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How the Royal Enfield got back its ‘thump’

Having struggled with poor brand perception, falling sales and labour troubles in the 1990s, Royal Enfield built a new bike to win back its cult

After nearly 50 years, Royal Enfield built a new engine in 2008 to revive the company’s fortunes. Credit: Hindustan Times
After nearly 50 years, Royal Enfield built a new engine in 2008 to revive the company’s fortunes. Credit: Hindustan Times

The legendary thump of Royal Enfield motorcycles has been a part of the folklore of the Indian biking community. This thump is created by the exhaust of the bikes running on the cast iron engine, which released a loud exhaust note. Royal Enfield riders took pride in that thump. It gave them imposing presence on Indian roads, and importantly, it was a mode of brand communication even to those who had never ridden an Enfield but had grown up hearing the thump in their neighbourhoods.…

[Royal Enfield] decided to retain many of the old engine’s characteristics such as its long stroke, single cylinder, and its high capacity with push rod mechanism—but the new engine, unlike the old, would have hydraulic tappets, a new engine arrangement, new metal and fewer moving parts. Several rounds of sound mapping tests were done but it was nearly impossible to match the sound of the old engine. At best, the new engine could meet 70 per cent of the amplitude of the original.

It took some ingenuity and skills, but the Royal Enfield engineers, along with [Austrian automotive engine maker] AVL, managed to bring down the number of parts by one-third and increase the engine’s power by at least 30 per cent. The Unit Construction Engine (UCE) that would make its debut with the Classic in 2008 would go on to power all Royal Enfield bikes by 2010.

The book will be out on 30 November.
The book will be out on 30 November.

Bike enthusiasts still debate over the sound of the new engine and old-timers still swear by the thump of the old cast-iron engines. Some say Royal Enfield compromised on its distinctive feature by shifting gears to the left.

The UCE proved to be a winner for Royal Enfield. For Siddhartha [Lal] and the company, it was a marvellous achievement. It met the new emission regulations and opened the gates for a new set of buyers. The oil leaks were gone. The customers who bought the newer bikes could not believe the change. It sent out a message to the dealers, who suffered the most due to engine issues, that Royal Enfield was working towards achieving best-in-class standards in the business.…

While the Bullet enjoyed a cult following, daily commuters considered it heavy, difficult to manoeuvre, expensive to maintain, and a brand tied to the armed forces or farmers. The company tried to experiment with its products. A five-speed gear box was introduced in Electra; the Thunderbird hit the market with the new UCE; the Electra X, an export Bullet with a 500cc version of the all-alloy lean burn engine, was put on sale. But they did little to improve the brand image. The reason? The products needed a design revamp, and most importantly, Royal Enfield needed a new product that could become the mainstay of the brand.…

RLR [former CEO R.L. Ravichandran] and his team discussed the idea of building a 350cc motorcycle—a bold move, considering that no new bike had come from the Enfield stable in more than fifty years. Siddhartha knew he had little flexibility of capital. But he was also aware of the importance of history—and the fact that many similar British brands [had been] forgotten. He wanted to design a motorcycle that would hark back to Royal Enfield’s origins. He needed a new bike to [draw a mass market of daily commuters as new buyers] and that bike had to be softer than the previous models to suit the tastes of [those] outside of the [existing] Royal Enfield community.…

They noticed that the culture of leisure biking was catching up. Indians had started to believe that it was okay to indulge and spend on travel and leisure. The concept of a vacation itself started in the early 2000s in India; earlier, it was limited to paying a visit to relatives or going on an annual pilgrimage. [With] the advent of IT companies... [weekend travel] with friends and family became normal. [Earlier], people had Sunday as their weekly off which was usually a day spent doing odd jobs. Businessmen did not even have a Sunday. The travel boom really helped. Royal Enfield wanted to take advantage of all the societal and demographic changes that were taking place.…

Together with [Mark] Wells in UK [the company’s head of product strategy and industrial design] and RLR in Chennai, it was decided that the design of the bike would be its USP. It was to take cues from vintage bikes that had straight, sensuous lines, thigh pads, a headlamp hood and Royal Enfield graphics on the tank. The team had already worked on a new engine under the guidance of RLR. The UCE would go into the new bike.…

Royal Enfield decided to do away with the kick start. It also decided to have an electronic fuel-injection system sourced from a Japanese supplier, Keihin. For a company that had lived in a cocoon, it was really spreading its horizons in the East and the West.…

The launch of what came to be called the ‘Classic’ 350cc and 500cc on 4 November 2009 in New Delhi began a new chapter in the history of Royal Enfield.

Classic was a simple yet beautiful thing. People started to say, ‘Wow, that’s such a beautiful bike!’ That changed a lot of things for Royal Enfield. There was no need for a [marketing] campaign.

‘I think we just let the bike shine. We didn’t overestimate our skills. We know when the engineering is great, so we just put the bike out,’ Mohit [Jayal, brand strategist] said.…

Classic changed things on a scale that Siddhartha or Royal Enfield had not imagined. They had expected to produce about 200 bikes a month, keeping in mind the excitement of customers about the first new bike from Royal Enfield in fifty years. Soon, they realised they needed a new factory. They were making about 100 bikes a day with about a nine-month waiting list, even though the production at the Tiruvottiyur plant [in Tamil Nadu] had been ramped up.

Business was booming.

Excerpted with permission from 'Indian Icon: A Cult Called Royal Enfield', to be published by Westland Business on 30 November.

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