Friday History this week is a veritable novella involving a tea clipper, some motorcycles, escaping cockroaches, fraud and prison sentences and a Japanese camera. When the last Interceptor came out of the Westwood factory in 1970 there were no more new Royal Enfields for sale in the UK for the next seven years until Slater Bros, Laverda Importers based at Collington, near Bromyard Herefordshire took on a contract to import Madras-made Enfields. So you don't think I'm making all this up, I'll reprint Roger Slater's letter to me -
“Hello Nigel, Sorry for the delay in replying, been very busy this week. Sometime in 1976 I read a reminder that Enfield's were still being built in India. This was generally unknown in the UK or had been forgotten. They were never mentioned or imported - time for a trip to India. A few days later I was on an EL- AL 747 to Bombay with an Air India connecting flight to Madras. I was met at Madras airport by a charming fellow by the name of Raja Gopalan, the PRO. Monday morning a tour of the factory - what an eye opener that was! I was horrified to see a gang of workmen unloading a truck of large sheets of steel. They were sliding each sheet to the rear of the truck to the point it would slide off on its own. The workers were almost naked even down to no footwear as the steel sheets crashed down an inch or so in front of their bare toes. In the office there were ancient mechanical typewriters and all figuring done on Abacus, the speed and dexterity of the operators was astonishing, the company limo was an Indian made Morris Oxford.
The upshot of this most interesting visit was the first load of 350 Enfield's arriving at Collington in 1977. They sold fairly well despite several problems. They were very underpowered, had poor brakes and the Villiers carburettors were not suitable. The biggest problem that my brother Richard soon found was damage in shipping which all had to rectified by us at our cost. The crates were big strong solid timber but the bikes were not properly secured in the crates. At one point I drove our flat-bed truck down to Bristol docks to pick up a load of bikes that had just arrived. This was a time warp experience going back to the days of the tall Clipper tea carrying vessels! The dock was exactly as it was in the sailing ship days. Only difference was that the sailing ship was replaced by a very scruffy looking tramp steamer with the name THE STATE OF KARALA. The crew were all Indian, semi-naked same as at the factory. They were running up and down gang planks carrying loads of cargo on their heads. Like the old sailing ships, there were huge cargo hatches opened where a steam crane lowered a big net down for the crew to fill with tea chests; the net was then closed like a trawler's net then hoisted across the wharf into the dockside warehouse. One side of the net would be let go so that the tea chests rolled out into a big heap. Imagine my consternation when I went into the warehouse to get the Enfields loaded. There they were in a big heap at all sorts of angles as they fell out of the net. The crates were not damaged but the bikes simply rattled around doing damage to speedos, head lights, tanks, seats etc etc. This constant damage was making the whole venture unprofitable - time for another trip to Madras to get it sorted out.
I took with me a sketch of the Laverda crates, less than half the weight of the Indian ones but the bike was securely fastened to the main spine of the crate. The crates were dimensioned precisely so that by double stacking, 40 crates would fit into a 40 foot container. Next was a requirement for containerisation, no more 'tea clippers'! Unexpected problem, there was no container service out of Madras. Next item for discussion was the bike itself. We wanted a 500, an Amal or other suitable carburettor, better brakes simply by replacing the compressed camel dung with proper Ferodo brake linings. All this was met with much 'head wagging' that I took to be agreement - it was sometime later that I realised that Indian head nods were opposite to European! The MD then informed me that they were not interested in making a bike more suited to the export market. He went on to explain that they were selling all of their production on the home market where the current 350 was perfect - no point in spending money on a new export version. (Nigel - So nothings changed there in 40 years then!) They did however agree to consider the new crate design. Next shipment Richard found that the crates were now as heavy as the bike inside. The timber was very thick and extra packing was employed which did go some way to preventing damage but the bike was still not properly secured to the crate. Another interesting item Richard found in the crates were huge cockroaches that he christened 'Bombay runners' as they bolted across the floor!
I left the scene in 1980 to set up a Laverda importation business in the USA. My brother Richard continued with the Enfields for a while but in late 1981 he went to Madras with the intent of terminating the agreement. In order not to leave the factory in the lurch he recommended Evesham Motorcycles take it on to ensure a seamless transition. Raja Gopalan said he could probably release us from the contract if Richard gave him his Japanese camera that he had purchased in Singapore two years earlier! The choice of Evesham motorcycles turned into a shambles; Richard soon discovered it was managed by a couple of crooks going under the name Smallwood and Chapman. As I understand it that arrangement did not last long - Smallwood was a known con man who later received jail time for embezzlement.
The Sundaram family who owned Enfield India sold out to Eicher a few years later who set to work at once to do the job properly with a big investment of R&D and a firm eye on expanding production. Had we known this was in the offing at the time, Richard would probably have hung on to finally get the new bikes that we were asked for. One of my all time favourite bikes was a '61 Big Head 500 Bullet. I imported it about 10 years ago off Andy Ternan. It was really smooth, went very well indeed, I regret ever letting it go.
Onwards and upwards
Notes - Slater Bros is still going strong at Collington and handles all spares supplies for Laverda in the UK. Next week we look at 'What Happened Next' with Bavanar, Wilf Green returns to the Royal Enfield fold after a 25 year absence and we take it through the Watsonian period and now MotoGB, not forgetting solid, dependable Hitchcocks who supply our spares to keep us all on the road! Photos – Roger Slater racing the Egli-Vincent (No2) way back when, Slater Bros Collington today, a Slater Bros advert and a 350 badged as an Enfield. Eicher brought back the 'Royal' following the takeover in 1994.