Royal Enfield: Return of one of the oldest motorcycle companies in the world

By George Kuruvilla

Published: Thu 3 Jun 2021, 7:44 PM

Back in the 1960s, my grandad used to ride his Royal Enfield Bullet up and down the winding roads of the district of Wayanad in Kerala, India. He would talk about how he cruised through the meandering roads from tea estate to tea estate, while he worked as an electrical engineer. Sadly, he had to return it to his company when he retired, and I missed the chance of a hand-me-down of what would now have been an envied piece of engineering. That being said, I did have several golden encounters with Enfield motorcycles over the years, thanks mainly to the many owners within my social circles and to Royal Enfield, for keeping its motorcycles as true to the original Bullet for the large part of 50 years. Some of you may think of Royal Enfield motorcycles as ancient but let me assure you that they provide the finest motorcycling experience. The older bikes with their metal fenders ensured they weren’t light weights by any means and required deliberate movements when you were off the bike. The kickstart peddle would kick back into your shin if not operated with a certain finesse. And the signature slow thumper of an exhaust note could be heard from a mile away.

But enough of me reminiscing, how did it all begin for Royal Enfield and what’s brewing at the current RE offices and plants? Let’s take a closer look!

The history lesson

Royal Enfield began as a needle manufacturing company sometime in the mid-nineteenth century. It later graduated to manufacturing bicycles and then went on to build its first motorcycle in 1901. Some 30 years later, in 1932, the acclaimed Royal Enfield Bullet was born and as of today, it is the oldest motorcycle in continuous production. In 1948, Royal Enfield pioneered the swing arm and incorporated it into their 500 Twin motorcycle, which was followed up with a line of significant others, including the Meteor, Constellation and Interceptor.

In 1952, Madras Motors got an order to manufacture 800 units of the 350cc Bullets for the Indian Army. And later in 1955, Enfield Cycle Company partnered with the Chennai-based firm forming Enfield of India. Initially, a lot of the bikes were assembled from imported parts from England but later in 1957, Enfield of India acquired the machine tools necessary to build the components. And by 1962, everything was made in India itself. Not too long after, UK operations ceased in 1970 and the Indian subsidiary took over production.

Fast forward to 1994, Eicher Motors acquires Enfield India and re-establishes itself as Royal Enfield Limited. In fact, if it wasn’t for this transaction and the efforts of the now-CEO Siddhartha Lal, Royal Enfield may have ended up as just a Wikipedia page of a bike with an illustrious history. Over the years, much like what the Jeep brand is to the US and Toyota to Japan, Royal Enfield has become a household name in India, deeply ingrained in the fabric of the motorcycling community of the region.

As of 2018, Royal Enfield operates through some 17 stores and an incredible 705+ dealers in all major cities and towns in India. Their exports go to over 50 countries worldwide, including the USA, UK, several European and South American countries, as well as the Middle East and the Far East. And its current product lineup is rather comprehensive. It includes the Bullet, Classic and Thunderbird models in 350 and 500cc displacement, along with a few others.

A new breed of motorcycles

RE soon understood that only so much of the market could be captured with their authentically retro motorcycles and that it was time to venture into other segments. In 2013, RE opened a state-of-the-art plant in Oragadam, where they produced their café-racer style Continental GT based on their tweaked 535 cc powerplant. It certainly got the 2-wheeler communities buzzing. Then, after spending decades traversing the foothills of the North, they created the purpose-built Himalayan adventure bike to serve the terrain and the people who like the associated lifestyle. With a potent single cylinder 411 cc engine — unique to the bike, larger than usual tyres (21-inch upfront) and greater suspension travel, it was ready to take riders beyond the tarmac confidently. While it may not be comparable to the more sophisticated BMW GS Series of bikes, it certainly is an affordable way to get into off-road motorcycling.

RE’s renewed success globally came with the introduction of the 650cc twins. The classically styled INT 650 and sportier café-racer like Continental GT 650 were developed over five years and are the first machines to utilise the company’s new technology centre in Bruntingthorpe, some 50 miles from the original Redditch plant. Both these bikes are styled with a verve that recalls the best of past motorcycles. And the 648cc twin-cylinder engine that propels them makes a healthy 47 bhp and 52 Nm of torque, which again may not compete with racy 600cc machines of today in terms of outright power and speed, but they deliver on the promise of crisp throttle response, comfortable highway cruising capability and enough oomph to get your heart pounding. With price tags undercutting their nearest rivals by thousands, the twins are undeniable value propositions. And the numbers prove their success. In June 2020, they were the bestselling motorcycles in the UK and the twins are doing plenty well in US as well.

Also new to the bunch is the Meteor 350! The affordable single cylinder 350cc cruiser has already garnered a lot of praise globally and plenty of ‘Bike of the Year’ awards to go on a crowded mantle. Now, RE is on the offensive. In the months to come, they have promised us more exciting products. Many will come in the form of mix and match between powertrains and chassis in their existing inventory, but each will be targeting a different segment in the industry. Whatever it is they plan to do, Royal Enfield seems to have the Midas touch, at least for now, and they are returning to their glory days, this time with a proud ‘MADE IN INDIA’ tag.

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