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16th September 2015

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Backwards Glance

Oily Boot Bob investigates the Dundee Scrolls, and discovers a personal connection to some technologically innovative and pioneering Royal Enfield motorcycles of the vintage era...

From time to time an old document is rediscovered in a long-forgotten archive and appreciated for its historic relevance in today’s fast moving modernity. The vehicle records located within the Friends of Dundee Civic Records were such a find, giving us a priceless insight into the arrival of motor vehicles in an industrial city at the beginning of last century.

John, the curator of the Horfield Royal Enfield Museum had bought a new exhibit. A very rare New Bullet long-stroke Crusader, coincidentally from Dundee, the coincidence being that I had just written a letter about my grandfather’s 3 ½ HP Triumph, also from Dundee. John is not really a museum curator, he was bestowed the title for his impressive collection of parts and knowledge of detail changes for each of the unit 250s. John casually mentioned that he had traced the authenticity of the registration via the Friends of Dundee website.

Bike Rallies in the 70s Museum curator John
Enfields on ...

Within ‘Records’, the subtitle ‘Vehicles’ (direct link here) leads to a priceless remaining fragment of the very earliest vehicle records which survived the formation of the centralised DVLC in Swansea in 1978. In a house-keeping exercise during the 1980s, vehicles which had not been road taxed since a specific date were wiped from the database forever. Somehow, the previously region-managed records of the Dundee area were kept on index cards after the transfer. I wonder if it was an act of historic foresight or simply a lack of spring cleaning?

The 1903 Motor Car Act increased the speed limit to 20mph and required all road vehicles to display a registration number issued by local government to the owner. Only seven years previous, the Locomotives On The Highway Act restricted travel to 14mph, beyond which the Commons described as ‘furious’ in horse-riding terms. Private vehicle ownership was slowly being accepted as a civil right to an extent that a Royal Commission of motoring in 1907 reported speed traps being used to raise revenue in rural areas rather than being used to protect lives in towns. Does this sound familiar? Separated by a furlong, two constables hidden at the roadside with a stopwatch would monitor the speed of an approaching vehicle and could now identify its owner without having to stop it. Arthur Balfour the Prime Minister was apparently a regular speed offender, so it seems that the gentry were beginning to enjoy the thrills of travelling faster in auto-carriages.

Alexander Watt of Arbroath Road had the prominent status of being the first recorded vehicle owner in the Dundee area on January 1st 1904, displaying the new vehicle registration number of TS1 on the front and rear of his 8hp De Dion Bouton motor car. The 2hp Excelsior of WD Fairweather was the first motorcycle, TS6. There were three manufacturers sharing the name Excelsior, his was almost certainly from the cycle company in Coventry.

Mr Alexander Gilroy on the other hand could afford a more stylish and complex White steam car, whose technology approached the pinnacle of development with a flash boiler capable of raising steam from cold in just a few minutes. With no gearbox or clutch, the engine is permanently engaged so didn’t pose the constant danger of broken limbs when hand starting a petrol car. In 1906 a Stanley steam car set the world speed record of 127mph.

Bike Rallies in the 70s Bob's grandfather James Murdoch's bike photographed in 1919, with three neighbours.

But the British motor industry lagged way behind French and the American manufacturers as a result of the stifling 1865 Locomotive, or Red Flag Act as it became known, requiring a person to walk in front of the 4mph vehicle to warn of its approach. Thinly disguised as a safety precaution to other road users, it was concocted in parliament to protect the railway monopoly and its shareholding MPs in an age long before a declaration of interests, when gentlemen were expected to speculate. Car body styles such as Tonneau, Landaulette, and coupe tell us that the French were writing the dictionary for motor car features, as they were at the same time for aeroplane physiology (fuselage, aileron, longeron).

In direct contrast, motorcycles seem to have caught the imagination of British cycle manufacturers at least on a similar level to the foreign completion. During the European leg of his 1912 circumnavigation of the globe on a four cylinder Henderson, Carl Sterns Clancy writes in his Motorcycle Adventure; ‘I have seen only four motorcycles in France, for some strange reason they being decidedly unpopular here.’

The first pages of the Dundee records list an astonishing assortment of long-forgotten makers including Jesmond, Armonde, Quadrant, Raglan, Hobart, Whitehall and Centaur, most of which were recognizable by their simple adaption from a bicycles with the ungainly addition of an engine.

Within twelve years most of these names disappear from the records, leaving more familiar market leaders which would soon become household names; Triumph, Douglas and Royal Enfield are most numerous, which I assume reflected national sales figures. Misspellings are plentiful in the listings, such as Avril, which I assume to be Ariel and Morton we can guess at, but we shall never know if they existed in the original hand written cards, or more likely, the copper plate script was misread during the re-keying.

In November 1911 Royal Enfield presented their 6hp 770cc Vickers-powered V-twin at the Olympia show. It rapidly gained a reputation for reliability and was adopted by the British Expeditionary Force in France when coupled to a sidecar as a machine gun mount, stretcher barer, and munitions supply vehicle. Accolades came thick and fast in civil exploits, particularly long distance and endurance trials in Spain, Australia, Egypt and South Africa. The Swedish motorcycling press reported single-model domination in all their national competitions. Reliability of the 6hp can be partly attributed to a dual primary chain drive, providing the rider with the option of high or low ratio, and a chain-driven rear wheel. When compared to the slipping and stretching of the traditional leather belt drive – Douglas were still using them well into the 1920s – the chain final drive must have greatly reduced roadside maintenance.

A pair of pedals connected only to the engine showed the evolution away from the bicycle origin. The Edinburgh ‘S’ registration prefix displayed on such a combination was an unknown visitor to Albany Terrace, my great-grandparents home in Dundee, captured in a photo with my great aunt on board, probably taken in 1920.

Bike Rallies in the 70s

A smaller V-twin emerged from the Redditch works in 1912 powered by a 425cc 3hp engine of Enfields’s own design, resembling the a 6hp model in most features, but with the addition of two all-new design features which would pave the way for all motorcycles for the next hundred years. An automatic oil pump was driven from the engine, not only delivering oil to the big ends, but returning it to a transparent reservoir below the saddle. Just to put this in context, some competitors still used hand-pumped total-loss lubrication until 1930.

Bike Rallies in the 70s

A patented Cush-drive transmission shock absorber was hidden in the rear hub of the 3hp machine, using rubber blocks sandwiched between driving and driven vanes to ease the stress on mechanical parts and on the rider. It remained almost unchanged on Royal Enfields until 1971 and exists somewhere in the drive train on most modern motorcycles. Page 30 of the second file identify TS1717 as a 3hp machine belonging to James Murdoch, my great-grandfather in 1919, photographed with three neighbours by a very unsteady hand.

Bike Rallies in the 70s

Peter Tromp Mesters treated us to a demo of his immaculate 3hp V-twin at the 2011 REOC International rally, restored in a red and pinstripe scheme which reminded me of a fowler show engine. Only when viewed end-on, did I appreciate how the sparsely finned fore and aft cylinders make the bike so slim when compared to a modern machine. Although an over-sized glass test tube may seem like a fragile container to fix to a steel motorbike frame, one can’t deny that it’s infinitely more practical to monitor the oil level than peering down through the dark filler neck of most regular classics.

Royal Enfield was undoubtedly ahead of the game.


Thanks to the Friends of Dundee City Archives for the information used in this article:

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