KOLKATA, India — Among the vehicles that would make a Western visitor think they had time-traveled to a golden age of motorized transport are the Hindustan Ambassador, the Tata buses and the Royal Enfield motorbikes.
First, I should clarify that the photo above is not the iconic Royal Enfield steed, but rather the Rajdoot 350 — an Indian-produced Yamaha motorcycle powered by a two-stroke engine. But the driver — whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten — was so happy to have his photo taken that I couldn’t resist featuring it. (Plus, his motorcycle reminded me of my own 1965 Honda CB-160, a motorbike for a simpler time.)
In Kolkata, nearly everywhere there was traffic, at least a few Royal Enfield motorbikes could be found. They caught me eye because they’re what a classic ride looks like. The Royal Enfield — the shape and the sound — was the image that comes to mind when one thinks “motorcycle.” (Just look at it.)
A single round headlamp, chrome accents precisely where they should be, and a bulbous, teardrop-shaped fuel tank completed a classic aesthetic. Marlon Brando would be at home astride a Royal Enfield Classic 500 in “The Wild One.” It might not be the best model for shuttling a family of five across the city, though.
During a 2015 trip to New Delhi during Republic Day, U.S. President Barack Obama observed motorcycle daredevils perform acrobatic feats on Royal Enfield bikes and lamented that he couldn’t take one for a spin.
“The Secret Service doesn’t let me ride motorcycles, especially not on my head,” he said.
Established in 1893 as a British manufacturer, Royal Enfield licensed its Bullet 350 for domestic production in Chennai during the mid-1950s.
While the original company shut its U.K. operations in 1971, its Indian brethren, now owned by Eicher Motors, has continued to produce motorbikes full-throttle, even establishing a dealerships in Britain and the United States, even as Triumph and Harley-Davidson have arrived on the subcontinent.
At the beginning of 2015, Royal Enfield surpassed Harley-Davidson in global sales — and there’s little reason to think they’ll slow down anytime soon.