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Bringing the Yezdi back to Indian roads

A story of reviving a legacy brand, learning from mistakes and keeping the romance of motorcycling alive

Anupam Thareja, co-founder of Classic Legends
Anupam Thareja, co-founder of Classic Legends (Company handout)

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Soon after finishing Class XII, Mumbai’s Boman Rustom Irani spent a month in Mysuru, making long road trips to Ooty and Coorg on his trusted Yezdi Road King. He still remembers the 42 hairpin bends on the narrow road from Mysuru to Bengaluru, banking the sturdy bike so sharply that its silencer would scrape the tar.

That was the mid-1980s. His family then owned the Yezdi brand, which had evolved from the iconic Jawa, the two two-stroke engine bikes that ruled Indian roads through the 1960s till the mid-90s, before liberalisation, Honda-Suzuki-Yamaha, four-stroke engines, and energy efficient 100cc bikes relegated them to memory. “Whatever you want to do, the entire universe conspires to make it happen,” says Irani. “When the company went down in 1996—my father passed away in 1989—I knew that one day I would have this motorcycle roll back.”

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Over two years after it relaunched the Jawa motorcycle, Classic Legends Pvt. Ltd plans to bring the Yezdi back to Indian roads. The lifestyle automotive company, which aims to reintroduce marquee brands, starting with motorbikes unveiled the third of its bikes, the BSA Gold Star 650, in the UK recently. “We envisioned the Yezdi and Jawa together,” says Anupam Thareja, co-founder of Classic Legends, who partners with Anand Mahindra, chair of the Mahindra Group, and Irani, chair-managing director of the real estate company Rustomjee Group, in reinventing these brands.

Seated in the business centre of the ITC Gardenia in Bengaluru, Thareja, also the founder and managing partner of private equity firm Phi Capital, is wearing a T-shirt with the Yezdi logo on it. On a Zoom screen, Irani joins the conversation from Mumbai, pointing to the Yezdi logo on the wall behind him. It’s a story told often: how his father drew the logo with a pencil on their dining table, how the name can be traced to their family’s roots in Yazd or Yezd in Iran.

Boman’s father Rustom and his partner Farrokh Irani set up Ideal Jawa in the 1960s and began importing Jawa motorcycles from what was then Czechoslovakia through a licencing agreement. As the sales picked up, they set up a manufacturing unit at Mysuru and for a decade from 1961, built the bikes. Jawa metamorphosed into Yezdi, which lasted longer as a brand than Jawa, and hence is more recognisable today.

When Thareja and Mahindra first started talking about bringing back the vintage bikes over a decade ago, the former had already been instrumental in the revival of the Eicher Motor Ltd.’s Royal Enfield, when he served as a director in the firm from 2005 to 2008. Mahindra had also made his foray into the two-wheeler segment by taking a majority stake in Kinetic Motor Cycles Ltd in 2008 and a controlling stake in Peugeot Motorcycles in 2015. When Thareja reached out to Rustom Irani’s son Boman, to buy out the family’s interest in the brand, Irani wanted to join in, not sell. “Everyone uses their motorcycle as a canvas—they play with it, they do what they want,” says Thareja, 48, who oozes biker stereotype with a beard, long hair, T-shirt and jeans. “Boman lives Yezdi. When we were designing it, he was integral to the brand philosophy. An unrehearsed part of his being would say this is how it should be. It’s more of a Boman story than our story.”

Back from the dead

Thareja has a way with words, using them with the skill of an ad agency’s copywriter. “We don’t sell motorcycles, we sell motorcycling,” he says of Classic Legends.

He describes the Jawa as understated, classy, retro, filled with stories. “I keep giving this mythological connection: For us, Jawa is Ram, Yezdi is Kishan. One is (Bjorn) Borg and the other (John) McEnroe. If you are a fan of Sholay, then Amitabh (Jawa) and Dharmendra.”

Irani jumps in with his own euphemisms: “Yezdi has zing, it is the young prince, swashbuckling, comes out with sword in hand and cuts through all the nonsense in life. Jawa has class, style, that royal bearing.”

Thareja explains further: Yezdi was 10 times bigger than Jawa for no reason other than that it came later and stayed longer. “In the 1970s, you bought a bike when you had made some money. Younger people were riding their dad’s Jawa but when they were buying, it was Yezdi.”

When the reborn Jawa was made available to customers in early 2019, it ran into delivery issues, the delay sometimes running to over six months. Thareja says they “were unprepared for our own success”. The bookings were three times the number they had envisaged.

During the first 12 months of operation, they sold 50,000 bikes, though Day 1 of opening got 100,000 bookings. The 2020 nationwide lockdown to limit covid-19 spread dealt a further blow to the firm.

“We were supposed to launch our second brand in 2020 and the third in end 2020. We had no parts or time for development, leading to delays. But we are probably the first automotive company in the world to break-even in the first year. That’s the kind of beauty we were sitting on,” says Thareja. There were other technical issues, like rusting, too and the Jawa bikes were trolled on social media.

Haresh Kumar Hirani, a fitness trainer in Pune, had problems with the fuel gauge and the drum of his new Jawa, both of which were replaced at the service centre, within a year of taking its delivery.

Sreejith K.S., who owns nine vintage Jawa-Yezdi bikes, had planned to buy a new one when he was invited to a launch event in Kerala. But he was unimpressed. “It looks good but is not comfortable. Besides the parts are expensive. All people who’ve got the new Jawa, not even 10% of them are happy. When I go for long rides (with other owners), I see problems with it.”

Thareja says if he had to do it again, he wouldn’t take so many bookings. “We read the market wrong in terms of demand for a product like this (Jawa),” he says. “Because we could not ramp up right, we made a few suffer. We don’t have that right. We had about 50,000 cancellations after a year—30,000 after 18 months.”

Riding into the sunset

Hirani had grown up hearing stories of the Jawa and Yezdi from his father, who used to borrow the former from a friend and the latter from a relative to go on rides. The senior Hirani did not have the means to buy his own set of wheels.

So when the Jawa was reintroduced, Haresh Hirani immediately booked one. Months later, when he got delivery, he took it home and showed it to his father. “I said this is yours. I used the same line he used on me, the famous one that old Parsis used to say in Gujarati: Khawa na hoye toh chale, pan Jawajoiye (If I don’t get to eat that’s fine, but I need Jawa).”

Much of the demand for the Jawa and the Yezdi is fuelled by nostalgia. Irani, in response to a question whether his decision to partner on the venture was a business or emotional one, says it’s a romance. “To keep the romance alive, there has to be practicality,” he says. “Anupam brings that to the table. I am still the perpetual romantic who sees this as a ride. We have to endear ourselves to the right number and kind of people and enjoy the ride.”

Sreejith, who works for a pharma company in Thiruvananthapuram, got his first Yezdi when he was in college in 1993-94. In 1999, new to work as a medical representative, he could not afford to maintain the bike and sold it. Since 2003, he has bought nine secondhand models. “Sentiment,” he says, by way of explanation for owning so many. “In 2003-04, when I bought the first one, everyone laughed. By the time I restored it completely, the bike was shining like a jewel. After seeing this, many people started buying them.”

Sreejith admits he does not know how to change a cable, leave alone restore a bike, but knows everything about his bikes. When he goes on long rides, from Leh to Kanyakumari, he carries all the spares. Should a problem arise, he rolls the vehicle over to the nearest mechanic. “I know what to do but not how to do it. The workshop is usually be shocked to see a Raj Kapoor ke zamane ka bike (a bike from another era),” he says, “but that’s the trust I have with the bike.” 

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