Words Julia LaPalme Images Courtesy Royal Enfield
In its 110 years, Royal Enfield has changed both ownership and national identity. After decades of mismanagement and reliability issues bruised the company’s reputation, the modern Royal Enfield now has something to prove, and it plans to do that by selling handsome, well-made, affordable motorcycles.
The brand came to life in 1901 in Redditch, England, after two men strapped a Minerva engine into a reinforced bicycle frame. By 1914, Royal Enfield’s first two-stroke went into full production, and by 1930, the company had 11 different models. The reliable, tough Bullet was introduced in 1932, and was used by the British War Department for reconnaissance in WWII. The Indian Army, too, purchased Bullets for its border patrol soldiers, and soon Enfield India was established, building Bullets on a license with tooling borrowed from the Brits. The Bullet became popular in the UK after winning multiple trials competitions, including the grueling International Six Days Trial; Americans took notice after 16-year-old Eddie Mulder won the 1960 Big Bear Scramble on a 500cc Bullet.
That same year, Royal Enfield set its eyes on the U.S. market with the release of the 692cc Interceptor, enticed by America’s growing appetite for large-displacement Japanese bikes. “The Interceptor was received with glowing reviews,” says Gordon May, Royal Enfield historian. “It had heaps of torque and dynamically balanced cranks for a smooth ride, especially compared to the Triumph, BSA, and Matchless, which would rattle so much they’d shake your teeth out.”
Back in the United Kingdom, smaller bikes were in higher demand due to driver regulations, prompting Royal Enfield to release the 250cc Continental GT in 1965. To celebrate, five riders rode a Continental GT from “top to tip” of the UK, a 24-hour, 1,000-mile relay from John O’Groats to Land’s End. The relay team included John Cooper, who lapped Silverstone Circuit and reached a top speed of 73 mph, earning the Continental GT recognition as “Britain’s Fastest 250.”
Unfortunately, due to financial struggles, Royal Enfield’s production couldn’t keep up with demand in the U.S. or the UK. The company’s UK manufacturing plants closed in 1970, leaving Enfield India as the brand’s only production source.
“We have basically followed a Japanese approach to quality,” Sid explains, “with a focus on training, continuous improvement, and statistical process control methods. We took a massive leap in manufacturing and quality in 2013.”
In 1977, Enfield India restarted export of the Bullet, but the company had not made any updates to the design in 22 years. While the Bullet enjoyed a cult following in India, outdated engineering didn’t impress in the United States or the United Kingdom. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Royal Enfield built a variety of bikes and mopeds, copying Zundapp models and collaborating with outside engine builders and designers like Morbidelli and Lombardini. The Bullet languished in production, and its much-needed update didn’t surface until 2010, when Enfield India modernized their engines to meet EU standards. Before that, the Bullet used the original cast iron barrel engines, which demanded a lot of patience from their owners.
Jacqui Furneaux, author of Hit the Road, Jac!, has ridden her ‘00 Bullet 500 through more than 20 countries and can speak to the bike’s fussiness. “When I realized it was really a living antique that needed constant care and attention, I began to love it for its basic simplicity.” Despite the extra attention her Bullet requires, Jacqui says, “I could not possibly travel on another bike. If someone challenges me about its reliability, I get defensive and tell them where it has taken me over the past 19 years.”
Despite nicknames like “Royal Oilfield,” the bikes were “no more reliable or unreliable than the other British bikes,” according to Roy MacMillan, president of Royal Enfield Owners Club of North America. “It was the type of maintenance, where if you looked after it, you never had a problem.” MacMillan has had 50 Royal Enfields over the past four decades and currently owns 25 — one of which, a ‘69 Interceptor, he commuted on daily for 18 years. “I like the power delivery on [the Interceptor] better than the other British bikes. It had its own look to it; it stood out from all the others, and I thought the engineering was a little better than its competition.”
The Interceptor’s engineering may have been progressive for its time, but advancements in motorcycle technology left Royal Enfield behind in many ways — that is, until Siddhartha Lal became CEO in 2000. After earning his undergraduate degree in economics, Lal spent three months studying under Swiss motorcycle tuner Fritz Egli and rode a Bullet 500 for a year, camping throughout Europe. His newfound passion for motorcycles inspired him to pursue post-graduate work in mechanical and aeronautical engineering and earn his master’s in automotive engineering.
Lal’s father was CEO at Eicher Motors, the India-based company that bought Royal Enfield in 1994, and Sid started working there in ‘96, at first in the purchasing department and parts development. Around the beginning of the new millennium, Eicher considered shutting down Royal Enfield, which was losing the equivalent of $230,000 a month, but then-26-year-old Sid stepped up and asked for an opportunity to turn around the company.
Sid says, “I was young and naive, so I just dove in head-first with a relatively cavalier attitude.” It took him only a year to stop the losses at the company; then Sid set out to improve quality. Royal Enfield changed production to high-pressure die casting, using the same suppliers as the Indo-Japanese manufacturers, and invested in CNC and precision-quality machinery. “We have basically followed a Japanese approach to quality,” Sid explains, “with a focus on training, continuous improvement, and statistical process control methods. We took a massive leap in manufacturing and quality in 2013.”
Another huge improvement in Royal Enfield’s production process came about in 2014 when the once-British brand returned home and opened its UK Technical Centre. Product and design teams in England work closely with engineers based out of the main factory in Chennai, India, and the success of their cross-continent collaboration can be seen and felt in the recently released Himalayan, Continental GT 650, and Interceptor 650.
“We’ve grown from selling about 25,000 motorcycles a year in 2000 to over 820,000 a year by March 2018,” Sid says. Of these, 95% stay in India, with only 19,000 motorcycles being exported — but Sid is addressing that problem, too. In 2016, Royal Enfield established its U.S. headquarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in the last three years, Rod Copes, president of Royal Enfield North America, has expanded the U.S. dealership network from zero dealers to about 90. Copes only targets multi-brand dealerships, because he believes Royal Enfield doesn’t compete with any other brand, but instead complements them. "We are the only motorcycle company in the world that focuses just on the middleweight segment," Rod says.
Royal Enfield believes the middleweight segment is underserved; riders in America and Europe want more approachable motorcycles, while riders in India, southeast Asia, and Latin America want to commute on bigger bikes. Sid says, “We believe that motorcycling globally is going to converge on the mid-sized segment, and we are making motorcycles in this space that benefit from the scale of developing markets and meet the refinement and finesse required to truly compete with the best in developed markets.”
Royal Enfield has had its ups and downs, and it could have disappeared at any point along its 110-year journey. But it didn’t. It refuses to give up, and today the brand is learning from years of missteps and making significant, intelligent improvements to its business model. Royal Enfield can now compete — and has to compete — as we root like hell for them to succeed.
This story was originally featured in Issue 035 of Iron & Air Magazine.