Thursday, 20 November 2014

James Dean and Royal Enfield: A 550 mile ride across U.S

James Dean needs no introduction. Six decades have passed since his demise and he still persists to be a cultural icon of the United States. Personally being a kid of the 90's, I wasn't well aware of his works until my father told me about the magnum opus "Rebel Without a Cause", and boy was it a masterpiece. So you might be thinking, how does a rebellious icon get associated with Royal Enfield? For that my friend we need to take a step back.

James Dean

James Dean was born in Marion Indiana in 1931 and from his early days, he started to have a thing for the beasts with two wheels and an iron heart in between. James got his hands on the first motorcycle at the age of 15. It was a a 1947 CZ 125-cc. In his small town in Indiana, he was the only kid who owned a motorcycle, and every time he rode it he did it with full gusto. James loved speed & performed stunts.Once to quench his thrust for adrenaline, he rode his motorcycle in full throttle and lost two teeth in a fall. The locals used to call him “One Speed Dean”.

Later, when James was only 22 years old, he dropped out of college to pursue acting. At this point in December 1953, he traded his beloved 1947 CZ for a used 1950 single cylinder Royal Enfield 500cc vertical twin. It had two exhaust ports, thus twin mufflers. The story and bond between James Dean and Royal Enfield is best described by Lee Raskin, in his book James Dean: At Speed. The book states that, at this point of time, he had roles on television, walk-on movie appearances and had been also chosen for the prestigious Actors Studio in the Big Apple, New York.

James was rehearsing for the play The Immoralist, & was in Fairmount on Christmas break. If  he's successful and was able to amass positive reviews of this 1954 production, it would definitely bring important calls from Hollywood & open new avenues for him. But Dean had something else planned. He planned to ride his Royal Enfield, all the way from Indiana back to New York City. As the weather was rough & extremely cold, the trip was never meant to be a relishing one. The uber-cool actor put on an aviator's leather helmet and a hood to cover his face against the cold, with just slits for the eyes.

1947 CZ 125-cc

Dean knew that the Royal Enfield's motor had just been rebuilt and would need to be run in. In-spite of the fact, he kept riding, kicking aside all the possible troubles it might give way to. But, when trouble came, he was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. It was a high-speed road, but his impatience got the best out of him.

At the vicinity of Carlisle, Penn., in subfreezing temperatures, the Royal Enfield began loosing power. Just outside of Harrisburg the engine stopped and Dean was instantly dragged to the side of the road. The state police responded to the call for help and Paul Roof of Hunzinger Motorcycles came to get Dean and the Royal Enfield. A burnt exhaust valve, turned out to be the root of the problem.

Finding parts for the Royal Enfield wasn't a piece of cake and would take a few days. So, Roof offered to feed Dean at his home, and found him a room in a boarding house. Since Dean was in a hurry and had a keen eye for motorcycles, he couldn't stop but admired a Indian Warrior TT that was on sale at Hunzinger's and decided to trade. Paul valued the broken Royal Enfield at $300 and Dean sent for $400 from his acting wages.

When the money and title to the Royal Enfield came in the mail, Dean sealed the deal for the Indian and completed his trip. In Greenwich Village, he he got the Indian serviced at a garage, where aspiring actor Steve McQueen worked as a mechanic. Unfortunately, no one knows the VIN number of Dean's Royal Enfield or anything about it's fate. Dean covered about 550 miles on the Royal Enfield from Fairmount to Harrisburg.

On his Triumph TR5

Later, James Dean, trying to imitate Marlon Brando, bought a Triumph TR5 Trophy, the last bike he rode before he died in his Porsche.

James Dean was indeed a rebel and still is a inspiration for millions. And his 550 mile ride across U.S. proves his longing for motorcycles, while he tore the asphalt on his then Royal Enfield. He definitely lived true to his words, when he said,
Dream as if you'll live forever, live as if you'll die today.


  1. Excellent article but there's new information. Raskin has since learned that Dean's Royal Enfield was a single, not a twin, and he knows the serial number! If that bike is found, it's going to be worth something. Full information is on at this link.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for the compliment. You are right, if found the Royal Enfield would surely be a high class memorabilia. But unfortunately no one known the serial number of the bike, not even Mr. Raskin.

  2. Good Article and such a Nice Photos with Royal Enfield.