RE CLIPPER AIR­FLOW .................................

Royal En­field reck­oned that their Air­flow fair­ings would im­prove fuel con­sump­tion by 20% and add 5mph to a bike’s top end. Oily Boot Bob ex­per­i­ments with the el­e­ments and shoots the breeze…

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Royal En­field reck­oned that their Air­flow fair­ings would im­prove fuel con­sump­tion by 20% and add 5mph to a bike’s top end. Oily Boot Bob ex­per­i­ments with the el­e­ments and shoots the breeze…

An ap­pre­ci­a­tion for com­fort and prac­ti­cal­ity in a mo­tor­cy­cle has crept up on me al­most un­no­ticed in re­cent years. I now find my­self look­ing se­ri­ously at func­tional fea­tures and de­signs that I barely gave a se­cond glance ten years ago, such as the Royal En­field Air­flow range, for good rea­son. It was squarely aimed at the sen­si­ble dad mar­ket sec­tor, which I have seem­ingly grown into. The story be­hind a dra­matic black and white pho­to­graph in­trigued me, par­tic­u­larly as it un­folded only yards away from my work­place. The events took place thirty years be­fore my ar­rival, where mo­tor­cy­cle and air­craft de­vel­op­ment very briefly over­lapped.

The Bri­tish de­fence in­dus­try suf­fered heav­ily from bud­get cuts dur­ing the 1950s, and had to di­ver­sify in or­der to sur­vive. The Bris­tol Aero­plane Com­pany (BAC) was keep­ing afloat by in­volve­ment in var­i­ous civil projects such as mo­tor car body­work and pre­fab­ri­cated build­ings, so it was busi­ness as usual when Royal En­field ap­proached Bris­tol Aero­plane Plas­tics Ltd, a sub­sidiary of BAC, for ad­vice on au­tomat­ing the man­u­fac­ture of their new glass fi­bre de­signs. RE’s chief draughts­man, Reg Thomas, noted that the pro­duc­tion tri­als pro­duced an ex­cess of resin at the edges of the struc­ture, which led to crack­ing. The time-hon­oured man­ual lay-up method re­sumed.

But the li­ai­son with BAC was not in vain. With a foot in the door of the air­craft works, RE gained ac­cess to the air in­dus­try’s low speed wind tun­nel to get some pub­lic­ity pho­to­graphs, and to test their new Air­flow de­sign which was al­ready in full pro­duc­tion. Royal En­field was ea­ger to be seen in the mod­ern world of stream­lined air­craft.

Mike, a re­tired head of the wind tun­nel fa­cil­ity, takes up the story.

‘It’s ac­tu­ally sec­ond­hand in­for­ma­tion from over 50 years ago, but my mem­ory is good. The tests were car­ried out by a col­league called Trevor Wil­liams in the late 1950s. I joined them in 1961. At the time I was rid­ing a Ve­lo­cette Valiant with a fair­ing, which gave good pro­tec­tion from the wind, but I was not very con­vinced about its aero­dy­namic worth and it didn’t seem par­tic­u­larly nice in a strong cross­wind. I was talk­ing about it to an­other mo­tor­cy­clist in the depart­ment, and how it might look in a wind tun­nel test, when Trevor joined in and re­counted the Royal En­field episode.

‘ They (RE) wanted some pub­lic­ity type pho­tos in the wind tun­nel of the fair­ing on one of their mo­tor bikes, show­ing how well aligned some wool tufts were. You can get a good idea of the air­flow over a sur­face by look­ing at the be­hav­iour of tufts of wool with one end taped to the sur­face. We use some­thing more so­phis­ti­cated now, but it was wool tufts in the 1950s. Royal En­field wanted to demon­strate how aero­dy­namic their fair­ing was, but the re­sults were dread­ful. They then wanted to tape the wool tufts down in con­vinc­ing at­ti­tudes and take a photo. We re­fused to do this, be­cause we didn’t want our good name in­volved with

such chi­canery, and fur­ther­more, I don’t think we ever got paid by Royal En­field.’ Al­though the rider and bike are beau­ti­fully framed by the wind tun­nel in­take, the well-used im­age from the Oc­to­ber 1958 pho­to­shoot sug­gests that any idea of se­ri­ous stream­lin­ing had been aban­doned. With the bike perched on the cen­tre­stand, the huge front mud­guard ex­poses a gape as big as a bask­ing shark!

My own Air­flow ex­pe­ri­ence started with the of­fer of a fairly tidy and com­plete Clipper 250, the econ­omy ver­sion of the Cru­sader, via the own­ers’ club net­work. Sadly, Peter Gay, an REOC mem­ber, passed away, leav­ing a large col­lec­tion of Cru­sader parts and spe­cials for his widow, Brenda to sort out. I was keen to try an Air­flow in all the weath­ers of daily com­mut­ing and Brenda liked the idea of it be­ing put to good use, so the deal was done. It came with pa­per­work list­ing the six pre­vi­ous own­ers, start­ing life at Jor­dan’s of Hull in March 1962. Un­usu­ally, the buff

log­book records early changes of owner like a hot potato – three in the first year. Did it not meet with their ex­pec­ta­tions? I won­der if own­er­ship sta­bilised with the ar­rival of four more horse­power when a Cru­sader Sports en­gine was in­stalled, ap­par­ently dur­ing this early pe­riod. The donor bike of the en­gine came from Shear­smith in nearby York. Recorded as a 1960 sale, it most prob­a­bly be­came an in­sur­ance right-off shortly af­ter.

I don’t think of the Clipper as a non-orig­i­nal bike, but in­stead an au­then­tic rolling record of up­grades and pref­er­ences fit­ted to a bud­get mo­tor­cy­cle by the nu­mer­ous own­ers over the years, and gar­nished with the scrapes and knocks of daily life. The Clipper had non­ad­justable sus­pen­sion struts, a fixed rear wheel (would that be slowly de­tach­able?), un­pol­ished cases and much re­duced chrome plat­ing to keep the price tag low. Since the speedome­ter is not orig­i­nal (a trip me­ter be­ing out­side the thrifty spec­i­fi­ca­tion of the Clipper), the mileage of the bike is un­known. Fit­ting a trip-equipped speedo isn’t an en­tirely prac­ti­cal mod­i­fi­ca­tion. Re­set­ting the

trip tog­gle re­quires some dex­trous grop­ing through the ‘cubby hole’ – RE’s own name for the void be­hind the dash­board.

Wheels from one of the sports mod­els have been added to ben­e­fit from an ex­tra inch of bite over the fee­ble 6” brake at the front, and a quickly de­tach­able hub and wheel at the rear. This QD wheel has to be one of the best of the pe­riod, whose cast iron hefti­ness is eas­ily out­weighed by its de­tach­a­bil­ity. A few turns of a 9/16” span­ner will have the wheel out in a few sec­onds, leav­ing the chain, brake and cush drive undis­turbed.

The most re­cent ad­di­tion is the fully en­closed chain­case, painted and in­stalled by the seventh owner. One of th­ese rare as hen’s teeth ex­tras came my way shortly af­ter buy­ing the bike, an op­por­tu­nity not to be missed. This two-piece press­ing con­nects to the en­gine unit with rub­ber gaiters, com­plet­ing a sealed en­vi­ron­ment against rain and road grime. Con­se­quently the bike re­mains free from the usual mess of far-flung chain lube. A rub­ber bung is re­moved from the up­per run to per­form lube du­ties, and only the semi­cir­cu­lar rear sec­tion needs to be dis­turbed to re­move the chain. With a qual­ity Ger­man chain in­stalled, I ex­pect to make ad­just­ments about once ev­ery leap year.

Avon Uni­ver­sal tyres were the choice of the sixth owner, and a very good choice too. They’re old but us­able. With a sim­i­lar tread pat­tern to the old style Road­run­ners, they were quite the best tyre for the lim­it­ing 17” wheels, and it’s a shame they are no longer made.

The Clipper is dressed in the mid­dle size of the three fair­ings made to fit the com­plete range of Red­ditch mo­tor­cy­cles; there was even one to suit the lit­tle RE125. Fixed in only three places, the fair­ing is ex­tremely rigid and so quite heavy when com­pared to con­tem­po­rary uni­ver­sal fair­ings. Craz­ing of the paint­work is ev­i­dence that the bike has tum­bled on its side a few times caus­ing the body­work to flex but not break. But quickly re­mov­able it is not. The front wheel must be re­moved fol­lowed by the fork slid­ers in or­der to slide the enor­mous mud­guard down over the fork tubes. Only then can the fair­ing be low­ered away. This ap­par­ent over­sight was de­lib­er­ate to min­imise the size of cut­aways in the glass fi­bre to keep out the bad weather. Thank­fully ac­ces­si­bil­ity is good enough to per­form even ma­jor en­gine work, mak­ing fair­ing re­moval un­nec­es­sary. So what is it like to ride? The low first gear of­ten crit­i­cised on the sports mod­els be­comes an as­set on the Air­flow. It’s ex­tremely use­ful for get­ting the ex­tra 25lb of fi­bre­glass mov­ing from a stand­still, par­tic­u­larly if you’ve stopped on a gra­di­ent. Sixty years af­ter its con­cep­tion, the ben­e­fit of such gear­ing be­comes ap­par­ent in ur­ban con­ges­tion where one can drib­ble along with the clutch fully en­gaged and be over­taken by dog-walk­ers.

Sit­ting be­hind the screen and dash­board on the 29” high seat gives a re­as­sur­ing feel­ing of be­ing in­side a cock­pit, rather than astride a mo­tor­cy­cle. The con­toured and very com­fort­able du­alseat is the ob­vi­ous com­bi­na­tion of a sin­gle sad­dle and a pil­lion seat cush­ion, pro­vid­ing full back­side sup­port, which isn’t too sunken to pre­vent rear­ward shuffling for leg stretch­ing pur­poses. Ob­vi­ous com­par­isons with its clos­est com­peti­tor, the Ariel Leader, didn’t oc­cur to me un­til sev­eral weeks of rid­ing had passed. That’s strange, since I cov­ered thou­sands of miles on one as a teenager. I can only con­clude that the er­gonomics are very dif­fer­ent.

The height of the Air­flow’s screen com­plies pre­cisely with the pop­u­lar rule of thumb – level with my nose – which sends the pre­vail­ing wind and any air­borne el­e­ments

well clear of my face, al­low­ing me to ride with my visor fully open if I wish. No head buf­fet­ing is ex­pe­ri­enced at any speed. Top gear can be en­gaged just be­yond 30mph on the flat, while the ex­tra weight forces the pro­longed use of se­cond gear on an in­cline. That weight needs to be rolling at cruis­ing speed be­fore the sub­tle aero­dy­namic ad­van­tage takes over. With al­most as much windage as an ocean-go­ing clipper, the Air­flow is sen­si­tive to the light­est breezes. The bow wave of a pass­ing car is felt long be­fore it ap­pears along­side, caus­ing that mo­men­tary sen­sa­tion of be­ing grabbed from be­hind.

There’s no point in pro­duc­ing a ma­chine of­fer­ing high mileage weather pro­tec­tion if the rider com­fort doesn’t match. Cue: a very comfy seat

Above: One ex­cel­lent chain en­clo­sure, dis­man­tled for a lit­tle at­ten­tion Right: Pro­mo­tion, 1950s style

Back in the day, En­field used this PR pic to sug­gest that the Air­flow fair­ing had been sci­en­tif­i­cally de­signed us­ing air­craft in­dus­try tech­nol­ogy. The be­hind-the-scenes story in­volv­ing tufts of wool is less com­pli­men­tary…

The essentials of the Air­flow’s con­sid­er­able con­tri­bu­tion to mo­tor­cy­cle beauty are the hand­some full fair­ing and the … re­mark­able front mud­guard. Given the sheer size of the guard, it is maybe a mi­nor mir­a­cle that the bike han­dled cross­winds at all well

That fa­mous wind tun­nel to­day

An­other – less well-known – fea­ture of some tour­ing En­fields was the ex­cel­lent chain en­clo­sure

Equally strik­ing from ei­ther side, RE’s Air­flow cuts a dash high up on Ex­moor

Left: Royal En­field Air­flow: what it says on the wrap­ping, then!

Set­ting the speedo’s trip in­volves re­mov­ing the head­light unit to pro­vide ac­cess to the ‘cubby hole’ as RE re­ferred to the space be­hind the lamp

Above: Ex­actly why RE mounted the speedo in the fair­ing is maybe a lit­tle mys­tery, given that the top yoke has a mount­ing place for it al­ready

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