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Royal Enfield Clipper: Worker’s playtime

December 17, 2021
Royal Enfield Clipper
Photo: Gary Chapman/Classic Bike Guide

NOT ALL MOTORCYCLES are glamorous. Some are just there to get the rider to their destination, cheaply and conveniently. Royal Enfield’s 250cc Clipper, launched in 1954, was purpose-built to fill that role.

It used an old-fashioned engine with a cast iron barrel and cylinder head which was based heavily on RE’s rigid-framed 350cc Model G, which had decidedly prewar origins.

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To create the Clipper this engine was installed into a slightly smaller version of the first sprung Bullet frame introduced in 1949. The Clipper also used the gearbox from the Model G.

Despite the budget credentials of the Clipper, the finish was good. Paint was thickly applied and for the few years of production was in olive green, though you could have it in red as an extra. What little chrome there was managed to be tough and hard-wearing. The Clipper had an old-fashioned sprung saddle.

Royal Enfield then decided they did need a budget 350 to sell alongside the alloy head Bullet after all. They relaunched a 350 as a Model G2 alongside the Clipper, using a Bullet-derived frame, the old sprung saddle and an engine that looked very similar to the Clipper, with cast-iron barrel and head, though it used a Lucas Magdyno.

The Clipper and the G2 used a winged tank badge, unlike the shield-like design used on the Bullet and the new Crusader 250. Both the first Clipper and the first sprung Model G only lasted until 1957.

Bikes like the Clipper, both the early and late models, were cheap and cheerful transport for the working chap, or chappess. It was cheap to tax and insure, miserly at the pumps and basic to look after. For those looking for a reasonably priced, small classic the Clipper retains those virtues.

Riding the Clipper today is a curious experience. It is a sort of both pre and postwar motorcycle in one. The engine is about as basic as you can get. There is 1950s coil ignition and a feeble alternator under the primary drive casing, and it took a lot of juice from the battery and a fair bit of tickling and thrashing about to get things mobile on a gloomy and damp day. I threatened it with being bump started, and it chuffed into life.

It appeared to be a chunk of alloy and cast iron of little sophistication, designed not to excite the senses, but to just go on and on in all conditions. It chuntered along, having decided for itself just exactly how fast it was going to go, and despite their best efforts the rider had little to do with it. The Bullet-derived frame was good and solid. The combination of sprung saddle and fairly firm shock absorbers made things quite bouncy as one form of suspension would react in a contrary way to the other. But with so little in the way of power, such erratic rider movement wasn’t going to be an issue. The 250cc Clipper had apparently produced just 11bhp when it was new, so 65 years on, some of those horses were bound to have escaped.

Then there was getting to grips with the gearbox. The changes went one-up-three-down, as was fairly common practice in the mid-1950s. Enfield gearboxes had their challenges and the Clipper’s contained a large number of neutrals for the unwary rider to find. It is little wonder that RE had decided to include a neutral finder on their more sophisticated models, though perhaps the money would have been better spent on developing a better gearbox.

Once warmed up and rolling, the Clipper chugged along tolerably well. Performance was on a par with a modern 125, if possibly a bit slower, but given the Clipper has about the same power as a bottom-of-the-range modern Chinese bike but is pulling around a lot more weight, that’s hardly surprising. With such gentle performance, it was hardly going to test my ability to touch any pegs or scrape any knees.

The experience of riding a Clipper will hardly give you a rush of blood to the head. One suspects that when new the Clipper was the sort of motorcycle that would be used, and used hard, passed on to another owner, who would use it hard too, and so on, until the thing expired and was left out for the rag-and-bone man, or buried in the hole left when you removed your Anderson shelter.

All of which means that despite being a reasonable seller, not a lot of the first models survived beyond the mid-1960s. It also means that if you bought one today you would have a cheap, unique motorcycle. It’ll be a talking point with club members at bike gatherings or just while polishing it outside your place of domicile. The Clipper offers a Thirties feel with a mostly 1950s ridability and a lot of charm.

By repurposing old military stock, Royal Enfield were quick out of the starting blocks in satisfying that civilian market and it gave them time to come up with new models, becoming the only major British factory to jump from rigid frames to swing arms without a period of using plungers.

They had been developing their Bullet single through the 1930s while at the same time building the 350cc Model G which had a less sporty engine. A smaller version of the model G, a 250, was produced too.

The 350 Model G was the machine which emerged from Royal Enfield in 1945. It was very much an updated prewar motorcycle filling a hole in the marketplace for a useable 350 single, in a period when such solid singles ruled. Solid workaday motorcycles were what the factories had decided the public wanted, and the Model G delivered that, being much cheaper than the Bullet, and indeed most of its rivals. You got Royal Enfield’s undamped telescopic forks, but no rear suspension. It would run on poor quality postwar petrol, and it was economical, easy to start by the standards of the time and cheap to tax and insure.

The model G stayed in the range until the early 1950s, performing a stolid and purposeful role, plodding on rigid-framed while Royal Enfield concentrated on giving the Bullet and their 500 and 700cc twins rear suspension. Only the BSA B31 350 was cheaper than the Model G.

And then, in 1954, Royal Enfield dropped the rigid Model G from the range, deciding instead to concentrate on bikes with rear suspension and the utilitarian market was to be satisfied by the 250 Clipper, using as many parts from the stores as they could get away with.

Richard Ross from Royal Enfield specialists Hitchcocks says the concern was most probably not a starting issue, but that the extra thick oils used in the early 1950s could put stress on the oil pump. These days Richard advises against the use of heavy monogrades and recommends a good multigrade, either mineral or semi-synthetic.

One issue that affected the Clipper, but not other Royal Enfield singles, was that the Clipper used an alloy primary chaincase secured by a single fastener rather than the pressed steel item used on most other models. On the face of it this looked like an improved finish. However, the pressed steel item had both an inspection hole to check primary chain tension and you could move the gearbox to adjust it. On the Clipper you had to remove the alloy cover to check tension and adjust the chain, which was a bit of a pain and after regular removal this resulted in oil leakage and fruitless efforts being made to stop the Clipper living up to its Royal Oilfield nickname.

Richard says that some gearboxes would be grease packed rather than oil filled and it’s vital to know the difference. If it is grease packed, use Renolit grease. Engine parts are still available from Hitchcocks, both new old stock or remade and they have substantial stocks of used parts. Some cycle parts can be harder to find, but often parts also fitted the Bullet and other models.

“You do need to watch out for wet sumping,” said Richard: “Never top the oil up above half way on the dipstick, and when you stop the bike ease the piston to top dead centre, so that the big end sits above the oil level. Brakes aren’t great, but suspension and steering are good, and the engine is very reliable. On the whole, the Clipper is very practical motorcycle without any real weak points.”

Panther produced their Model 65 250cc single for the same price as the C12. The Panther is more outdated, but also a lot more charming. These once derided examples of Yorkshire’s finest now command premium prices and you could easily pay £5000 for a good one. Panther also turned out Villiers-powered two-strokes, as did AMC offshoots James and Francis-Barnett, but these were more troublesome than their four-stroke brethren. Expect to pay anything from £1500 for a runner to £3500 for a restored example of a 250 two-stroke.

If, back in 1954, you had wanted something only slightly more sophisticated, like a Matchless G3, you would have to stump up another £60 – 25 per cent more than for the humble Clipper. Today, thanks to the relative availability of AMC singles, a G3 or its AJS equivalent will cost you around the same as a good Clipper. Using 1930s and wartime tech on the Clipper meant it would doggedly keep running, even when crudely maintained by backyard mechanics equipped with big hammers, military surplus spanners and a little skill.

The Clipper was extremely cheap, partly because RE were using up leftover and surplus Model G and Bullet parts. The Clipper got a coil and a points ignition set up, installed where the Lucas Magdyno used to fit on the Model G. A small Amal 276 carburettor contributed to impressive fuel economy, with the Clipper owner finding they could achieve 100mpg easily.

Compression was far from performance-enhancing, and Royal Enfield declined to say what it was in its publicity. It was estimated at 6.5:1, if that. The 250 also featured some modern attributes such as an air filter. An alternator was fitted inside the primary chain case and created the electrical power once provided by the Magdyno. There was also a cush drive in the rear wheel and a version of Royal Enfield’s signature “casquette” headlamp, which is still used on some India-made Enfields today.

To keep costs down the side-mounted riding lights were omitted. The Clipper also got a stylish rethink for the Transatlantic market, with a brash red paint scheme and various shiny gee-gaws. This was shipped to the USA after being badged as the Indian Fire Arrow.

The Clipper name survived beyond 1957, being used on the base model in RE’s four-stroke 250 range into the middle of the 1960s, when it was sold alongside the more luxurious 250 Crusader. The new Clipper was a budget version of the Crusader and had a detuned version of the new Crusader unit engine. The Clipper and the Crusader both had cast iron barrels and heads. Curiously, Royal Enfield were still using the sprung saddle on these bottom-of-the-market Clippers. One can only assume they did this so they could offer the dual seat as an optional extra or were keen to attract a conservative market that didn’t like change. Or perhaps they just had a lot of sprung saddles to get rid of. In a sign of changing tastes and designs the Crusader got big mudguards, while the new Clipper had more slender offerings.

The tea clipper ships of the late nineteenth century were beautiful, slender, fast creations designed to get cargoes from port to port in the most efficient manner possible. Royal Enfield’s Clipper was neither beautiful, slender nor fast, but it was, at least, efficient.

Royal Enfield were always keen on recycling. In the years following the Second World War their underground factory in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, was given over to refurbishing both used and unused military surplus motorcycles and converting them into civilian spec, from Flying Flea 125s into Ensign 125s and olive drab 350 and 500 singles into something more desirable, shipping them out to dealers in an attempt to keep up with the postwar civilian demand.

Advice on how to start your Royal Enfield in the winter came from Vic Willoughby in The Motor Cycle. If you were fortunate enough to live at the top of a hill, you could bump start it in second by simply rolling down it. The issue was the viscosity of the oil – Willoughby said that he had heard of owners keeping a heater running in their shed under the engine to make it easier to spin in the morning. However, his main advice was to switch to thinner SAE20 in the winter, or to use the then new multigrade oils all year round.

Royal Enfield’s main competition was with BSA who were knocking out the C10 side valve and OHV C11 and C12 singles. The sluggardly C10 cost just £130 while the C12 which had rear suspension and cost £160 new, about the same as a Clipper. They were very utilitarian machines, more so even than the Clipper. A C10, 11 or 12 will cost you around £2,500 in reasonable condition.

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