Friday, November 18, 2022

What it's like riding the first Royal Enfield

Man riding 1901 Royal Enfield replica.
Royal Enfield historian Gordon May rides the 1901 replica.

 The very first Royal Enfield motorcycle of 1901 is long lost to history, leaving only a few photographs and press clippings of what it was like. But an exacting replica dubbed "Project Origin" will motor into Royal Enfield's Rider Mania event in India this weekend. 

This replica of a 120-plus-year-old motorcycle was created by volunteer Royal Enfield engineers in technical centers in India and the UK and at Harris Performance, all working on their own time.

Help came from the vintage motorcycle community. The complex flat tank that carries fuel, oil and battery was hand-soldered by craftsman Ian Bain. 

The engineers not only had to make Project Origin right and make it run, they had to make it as originally wrong as it was on the November, 1901 day it appeared at the Stanley Cycle Show in London. 

As a result, its rider will be exhilarated; and kept very, very busy. 

Royal Enfield historian Gordon May has ridden Project Origin about 25 miles at up to 35 mph on quiet English country roads, mastering the idiosyncrasies of a motor-bicycle with no clutch. The Project Origin motor bicycle is so tall that he can not get both feet on the ground at a stop. 

Man riding replica Royal Enfield motorcycle.
Scene from "Project Origin: The Missing Piece" shows it at speed.

You can see Gordon at speed on the machine in Royal Enfield's updated documentary video "Project Origin: The Missing Piece." Watch the video. You'll be seeing something you couldn't have witnessed in the last 100 years: someone riding a 1901 Royal Enfield. The sound of the motor is delightful.

So... what's it like to ride Project Origin?

Enjoyable, exhilarating, fun, "like nothing else I've ever done," Gordon said. He was kind enough to interrupt his travel preparations for Rider Mania to talk with me. 

The hardest part may be slowing down.

It's "a flyer," Gordon said. "It just wants to go fast."

Speed is controlled to some degree by opening the exhaust valve to cut out the motor. There is a throttle but it's only used when you want to reduce speed to a crawl. There's also advance/retard to be adjusted, but the Project Origin bike seems to prefer keeping the timing advanced. All these tasks are done with the rider's right hand.

The front band brake, operated by the rider's left hand, is a NOS original of a century ago. Yet Gordon says it works great (maybe too great when running downhill in the rain).

Speed is a good thing, as the little motor bicycle needs to keep up its speed in case it needs to climb a hill. It will need a running start.

Speed is not such a good thing when you encounter a roundabout.

A good thing for controllability (and survivability) turns out to be an added "slack belt system" that may not have been on the original 1901 Royal Enfield, but did exist in its day (and was on a later Royal Enfield). It surely would have been a wonderful accessory to have.

The most distinctive feature of the 1901 Royal Enfield was its long drive belt from the motor, clamped to the head stock of the bike, all the way under the rider's leg to the rear wheel. The lever-operated "slack belt system" slackens off the pulley, twisting the belt slightly to slow the machine for cornering.

Drawing of original Royal Enfield of 1901.
Long drive belt from high-mounted front motor to back wheel.

All this after coaxing the motor to start by first priming it (you see this in the video) and, on a cool day, wrapping hot rags around the inlet tract to warm the fuel.

Belief is that the 1901 Royal Enfield's bizarre high-mounted front motor/rear-wheel drive system was meant to counter "side slip" -- the tendency for the front wheel to wash out. Since this layout didn't catch on, it's assumed it didn't succeed in its mission.

Gordon said he "hasn't experienced" front side-slip on the Project Origin, but he does slow down on corners, so... who knows?

With all the control inputs necessary to ride the Project Origin, reprogramming the brain is the big challenge for the rider.

"But that's just the way they were," Gordon said of veteran motorcycles.

Apparently the engineers got all the stuff that's wrong just right. There's more information about how they did it on the Royal Enfield Project Origin website.

Watch the video:

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