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Royal Enfield, the oldest motorcycle manufacturer still in production, has just unveiled a unique and remarkable motorcycle to honor its rich heritage. The bike is an authentic working replica of the brand's very first 'motor-bicycle,' originally developed in 1901. This historic machine, which no longer exists, was showcased to the public for the first time at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course in Ohio.
Recreating this iconic motorcycle was no easy feat, as there were no surviving technical drawings or blueprints to guide the process. The engineering team had to meticulously reconstruct the original 1901 motorcycle using old photographs and promotional ads from that era. Despite the slim evidence available, the team embraced the challenge of reconstructing the very first piece of Royal Enfield's DNA.
The project, aptly named 'Project Origin,' took approximately 18 months to complete from scratch. Apart from the extensive research required to piece together the design puzzle, the team faced a significant challenge in replicating the mechanics and engineering of the original motor-bicycle. The technology of the time was vastly different from what is used today, making the task even more complex.
One notable difference was the mounting position of the 250cc, 1-horsepower engine, clamped onto the steering head above the front wheel. Unlike most engines of that era, the Royal Enfield crankcase was horizontally split, avoiding potential issues of oil leakage onto the front wheel. Lubrication was achieved by the rider squirting a charge of oil into the crankcase, which would burn off after covering a certain distance.
Starting the motorcycle required pedal power, and once the engine fired, the carburetor was opened from tick over to full-on position using a hand lever located on the right side of the gas tank. Interestingly, there was no throttle; speed modulation was done through a valve lifter controlled by a handlebar lever.
The bike's folded brass tank was one of the most intricate elements, masterfully handcrafted from a single sheet of brass using age-old tools and techniques, now almost forgotten in modern manufacturing.
The motorcycle's unique braking system included a band brake on the front wheel activated by a Bowden lever and cable arrangement operated by the rider's left hand. The rear wheel also had a band brake, but it was operated by back-pedaling. The vintage aesthetic continued with a leather Lycette La Grande saddle and 26-inch wheels with Clipper 2 x 2" tires.
The tubular frame of the bike was expertly brass-braised by the team at Harris Performance, and various hand-machined brass levers and switches added to its authenticity. The engine was meticulously built from scratch, with the team relying on scarce photographs and illustrations from 1901 to develop CAD designs for each component part, which were then individually hand-cast or machined.
The wooden handles were hand-turned, front and back band brakes were manufactured, and the carburetor was built from scratch. Original parts from the period, such as the paraffin lamp, horn, leather saddle, and wheels, were carefully reconditioned and nickel-plated.
With a top speed of 35 miles per hour, no throttle, and no clutch, the working replica was taken on its inaugural ride in North America by Royal Enfield's in-house historian, Gordan May. May described the unique sound of the motorcycle as "doof - doof - doof," adding that it's a real challenge to ride but incredibly enjoyable.