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The Royal Enfield Motorcycle

A few years  back I visited Sturgis during one of my big road trips. I remember checking out Gypsie Vintage Cycles, home of JC Pappy Hoyel, founder of the Sturgis Rally. While I wasn’t there during the rally itself, I really enjoyed browsing the selection of fantastic rides they have available.

Hagrid and Harry Potter preparing for takeoff on a magical Royal Enfield Bullet 500

I was excited to read that the boys from Pawn Stars spent some time at Gypsie Vintage Cycles as a part of their trip to Sturgis as well. Looking at Gypsie’s Twitter feed, it looks like the Pawn Stars went home with what looks like a ’64 Honda CB160. While that’s a fine bike, I also caught wind of them checking out a 1956 Royal Enfield Bullet with a Watsonian Manx sidecar like the one ridden by Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies.

What made me giggle a bit is that the news bit I read called the bike a 2003 reproduction of the 1956 original. The comedy here is that I don’t believe the bike is a reproduction. It’s true that the design of the bike is almost identical to that 1956 machine but that’s because the bike is still in production using the same frame design that was in use back then.

Canadian Rangers using Enfield rifles.

Looking back at the history of Enfield is pretty interesting. Before they started making bicycles in 1893, the company had already made a name for themselves as firearm manufacturers. The Lee-Enfield was standard issue for all the Commonwealth soldiers in both World Wars and is still in service as the standard issue weapon for the Canadian Forces’ Rangers Arctic reserve unit. With such a reputation for firearms, it’s no surprise they launched their motorcycles with the slogan ”Made like a gun, goes like a bullet”.

By 1910, motorcycles were becoming more and more common place with 36,242 registered in the United Kingdom. By 1914 that number had grown to 123,678 and Enfield motorcycles were one of the hottest sellers. The large number of bikes produced makes it fairly easy for collectors to obtain one of these early models for their collection. Earlier this year a 1915 Royal Enfield 8hp Combination sold for £12,000 at an auction held by H&H Classics Limited.

Royal Enfield worked hard to maintain their popularity by making faster and sportier bikes. Mecum Auctions had a 1926 Royal Enfield as a part of The Barry Solomon Motorcycle Collection. As a proof of how accessible these bikes are for collectors, the final selling price was only $10,000. I consider this to be a bargain for such a well maintained piece of motoring history.

 

Soldier holding a Royal Enfield Flying Flea

One of the more interesting Royal Enfield motorcycles is the WD/RE, popularly known as the Flying Flea. A German motorcycle company, DKW, had been producing a lightweight motorcycle called the RT100. Being a Jewish owned company, the Nazi party shut down production in 1938. A Dutch importer approached Royal Enfield to produce a similar bike. The resulting motorcycle increased the motor size from 100cc to 125cc and proved to be very light and reliable. During World War II Allied forces parachuted these behind enemy lines with airborne troops. In 2007, H&H Classics Limited auctioned a 1946 Flying Flea with a final selling price of only £1,400.

Of course not all Royal Enfields are such bargains. There is a famous story of James Dean riding a Royal Enfield 500 Twin from Indiana back to his home in New York in the winter of 1953. The bike broke down outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where Dean used the broken bike as partial payment for an Indian Warrior TT motorcycle used to complete the ride home.

This particular story is fun to tell because there are no known photographs of James Dean with his Royal Enfield. After a bit of investigation it turns out the bike was a much more rare J2 than the previously believed 500 Twin. The J2 was known for producing lots of torque and being a lot of fun to ride. If you happen to find a J2 sitting in a barn somewhere, and it has serial number J2/7484 then proceed with care. This is the recorded serial number for James’ missing bike and collectors around the world will line up with offers for you.

In 1949, Royal Enfield updated the popular Bullet 500 with new technology. A prototype of the updated machine had proven itself at the 1948 International Six Days Trial and production models continued to win similar endurance events. With this proven reliability, the Indian Army chose the Bullet 500 for border patrol use. By 1955, the Indian Army was ordering so many of the bikes that a plant was opened in Madras. Production of the Bullet 500 continues to this day at the Madras plant with relatively few changes having been made to the design of the bike in this time. I believe it was a 2003 model the Pawn Stars found in Sturgis.

With the Bullet 500 production doing well in India, Royal Enfield continued making motorcycles in the UK with the Interceptor being the final model. Unable to keep pace with the onslaught of Japanese motorcycles, Enfield stopped producing motorcycles in the UK in 1970. Enfield India acquired the rights to use Royal at the beginning of the name again in 1995 and launched an updated line of motorcycles in 2009. The new bikes are pretty exciting. They have kept a lot of their character while introducing modern reliability but still keeping their bargain price. Moves like this will certainly keep Royal Enfield in business in the years to come. Having been bikes manufactured in three different centuries makes me wonder if they will keep producing into the next century.


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