It’s difficult to hear the soft-spoken Ravi Thirumale amid rumbling thunder on the streets of downtown Bangalore this second Sunday of July—the day motorheads buff up their old Jawa motorcycles and troop into town, bringing to life a beat from a time gone by. Thirumale, dressed in a white shirt, formal trousers and black shoes, is reminiscing about an era that many can’t forget: the mid-seventies, when he scorched up the race track at Sholavaram, near Madras. Until then, the Ideal Jawa factory team had been unbeaten and after the races, Ravi—then a 23-year-old fresh out of engineering college— was offered a job at their factory in Mysore.
“This is one bike in my entire racing career which has never let me down,” said Thirumale at the International Jawa Day last week. Indeed, motorcycle enthusiasts haven’t let the Jawa brand fade away long after the factory shut down. There’s many a youngster who still fancies one, to relive some borrowed nostalgia. Then, there’s the buzz about an impending relaunch of the brand by the Mahindra Group, possibly this year.
Much of the Jawa story is well known, and it’s strewn with delightful little stories that get passed on. Somender Singh, veteran racer and tuner from Mysore, the home of the legendary motorbike, recounts one such. When the Irani family set up the Ideal Jawa factory in Mysore in the early sixties, a top international motocross rider came to the city to give a demonstration. “He climbed up three-fourths of Chamundi hills,” says Singh. The steps of the hill, that is. “The steps! That was something unheard of. The whole of Mysore was flabbergasted,” he says. Wasn’t there a story about Czech riders on the steps of the Vidhana Soudha, the secretariat in Bangalore, as well?
“This brand has been kept alive by the people who own the bikes, who love them,” says journalist Adil Jal Darukhanawala. In the old days, if you wanted a bike that was cool, “it had to be Jawa or Yezdi first”. He’s currently working on a book on the Jawa motorcycle story and lets us in on a bit of the back story. The Czech-made Jawas had been imported into India since 1948. When they planned to set up a factory here, the Iranis initially planned on Pune, a city with much motoring history. (Here’s an aside: it was Pune, Adil says, where the first motorcycles landed in India—five Singer bikes...yes, the same company that made sewing machines—in 1903.) But, owing to industrial policy at the time, they turned to Mysore where the Maharaja offered them land to set up a factory, and the home-built Jawas rolled out in 1961.
Then the progression began: the 250cc Yezdi motorcycles came out, and later the popular, shorter-stroke Yezdi Roadking. A 350cc bike too was produced but didn’t find much success. Of course, these bikes belched smoke, and their riders liked them loud (and so, the end caps on Roadkings came off). Then, the endless customisation—you’d find all sorts of modifications on the Roadkings especially. The two-stroke gas guzzlers eventually gave way to more efficient bikes in the eighties and Ideal Jawa stopped making bikes around 1996. But some peculiarities couldn’t be outdone: the neat gear shift which doubled up as a kick-start lever. Then, the ‘semi-auto’ clutch: you didn’t need to panic if the cable wore off, you could manage with the play on the gearshift. Plus, you could always unscrew the casing, thread in a new cable and fasten it in a few minutes. Finally, you’d always heard these bikes could ride in reverse direction.
Now, as with all out-of-production vehicles, spare parts are in limited supply. But enthusiasts in most cities know their way around and usually huddle up at a few specialists who can get the job done. Or forage around. “The bore isn’t available but other parts are still around,” says Abdul Razack, a mechanic from Bangalore who has been repairing these bikes since the eighties.
In the old days, if you wanted a cool bike, “it had to be Jawa or Yezdi first,” says journalist Adil Jal Darukhanawala.
The vintage ones are often heirlooms. If you have the original ignition switch and ammeter mounted on the petrol tank, as software engineer Vikram Balakrishna’s 1962 Jawa does, that’s a prized possession. And coveted. “Sometimes, people have followed me home to ask if I was willing to sell,” he laughs. “My father bought the bike in 1976 and we’ve had it ever since. I rode it to college every day,” says Vikram, 35. Of course, it’s mostly a weekend spin now.
“It’s become a craze now,” says veteran motocross racer C.K. Chinnappa. “I mean, I’ve tried to get a Jawa, and have been asking people. The rates they quote...” he trails off. Back in 1973, Chinnappa bought his first Jawa for Rs 4,000—his father bought him a helmet first and then they went to pick up the bike, he chuckles. “My dad was very particular: no riding without the helmet. And people used to give me looks, as though I’d come from space or something,” he reminisces. As for motorsports, there weren’t many add-ons available in the market. “Nowadays you get everything: disc brakes, tyres, suspensions....things like that. In those days, we had to fabricate everything ourselves,” he says. So, they would get a Dunlop universal tyre with buttons and head off to a cobbler to get the job done. “We used to get the alternate buttons cut to get purchase on the dirt road. People used to laugh at us saying, “Look at these idiots chopping up a brand new tyre”. They didn’t know what a knobby tyre was,” he laughs.
“Our bikes never went to any mechanic,” recalls Ravi Thirumale. The Thirumale brothers (elder sibling Ashok is no more) managed the crankshaft modifications, machining and tinkering themselves. “Practically nothing went out. No one knew what we had done,” he tells Outlook.
The stories go on. And, as enthusiasts aver, there’s a rich collection of them. And yes, rich is indeed the word. Mind your petrol tap.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore