The ghosts of the British Raj can still be sensed in the Himalayan hill station of Shimla as a lingering nostalgic presence. Surrounded by pine, deodar cedar, oak and rhododendron forests, this outpost of England, with its mock-Tudor houses and shop fronts, imposing hotels such as the Cecil, parish church and flower gardens was created for the refuges from the subcontinent's searing summer heat. For more than a century, this was the summer capital of Britain’s empire in the East, which governed vast populations from a building no bigger than a town hall in many a northern English textile town. Shimla - still not exactly easy to get to - stands as testimony to the audacity if not the absurdity of the British Empire in India.
We were driven on the 7000 foot climb to Shimla from Chandigarh along a winding mountain road where another ghostly presence was to be felt, but also heard.
Not a ghost of the Raj as such, but of British origin nevertheless; and yes, perhaps another absurdity, this was the sound of a low revving, long stroke, single cylinder motorcycle engine.
As legends in the motorcycling world, I did of course know of them.
So when I first heard the soft phump phump phump I did not need to be told from what it came.
I could tell when one was approaching from behind and my heart lifted each time they came into view.
Often ridden two-up or more, but making relentless and stately progress, the name in the recognisably flowing script on the side of the tank was - Royal Enfield.
© John Dunn.
My vehicle of choice, in addition to cycling, for the Oxford Cambridge Project
The Royal Enfield stood in a serene repose on the forecourt, whilst the cluster of Japanese machinery around it seemed brittle and agitated in comparison. I walked straight to it, without bothering to check first at the showroom.
I shut out the angry robots all around and focused on the features of the machine already familiar to me through internet images: the big single cylinder engine, huge mud guards, spoked wheels, skinny tyres, single exhaust pipe, single seat and the trademark nacelle, the cover housing around the headlamp.
There was no design abstraction between me and the machine; no attempt to hide the truth of its simplicity.
And this first sight of unashamed nakedness was but a foretaste of the authentic, no-filter motorcycling experience to come.
I was soon greeted by A who, before saying much at all, quickly inserted the key and pressed the starter motor button. The plant pot-sized piston lazily reciprocated up and down, shaking the mirrors, number plate, indicators and the rest of the machine into life. Phump, phump, phump, phump… resounded from the huge exhaust silencer.
The beast was awake. I felt an affinity with it immediately. I bought it.
© John Dunn.
Designed for the pre-motorway roads and country lanes of England
The old saying that the journey is everything applies just as much to the top speed as it does to the destination, perhaps more so.
The Royla Enfield's lazy revving single cylinder engine has the torque to grunt its way forward from standstill in any gear. The higher the gear you pull away in, the more patience you need, but thats all.
It has not lost the motorcycle’s original relationship to the bicycle.
It is still a bicycle with a 500cc single cylinder engine, complemented by huge mud guards, spoked wheels, skinny tyres, single exhaust pipe, single seat and the trademark headlamp unit with a nacelle, or cover housing, around it.
The nacelle around the headlamp is unchanged from this bike’s antecedents of 60 years ago and more. When I last saw an old Royal Enfield in a museum I was amazed to see just how the original nacelle design has been left unchanged, with the two pilot-lights (known as tiger’s eyes in India) either side of the main headlamp, the speedometer, warning lights and ignition key all in the same position.
Side-on you behold the idiosyncratic shape of the Royal Enfield engine with the large, bulbous air-cooled cylinder head, and the three different visual levels of the seat, the tank and the headlight, each higher than the other as if sculptured to please the eye. In today’s parlance, the machine is extremely naked, with no design abstraction between you and the machine; there's no attempt to hide the truth of its simplicity. This first sight of unashamed nakedness is but a foretaste of the no filter motorcycling experience to come.
No filter that is apart from, say, one, which is the starter motor, which starts the engine easily with a few turns. Kick it into life if you will, the kick-starter is there, and the result is the same, as the plant pot-sized piston lazily reciprocates up and down, shaking the mirrors, numberplate, indicators and the rest of it as it emits the trademark phump, phump, phump from the huge exhaust silencer.
Hit a pothole don't worry; the Indian army choose this bike for a reason. This is a machine for the dirt roads of Rajasthan, Himalayan passes, floods and fords of Kerala and patrolling Kashmiri mountain terrorist lairs. This is truly built like a gun. You will have to search hard to find plastic. The fact that this heavy and solid motorcycle was originally designed for the pre-motorway roads and country lanes of England is testament to the Royal Enfield’s rugged versatility.
This is not a run-of-the-mill modern motorcycle. If you want acceleration and eye-watering top speed, forget it. The old saying that the journey is everything applies just as much to the top speed, that is the latter is not everything.
My point is made by the impact of its appearance when parked up with other ‘normal’ motorcycles that have lost their original relationship to the bicycle. The key aspect of the Royal Enfield stands out in all its visible, audible and tangible solidity… its soul.
© John Dunn.
I was back on a motorcycle after over half a lifetime away.
The immediate experience was characterised by a limited field of vision, to which I will return.
Chain snatching was also an issue, later rectified by better clutch control.
I tried to steer around roundabouts, feeling as though I was turning in too far, leaning too far over (which might have been true for the low speed I was riding, causing me to ease off the throttle and the chain to snatch).
Above all, I was self-conscious of this learner performance at ridiculously slow speeds.
Conscious that something was wrong, I persisted like this for a few more rides, getting a little faster each time, but with the same fundamentally awkward snatching, stuttering and slow cornering…
A piece of advice instantly transformed my return to two wheels. “Look up and well ahead in the direction you want to go”. And lo! the bike went in the direction I looked. My limited field of vision was opened up.
What’s more, in following this golden rule, I automatically found myself counter-steering (about which many hours of explanation are expended on the internet). Gone was the sensation of steering too far into the turn; with the appropriate push on the handlebars I could roll on the power and the lean angle would look after itself.
And I was away… looking forward to the next bend and roundabout… I had been given the key to motorcycling happiness.
I cannot remember ever having a problem dealing with bends and roundabouts as a teenager when I first started riding. I can’t remember even giving it a thought, save when I grounded the centre stand on fast bends.
I just had to learn again the things that had once come naturally to my younger self.
© John Dunn.