Monday, February 17, 2014

Is Royal Enfield the oldest motorcycle brand?

One commonly hears claims like: "Royal Enfield is the oldest motorcycle brand" or "Royal Enfield is the oldest motorcycle brand in continuous production". This post wishes to probe the validity of those claims. As we will see, although there are various degrees of truth in them, the story is, well, complicated. One faces similar challenges in questions of the same sort, like "which is the oldest university in the world".

The brand "Royal Enfield" was trademarked, apparently, in 1893. I have read accounts of it, but never saw the original papers. Some claims I have seen say 1892. In the end this does not matter too much. It was applied to bicycles at that time that were produced in the old Hunt End factory in the outskirts of Redditch.

Then in 1898 a motorized tricycle and what I claim should be described as a motorized quad bike were produced. In both vehicles the rider sat on a bicycle/motorcycle saddle seat, and they both had handlebars for steering and the controls were as one expects on a motorcycle. I would therefore like to submit that these vehicles were motorcycles, even though they had more than two wheels. This may turn out to be important and some people can disagree with the claim.

Then in 1901 (apparently) a bicycle with an engine mounted on the front wheel and driving the rear wheel with a leather belt was introduced. That is the image in the background of this blog. I think it is fair to call the object a motorcycle, although literally it was a bicycle with an engine appended. The frame was not especially designed and in fact proved flimsy and led to poor handling. The common practice at the time for new vehicles was to  present them at the Olympia show in London in December for sale the next year. So apparently this bike was presented in 1901 for sale in 1902. I have seen no records of this. "The Motor Cycle" only started publication in 1903. I saw a letter to the editor sent to that magazine by the Enfield factory in the 1950's with a picture of the model dubbing it a "1902". But the same model (with a more reinforced frame) was sold in 1902 so perhaps that was the only picture they had. Or perhaps they didn't have good records. The Redditch factory had the first in-factory museum in automotive history, but it burnt down, so we don't know how detailed it was. As we will see these details could be important.

In 1903 three new Enfield models with mid mounted engines and chain drives were introduced and refined in 1904 and perhaps 1905. Then Enfield decided to stop motorcycle production to concentrate on cars. The car venture ended rather disastrously as we have documented, so the company was reorganized and a motorcycle was introduced in the Olympia show of 1910. It was a V-Twin with belt drive. Enfield would continue production of motorcycles in the UK until 1970 and in India until today.

Now comes the question: up to what extent does the Indian factory represent an "extension" of the UK one? It is common to refer to "the UK parent company", but legally at the time, companies in India had to be majority owned by Indians, so Royal Enfield UK had a less than 50% stake in Enfield India initially. Also for many years the bikes were labeled "Enfield India", not "Royal Enfield", allegedly to prevent copyright issues in the UK. So in what sense is the "brand" in India a continuation of the brand in the UK. Enfield India eventually sued for the rights to use "Royal Enfield" and won in the UK in 1994. But I guess this is becoming too legalistic, so I will take at face value that the Indian company is a continuation of the UK one and the Indian brand a continuation of the UK one.

So what about the competition? Harley-Davidson started production in 1903 and continued from there to present. So if one asks the question: "which is the motorcycle brand that has been in continuous production the longest", the crown goes to Harley. Notice that, semantically, this is not the same as "which is the oldest motorcycle brand in continuous production". In fact, it is unclear to me what the last phrase really means.

Ok. What about "discontinuous" production. Indian started in 1901. That is why I made such a fuss about 1901 vs 1902 in the Enfield case and why I want to claim that 1898 is the real year we should be looking at in the Enfield case. The Indian Springfield factory closed in 1953. After that there were several badge engineering deals (one including Enfield) and several attempts to revive until the last one with Polaris Industries seems to have succeeded.

Triumph started in 1902 and was alive until the late 70's and then revived in the 1990's.

But here comes the dark horse: Peugeot sells motorcycles. Ok, it sells many other things, but for many years so did Enfield. It is true that Enfield reserved the Royal Enfield brand for motorcycles and bicycles only. Peugeot  has been selling motorcycles since 1898! They introduced their first motorcycle in 1898 but apparently did not sell it. They did sell a trike. Both the Peugeot and Enfield trikes of 1898 were badge engineering jobs of the DeDion Bouton trike, so they were essentially the same machine!. The brand Peugeot goes all the way back to 1810, they sold bicycles and coffee mills.

So I think it is safe to say something vaguer like "Enfield is the oldest motorcycle brand in the world". And perhaps sweep under the rug that it appears to be a tie with Peugeot with the excuse that Peugeot is not just a motorcycle brand.


  1. Thank you for your superb analysis of what is becoming an urban legend. This is important. To add to your point, I say the modern Royal Enfield Bullet deserves to be evaluated not as a chronological corporate history or legalistic brand identity, but as a living thing. Its blood lines are clear. It is the British motorcycle (although it is incredibly meaningful that it is produced in India), the obvious descendant of a design discontinued in Redditch in 1955. It is the heir. We are, after all, talking about Royalty... It's in the blood.

  2. I would like to add that, AJS started manufacturing motorcycles in 1897, and it is still surviving as a Brand in UK. Similarly, Sach, which was founded in 1886, and started manufacturing bikes from 1901 onwards.Wolfmuffler & Hildebrand stated in 1894, although it no longer exist.But my heart lies with Royal Enfield.Non of the above has cult following of Royal Enfield.

    1. In Wikipedia, it is mentioned, that, AJS built first motorcycle in 1897. But regular production started in 1909. AJS sibling , Matchless built first motorcycle in 1899. Anyway , excellent research and I expect many more interesting facts about Royal Enfield from you

  3. I say Jorge what a history lesson - good show !
    So it would appear that Joe Stevens pipped Bert Eadie by a year in producing a vehicular contraption resembling a motor cycle [ be it motor bicycle or quadricycle -eh what ].
    However one has seen a source and wonders is true that Geo Townsend [ the owner of Townsend Cycle Company which was rescued from financial misfortune by Eadie ] had produced a motor bicycle prior to their demise ?
    Deciphering Blasco's scribblings ,one comes to the conclusion that he considers the "Royal" to denote royalty , not so Blasco old chum . The "Royal" means nothing in particular and was merely a liberty taken by Eadie and referred to an association with the Royal Small Arms factory at Enfield - quite so .
    "Royal" would normally indicate that the organisation concerned would belong to the Crown .
    One wonders if Royal Enfield had ever supplied motorcycles to the Royal Household , in which case they would be able to display the Royal Warrant on their products .
    However the point, one assumes, Blasco ,in his inimitable colonial way, is trying to make is that Royal Enfield has a traceable lineage .
    'Deed so ! Give the chap a coconut .
    One concludes that the Royal Enfield heritage began before 1893 and the companies concerned were all directly involved with one another until the present day - don't yer think .
    Hence Bunty is of the firm opinion that Royal Enfield should be celebrated as being involved in the manufacture of motorcycles longer than any other company . In fact one spies a celebratory bottle of Meteor et Constellation champagne .
    Time to pop the cork !
    Your servant ,
    Maj Bunty Golightly MBH , Defender of the Kickstart , Companion of the Royal Floatchamber .

  4. Husquarna of Sweden 1903


  6. royal enfield is the oldest and best motorcycle in world, only one thing to look back its top speed is only 160,thats sad for a royal,



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