Monday, November 23, 2009

The Burman mysteries

This we know for sure: some 3,000 Royal Enfield War Department CO motorcycles were fitted with Burman gearboxes, manufactured by "Burman & Sons Ltd. manufacturers of horse & barbers' clippers, & steering gears". This is surprising since Royal Enfield had been employing Albion gearboxes since the 1930's and would continue to do so essentially until today. Albion actually went out of business years ago but the transmission fitted to the Indian Bullets is still an Albion design. That would actually also make for an interesting story: did Albion sell the rights to the gearbox to Enfield India?

Going back to the topic of this post, in various places in the internet one reads that the reason why Enfield had to use Burman gearboxes was that the Albion factory was bombed and therefore could not supply Enfield with the needed gearboxes. We have even contributed to this rumor. However, blog reader and Royal Enfield WD enthusiast Jan Vandevelde has extensively studied the bombings in Birmingham and found no evidence that the Albion factory was directly bombed. Moreover, the most significant bombings in Birmingham took place in 1940, and the order for the WD/CO-B bikes was not filed until two years later, in mid 1942. To add to the mystery, the War Department used to order bikes in batches of 5000. Enfield already was working on such a batch when two orders of 3000 bikes (one with the Burman gearboxes) were placed simultaneously. In fact the original 5000 bike order got quite delayed by this.

What could have been the reason for Enfield going with Burman transmissions for these bikes? Could it have been an experiment? Why try something like that in the middle of the war? Could it be that Albion was hit by incendiary bombs and production slowed? There are no detailed records of incendiary bombs since they were dropped literally daily by the thousands all over the place. People were trained to put them out with extinguishers so the damage they did was usually contained, but not always. Bombings did happen near the factory. Perhaps it sustained some collateral damage?

There even is speculation that Mr. Burman used political pressure on the War Department to force Enfield to use his boxes. And that the bikes instead of being delivered to the War Department like the Albion geared Enfields, were delivered at Dudley Zoo? I contacted Dudley Zoo and was told that indeed there was a military installation there during World War II in a natural cavern, where they used to store vehicles. So perhaps dispatch riders were operating out of the Zoo in the CO-B Enfields. So many Enfield mysteries, so little time!


  1. Political pressure could be an explanation. Another possible explanation is that Burman had excess capacity and some bureaucrat thought it seemed a shame not to use it (this is the sort of thinking that usually does have unintended consequences. Just because what happened was confusion and delay doesn't mean that it wasn't done with fond hopes). It is also possible that someone was concerned that complaints about the Albion gearbox (not everyone's cup of tea, is it?) could be damaging, so develop an alternative. Or maybe there was a better project coming up that meant Enfield would need some extra capacity of its own to perform? All speculation. Be fascinating to know the answer.

  2. Wow, this is interestig stuff. I really enjoy these kind of stories. Jorge where do you source your info?

  3. Wow!!.. really very informative and innovative blog!... I love it!

  4. David, Yamaha: Thanks!

    DrewFen: usually the sources are quoted in the article, but in this case I forgot an important one "British Forces Motorcycles 1925-45" by Chris Orchard and Steve Madden, Sutton Publishing (2006). Thanks!



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