in constant production. Plus, they sold re-badged Enfields in the 1950s as a last ditch effort to stay alive. Enfield can safely boast their claim of being the oldest manufacturer still in production.


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