Mumbai/New Delhi: In 1954, the Indian government ordered 800 rugged motorcycles for use by security personnel on the border with Pakistan. The chosen bike was Royal Enfield Bullet 350, built in Redditch, the UK, by Enfield Cycle Co.
In a prescient move the following year, Enfield partnered with Madras Motors to form Enfield India, first to assemble and later build the bike in what eventually was to become its home market.
And on 11 October 2012, the new generation Thunderbird 500 was launched by Eicher Motors Ltd, the present maker of the bike. At Rs.1.82 lakh, it is the most expensive motorcycle from the Enfield stable. Within a day, the company had received 100 bookings for a product that is currently available online.
In the intervening 57 years, the bike, and the company, have had quite a ride.
In 1971, Enfield Cycle went out of business, but the Royal Enfield Bullet continued to chug along in India.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the bike faced significant competition from new-fangled and fuel-efficient bikes of Japanese origin with hyphenated brand names such as Ind-Suzuki, Hero Honda, Escorts Yamaha, and Kawasaki Bajaj.
By 1990, the bike, and the company, were sputtering. That year, Eicher Motors, a venerable Delhi company that made its name selling tractors, formed an alliance with the Chennai bike-maker. Four years later, it bought the bike company and also the rights to use the Royal Enfield name.
Today, Royal Enfield is the oldest motorcycle brand in the world still in production, with the Bullet model enjoying the longest motorcycle production run of all time.
Those are the cold, hard, facts.
And they probably don’t matter a whit to bike enthusiasts.
Like Nikhil Kashyap, a communications consultant from Mumbai, who owns 30 motorcycles, of which eight are Royal Enfields: “A car moves your body, but a bike stirs your soul, especially so when it’s a Royal Enfield,” he said.
Indeed, the Enfield inspires a peculiar devotion among bikers, according to Siddhartha Lal, the head of Eicher Motors.
“It’s bit of a timeless machine,” said Lal, an avid biker, who has run the company since May 2006. Lal started his Enfield journey with his father’s chrome 350. “I’ve had different Enfield models over time and have taken long trips on them,” he said. “And though the bike has evolved over the years, we have not deviated from the core values, which include the unhurried ride that the bike gives. It has the torque to race if you wish or cruise. The choice is yours.”
In recent years, the Enfield’s following has only increased—so much so that some of the models have a waiting period. One such is the company’s popular Enfield Classic, launched in November 2009 and priced at around Rs.1 lakh for a 350 cc model. It has a waiting period of around 10-12 months, but there are people willing to wait that long.
The Royal Enfield, for those who didn’t know this already, is a cult brand.
It is a cult that has inspired die-hard enthusiasts, newly minted bikers, expats on a discovery-of-India trip, and grease monkeys alike. It is also a cult that is, as a 2011 ad featuring glimpses of India and the Bullet 350 to strains of Sattyananda’s electroclassical music puts it, “handcrafted in Chennai.”
“It’s a post-colonial brand,” said Mohit Jayal, managing director of Wieden+Kennedy, Delhi, who made the TV advert. “The combination of that Englishness and Indianness is very natural. Royal Enfield was a Brit baby that was abandoned in Chennai and then raised as an Indian brand and nurtured and loved in India… how’s that for a sentiment?”
It’s a sentiment that appeals to bikers like Kashyap, who has travelled to Siachen on a Bullet and is part of biker groups such as the Rajasthan Barrels in Jaipur and the Road Shakers club in Pune.
And interestingly, it is a sentiment that, in a different way, appeals to Rana Jitendra Kaur, who runs a motorcycle shop in Delhi’s Karol Bagh market that hires out bikes on a short-term basis and also make new ones out of old parts to order.
The Bullet, she says, is “stable and powerful and easy to repair.” “Tourists and boys from Punjab and Delhi like the old bikes. It’s a man’s bike, you can say,” says the bike store owner, dressed rather incongruously in a pastel pink salwar kameez and delicate jewellery.
“It’s a macho bike,” Kashyap says of his Enfield. “It makes men into mechanics. You want to handle your own bike. Most of my friends who have Enfields spend more time with their mechanics than with their girlfriends.”
And the mechanics themselves, if the two at Kaur’s shop are any indication, are as wedded to the bikes as their owners.
“I’ve worked on them ever since my childhood, for 35 years,” said one of them, Arvinder Bal Singh, “with my father before me. He worked in garages for BSA, Norton, Triumph.” To Singh, who can recognize every model by the sound of its engine as it speeds by the shop, each bike is an individual. “The single plug ignition on the old Enfield has a completely different sound,” he said. “It’s slow... like a tuk...tuk..tuk..” he holds his hand out as he imitates the growl of the engine, eyes alight.
Admittedly the Enfield lacks the power and the star quality of some of its competitors—Yamaha, for example, which is advertised by Bollywood stars and has its own devoted following among the mechanics in Karol Bagh. But Singh loves Enfield for its history, not its trendiness.
Nevertheless, the company has made efforts to improve its bikes, according to Madhukar Lahane, sales manager at Voyage Motors, a Royal Enfield franchisee in Kandivili—a Western suburb in Mumbai. “Demand has gone up since 2010, ever since the company made its twin spark engine that is more fuel-efficient. The fact that the bikes no longer have problems like oil leaks also helps,” said Lahane.
“We have retained its core character, while removing barriers to adoption such as moving the gears to the left side, addressing quality concerns and making it more fuel efficient,” added Lal.
But there’s more to making a bike company successful than merely making good bikes.
There are the bikers to be considered, for instance.
Perhaps seeking to capitalize on the virtue of looking and feeling “vintage,” Royal Enfield has shied away from mass media advertising, concentrating more on building its brand around its perceived cult status.
The company promotes leisure motorcycling as a lifestyle. It organizes annual events and rides such as the Himalayan Odyssey, The Tour of Rann of Kutch, The Tour of NH 17 (Mumbai to Goa), the Tour of Rajasthan and the Southern Odyssey.
To make life easy for the bikers, Voyage Motors regularly updates its customers about group rides and other events. “During the 15 August rally, around 1,600 bikers converged on Bandra. This also helps in making the Enfield an aspirational bike for potential riders,” said Lahane.
Whichever Enfield model they ride—an Electra, a Standard or Classic, Machismo, Desert Storm or Thunderbird—Bullet bikers take pride in making heads turn when they cruise the roads. It’s not only the clattering thump of the engine that draws attention. The leather jackets, faded jeans and boots, and leisurely riding style—as opposed to racing superbikers—set apart the serious Bullet enthusiasts from the rest of the crowd on the highways.
The club is exclusive. Enfield riders typically head in groups to destinations like Leh, Ladakh, Manali, the Siachen border and even to the Khardung La pass—said to be the highest motoroable road in the world.
Harsh Rohatgi, a 37-year-old entrepreneur from Mumbai, owns two bikes—a Standard 350 1996 model and a more vintage 1967 one. He has now booked a Classic 500—waiting times for Royal Enfield bikes can range from three to 12 months.
Rohatgi has been to Ladakh and even Cambodia on his Enfield. “It’s a great value proposition and very good for long rides. You can easily find a mechanic for troubleshooting,” he says.
Rohatgi, who runs a website that provides local remedies for common ailments, started biking more than 15 years ago. He said he was inspired by a young Lal, who was his senior in school.
“He used to ride on a yellow-coloured Enfield,” he recalls. The bike has stuck in his memory ever since.
Like collectors in other fields, Enfield owners tend to be almost fanatical about their bikes’ pedigrees. Kashyap, for instance, owns a 1951 World War II model, a ‘62 and a ‘64—both made in England—and a ‘69 model made in Chennai, among others.
Most of these are second-hand bikes that he has modified to suit his six-feet frame and personal preferences. He keeps his 30 bikes in different cities so he can ride them wherever he stays.
Despite the macho reputation of the Royal Enfield, it has its share of female acolytes. Twinke Kapdi, a 26-year-old from Bangalore who runs a travel website, bought a red Thunderbird in August.
“Being a travel enthusiast and traveller, I love the flexibility that a bike offers. I simply fell in love with the Thunderbird cruiser, ” said Kapdi.
Urvashi Patole from Pune has been biking since she turned 14, when her father allowed her to experiment with “smaller” bikes until she graduated to a Standard 350, which she sold in 2009 to buy a Machismo.
Patole, now 24, is also the founder of All India Women Biking Association, or ‘Bikerni’ (which means a female biker). The Bikerni group was mentioned in the Limca Book of Records for covering Khardung La, in the Ladakh region, on Royal Enfield Classic 500s.
Patole has been a test rider for Mahindra Motorcycles, and is a corporate communications executive with auto ancillaries maker Bosch India Ltd. She is currently on medical leave, recovering from a near-fatal accident in June, which happened when she was riding on the ghats in Coorg.
“One of the male riders was trying to overtake us. It was a steep curve and I slammed my brakes in an attempt to save us both from falling off the road. Since we were travelling at around 50kmph, we fell down,” she said. “My helmet did save me from a fatal accident, but my doctor has advised me not to ride till I fully recover from the damage my brain suffered.”
Patole suffered a concussion, memory loss and has trouble interpreting sensory signals such as light and sound. “Lights or noise disturbs me. So I have to recover fully before I ride a bike,” she said.
Having survived its transplant to another continent and established its cult presence there, Enfield is consolidating its success, starting with improving its “after-market strategy”, according to Lal of Eicher Motors.
Royal Enfield has 11 brand stores, 180 dealers in major cities and towns, and at least 100 authorized service centres. The company also exports the motorcycles to 31 countries, including the US, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Korea, Bahrain, the UK, France, Germany and Argentina through 25 importers and over 200 dealers across the globe.
“Royal Enfield has undertaken to expand its current capacity owing to the growing demand of its motorcycles worldwide,” said Lal.
A proposed Royal Enfield plant, spread over 50 acres, is slated for completion by the first quarter of 2013, he said. Once completed, the plant would increase Royal Enfield’s capacity to 150,000 units a year. “We hope to clear all backlog in the next 6-12 months,” said Lal.
In the coming years, said Lal, “we will keep on creating a different style of motorcycling.” He acknowledged that some of the Enfield riders would upgrade to superbikes “but for others, we do not want to be the biggest and fastest. Bikers with big cruisers (like Harley Davidson and the like) will not find it easy to ride up to the Himalayas. It’s here that the Royal Enfield makes a lot of sense.”
Owners like Kashyap will keep adding bikes to their collection. “I want to have 31 bikes by the end of 2012—one each for every day of the month,” he said. “I hope to own 365 bikes for the same reason.”