When Popular Mechanics, the magazine for American gearheads, listed its selection of the top 10 motorbikes from the New York Motorcycle Show in late January, it featured most of the usual suspects - 800-pound gorillas of the bike world such as Ducati, Harley-Davidson, BMW and Triumph.
Oddly enough, the list also featured bikes from a manufacturer rarely recognised for its kerb appeal - Royal Enfield. Two of its rejigged roadsters figured on writer Mike Allen's shortlist: The Classic Chrome and the Bullet 500.
You read that right, the Bullet. The stolid bike that appears to have all the oomph of the sturdy Ambassador. But not here. With its lineage, which goes all the way back to pre-World War II Brit Bikes, Royal Enfield has gained cultural cachet in the US and revved into the territory of cult chic.
Originally British, these motorcycles are now entirely made in Chennai. But they have a surprisingly cool factor going for them. Or, as Kevin Mahoney, president of Royal Enfield USA, headquartered in Faribault, Minnesota, put it, they are now "hot".
"Royal Enfields are unique. Nobody else has a real vintage bike. Others, like the Triumph are stylised versions," he explains. "Beyond that, our bikes are in a completely different category, 500 cc, which has been abandoned by other manufacturers." Sales of Royal Enfield units in the US are not phenomenal, averaging about 500 each year, but Mahoney is optimistic and expects that number to rise substantially in 2011. In fact, Andrew Anantharaj, head of Royal Enfield, the Chennai-based mothership, is optimistic about doubling sales this year.
There are various reasons. The US is slowly emerging from a recession, while Enfield is expanding its dealer network in America, having established a beachhead in California and begun focusing on other biker-friendly states like Texas and Florida. It helps that these bikes are affordable by American standards. The basic Bullet costs about $5,500 (About R2.58 lakh), while the Classic Chrome costs about $7,000 (about R3.29 lakh).
The US is almost level with Great Britain, which sees the highest international sales of Royal Enfields that were first made in England over a century ago. But since 1995, it has essentially been an Indian bike, after the brand was acquired by the Eicher Group.
Enfield bikes are not cruisers or muscle machines of the highway. Optimum speed rarely exceeds 70 miles per hour, though, as Anantharaj put it, they make for a "nice, easy ride", which makes them attractive. It also has a vibrant online community on its American website. David Blasco, a retired photo editor with the Miami Herald, is its leading booster, with a regularly-updated blog and a Facebook page supplemented by Twitter feed.
"I learned about Royal Enfield motorcycles from an article in The Miami Herald in 2000. I was so enthused to find out that a genuine, vintage style motorcycle was still in production that I obtained a motorcycle licence and purchased a 1999 Bullet," says Blasco. "I used my Bullet to commute to work, putting 40,000 miles on the clock before I retired. I now ride only for pleasure."
Another rider attracted to the bike partly because of its heritage is Al Meinster of Philadelphia. "The Enfield's engine is a charming reminder of the way things were - basic in design, easily diagnosed and repaired," he says. "In economic terms, the Enfield's selling price is good value for money, it uses gasoline sparingly, and there is a ready availability of replacement parts." Enfield is now hoping to kick sales into higher gear. At the New York bike show, for instance, executives reminded gawkers that they might remember the Royal Enfield Classic from the opening scene of the last Harry Potter film.