In the mid-1960s, as the British manufacturers tried desperately to survive the tsunami wave of Japanese motorcycles entering the market, a British bike called the Royal Enfield Interceptor was making waves of its own. Powered by a 736cc parallel twin, it was reportedly capable of running the quarter-mile in less than 13 seconds, and so of course it appealed to us power-hungry Americans. Unfortunately its heyday was short-lived, as Royal Enfield declared bankruptcy in 1967 and closed its doors for good in 1970. The Interceptor disappeared into history (for a while), but thanks to the remnants of colonialism, a fortuitous joint venture and a motorcycle called the Bullet, the Royal Enfield name lived on.
Royal Enfield, like many early motorcycle manufacturers, has its origins in bicycles—but it also supplied firearms parts to the British government’s Royal Small Arms Factory. It created its brand name simply by combining the rather impressive-sounding “Royal” and the name of the town in which the factory was located, Enfield, England. The first Royal Enfield motorcycle, essentially a bicycle with an engine bolted to the front downtube, was built in 1901.
During WWII, the company supplied the British paratroopers with a motorcycle built to be dropped out of airplanes, endearingly called the “Flying Flea.” It also supplied one of its models to the British Army and RAF; this model, first built in 1931, was called the Bullet. In 1948, the Bullet became the first British motorcycle to feature a frame with a rear swingarm, bestowing it with excellent off-road handling (it won multiple International Six Days Trial gold medals), and likely making it the model that would save the Royal Enfield brand from extinction.
After winning its independence from Britain in 1947, India had remained on good terms with its former ruler and began importing British-built Royal Enfield motorcycles in 1949. When the new Indian government decided it needed a fleet of motorcycles with which to patrol its borders, the 350cc single-cylinder Bullet was chosen and soon 800 of them were busily scooting along India’s often rough (or non-existent) roads.
With the Bullet’s popularity, it was decided that assembling the bikes in India made economic sense, and so it was that in 1955 Royal Enfield and Madras Motors formed Enfield India, with Madras (per Indian law) owning the majority of shares. The new company built Bullets under a licensing agreement, first simply assembling them as kits and then, starting in 1957, actually manufacturing components with tooling equipment purchased from Royal Enfield. By 1962, India’s Bullets were completely manufactured domestically, and when the British firm closed its doors, Enfield India simply kept building—and selling—bikes.
Over the years, the Bullet and the Royal Enfield brand became synonymous with India. For their part, the Indian people nurtured and grew their once-British, now home-grown motorcycle brand; after all, they had once been “British” as well. Hollywood would have a hard time coming up with a more compelling story. Yet it gets better.
In the 1970s the Japanese tsunami that crashed into Europe and America in the ’60s was heading straight for India, and the results were all too familiar. Local Indian manufacturers either succumbed to the wave or hitched a ride with one of the Japanese companies, often getting swallowed up. Enfield India was struggling to stay afloat. In 1994, a lifesaver was tossed out: the massive Eicher Motor Group, which operates mostly in the automotive sector, acquired the company. The founder, Vikram Lal, was a motorcyclist himself and had owned a Bullet. His passion for riding was passed down to his son Siddartha, who would eventually be tasked with salvaging and rebuilding the Royal Enfield brand.
Significant investment in both time and money would be required; this wouldn’t be a “flip it” scenario. Siddartha Lal laid out his vision for the future of Royal Enfield: to return the brand to its former global glory, making it relevant to riders worldwide while maintaining its “larger than life charm.” Royal Enfield, as it was now officially known once again, began producing its first new bike in decades, the 500cc air-cooled single-cylinder Classic, which joined a new Bullet using the same engine. Then came the café racer Continental GT with a slightly bored-out version of the engine, bumping its displacement to 535cc.
Under Siddartha’s leadership, Royal Enfield prospered. In 2007, it was producing about 50,000 bikes per year. Ten years later, in 2017, it expects to sell 800,000. (For comparison, BMW sold about 145,000 motorcycles in 2016.) Determined not to repeat missteps of the past, Royal Enfield realizes that keeping up with demand for its new models is paramount, so it recently invested £100 million (approx. $131 million) in a new plant capable of producing 25,000 bikes per month. This new plant joins two others also capable of a 25,000 per month output.
Completing the made-for-Hollywood story, a brand new Technical Center was built within the confines of the Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, near Leicester in central England. After almost 50 years, Royal Enfield was once again operating in the U.K. This state-of-the-art facility opened in May 2017 and employs about 130 engineers and product development staff, including British, Europeans and Indians. It houses engine and chassis design, modeling and testing facilities including both engine and chassis dynamometers, and accessories development with full 3D scanning and printing capabilities. Additionally, its location at Bruntingthorpe allows access to a road course test track as well as the 3-kilometer (nearly 2-mile) runway for high-speed testing. Chassis design is undertaken with the help of Harris Performance, a British firm that’s done work for numerous World Superbike and MotoGP teams and that was acquired by Eicher in 2015.
Royal Enfield’s key to the global motorcycling kingdom picks right back up where it left off in the 1960s, with a resurrection of the twin-cylinder Interceptor and a new twin-powered Continental GT that you can read about here. Powering them is an all-new 648cc air-/oil-cooled, SOHC, 4-valve parallel twin that is both Euro 4 and 5 compliant, a feat of engineering in itself for an air-cooled engine.
Spearheading its efforts in the U.S. is Royal Enfield North America President Rod Copes and his team at Royal Enfield’s North American headquarters. Hired as the first non-Indian Royal Enfield employee 3 1/2 years ago, Copes brought a wealth of experience in the U.S. motorcycle market, having worked at Harley-Davidson. He assembled his team and decided to locate his headquarters in Milwaukee, arguably the epicenter of the motorcycle industry in the U.S., opening for business in January 2016.
The North American headquarters is Royal Enfield’s first wholly-owned subsidiary in the world, and with that muscle backing it up Copes acknowledges that while building a presence in the U.S. will take time and money, he is confident in Royal Enfield’s commitment. Given what we saw and heard during our four days with the Royal Enfield team, we tend to agree.
Under Siddartha Lal and his U.K./Indian management’s leadership, Royal Enfield is poised to take its first big step back into the global market, and we’re excited to see what they have in store for us in the future.