Royal Enfield motorcycle The pride of the fleet

Every three minutes, a brand new Enfield leaves the conveyor belt in the Enfield factory in Chennai.
Every three minutes, a brand new Enfield leaves the conveyor belt in the Enfield factory in Chennai. | Photo: Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan New Delhi

Once a clunky reminder of India’s colonial past, the Royal Enfield motorcycle is taking on the world. 

There is a famous photograph in black and white from 1956 showing India’s then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in a white Gandhi-cap inspecting a new Royal Enfield motorcycle. Standing around him are some proud Madras Motors executives whose workers had successfully assembled the Enfield Bullet 350 from a kit shipped over from England.
 
It’s impossible to know what Nehru was thinking, but from the look on his face one sees a mixture of regard for the acme of British motorcycle design, and hope for the future of Indian industry. Like Nehru himself, educated by the British at Harrow then jailed by the British in India, who romanced the wife of the last viceroy as he drove India towards independence, the Enfield was something of a dichotomy. Taking from the British, but also pushing them away.
 
The Enfield had always been a utility bike, serving British troops in the First and Second World Wars, and later the Royal Mail, and Nehru had a similar thing in mind, putting the Enfield to work in the Indian army.

A small but loyal following

In the early 1960s Madras Motors began making the bikes from scratch under license, building up a small but loyal following among Indian commuters who admired the bike’s sturdy construction and classic British design.
 
When Royal Enfield went broke in England in 1967, production limped along in India until the early 1990s when the marque was bought by Indian tractor manufacturer Eicher Motors. By the end of the decade, Eicher had also lost patience and was looking to offload it.
“But then I had a world with my Dad,” says Siddhartha Lal, then still in 20s, who was about to succeed his father as chief executive of Eicher. “I said ‘look, let me try and run it for a bit’.”
 
Lal tinkered with the brand, improving the look of the dealerships, building up a following for what he terms the “motorcycling experience” by leading treks across remote Himalayan passes and the Great Indian Desert.

The ‘cafe racer’ motorcycle culture 

Sales grew modestly enough to keep Lal’s hobby alive, but what really gave Enfield a boost was the international revival of the so-called ‘cafe racer’ motorcycle culture.
 
The term cafe racer comes from the leather-clad British ‘rockers’ of the late 1950s who would gather at places like The Ace Cafe in north-east London and The Busy Bee cafe in Watford, before racing around the country trying to top speeds of 100 miles an hour.

The demand is too huge

After Enfield launched a new single engine platform in 2010 that retained the classic look of the old bike but had all the technology of a modern motorcycle, for the first time in 50 years the company couldn’t keep up with demand. 
 
Next year the company is on track to sell well over 300,000 motorcycles. With access to cheap labor and a new plant on the Bay of Bengal near Chennai, the company makes more profit per bike than any other motor vehicle manufacturer in world right now.
 
Not bad for what used to be a clunky reminder of India’s colonial past.
 
“You know the great thing about the Britishers is that they have a good sense of humour,” says Lal. “They quite like the fact that British motorcycling, which died in Britain, is now being revived.” Whether the English really find it so hilarious, we’ll never know for sure, but the Indians certainly seem to be enjoying their triumph.

The Enfield makes me proud to be Indian

“It’s a bit like India winning the Test match at Lord’s this year for the first time in 30 years,” says Shambhu Kumar, a 30-year-old sales executive with the Indian phone giant Airtel. “We’ve beaten them on their own turf. The Enfield makes me proud to be Indian.”
 
Kumar, a father of two children, is standing in Enfield’s flagship showroom at the Saket Mall in south Delhi, a classic motorcycle enthusiast’s dream come true. Not just the retro look of the shiny new bikes with names like Thunderbird, Continental GT, Bullet Electra and Desert Storm, but all the apparel that comes with them.
 
Branded leathers, boots, shoes, helmets and other clothing items and accessories. The waiting list for a new bike is now around four to six months.
 
“I’ve been saving the money to buy one for the last two years and today is the day, I’m finally buying a Bullet 350,” says Kumar.
Another customer about to put some money down was Rajwee Singh, a 27 year astrologer from the Punjab who had travelled all the way to Delhi to select his new motorbike in person.
“I’ve wanted an Enfield since I was six years old,” says Singh. “I’ve always been crazy about them. My uncles all had one, they used to have competitions to see how many people you could fit on one bike, like five or seven people.”

So convincing is the Enfield look that even many Indian consumers think the bike is imported from the United Kingdom.
 
“We get a lot of people who walk into the showroom off the street who are attracted by what they see through the window, but who don’t know a lot about motorcycles, and most of those people assume that it’s from England,” says one of the sales assistants at Enfield’s Delhi showroom.
Because India is the biggest motorcycle market in the world, Enfield hasn’t really started to push exports, but sales in the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany are growing.
 
Only 40 years old and rated one of the most innovative chief executives in India, Lal says he is excited by the international challenges ahead. “Our objective is to double down and become a global brand,” says Lal. ““We’re now the most profitable automobile brand in the world, I believe. Ten years ago we were the least profitable.”