THE RISE OF INDIA
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?”