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Move Over Indiana Jones

 

Words: Paul Garson

Robert E. Fulton circa 1932 on his 600cc Douglas.

"One of the great advantages of the motorcycle is its ability to bring its rider close to the environment--winds, weather, roads, surroundings, nature." Robert E. Fulton

No, this Robert E. Fulton wasn’t powered by steam – rather, by sheer guts, stamina and a passion for exploration and adventure on two wheels. Like his famous namesake more than a century earlier, he did go where no man had gone before - in this case, to Afghanistan, on a motorcycle, in the wild years of 1932-33.

The genesis for Robert Edison Fulton’s decision to go rumbling around the 1930’s wild and wooly world began with a pretty girl. Robert E. was attending a posh post-graduation 1932 London party where he mentioned he might return home to New York the long way around, via the Orient, and take in the sights along the way… by motorcycle. He was overheard by the owner of the Douglas Motorcycle Co., who took Robert E. at his word and supplied him with a bike equipped with an auxiliary gas tank and some metal plates to give it added protection, as well as a hiding place for a pistol.

Excerpt from film shows sample of meandering path taken by Fulton and his Douglas.

Motoring through pre-WWII Europe, then on into the Middle East, India and Asia, he eventually, some 17 months later, reached Japan. Along the way he dodged bandits in Iraq, was shot at by Pathan tribesmen in the Khyber Pass (all bad shots, fortunately) and was wined and dined by Indian rajahs who took a liking to him. The only injury sustained occurred when he rode off an unfinished bridge one night in Turkey, which landed him in a culvert where he languished unconscious for several hours before local villagers rescued him and his motorcycle. While still in Turkey, his engine seized and he had to replace its oil with mustard oil as the only available alternative. The resultant fumes almost asphyxiated him.

His only major illness was a bout of jaundice in Baghdad that kept him in the hospital for a month. While in his room he heard a commotion next door, only to learn that in the night a Kurdish warlord had slipped in and finished off a rival he had previously wounded. “I’m glad the Arabs had a facility for mathematics, and that the fellow could count windows that well in the dark, else he might have entered my room by mistake,” recalled Robert E. years later.

Chinese soldiers wield a variety of weapons.

Further commenting about the Middle East and the villages he encountered, he said, "They were always warning me about the next place to go, and the next place to go was warning me how lucky I was to get through the last one." But on the other hand, once, while in the middle of the desert and out of supplies, a Bedouin appeared out of nowhere and offered him half his food, as was the custom; then the two played backgammon all through the night.

Original film excerpt show Fulton taking on the desert sands.

Resourceful every step of the way, Robert E. would often request local jailers provide him with overnight accommodations. It made for a safe night’s sleep as well. However, he was also arrested 25 times for various infractions, real or imaginary. In many places, the people he encountered had never even seen a motorcycle, particularly in Asia circa 1932. After surviving 40,000 miles of wild and wooly adventure, he returned to the States and traded in his riding leathers for a nice suit, only to have his motorcycle stolen. Fortunately, the Douglas was recovered and still resides at the family’s property in Newton, CT.

While Robert E. Fulton tells us that this trip started as a lark, it ended up “shaping his life, his attitudes, his curiosity, his respect for other cultures and for nature, his understanding of solitude and interconnectedness.”

Fulton filming with his American made 16mm Bell & Howell Cine Camera.

Robert E. went on to tour the U.S., presenting hundreds of lectures, including a stint to packed audiences at Carnegie Hall. This was the mid-30s, when such travel adventure lectures brought the public their first up-close-and-personal views of the outside world. Robert E. also chronicled his travels in "One Man Caravan" (Harcourt, Brace, 1937), now in reprint by Whitehorse Press. Robert E. selected images from the thousands of his photographs and created another book called “The Long Journey Home: The 1932 Motorcycle Voyage by Robert Fulton.” To quote a review from an ad for the book: “His beautifully composed images express the wonder of a young man realizing the world for the first time, and reveal all the attendant felicity and tribulation he experienced.”

 Airphibian car/plane featured quick attach/detach design.

Robert E. at a very spry 89 with his Airphibian at 1998 Annual Louis Vuitton Classic Car Show at Rockefeller Center, NYC.

After returning from his global trek just in time to buy Christmas presents in 1934, Robert got very, very busy. He eventually pumped out over 70 patented inventions, including a simulator he designed to train WWII aviators in aerial gunnery, a successful CAA approved flying car, “The Airphibian” and a rescue device, “The Skyhook,” later employed by the CIA.

Robert E. Fulton, the “intrepid inventor” passed away on May7, 2004 at age 95.

See and Hear Robert E. Fulton

CNN aired an interview with Robert E. Fulton, then 91, in August 2000. Later, Robert E. and his son Rawn put together a documentary film about the motorcycle trip using the original film. “Twice Upon A Caravan" runs about 40 minutes and is narrated by Robert E. himself. When you see the “roads” he traveled and how often he literally was “walking” his motorcycle, you marvel at this tenacity. His ventures into Afghanistan are particularly fascinating, as is his filming of Baghdad. It was shown as Best Documentary at the Seattle Chugach Mountain Film Festival held in 2003. The video is available via www.footagefarm.com. His book is available via www.motolit.com.

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1923 348cc Model W Douglas

As blacksmiths in 1882 Bristol England, brothers William, Arthur and Edward Douglas fired up the Douglas Engineering Company, but as the new century rolled on they got into the new-fangled motor vehicles. In 1905, they built a Douglas motorcycle with a prototype engine designed by Joseph Barter which, for some reason, they named the Fairy Motorcycle. In any case, the Douglas brothers produced a sturdy line of line of horizontally opposed twin cylinder machines of 2.75 horsepower.

WWI, like any war, got things churning, and by 1914 Douglas bike production went into large quantities (70,000 war bikes), generating more powerful 3.5 and 4hp models. The engines would come in various displacement flavors, including 350, 500 and 600 cc, as well as speedway racers. Douglas also came out with the first disk brake (good motorcycle trivial pursuit question). Even England’s King George bought one, which gave Douglas some clout. By the 1930s you could purchase their first transverse twin, the 494cc shaftdrive Endeavour. After WWII, they restarted motorcycle production with the 350cc MK I, followed by the MK 3 and MK 4. By the 1950s, with Douglas going the way of many British golden age motorcycles, they came out with their final bike, the 350cc Dragonfly, a horizontally opposed twin. By 1957, Russia had launched Sputnik and the world was spinning in a whole new direction. The last Dragonfly, only making 70 mph but very steadily, flew out of the Douglas facility, signaling the end of company’s 50 years in the saddle. Well done, Douglas.