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Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The Bullet bug is spreading far and wide

The story of Royal Enfield, and how it went from being an iconic symbol of adventure and individuality (and a bike that broke down often) to India's fastest-growing motorcycle brand

In the old seaport of Kollam, on Kerala’s west coast, there is a man known as Bullet Mani, and he claims to have a special gift. In the 1960s, when Thiruvananthapuram was still called Trivandrum and modern media had not yet supplanted fairy tales, he worked in that evergreen city with a man named Gopalan Mestri, who became his guru. It was from Mestri that he inherited his gift, and he has been using it for 40 years now, since he moved to Kollam in 1976. Few know of him and his powers, but those who do, travel miles to bear witness to them. Even as they approach, his magic begins to work. For Bullet Mani can listen to the sound of a Royal Enfield motorcycle and immediately tell you what is wrong with it.

Some 10,000km away, in a village in the Swiss Alps, lives Roland M., another man who deals in magic. His full name is kept secret by those who speak of him, for he was a UN official who advised countries on security and now his own must be ensured. But we know that when he is at his home in the mountains, he takes all the blood and grief he has seen on his journeys through war-torn nations, stuffs it in his back pocket and pulls out card tricks in their place.

Bobbee Singh with one of his custom-builds. Photo: Manav Parhawk
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Bobbee Singh with one of his custom-builds. Photo: Manav Parhawk

Every magician must have a vehicle to carry him around, so he can befuddle and bedazzle all the neighbourhood children. And this magician’s vehicle is a restored, fully customized, 1970s Royal Enfield Bullet. Called The Magician Bullet, it’s fiery red, with a sidecar for all the secret things a magician may need. It came out of a workshop in Delhi called Old Delhi Motorcycles, owned by Bobbee Singh, who has been restoring Enfield bikes for 16 years.

When Roland came to Delhi looking for his magic mobile, Singh took him around on his own restored Bullet, which also has a sidecar. And as they rode past yells of “Sholay, Sholay" from onlookers reminded of Jai and Veeru’s bike in that iconic movie, he learnt that this powerful UN official was really a mirthful child who needed a powerful yet fun vehicle to play in.

In the past decade, Royal Enfield has become India’s fastest-growing motorcycle brand. Sales have gone up by more than 50% each year since 2011; in 2014, they were higher than legendary leisure motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson’s; and this July, the brand sold 52,128 bikes, as many as it had in all of 2008.

But when you ask long-time Enfield enthusiasts about the journey of the 115-year-old brand and its flagship bike, the Bullet—from the British-made bikes that the Indian Army rode, to making motorcycles solely in India, to being known as a doodhwallah (milkman) bike, to carving a niche for itself by appealing to rugged adventurers, to becoming India’s most aspirational brand of motorcycles, as likely to be ridden on a daily commute as on a tour around India—you do not hear facts and figures, or how unreliable they can be; you hear stories of magic.

A dirt race at Royal Enfield Rider Mania 2015. Courtesy Royal Enfield
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A dirt race at Royal Enfield Rider Mania 2015. Courtesy Royal Enfield

Stories about men such as Bullet Mani, whose real name is P. Thangamani, the mechanic from Kollam district, which, he estimates, has a population of just over two million and more than 60,000 Royal Enfield motorcycles. Mani accepts only Enfields at his Enfield India Auto Garrage—spelt with two Rs, serendipitously suggestive of the sound he hears from his beloved Bullets—and services or repairs more than 10 every day. “People from all over India—Gujarat, Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai even—come to my shop," he says. He must communicate with them by mimicking the sounds bikes make, for Malayalam is the only language he speaks. In his half-century of working with Enfields, he has learnt so many tricks that the company now often calls him for professional advice, and to test new bike parts.

No one from Eicher Motors, the company that owns the Royal Enfield brand, coaxed Mani to script such a riveting chapter in its story. He was doing what he did long before they even bought it from Madras Motors. But it is stories like his that make Enfield more than just a successful Indian brand. It is an ecosystem, and Mani, Roland M., Bobbee Singh and thousands of other men like them who centre their lives on these motorcycles have been as much a part of making Royal Enfield bikes iconic in India as Eicher Motors has. When a schoolboy looks with envious awe at his elder brother’s Bullet, he is not simply coveting a motorcycle; he is awaiting induction into this colourful, romantic community.

Bullet Mani at his garage in Kollam. Photo: Jyothiraj NS/Mint
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Bullet Mani at his garage in Kollam. Photo: Jyothiraj NS/Mint

The Enfield Ecosystem

First contact with the ecosystem often begins from the moment you enter a dealership to enquire about the motorcycles. If you’re in Chandigarh, you’re likely to walk into Manmohan Auto Stores, one of the two dealerships there, owned by 52-year-old Manmohan Singh. His grandfather and father started an Enfield dealership in Ambala back in 1957, just two years after the bike began to be assembled in India. After joining the business, in 1983, he opened two outlets in Chandigarh and one in Patiala and has seen his annual sales go from 31 bikes then to 4,000-plus bikes last year. When he sells a motorcycle to a customer he likes, he keeps in touch with them on Facebook and goes for a breakfast ride with them, perhaps sharing tips on the bike; there is nothing he doesn’t know about it, he says. Biking runs in the families of many Enfield dealers.

Once you own an Enfield, you need to begin fostering a relationship with the local legendary mechanic. In Kerala, Bullet Mani is your man. In Mumbai, it is O. A. Anthony, who has been running his little garage from a by-lane in Santacruz since 1979 and has, he says, built the world’s fastest Bullet, a 600cc modified Enfield bike—the most powerful motorcycle the company sells is the 535cc Continental GT—which, during a 2008 Royal Enfield Speed Run event, completed a quarter-mile in 13.3 seconds, hitting speeds of over 130 kilometres per hour. Bengaluru has a road called Bullet Lane in Shivajinagar that has a row of mechanic shops; the story goes that when any motorcycle other than a Royal Enfield turns into the lane, it’s full of disdainful looks.

Then there are the customizers, for whom Enfield motorcycles are a base to create works of art that define the people who ride on them. Like Bobbee Singh, who has been mad about motorcycles since he was 10, when he would go to his neighbour’s house, put grease on his face and pretend to assist him as he worked on his bike in a room with a painting of an old Triumph on the wall. He is interested only in vintage Enfields and only makes bikes for people of a certain vintage. You have to talk to him for hours, and only if he sees a shape forming out of your thoughts and dreams will he agree to build you a bike.

Jaipur-based Vijay Singh, for whom a summer project to build himself a bike turned into a full-fledged customization business, Rajputana Customs, is a little less finicky about his clients. And if you don’t have the Rs3-5 lakh a full custom job can cost, you could call on Vardenchi Motorcycles, in Mumbai. Owner Akshai Varde’s list of clients reads like the credits of a Bollywood blockbuster, but he has expanded his business to building affordable accessories and customization kits for customers on a tighter budget.

Club culture

Once you have your bike looking and feeling the way you want, you get into the serious business of proving your riding credentials. You may start off with a few trips through the mountains organized by one of the several tour operators that are part of the Enfield community. And then, you dive into the heart of the ecosystem. You join a Bullet club.

“It is madness that brings us together, the madness to explore new things with no plan." Puneet Pal, a member of the Inddie Thumpers, which claims to be Mumbai’s first Bullet group, is talking about how he and some of the other members once went on a ride to Nepal without even planning a route.

On a warm Tuesday night, a group of Thumpers have gathered around a cyclewallah who sells cigarettes near Five Gardens, in the Mumbai suburb of Matunga. This is their adda, where they meet every night to discuss bikes and riding. “Sometimes we can talk for hours just about headlights," says Karna Fulzele, who has been with the club for nine years.

The Thumpers, founded in 2001, organize several rides in a year, some short and some long, arduous undertakings. The members share information on interesting and challenging routes, and the motorcycle itself. But more than anything, the club, for people such as Fulzele and Pal, is their principal social circle. Through it, they are part of a larger network, the Brotherhood of Bulleteers Motorcycling Consortium, which counts 82 Bullet clubs from all over the country as its members. Every year, one of the member clubs hosts an event called Rider Mania (not affiliated to the event of the same name organized by the brand) and riders from as far apart as Mizoram and Udupi descend on one city.

Each club has its own identity; many have their own logos, badges and T-shirts; some even have initiation rituals. But they are all bonded by the bike they ride. “If I go to another city, I just have to message someone from one of the Bullet clubs there and they will get someone to pick me up from the airport, party with me the whole night and then drop me back to the airport when I’m leaving," says Fulzele.

Prashanth Kumar, who has been a part of the Rolling Thunder Motorcycle Club (RTMC) in Bengaluru since its inception 15 years ago and now owns 40 motorcycles, including six Enfields—he has run out of space in his garage, and some of his bikes are now in his bedroom—says the members of his club have become such thick friends that their wives have formed a spin-off called the Rolling Thunder Mahila Club.

Each Bullet club finds its own favourite hang-outs, giving rise to more branches of the ecosystem. Bengaluru now has several biker cafés—the RTMC meet at the Moto Store & Café—and in Manali, a city frequented by riders, Godwin D’Cruz and his wife Sneh, both hairdressers and travellers, run a guest house called Ride Inn. More than half their clients ride up on Enfields, and as Enfield riders themselves, they know what routes to recommend. “When you have riders from different regions sharing stories over dinner, it’s a different atmosphere," says Godwin.

There were only five recognized Bullet clubs in India back in 2001, but since then there has been an explosion. Now, there are 64 in Mumbai alone, each one adding to the idea that riding on an Enfield makes you not just a consumer but a member of a movement.

Harsh Man Rai (left) and Vir Nakai, co-founders of Helmet Stories, at Garage 52 in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
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Harsh Man Rai (left) and Vir Nakai, co-founders of Helmet Stories, at Garage 52 in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The building of a legacy

The Enfield ecosystem is linked inextricably to the brand’s long history. During the brand’s lean periods, it was the mechanics, tour operators and clubs that kept alive the spirit of the traditional British bike.

Originally built by a company called Enfield Manufacturing Co. Ltd, Royal Enfield bikes were used by British troops during the two world wars. They were first sold in India in 1949, but gained attention here only after the government ordered several hundred 350cc Bullets for the army and police, in 1955.

That association has survived. Bobbee Singh remembers his grandfather telling him stories about army officers who would polish their Enfield Bullets every Sunday. “It became a symbol of power and authority. It was ridden by the army, the police, and the zamindars as they surveyed their fields," he says.

Enfield Manufacturing Co. licensed Madras Motors to build the bikes in India, and they became the owners of the brand once the British company folded in 1970. Then, in 1990, Madras Motors became part of Eicher Group.

By then, there were whispers of a small group of adventure motorcycling enthusiasts who were using Enfields to do unheard-of things, such as riding to Ladakh, braving the altitude and then-dangerous roads. These were men who were not bestowed with authority, like the Bullet-riding officers and policemen, but were asserting it upon their environment. They were not afraid to acquire a bike that was considered unreliable at the time and take it apart, work with a local mechanic, learn how every piece of the machine worked and then piece it back together so it would do what they pleased.

Harsh Man Rai was one of these early adopters of leisure and adventure motorcycling. Man Rai, who went on to co-found adventure travel company Helmet Stories, which, among other things, organizes motorcycle tours, bought his first Enfield, a 350cc Classic Bullet, in 1982. “To be honest, there weren’t many options in the segment," Man Rai, who now owns five Royal Enfield bikes, says. “The Bullet looked different and was big, so that appealed to us."

Enfields were already aspirational, thanks to the long history and the vintage and grand design, but they were also affordable for the middle class. This is the case even today. If you want a bike that has more than 250cc, you can splurge Rs5 lakh or more on an international brand, but there are not many options in Enfield’s price range of Rs1-2 lakh. This positioning was pivotal in Enfield becoming the brand of choice for the growing market of adventure and leisure bikers. It also piqued interest because it was different in many ways from all the other Indo-Japanese bikes in the Indian market. “At that time, it was always Bullet and then the rest," says Prashanth Kumar. “The brakes were on the reverse, it was 4-stroke when everything was 2-stroke, it didn’t smoke so much and, while other bikes could go fast, on the Bullet, you could go as slowly as you wanted and maintain balance."

Fortuitously, Enfield’s biggest weakness, the bikes’ unreliability—parts would break down regularly, especially during testing long rides—ended up adding to its charm. “Earlier, you had to sit with your mechanic and work on your Enfield till it was a bike so personalized that only you knew how to start it," says Vijay Singh. “You remember your first Enfield because it gave you both joy and pain. Because it would change character as the weather changed, and you alone would know how to get the best out of it at different stages of its life."

This is why most Enfield owners will tell you that they prefer to transport their bike with them rather than hire one elsewhere, for no other bike feels the same. “It’s like you become one with your bike," says Fulzele.

Samrat Som at the Royal Enfield store in Khan Market. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
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Samrat Som at the Royal Enfield store in Khan Market. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

The slump and the boom

While the tales of derring-do of the small clique of adventurers had generated small waves of excitement about the brand, there is only so much you can do with bikes that are known to break down. By 2000, Enfield was doing so poorly as a brand that Eicher wanted to shut it down. That’s when Siddhartha Lal, whose father, Vikram, had been chief executive officer of Eicher Motors, took over the dying brand and vowed to turn it around.

His first line of business was to make the bikes more contemporary and reliable, and that meant discarding many elements that the old loyalists thought of as integral to their charm, such as the cast-iron engine and the ignition breaker point-set assembly. “We now have a state-of-the-art manufacturing process and have switched to some of the world’s best suppliers for some of our most crucial parts," Lal says over the phone from New York.

With less moody bikes, more Enfield owners were willing to ride through a stream or on a mountain pass. The infrastructure for attempting these rides improved too. Roads in the Himalayas got better, and when Enfield introduced the Himalayan Odyssey in 2005, an annual ride from New Delhi to Leh, riders could enjoy the experience of being on a bike 3,500m above sea level, knowing they had the assistance of a trained crew should something go wrong.

The profile of the adventure biker changed. He no longer had that raffish allure of a man who was risking it all just for the thrill of it, but could be anyone who wanted a taste of the explorer’s life. For example, Asmita Mehra, a 28-year-old design and content strategist from Hyderabad, went on her first long trip this July, an all-woman ride from Delhi to Ladakh organized by Royal Enfield and titled Himalayan Odyssey—Women’s Edition. She did not do any prep on her bike with a mechanic, nor did she know too much about the mechanics of her bike, but she came through without a hiccup.

Lal knew he also needed to make his motorcycles an attractive enough proposition for those who just wanted a vehicle to look cool on in the city. He started by completely changing the way Enfield dealerships looked. Bikes are now placed aesthetically rather than crammed into tight spaces and the staff is trained to sell people not just a motorcycle but the ethos of Enfield. There are also several Enfield brand stores where, along with motorcycles, you can buy accessories, riding gear and apparel that celebrate Enfield’s legacy. The apparel and accessories business, three years old, has already grown at around 300%. “Enfield enthusiasts already express themselves through the motorcycle and the journeys they take. This is our endeavour to help them express themselves with more things," says Samrat Som, its head.

The brand has been sexed up, with history and nostalgia being blended with innovation and style. And the effects are palpable on the streets. “These days, when I ride to work, I see at least 10 people with Enfield branded helmets on my route," says Madhuneeth Hebbar, a member of the RTMC. “If I go to any exit of the Bengaluru highway on a Sunday, I’ll see at least one or two Bullet groups gathering there for a ride."

When any cult goes mass, there is always a pushback from the older members. Prashanth says many of the new Enfield customers are not passionate motorcycling enthusiasts, but want the bikes for the status they confer. “They see their neighbour has bought a Bullet and so get one themselves, and then ride it to the coffee shop," he sneers.

At his workshop in Santacruz, Anthony talks about how longer warranties and simpler mechanics mean people don’t need his expertise as much any more.

For Lal, however, this is, in fact, the ideal time for the brand’s energetic development and the ecosystem to begin to support each other. He wants to support the mechanics, tour operators and customizers by connecting them with customers, making the brand an integral part of the ecosystem without being its controller. He has always believed in keeping advertising minimal and connecting directly with the community of riders, through events such as the Himalayan Odyssey and the annual Royal Enfield Rider Mania in Goa.

The Inddie Thumpers. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
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The Inddie Thumpers. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

The road ahead

The Enfield consumer is knowledgeable and discerning. He is passionate about his bike, but he also knows what is wrong with it. This means Lal and his team have to constantly be on their toes when launching new vehicles. The latest offering, The Himalayan, has been criticized for its performance. And a lot of the old tropes surrounding the brand have not been completely submerged by its recent success.

Vijay Singh says Enfield hasn’t really done anything new with its bikes and is still riding on the popularity of the classic 350cc Bullet, which accounts for more than half of all the brand’s bike sales. His Rajputana Customs works almost exclusively on Bullets. “If a guy like me, sitting here in Jaipur with 12 half-trained boys, can come out with six or eight new Enfields every year, then what has the company been doing all these years?"

Meanwhile, after his club members have finished answering questions, Mihir Mistry of Inddie Thumpers asks if it’s okay if he moans about Enfield’s bikes a bit. “After every long ride, I have to spend a weekend fixing my bike," he says. Other members chime in with stories of 14-hour journeys from Mumbai to Lonavala, a hill station just 83km away. If you go online, you will find many more similar complaints on forums and social media.

On his part, Lal is determined to build a niche for Enfield in international markets, particularly the UK and US. He says mid-level motorcycles are grossly misrepresented globally, which gives Enfield a massive opportunity.

In its home, Enfield and the Bullet will always be more than a brand in a segment. They will continue to be a protagonist in stories. “Once, while we were biking through a village some 40km outside Amritsar, one of our rider’s bikes broke down," Fulzele begins one. “The entire ignition coil was busted. We found a mechanic, and when he took us to his godown, in the Punjabi hinterland, we found it was filled with new, original Royal Enfield parts, complete with the black and orange logo."

It is tales such as these that make Royal Enfield endure as an icon in India. People always smile when a Bullet rolls by, new owners begin completing their rites of passage into the community every day, and in Kollam, Bullet Mani keeps an eye on the Bullets resting on their stands in his “garrage", making sure no one disrespects them by leaning or sitting on them.

A brief history of an icon

1891

R.W. Smith and Albert Eadie take over the Townsend cycle company in Redditch, England, to form Enfield Manufacturing Co. Ltd.

1893

The Royal Enfield brand name is created.

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1898

The first motorized vehicle, a quadricycle, is manufactured by Enfield .

1901

The first Royal Enfield motorcycle, with a 235cc engine, is produced.

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1932

The first Bullet arrives. It’s a 350cc bike, but looks quite different from the modern version.

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1948

A new version of the Bullet, with rear suspension springing, is released. The current version of the 350cc Bullet is a developed version of this bike.

1955

Madras Motors gets a licence to assemble Royal Enfield bikes in India.

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1970

The original Redditch-based company stops manufacturing Royal Enfield bikes, leaving Madras Motors as the sole manufacturers of the brand.

1990

Madras Motors enters into an alliance with Eicher Group and they take over the brand.

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2000

Siddhartha Lal is appointed CEO of Royal Enfield and given the mandate to rescue the loss-making brand.

2005

Enfield hosts the Himalayan Odyssey, an annual ride from New Delhi to Leh, for the first time.

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2013

The Royal Enfield Continental GT- Café Racer is launched at the iconic Acer Café in London.

2016

The Himalayan, a bike intended to cash in on Enfield’s long association with rides in the mountain range, is launched.

Katrina Kaif in a still from ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’
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Katrina Kaif in a still from ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’

Bullets in Bollywood

When Royal Enfield bikes sexed up Hindi movies

Akshay Kumar’s golden chariot in ‘OMG –Oh My God!’

Kumar plays God, and, of course, God must ride around on a Royal Enfield. The bike he uses in the movie, with the licence plate number OM 786 printed on it, was made by customizer Akshai Varde. It was a completely customized Enfield Bullet, with a 500cc engine and a massive, 300mm rear tyre. It weighed 280kg and cost Rs10 lakh to make.

Katrina Kaif’s chase vehicle in ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’

In a talked-about scene from the movie that reversed traditional gender roles, Kaif’s free-spirited character chases down Hrithik Roshan’s character, whom she loves, on a bike after they part ways in Spain. The motorcycle was a classic 500cc Bullet, and Kaif said she loved riding it.

Kangana Ranaut’s bike in ‘Tanu Weds Manu’

Director Aanand L. Rai wanted Ranaut to have all the traits of a wild small-town girl, and one of them, he decided, was riding a Bullet. Ranaut had to ride the heavy vehicle through narrow streets in Kanpur, with a pillion, something she had to train for since she had never ridden a Bullet before.

Vishwanath Nair contributed to this story.

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