Monday, December 3, 2012

Royal Enfield And The Faces Of Men

I was at Facebook tonight and got a little offtrack and came across the page of a man named Parishkari Shabukka, who works in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, but is from Trichur, India. He had posted this picture of himself sitting on a Royal Enfield. I saw right away that it was a Royal Enfield, despite the fact that as the picture was displayed on the page it was cropped halfway down.

I always recognize Royal Enfields because when I was in high school I'd buy motorcycle magazines and dream about my first bike. In the back of one of those magazines was a small ad for Royal Enfield with just one small picture of one model, but I decided it was the most beautiful bike I'd ever seen.

Royal Enfield made motorcycles in Redditch, England, in Worcestershire a little south of Brimingham. Like several other venerable old British motorcycle companies it originally made something else, in this case bicycles, starting in 1893, but by 1896 they were experimenting with putting engines on heavy bicycle frames.

During World War II, when England was under constant aerial bombardment by the Germans, Royal Enfield made motorcycles for the British military in an underground factory in Avon. After the war regular production took off, and the Bullet was introduced with an Enfield innovation, springs on the rear wheels; that is, the wheels were mounted on a "swing arm," which all motorcycles now use, instead of on the frame itself

Of the many different models Royal Enfield made throughout its run, the most famous and enduring has been the Bullet. The first Bullet had a 350cc engine, soon followed by a 500cc version. Both engines were single cylinder four strokes with a long stroke, that is, the engine derived its displacement, its size in cubic centimeters, from a long piston stroke rather than from a wide piston moving a shorter distance up and down. The long stroke meant it had a lot of torque, so much more power at lower speeds. A "thumper," bikes like this were called in the motorcycle magazines. I read a review of one thumper that said it had "stump pulling torque."

Enfield had sold motorcyles in India  beginning in the 1940s, but in 1955 got a big contract to make Bullets for the police and armed forces of India. At first they were shipped from England in crates and assembled in India, but later, at the insistence of the Indian government, they started being manufactured there, in a partnership with Madras Motors, an Indian company.

As happened with many brands in England, the US, and Europe, Royal Enfield was driven out of business in the 1970s by competition from the Japanese brands -- Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki -- but continued to be made in India. Eventually, in 1995, Madras Motors (now called Chennai) bought all the machine tools and the rights to the name, and manufacture Royal Enfileds to this day, and sell them all over the world, including in America. They are sold in Santa Fe by one of those motorcycle stores that sells several unique or "off brand" motorcycles, and that for awhile had a branch store in Albuquerque just about across from the college on Central Avenue (where they only had 350cc Bullets in stock, and where the nice young saleslady, when I asked if they carried the 500cc models, said, "Oh, they don't make a 500cc,") but now it's just the Santa Fe store.

The big 750cc superbikes are gone and Royal Enfield of India makes just the 350cc and 500 cc Bullets, but they sell them outfitted in quite a variety of ways. They are the same basic Bullets as were made in the 1950 and 1960s except that they have been updated in some respects with things like better electronics and fuel injection.

The bike Parishkari Shabukka is sitting on is one of the newer Indian Royal Enfields. When I was looking around the web for pictures of old Royal Enfields I came across a forum where men were sniffing at the Indian-made Enfields, and criticizing them. If you've ever been around men who are "true bikers," or true anything I suppose, you know what I mean. Things have to be genuine. There are Harley Davidson aficionados who are like that. Not these Harley riders you see now, with the Harley hair dos and the Harley costumes. That's because of the way the Harley has been marketed in recent years.

But there are people who think British bikes are the only real bikes, and I know that set of mind very well. That yearning for the authentic, for the highest degree. I think it has to do with that mental state a man is in, somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, where he hasn't lost his youthful sense of immortality, but is no longer able to be reckless in indulging in it, and it's because the fear has started to creep up on him. Fear of not making it back. Fear of the pain of previous injuries. Fear of ridicule, at messing things up, or of that one in every crowd who has figured out how to make youthful indulgence into a negative to use against others. Who perhaps has begun to conceive of himself as an adult before the others have and sees a way to use that in the male competitive mode.

It's not exactly the same as the yearning for lost strength and vigor. It precedes that, but it comes form the same place in the male psyche. A yearning for freedom lost even if it was just an imagined freedom. For good times that don't quite roll like they used to. For the ability to let go and not be constrained by convention and responsibility and work and debt. Maybe all men must go through it. If they do, most out grow it, when they come to understand that nothing is permanent, that the essence of life is change.

But for some, that yearning lingers. Not as a permanent yearning, perhaps, but a recurring one. It finds different modes of expression, sometimes, but sometimes it's the same old thing. It becomes a habit, an identity. You might even cast about for other identities but keep returning to one. The biker. The hunter. The fisherman. The sportsman. The whatever. I knew what those men on the forum were talking about, about the genuine, the athentic. Something you can still count on.

They were bikers, so of course they'd mention the Royal Enfield's electronics. British bikes were known for having bad electronics. Dim headlights. Magnetos or plug wires that shorted out. Batteries that went dead. They usually leaked a little oil, too, from the external oil lines most of them had. But they handled like nothing else. For the power they had they were light, especially in the front end, and with the power on you could fly through a curve just by leaning it over. You could flip them from side to side as you barreled through an S curve, which I could do, after a few beers.

I had several British bikes, the Norton, a Triumph, two BSAs. My last one, a Triumph 650, I let somebody borrow when I lived in South Carolina and he never brought it back. One thing about British bikes, besides the handling and speed, was that they were very similar, with the same electronics and same carburetters, the two things most likely to cause trouble on the road, and I could get one going again if it stopped. I could rebuild an Amal concentric carburetter beside the road, and make gaskets for it out of paperboard. If the clutch started slipping I could take it out, take it apart and reface the plates with a piece of sandpaper. I could make a new side cover gasket out of a file folder. If the headlight went out you could replace it with a 1040 American car turn signal bulb, and I knew all those things. I knew to always carry a spare zener diode.

Ten or fifteen years ago they came out with a new model of the Moto Guzzi, an Italian bike. I've always liked the looks of those, too. When I was a GI in Germany I'd go downtown to eat every payday and I'd go out of my way to walk past a motorcycle shop that had a long black Moto Guzzi Le Mans in the window. Twenty years later, when they came out with this new Jackal model, a stripped down model for the US market, I decided it was time to have a mid life crisis and buy one.

It sits in storage, ten years later, with less than 2,000 miles on it, and I don't know, now, quite what it was that made me always have to have a motorcycle. I remember the feeling, when I'd get it out the first time in the Spring -- this was Michigan -- and got it out on a country road where I could open it up, take my helmet off. It was a feeling like euphoria. Complete freedom. Just the wind and the sky and this big thing under me that carried me along and went where I wanted it to go. I never felt that feeling with this Moto Guzzi, and it sits in storage with less than 2.000 miles on it. I say I don't have time to go over it, like I should go over it after it's sat for so long, but there's no yearning to get it on the road. No reckless abandon. No immortality. No yearning for the genuine. I don't believe in the genuine any more.

When I saw Parishkari Shabukka sitting on his Royal Enfield I searched for pictures of them, to see if I could find the one in that ad. I came across many nice pictures, some Royal Enflield web sites and clubs, and one web site by an enthusiast who had traveled to Redditch to photograph the old factory buildings.
Royal Enfield's Redditch, England plant in 2009

And in looking at the old buildings something else about the 1970s came to mind. Those Japanese imports that devastated the British motorcycle industry didn't happen by accident. They were the result of trade policies meant to let cheap, non union labor compete with highly paid union labor. They were the result of Neoliberalism, Reaganomics, as we know it here, which was already underway in Great Britain. In the 1970s when Royal Enfield shut down, the old battleaxe Margaret Thatcher, the cold, unfeeling face of the Neoliberal attack on the working class, was just a member of parliament, but Rupert Murdoch already controlled the British media and was subjecting the Brisith people to a constant stream of Neoliberal propaganda -- unions were bad, government couldn't do anything right, the private sector was the answer to everything -- and Neoliberal policies were being implemented under the Labour governments of James Callaghan and before him Harold Wilson even before the Thatcher takeover in 1979, just as happened here when Jimmy Carter, who preceded Ronald Reagan, kicked off Neoliberal "reforms" with a massive series of business deregulations.

Those old buildings represented ruined lives, the disappeared futures of the children of those workers. They were the harbingers of the union busting, the outsourcing and offshoring and the end of rising wages for the working class.

As in America, Canada, almost all of Western Europe, the British working class had achieved a high standard of living in the post World War II era. There, as here, the high living standards were achieved by the power of Labor, and because there was consensus between Capital and Labor about Kensyian Economics and the idea that a more equitable distribution of wealth benefited the entire nation. But in England, as would happen in America and in the rest of Europe, the Capitalist Class decided to renege on their part of the  agreement. In came the cheap imports, down went the British motorcycle industry, and down went its auto industry, too.

In America, the Japanese imports bought the auto industry to its knees. Organized Labor's strength was centered in Detroit, and radiated out to all the auto parts suppliers and to the steel makers whose biggest business was making steel for American cars. American industry, British industry, European industry, and Labor in those countries have never recovered.

I've looked at these newer Royal Enfields, made in India, with a mind to buy one. I've always liked the idea of a single cylinder because of the simplicity of repair and maintenance. And that stump pulling torque. And they are very nice looking motorcycles. I've looked several times, but it would just be something to have around, to go out and play on once in awhile. I wouldn't use it to commute, and let it sit out where it would get stolen, but when I saw Parishkari Shabukka sitting on his Royal Enfield I remembered the little ad with the most beautiful motorcycle I'd ever seen, and took notice.


I don't remember the exact year of the ad. I graduated in 1971 having bought my Norton Commando (12.68 in the quarter mile!) a few months earlier. The Royal Enfield in the ad was probably the Interceptor because I remember the chrome tank, the rake of the forks, the sculpted seat, and just the overall sense of nearly perfect proportion, down to the rubber fork tube covers, a sense of neatness even, just a beautifully designed motorcycle. So here's some of those and a few other Royal Enfields, including the new ones. Check them out.

1968 Royal Enfield Interceptor 750cc

1969 Royal Enfield Interceptor 750 L side

1969 Royal Enfiled Interceptor 750 R side

1968 Royal Enfield Interceptor 750 slightly customized

1952 Royal Enfield Bullet 350cc

1961 Royal Enfield Meteor Minor 500cc

And a sampling of the current line of Royal Enfields made in India. Except for the first two pictures, which are the same Bullet Classic 500cc but in different colors, these are all variations on the 500cc Bullet. Not just in different colors but different models. And this is not all the 500cc Bullet models Royal Enfield of India puts out.

2012 Royal Enfield Bullet Classic 500cc

2012 Royal Enfield Bullet Classic 500cc

2012 Royal Enfield Bullet Desert Storm 500cc

2012 Royal Enfield Bullet Battlefield 500cc

2012 Royal Enfield Bullet Clubman 500cc

2012 Royal Enfield Bullet Fury 500cc

2012 Royal Enfield Bullet Trials 500cc

And finally the standard Bullet, the one closest to the one Parishkari Shabukka of Trichur, India is posing on at his Facebook page. I say close because the bikes pictured here are the ones being sold in England at the moment, so I don't know if the Indian ones are exactly the same. Likewise the US model selection is a little different, with one or two additions and one or two subtractions.

This site has a neat feature that makes it as if the Bullet changes appearance from one model to another. Just mouse over Motorcycles, then mouse over each model name.

2012 Royal Enfield Bullet 500

And one more Interceptor, the most beautiful motorcycle ever made.

1969 Royal Enfield Interceptor 750cc

Tell me I'm wrong. If you're really a true biker you can't.

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