Motorcycle icon Royal Enfield faces fresh challenge from Harley, Triumph in India’s biker paradise

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Sajneet Sandhu grew up riding on her father’s Royal Enfield around Goa’s palm-fringed roads, taking in endless beaches and rice paddies from the back of the iconic Indian motorcycle. Now 43 and inspired by those childhood memories, she has got a bike of her own. But it isn’t like her dad’s.

Rather than a Royal Enfield favored by her father and several million other riders in India, Sandhu opted for a slick roadster from UK-based Triumph.

“The new Triumph was affordable, and I was like, ‘why not!’” the teacher said.

Her choice reflects a shift in India’s motorcycle scene, where Sandhu is part of an expanding middle class and one of a growing contingent of female bikers.

Like Triumph, US giant Harley-Davidson Inc. is also renewing efforts in India, where Royal Enfield is revered to a similar extent as Harley is in the US. The Milwaukee-based company and Triumph both have local partners so they can produce their bikes more cheaply in the world’s biggest two-wheeler market.

Bloomberg

Harley initially failed to make inroads into India and pulled out in 2020 due to poor sales. Its imported motorcycles were heavily taxed and not designed for India’s climate and potholed roads.

Harley launched its X440 specifically for India earlier this year, manufactured by Hero MotoCorp Ltd. in the northern town of Neemrana. The X440 starts from 239,500 rupees ($2,870), much less than the American company’s cheapest imported big engine motorcycle, the Nightster, which costs 1.2 million rupees.

Harley says it has taken more than 25,000 bookings for the X440 since July.

Triumph’s Indian partner Bajaj Auto Ltd. makes and distributes the Scrambler 400X and Speed 400, priced at 262,996 rupees and 233,000 rupees, respectively. Orders for those began in the second half of this year and have already reached more than 10,000, according to Bajaj.

The numbers suggest that the decision to manufacture more affordable, smaller-engine motorcycles locally is paying off for Harley and Triumph, giving them a better chance of pulling closer to Royal Enfield.

The thump and roar of Royal Enfield’s Bullet motorcycle won over a generation of riders, and the company is the clear leader in small- to mid-engine capacity bikes. It sold about 75,140 motorcycles in India in November, a festival-season month when consumer spending is typically strongest. Royal Enfield’s best-selling bike, the Classic 350, starts from 193,080 rupees.

Royal Enfield’s Firm Grip on Indian Market
The company sold about 75,140 motorcycles in India in November. “People’s purchasing capacity has improved and they are going beyond their city commute to do offroading and leisure riding,” said Rahul Mishra, a partner at management consultancy firm Kearney. “There’s also a fair bit of status consciousness, customers want to be seen with bigger bikes and better brands.”

Still, smaller, less powerful motorcycles are most widely used in India, as they are better suited to lower budgets and the need to navigate the South Asian country’s massive and congested cities, as well as remote rural areas.

About 2.25 million two-wheelers in total were sold nationwide in November. Hero, Bajaj, TVS Motor Co. and Honda are the top sellers in India, rolling out flashy advertising campaigns with Bollywood stars and cricketers such as Hrithik Roshan, Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar.

Royal Enfield is a different beast. Founded in the UK at the start of last century and with motorcycles that were used in World War II, it leans more on an enduring legacy and historic appeal to adventure seekers. Royal Enfield brand ambassadors are generally regular people, not multimillionaire celebrities.

Royal Enfield was acquired by India’s Eicher Motors Ltd. in 1994. The bikes have maintained a reputation for rugged durability that suits epic journeys in remote places such as Leh-Ladakh and other jaw-dropping parts of the Himalayas, and enthusiasts are part of a biking fellowship.

Harley and Triumph share some of those traits, and all three brands sell associated merchandise, including apparel and biking gear for women.

Harley imports its popular Fat Boy and Fat Bob models as well as the Pan America tourer, while Triumph has its Tiger adventure range of motorcycles, Bonnevilles and roadsters including the Speed Triple and Rocket 3.

For Sandhu, Triumph’s Speed 400 was most appealing, partly thanks to its “sophisticated and quintessential English” look.

President, Probiking Business, Bajaj Auto Ltd, Sumeet Narang, said the company aims to more than double Triumph’s India showrooms to 100 in six months, adding that people want one motorcycle to cover daily travels as well as road trips.

“Through these partnerships, international brands are trying to bring in products which are designed for the Indian market, and that’s what’s needed,” Kearney’s Mishra said. “ There is room for new entrants to do well.”

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