Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Royal Enfield
Royal Enfield’s prevalence and position in today’s motorcycle market gives the impression that they’ve always been here. In a way, that’s true, as the brand celebrates its 120th Anniversary this year. Around half of that 120-year history has come out of England, with the second half coming from India, where Royal Enfield not only survives, but thrives today.
The first part of the Royal Enfield story was much like that of many other British motorcycle brands, starting with bicycles before progressing to powered transport. Its demise in England mirrors that of other English brands, too, but unlike many of its contemporaries, the Royal Enfield name didn’t sink with the rest of the industry in the 1960s and ’70s.
How Royal Enfield came to be in the position it is today comes down to one of those ‘sliding doors’ moments in 1952 when the Indian Army placed an order for the Bullet 350cc single. Without that order and the following that Royal Enfield built up in India afterward, it’s unlikely that Royal Enfield would still be here today.
1948 – 1955 - Rear Revolution, Indian Beginnings
Like most British companies, Royal Enfield had played an important role during World War II, not only providing motorcycles to the allied forces, but also gun parts, generators and, in a reflection of their origins, bicycles.
And like most British companies, Royal Enfield was also in an uncertain position in the immediate post-war years. Export dollars were needed to rebuild the British economy, but Royal Enfield didn’t have the product or the profile to match the likes of BSA, Norton, AJS, Triumph, etc. Exports did occur, though, including throughout the British Empire.
One of those export products was a new version of the Bullet, which had first appeared in 1931 in 250, 350 and 500cc form. For the post-war revival, only a 350 version was offered initially, but it came with an important innovation.
When the new Bullet prototypes were unveiled in February, 1948, they featured a twin shock swingarm rear suspension. While not the first manufacturer to introduce rear suspension of this type, Royal Enfield were amongst the pioneers and the decision to debut the prototypes in trials competition was particularly bold.
Success on debut in the Colmore Cup Trial was followed by the team trophy for Bullet-mounted British riders at the 1948 International Six Days Trial. Production versions of the Bullet trials bikes were released in 1949, then road versions.
In the same year, Royal Enfield’s Indian connection began when Madras Motors was established in the city of the same name (now known as Chennai) in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu to import British motorcycles into India.
Following the new Bullet’s release to the public, a new ‘500 Twin’ was also launched, using the same frame, suspension and transmission as the Bullet, but powered by a 495cc OHV vertical twin engine. A year later, the DKW-based ‘RE’ 125 single that had first appeared on the eve of World War II was updated with telescopic fork front suspension, followed by a foot-change gearbox in 1951.
As confidence and sales grew, Royal Enfield’s small bike range was expanded in 1953 with the debut of the ‘Ensign’ 148cc single, which had swingarm rear suspension where the RE didn’t. The Bullet range was expanded that year, too, with the return of a 500 version.
Also in 1953, Royal Enfield released an all-new 692cc ‘Meteor’ twin in an attempt to trump the 650 twins from BSA and Triumph. Combining elements of the Bullet and 500 Twin in its design (the engine was essentially two Bullet 350 singles combined), the Meteor was intended as a sidecar hauler, so it wasn’t particularly fast, but had bags of torque. With increased finning and improved oil circulation, amongst other changes, the Meteor evolved into the ‘Super Meteor’ in 1956, with the similar but more powerful ‘Constellation’ following two years later.
A sidenote from this time was the release of the ‘casquette’ headlight - a Royal Enfield styling feature that would survive into the new millennium. First appearing on the 1954 Bullets and 500 Twin, the casquette combined the top yoke, headlight, instrument gauge and two distinctive pilot lights into one fork-mounted unit.
Throughout the post-WWII decade, Royal Enfield’s success in trials competition continued, led by the likes of Jack Stocker, Charlie Rogers, Jack Booker and Johnny Brittain, who won the 1952 Scottish Six Days Trial and, with Rogers, was part of the British team that won the 1953 International Six Days Trial.
An event of greater consequence, at least in Royal Enfield’s long-term future, occurred in 1952 when Madras Motors received an order from the Indian Army for 500 units of the Bullet 350. This led to a partnership between Royal Enfield and Madras Motors in 1955 to manufacture the Bullet in India. Known as ‘Enfield India,’ this collaboration saw Bullets assembled from CKD (Complete, Knocked Down) kits sent from Royal Enfield’s Redditch factory initially, with full manufacture following once Royal Enfield supplied the tools and dies.
An “Indian” connection of another sort also began in 1955 when Royal Enfields were exported to the USA and rebadged as Indians. Under this scheme, the large Meteor twin was variously rebadged as the Chief, Trailblazer and Apache. The 500 Twin was rebadged as the Tomahawk and the Bullet 500 single sold as the Indian Woodsman. The smaller Royal Enfield singles were all rebadged with Native American-inspired names, too.
While the real Indian connection was profitable for Royal Enfield, the US experiment wasn’t and had been wound up by 1960.
1956 – 1965 –Singles and Sports
While the Bullet is thought of as the only Royal Enfield motorcycle, that’s not the case, and was certainly not the case in the 1960s when the smaller capacity singles came to the fore. This was assisted, in part, by a UK law introduced in 1961 that limited motorcycle capacity for learner riders to no more than 250cc.
As such, the ‘Clipper’ 250, which had been released in 1955, came into its own, but it still had a separate gearbox, which was becoming an increasingly antiquated feature. The unit construction ‘Crusader’ 250 that debuted in 1956 was more modern, but despite its sporty looks, was really no quicker than Royal Enfield’s other 250s. The Crusader proved popular, though, and would be the basis for a series of spin-off models, including a ‘Clipper II,’ 350-engined Clipper, ‘Crusader Sports’ and ‘Super 5’ with a five-speed gearbox.
From all these developments, what was arguably the first true sporty Royal Enfield 250 debuted in 1962 – the Continental – followed by the ‘Continental GT’ in 1964.
Aimed at younger riders and the emerging ‘café racer’ movement, the Continental was essentially a styling makeover of the Crusader Sports, adding features like a chromed headlamp shell, fuel tank and mudguards, a front brake air scoop, dual instruments, flyscreen and dropped handlebars.
But as good as the Continental looked, the Continental GT looked even better.
Inspired by aftermarket conversion kits for Crusaders and developed by Royal Enfield dealers in touch with “the youth,” the Continental GT featured clip-on handlebars, rearsets, a large fibreglass fuel tank with racing-style filler cap, a flyscreen, large dummy brake cooling trims on the front wheel and a racing-style rear hump on the seat amongst its standout touches.
Hyping the launch of the Continental GT, one was ridden in relay by motorcycle magazine journalists from one end of Great Britain to the other, including a few laps of Silverstone, where speeds averaging 110km/h and a top speed in the 130km/h range were achieved. Geoff Duke, a multiple World Champion in 350cc/500cc racing, was involved in the promotion, too.
Fast and stylish, the Continental GT was also quite reliable and oil-tight; something that couldn’t be said of many other British motorcycles – including Royal Enfield models – of the time. Despite this, production of the Continental GT only lasted until 1967 as the terminal decline of Royal Enfield’s UK operations began to accelerate.
1966 – 1972 – One Story Ends, Another Continues
The roots of Royal Enfield’s demise in the UK can arguably be traced back to April, 1962, with the death of Frank Smith. A son of one of the marque’s co-founders, Smith had joined Royal Enfield in 1909 and taken over operations in 1933.
Later that year, a takeover by E. and H.P. Smith Ltd Group saw no immediate change to the range of bikes offered, but in 1964, the Super 5, Sports Twin and Constellation were amongst several to be discontinued. The range would be trimmed even further in the years that followed, leaving the ‘Interceptor 750’ as the flagbearer.
Released in 1963 and created primarily for the US market, the Interceptor 750 (actually 736cc) was based on a Constellation twin with increased bore and stroke. The capacity increase was another case of Royal Enfield trying to up the ante on their competition, specifically the Norton Atlas which had debuted a year earlier.
A ‘New Bullet’ 350 was introduced in 1963, but failed to find an audience, while on the small capacity singles, cost-cutting measures under the company’s new owners saw a ‘Turbo Twin’ released in 1964 using a bought-in Villiers 249cc two-stroke single, rather than an engine developed in-house.
At the same time, a competition programme in both road racing and scrambling was developed in an effort to revive the brand. This was well-advanced before the death of Royal Enfield’s joint Managing Director, Vic Mountford, in late 1964 saw it shelved after only a handful of bikes had been built.
By late 1966, the writing was on the wall for Royal Enfield in England: the 250 range had been pruned from nine models to three, the 350 and 500 models had been dropped altogether and the Interceptor 750 was only being produced for export.
Early in 1967, production of the 250s ceased, leaving the Interceptor as the sole surviving Royal Enfield model – at least in English production. That same year, the Redditch factory was sold and Interceptor production moved to an underground facility at Upper Westwood, south of Bristol. What remained of Royal Enfield was sold to Norton-Villiers, itself born from the ashes of AMC, with the spare parts side of the business bought by Velocette.
While English production had slowed to a trickle in the late 1960s, it was a different story for Royal Enfield in India, with the Bullet still in production - to the tune of around 1,000 units monthly - at Enfield India Ltd. in Madras. These units still looked the same as the pre-1956 Bullet, but incorporated new tooling and local modifications.
Norton-Villiers’s parent company owned a stake in Enfield India Ltd. at the time, so these “old” Bullets were considered for import to the UK from India, but there were concerns over build quality, along with the size of the potential market, so the idea was never followed through.
In 1969, a Series II version of the Interceptor was released and would prove to be the final Royal Enfield built on English soil. An aborted 800cc engine project and a second crack at an Indian-badged Royal Enfield for the US market, this time under Floyd Clymer’s direction, barely got off the ground before they both crashed.
The final Royal Enfield out of England would be the ‘Rickman Interceptor’ created by the Rickman brothers around the Interceptor’s 736cc twin, using their own frame and fibreglass parts. Around 130 were built from 1970 to 1972.
A few attempts at importing Indian-made Bullet 350s by third parties followed, none of which achieved high volume. It wasn’t until Enfield India Ltd. got involved that expansion of Royal Enfield beyond the Indian market got serious.
The results of that serious approach can be seen today in the success that the modernised range of Royal Enfield motorcycles enjoy in markets around the world, including Australia, but that’s a story for another day…