Words: Paul d’Orléans.  Published in the Nov 2017 issue of Cycle World

It’s time we admit it; we don’t ride much. At least, not in the numbers (or hours) of other countries. If you travel abroad, you’ve already clocked it; in Paris or Barcelona or Rome, two-wheelers crowd their sidewalks, and the Stoplight Grand Prix is a way of life. Any Asian city makes Europe seem car-centric, and the haze of 2-smoke in Bangkok or Saigon can be choking. China, once the world’s biggest motorcycle market, is steering out of the smog with e-bikes in urban centers, but India is going gangbusters with little bikes, and is now the largest producer and consumer of internal-combustion two-wheelers on the planet. How big is big? Indian manufacturers sold 17.59 Million motorcycles in 2016… they exceed annual US sales (about 500k per annum) every 11 days. But, as Sir Mixalot said, ‘we like big bikes and we cannot lie’. So we can ignore China and India, no?

The 1950 Royal Enfield Bullet, built under license by Enfield India for decades, and regularly upgraded from the 1990s

No. There’s already a made-in-India ‘big bike’ outselling every US and European manufacturer; Royal Enfield. While their 350/500cc capacity is beneath the notice of most American riders, to 1.27Billion Indians it’s an ‘aspirational’ bike. And while the retro-themed Triumph Bonneville and Ducati Scrambler are their most popular models, the Bullet – the original retrobike, designed in 1948 – outsells both by a huge margin. In fact, H-D, BMW, KTM, Triumph, and Ducati combined sell about the same as Royal Enfield, which built ~700,000 Bullets in 2016. But Royal Enfield’s output is small compared to other Indian manufacturers, like Bajaj or Mahindra, or the unacknowledged 800lb gorilla of the motorcycle world, Hero, selling 7 Million motorcycles per annum. The vast majority of their products are under 250cc, but they’re on a buying spree; Mahindra now owns BSA, Jawa, and Peugeot (2-wheelers), while TVS builds BMWs, Mahindra builds Harley-Davidsons, and Bajaj is a big investor in KTM.

The 2016 Royal Enfield Bullet Classic

We haven’t seen an Indian buyout of an active motorcycle brand yet, but Royal Enfield made an offer of $1.8 Billion to buy Ducati; Mahindra made an offer too, but all bids were ultimately rejected. The next target of an Indian takeover could be one of the old American ‘Big 3’ brands, as Excelsior-Henderson goes up for grabs in January, when Mecum hosts their annual Las Vegas sale. And who knows how Harley-Davidson itself would answer to a cash offer from Hero? Either one of these would place the only other major American manufacturer, Indian, in competition with actual Indians, which boggles the mind.

The new Royal Enfield twin-cylinder Interceptor, revealed at the 2017 EICMA show

In case nobody’s mentioned it, we’re witnessing the 21st Century version of the ‘Japanese Invasion’ of the early 1960s, when great design and brilliant advertising proved a 1-2 punch to slow-moving British and European brands.   Only today, Asian companies already dwarf their big-bike competition, and it makes more sense to buy old brands than put them out of business. In that regard, the Bullet’s story arc is rich in irony, or perhaps karma. ‘Royal Enfield’ and ‘BSA’ were first encountered by Indians in the 1800s, stamped on gun barrels pointed in their direction. They’ve certainly had the last laugh in that relationship, as the old firms went bankrupt, and the world’s fastest growing economy snapped them up. The yoke of colonization has been replaced with the whiff of nostalgia, and a reputation for solid quality. Time and business savvy have proved their own Truth & Reconciliation commission, no apologies required. “May we sell you a motorcycle, sir?”

Read the full article in the Nov 2017 issue of Cycle World, or better yet, subscribe!

 

 

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