WAN­DER­ING EYE

THE RISE OF IN­DIA

Cycle World - - News - By Paul d'or­leans

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 two-stroke smoke in Bangkok or Saigon can be chok­ing. China, once the world’s big­gest mo­tor­cy­cle mar­ket, is steer­ing out of the smog with ebikes 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 (in the 500,000 to 600,000 range per an­num) ev­ery 11 days. But, to para­phrase Sir Mix-a-lot, “We like big bikes and we can­not lie.” So we can ig­nore China and In­dia, no?

No. There’s al­ready a made-in-in­dia “big bike” out­selling ev­ery US and Euro­pean man­u­fac­turer: Royal Enfield. While its 350/500cc ca­pac­ity is be­neath the notice of most Amer­i­can rid­ers, to 1.27 bil­lion In­di­ans it’s an as­pi­ra­tional mo­tor­cy­cle. And while the retro-themed Triumph Bon­neville and Du­cati Scram­bler are the re­spec­tive com­pa­nies’ most pop­u­lar mod­els, the Bul­let—the orig­i­nal retro­bike, de­signed in 1948 and only up­dated in 2008—out­sells both by a huge mar­gin.

In fact, Har­ley-david­son, BMW, KTM, Triumph, and Du­cati com­bined sell about the same as Royal Enfield, which built roughly 700,000 Bul­lets in 2016. But Royal Enfield’s out­put is small com­pared to other In­dian man­u­fac­tur­ers, like Ba­jaj or Mahindra, or the un­ac­knowl­edged 800-pound 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 (two-wheel­ers), while TVS builds BMWS, Mahindra builds Har­ley­david­son Street mod­els, and Ba­jaj is a big in­vestor in KTM.

We haven’t seen an In­dian buy­out of an ac­tive mo­tor­cy­cle brand yet, but Royal Enfield ear­lier this year re­port­edly made an of­fer of more than $1 bil­lion to buy Du­cati. 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 2018, when Me­cum hosts its an­nual Las Ve­gas sale. How would Har­ley-david­son it­self 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.

We’re wit­ness­ing the 21st cen­tury ver­sion of the Ja­panese In­va­sion of the early 1960s, when great de­sign and savvy busi­ness proved to be a one-two punch to slow-mov­ing Bri­tish/euro­pean brands.

Only to­day, Asian com­pa­nies 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?”

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