Royal Enfield: the ups and downs of Britain's oldest working motorcycle manufacturer

Andrew English
The Royal Enfield name has given more to British bikers than almost any other - Andrew Fox

Krispy Kreme, Pikachu and H&M wouldn't have been around when Royal Enfield first started making quadricycles in 1901, though the motor cycle manufacturer's pop-up shop in the Redditch Kingfisher Shopping Centre nestles alongside all three.

Back in the day a stone lobbed from the store – which exists to promote the new Bullet Trials Works Replica – might have clattered off the roof of the Enfield factory, which employed thousands of skilled engineers and assembly workers building machines for the army and civilian markets. These days you'd need a nuclear-charged howitzer to fire a stone the 5,200 miles into the Enfield works in Chennai, India.

But India has provided a major part of the success of the Royal Enfield name, which is the world's oldest motor cycle manufacturer in continuous production. In the Fifties, the Indian army initially purchased 800 Royal Enfield 350cc Bullets to ride the border in Kashmir. When these machines proved robust and reliable, they set up Enfield India in 1955 and built a factory in Chennai which opened in 1956 to assemble some 20,000 Completely Knocked Down (CKD) Bullets, which were manufacturered in the Redditch factory.

The death of the British motorcycle industry is a well researched and documented phenomenon, though it's interesting that Stephen Scott, a former Royal Enfield apprentice who joined the company in Redditch in 1960 and was made redundant a year before it closed in 1967, says that Enfield was still in demand.

"There were 1,000 working there when I joined," he says, "and just 350 when I left, but the bikes we were making were selling and we were working on a new production racing machine that Geoff Duke was consulting on."

Royal Enfield is probably the oldest motorbike manufacturer still operating Credit: Andrew Fox 

"But the Enfield name survived because of the Indian army," says Scott. "When they realised it was closing down, they bit the bullet and bought the company. No pun intended of course."

Though Enfield continued production of its twin-cylinder Interceptor model from its underground Bradford-on-Avon plant (built during the war to hide the factory from German bombers), that too closed in 1970 and British Enfield production was over.

The Indians, however, stayed all over it. At the end of the presentation, Rachel Maclean, the local conservative MP asks a question about the company's commitment to Redditch. Had she not been born in Chennai, you might have thought this was a bit of know-nothing local grandstanding. But she might have a point. Enfield has set up a technical department at Bruntingthorpe airfield in Leicestershire, employing around 350 engineers and designers. It's a long way from the old days of British bike making but it's an interesting bellwether of where the company sees itself.

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It was sold to the Eicher automotive group in the 1990s and experienced a few hiccups with the closure of the Jaipur factory in 2002, but it opened a new Chennai plant in 2013, hired Pierre Terblanche the former Ducati and Norton designer (though he only stayed for 20 months) and purchased Harris Performance Products in 2015, plus a new sales organisation in the US. It's not all been plain sailing for the company, but it's moving ahead now and it's difficult to see how things can go wrong if it can supply such good looking machines at such keen prices.

Unlike the Interceptor, the £4,699 Bullet Trials Works Replica is a definite throw back to the old days of Enfield's dominance of trials riding with such riders as Johnny Brittain. This remarkably talented man died in March and it's a bit raw for Gordon May, who as well as being Brittain's friend, is also Royal Enfield's official historian.

Gordon May with one of the many motorcycles on display in Redditch  Credit: Andrew Fox 

"He was from a generation of men who just got on and did it," he says.

How true. After a period trialling James motorcycles, Brittain won a gold medal in the International Six Day Trial at the age of 18 on a works Royal Enfield Bullet. He competed in 16 consecutive ISDTs winning 13 gold medals as well as winning countless equally tough trials events. Yet when May visited his house after his death his daughter was sorting through myriad cardboard boxes of Johnny Brittain's trophies and medals, which had been in the attic.

"All he ever displayed were the trophies won by his father [Vic]," says May.

The Interceptor's 499cc, single-cylinder engine might only squeeze out 27bhp and 30.4lb ft, but the Trials Works Replica comes with all-round disc brakes, digital electronic ignition and anti-lock brakes, and it looks fantastic even in the rather weird pale green that the works machines were painted in. Besides as Brittain might have said; it's not what you've got, it's what you do with it that counts...

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