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Riding with the legends

As two riders roar into the mumbai sunrise on a crisp December morning, they try to figure out why their iconic bikes mean more to them than anything else (well, almost).

entertainment Updated: Jan 01, 2011 16:42 IST
Joy Chaudhuri

I love the music of the Screaming Eagles. The soundtrack goes from their signature potato-potato-potato tune to a more frantic potatopotatopotato as Vipin opens the throttle of his Harley Davidson XL1200N Nightster. The thump of the race-spec exhaust on my Royal Enfield Classic 500 is completely drowned out by the Harley’s pipes.

The R40K that Vipin spent on his aftermarket Screaming Eagle tailpipes is absolutely worth it. I am riding a few feet behind him to not just enjoy the music bellowing from the tailpipes but also enjoy the sight of the bike squatting on the road with the thick tyres spitting out the tarmac. There’s a nip in the December air and little traffic heading out of Mumbai this early in the morning. The black asphalt ribbon known as Palm Beach Road is deserted except for pensioners on their morning walks and a few stray cars. The speedo needles on the two bikes are glued to the unhurried figure of eighty, the engines are at the meaty part of the powerband, the horizon tilts and straightens up again corner after corner and all is well with the world.

Though the ride today is a short one, it began over a dozen years ago when, passing by a Royal Enfield showroom, I first laid my eyes on a gleaming new model they had christened, rather unimaginatively, the Citybike. Based on a Bullet 500, it sported a Harley Davidson-like cruiser look. I wanted the bike, wanted to marry it and live happily ever after.

But since I was already married, I went and asked my wife for permission. “Aren’t you too old to ride a bike?” was the response. So naturally, I went and bought it. And then my friend Vipin saw the bike and bought one too.

Years passed. Children were born. Hairlines receded, midriffs expanded. We outgrew the habit of reading the menu in Urdu, right to left, before we ordered at a restaurant. We realised that cars were quicker, easier and healthier to start since they did not involve a ritual of prayer and decompression that could end with a vicious back-kick. And driving a car did not have to end with grease on your expensive shoes. But ride, we did. The thump of our Enfields resonated down the highway, every quotidian worry on the back-burner as we rode the open road.

But the ride wasn’t always smooth. The bikes were temperamental and unreliable. The technology hadn’t progressed much in over 60 years. And the mechanic had shifted to a larger house. But who cared? After all, we rode the legendary Enfields, not food processors on wheels. Even if we wanted to buy a new bike, there was none that we wanted. If you wanted a big engined torquey cruiser, the Enfield was the Hobson’s choice. Then the winds of change blew us into another era.

Royal Enfield introduced the Classic with electric start, fuel-injection and 18-inch wheels – just about everything I wanted, but my Citybike did not have. So after an emotional goodbye to my old bike, I landed up at the showroom with the cheque in my pocket.

Soon after I bought my Classic 500, Harley Davidson opened their showroom opposite the Enfield dealership. And Mr Vipin George, after much deliberation, honed down on the 1200cc Nightster as the most practical choice in the HD lineup. And so here we are, on our first ride together on our new motorcycles.

Our destination is a road on the outskirts of Mumbai that leads nowhere. It is about a 20-km twisty stretch of tarmac that winds up the hill and ends at a nondescript village. There is very little traffic here except for the lovebirds who want to steal a few hours away from prying eyes, and the dedicated regiment of morning walkers. The perfect riding road to scrape the pegs on the Harley and the Classic. But as we pull off the highway into the un-named road, we are in for a surprise.

The always deserted road is packed with sauntering schoolchildren. Is this a school picnic? “No we are running our school marathon.” Well, there seemed to be no urgency in reaching the finish line. But while the children were in no hurry, we were. We wanted to reach the top before the sun climbed too high in the sky and the light was still good for our photographer to take the pictures you see here. Before I could nick the lever into first, Vipin was gone. The twisting roads were too much of a temptation for Vipin to resist and he was flying across the road with his throttle full open. Though I tried hard to follow, it was an unequal contest between a 500cc single and a V-twin 1200cc.

Actually, it is rather ironic. Harley started its life in 1903 as a single-cylinder motorcycle while Royal Enfield took the biking world by storm in 1909 with a V-twin. Now Harley Davidson makes no single and Royal Enfield makes no twin.

But apart from the displacement architecture, the story of these two bikes run quite parallel to each other. First of all, the history of both bikes can be traced to about the same time.

In 1957, Harley premiered a new motorcycle with a 900cc overhead valve engine; it was the Sportster, the grandfather of the bike Vipin is riding. My Classic 500’s roots too can be traced back to1956 when the first Royal Enfields rolled out of the Thiruvottiyur plant assembled from CKD kits imported from the UK. Both the bikes use the now rarely used pushrod engines. The similarity of their history does not end there. Both bike makers nearly went belly up when the Japanese motorcycles entered America and India, but dusted themselves off and emerged as iconic motorcycles.

Come to think about it, what is iconic about a Royal Enfield or a Harley Davidson? I have ridden Enfields for over 12 years and I can assure you that much better bikes are on the market today – technologically much advanced, offering far superior quality and much more value for money. My Classic 500 is a case in point. The brand new bike came with a faulty battery, so for one week I had to kick start the bike, rather than use the electric starter.

Then the monsoons came and the electrics went dead and I had to carry a can of WD40 to bring it back to life. In less than a year the lock on the sidebox broke and so did a clamp holding the silencer, due to the bike’s excess vibration. So what’s iconic about a technologically backward, unreliable, expensive motorcycle like the Enfield? Or the Harley for that matter?

I have a theory. To become a motorcycle icon you must have a combination of factors working for you. War, classic lines, torque or power rather than speed and, most important of all, it must not be perfect. Let me explain.

Nearly all iconoclastic vehicles have had a connection with the military. The Harleys did service in WWII, and the Enfield is still used by the Indian defence force. This gives the bikes a certain machismo, swagger and reputation for ruggedness. Then comes the subject of classic lines. Their design DNA, despite the fickle whims of fashion, never stray very far from their origins. More than half a century later both these bikes sport a look that can be traced back to the ’40s. No sleek, streamlined, wind-tunnelled, form-
follows-function design philosophy for them. They are big and bulbous. The next important thing for a bike to become an icon is that it must give the rider a sense of power. A big torquey engine does the job here. And as important as the horses it makes is the sound it produces through the tailpipe.

The Harley’s patented ‘potato-potato-potato’ exhaust note and the Bullet’s thump are very much a part of the rider experience. The bike does not just have to be powerful, it must sound powerful. And this brings us to the most important thing in an iconic bike. It is not perfect. That is not to say that the bike has to be flawed, but somewhere clinical efficiency makes for characterless motorcycles. These make iconic bikes not the most popular in the mass market. But for the aficionado, nothing else will do.

The sun is climbing up in the sky, but we are reluctant to turn back home. The Harley’s addictive torque compels you to seek out open roads and watch the speedo climb up. Vipin is happy about another thing too. The 12.5-litre tank along with the Nighter’s appetite for fuel had Mr George nervously noting all the fuel pumps on the way. But as he discovered, give this bike an open stretch of road and an armful of throttle, and the mileage increases dramatically. And he need not bother for 200km after tanking up. Actually that’s not so bad considering the big 1200cc engine. My Classic 500 with its 13.5-litre tank runs just a 100km more before the low-fuel warning light starts blinking, and the engine size is not even half that of the Harley’s.

Vipin is discovering another side of the Harley and he is not happy with it. On rough roads, the Harley’s suspension crashes and bottoms out. And long hours on the saddle make a sore bum. The pillion is going to have an even more sore bum after a long ride. So that ride with Mrs George to Goa is not happening. The pillion on my 500 would be better off. Unlike the newbie Harley, Royal Enfield knows the state of Indian roads well. And Enfields have proven themselves as comfortable long-distance cruisers in India. That is why every summer, on the bikers’ annual migration from Manali to Leh, most of the machines are Enfields.

It’s time to grab some breakfast, head back to civilisation, and home. It is normally a quick, routine affair. Park your bike, place your order, eat and ride away. As we discover, when you are riding a Harley the routine is somewhat different. Park your bike, answer the questions of the crowd which are invariably “how much” and “average kya hai?”, watch nervously as people pose for pictures with the bike and keep a wary eye on the bike as you gulp down your dosa and coffee.

But despite the threat of Vipin’s Harley being scratched or damaged by an overenthusiastic fan, we enjoy the dosas and the coffee. And as usual, it’s biker talk. And the topic is closest to the heart of Enfield and Harley riders alike – what modifications we are planning on our bikes. I am planning on removing the original spring-mounted seats and fabricating my own design, changing the handlebars and removing the stays from the front and rear mudguards. Vipin, who has already fitted in aftermarket Screaming Eagle pipes and air-filter is now thinking of a bigger, custom-made tank to add visual bulk and range. Washing machines, televisions and 100cc bikes are best run stock. But riding a stock Enfield or a Harley is like making love with your clothes on. Owning one of these machines is always a work in progress. Tinker around with this, tweak that, modify this, change that and it goes on till you sell the bike.

Breakfast done, we are ready to head back home. But the photographer’s creative juices have been sparked off by the Harley. “You ride behind the Harley, and I will shoot it from over your shoulder sitting behind you.” Despite the absolute brilliance of the idea, it is not very practical since I have no rear seat for the photographer to sit on. The detachable Classic rear seat normally lies at home since I prefer riding alone, and the bike looks more ‘classic’ with a single seat. So we switch plans. He will sit behind Vipin on the Harley and shoot me riding in front. All ready? Yes sir. Hold on. Yes sir. And off we go. Except for the photographer who has fallen off the back of the Harley!

Photography done, we finally head back home. We are running a bit behind schedule so we up the pace a bit. And then I hear it, an angry whine growing louder, coming from behind me. I know exactly what it is and roll off the throttle. A helmet-less rider perched upon his 150cc bike flashes past, does a quick weave in front of us and disappears, smug in the knowledge that he has shown these guys on their expensive bikes who had the audacity to overtake him, who the boss is. I am relieved and happy to report that we didn’t come across a crashed bike further down the road.

A week has passed, and the deadline to submit this story is due. I want some details about the Nightster from Vipin, but he is not picking up his phone. I finally get through to him later in the evening and discover the reason for this. He is infected with the Harley flu which triggers off compulsive long rides. He is now in Goa. With the wife? Nope, she is taking the flight.

Royal Enfield
Classic 500
Type: Single-cylinder, air-cooled
Displacement: 499 cc
Bore x Stroke: 84 mm x 90 mm
Max Power: 27.2 bhp@5250 rpm
Max Torque: 41.3 Nm @4000 rpm
Compression Ratio: 8.5:1
Ground Clearance: 140 mm
Width: 800 mm
Wheel Base: 1370 mm
Length: 2130 mm Height: 1050 mm
Seat Height: 800mm
Fuel Capacity: 13.5 L
Oil Capacity: 2.75 L
Weight: 187 kg
Tyres Front: 90/90 -19
Rear: 120/80 -18

Harley Davidson XL 1200N Nightster
Type: V-Twin, air-cooled, Evolution
Displacement: 1202 cc
Bore x Stroke: 88.9 mm x 96.8 mm
Max Power: NA
Max Torque: 107 Nm @4000 rpm
Compression Ratio: 9.7:1
Ground Clearance: 125 mm
Width: 905 mm
Wheel Base: 1635 mm
Length: 2245 mm
Height: 1140 mm
Seat Height: 755 mm
Fuel Capacity: 12.5 L
Oil Capacity: 2.65 L
Weight: 260 kg
Tyres: Front: 100/90 -19 57H
Rear: 150/80B16 71H
— The author is creative editor, Autocar India

- From HT Brunch, January 2

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