Everyone who’s ever owned or ridden a Bullet before the 2000s knows the struggles—and pleasures—involved in managing the beast. Oil leaks, bad brakes, the travails of finding a decent mechanic. A personal nemesis was wet distributor points during the brief monsoons in Delhi. But then there was the ride with the legendary ‘thump’.
The Royal Enfield (RE) story is by now legend on Dalal Street—how a company struggling to sell 2,000 motorcycles a month some two decades back made the turnaround to becoming, at one point, India’s most-valued two-wheeler company, selling 8,00,000-plus bikes by 2018. How one model, the retro-styled Classic 350 with a half-decent new engine, helped turn RE into a global icon.
Indian Icon starts in 2000 with Siddhartha Lal, the Eicher group scion taking over the reins, and tells the turnaround story with finesse while packing in an incredible amount of detail. It works in the business history, keeping the focus on the past two decades, marking the contributions those who helped make it happen. These include the by now famous V. Sunil and Mohit Jayal, who helped reinvent the fading brand and R.L. Ravichandran (RLR), who gave shape to the RE Classic, and the not-so-well-known S. Sivakumar, whose sketch based on the ‘British Single’ became the basis for the bike’s looks.
At the heart of the book is the story about the RE Classic. Fascinatingly, it started with RLR asking the question, ‘…why are these fellows still buying our product? They should boycott us’, and trying to understand the psyche of people buying a product with so many issues. So they got to work, kept the bike’s essence--the rugged design-- while modernising it to make it more rider-friendly. Every RE rider will identify with the parts about the ‘100 pain points’, how the UCE engine came to be and the agonising over how it sounds.
The boom in the desi leisure motorcycling market came at the right time for RE, affording its push to go global. That meant setting up the UK Technical Centre, and the push in North and South America. It also led to a diversification in product portfolio with a café racer, the GT 535, and the Himalayan ADV. The two were not received well, the GT 535 written off as a bone rattler and the Himalayan for bad build quality. What RE did especially well was learn from its mistakes. The platform for the 535 led to the Interceptor and the GT 650; the Himalayan is in its second gen avatar, with plans to bump up the 411 cc engine to the 650 range. Now, you can hardly see a bad review, especially since the price points make it such a value-for-money proposition in the West. The book perhaps could have dwelt a little more on RE’s future global strategy. There is fatigue in the Indian market (RE is no longer an exclusive thing; one in 15 motorcycles on the road is now a company product), sales have slowed down and the mid-range market is crowding up.
What Amrit Raj does really well is the brief interludes on the Indian two-wheeler industry—richly mined capsules on topics like the shift from scooters to bikes (marketshare for the former fell from 85 per cent in the mid-’80s to 20 per cent in a decade), how emission norms affected the industry (it killed off the much-loved Yamaha RX 100), the Hero Honda-Bajaj wars, and, of course, Enfield’s own history and how it reached Indian shores via the Madras Motors company.
The only think you can fault are frequent repetitions—the factory at Thirovotiyur and the oldest paint unit will not be forgotten easily. Also, the prologue and its cast of stock ‘we-love-the-Bullet’ characters seem to be a last minute add-on which missed the editor’s eye. And clunker lines like, “The thrill of vibration that my body gets while riding a bike compensates for my inability to hear the thump”! One suspects the flyer on the dust jacket, “Soon to be a major web series”, had something to do with this. Bullet Mani, here we come.