The Open Road: Royal Enfield Motorcycles
By John Day Barnett
When many people in the U.S. think about motorcycles, their minds immediately jump to Harley Davidson. Hogs are loved by enthusiasts around the world, and their signature sound and fantastic engine names like the Shovelhead, Knucklehead, Panhead, and Flathead. They inspire rallies, tattoos, and rock songs that immediately conjure images of leather, chrome, and the color black.
I have always liked the British-looking motorcycles, from Royal Enfield’s to Triumph Bonneville’s. Confusingly, I also liked Indian bikes, though they have nothing to do with India itself and refer rather to Native Americans. Living in the U.S., these bikes seem rare compared to Harley’s and other imports like Ducati, Honda, Kawasaki, and BMW, and are rare treats when seen cruising the streets.
Do Indians Ride Indians or Harleys?
Riding on a rickshaw through Mumbai, I was amazed to see at least one Royal Enfield motorcycle a minute. Granted, horrendous traffic kept my progress limited to the tight spaces in which the driver could fit his vehicle, thus giving me a lot of time to admire the traffic rushing past on motorcycles.
What I didn’t know about these beautiful machines is that their parent company is an Indian brand. I should be used to this by now, with Tata owning Jaguar and Land Rover. The same thing happens in automotive manufacturing, with Fiat owning Ferrari at one time and a private equity consortium owning Aston Martin.
The last Royal Enfield’s were made in England in 1970. Eleven years prior, in 1959, the company partnered with Madras Motors to form Enfield India, making Bullet’s for the Indian government and specifically the army and police. Since another company purchased the Royal Enfield name at a bankruptcy auction in 1967, the bikes did not use that name until 1999, when they brought back the Royal Enfield name.
The model I saw most frequently zooming about the streets was the Bullet – a design recognizable to anyone with a passing interest in motorcycles. Just like the colors on the sidewalks and buildings, I noticed a variety of colors and logo designs, even seeing a few camouflage versions that looked like they belonged in a far-off war zone in the jungle.
During a quick car trip and tourist box-checking through South Mumbai on our final day in the city, I asked about Royal Enfield’s. The driver told me about their Indian history, and how he is proud of how the country is backing the company. He even pulled out his phone and showed me a picture (keep in mind he was driving in Mumbai traffic) of himself on a Royal Enfield in the hills outside the city grinning wildly. His adventure over the weekend was something I would love to do, and I made a note that I needed to learn how to ride immediately so when I went back I would be able to do the same ride.
The Bullet is the longest running production motorcycle in history, beginning in 1948. The name itself appeared in 1931, even featuring a 350-cc engine like many do today. When I think of bikes in this era, I picture guys with aviator-style goggles riding through the mud, along with lines of them seemingly marching into battle during Second World War.
With the sheer number of people in India, it’s not surprising that Royal Enfield surpassed Harley Davidson in terms of number of units sold globally in 2014 (300,000 to 267,999). This represents a huge change considering Harley Davidson sold more than 100,000 more motorcycles than Royal Enfield in 2013. While this statistic is impressive, I’m not sure you will ever get a true Harley guy to trade his Hog in for something made in India, although it seems there are new markets opening to each company.
In 2016, Royal Enfield opened its North American headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin – the home to Harley Davidson. According to Rod Copes, President of Royal Enfield North America, “Milwaukee is the epicenter of motorcycling in the U.S., making it the optimal location for our headquarters.”
It’s an interesting example of globalization when you think about the trajectory of the company – being founded in Britain, going bankrupt and continuing operations in India, and now opening a North American headquarters in the heart of American motorcycle country. Harley’s are sold in Mumbai, and Royal Enfield’s are sold in Milwaukee, along with each selling in many other countries globally. To continue the car analogy, cars with Japanese badges are made in the Southern U.S., and famous Italian sports car brands are owned by German companies.
As the middle class grows in India the demand for things like motorcycles will grow too, along with many other products previously out of reach. It’s an exciting market, and a focus for expansion for many multinational corporations. Many American companies focus their efforts on businesses abroad, especially in the BRIC (Brazil Russia India China) nations.
If you’re an Indian living in the U.S. or come from an Indian heritage looking to buy a motorcycle, skip the Harley’s and Indian’s and head to the Royal Enfield dealer. Be proud of what comes from India and support a growing brand. If they are good enough for the streets of Mumbai with the potholes, traffic jams, and aggressive driving, they can surely handle whatever you can throw at them where you live.