Bikers have never been so spoilt for choice in India. Over the past few years, some of the world’s coolest bikes from the iconic Harley-Davidson to the Kawasaki Ninja have rolled into the market, pumping adrenaline junkies with excitement over the rev of an engine and the thrill of speed.

In November, bikers across the country felt a similar rush. The reason: Royal Enfield, a classic U.K. brand now manufactured by India’s Eicher Motors, launched two new models after four years. A day later, Classic Legends, part-owned by Mahindra & Mahindra (M&M), revived the old Czech brand, the Jawa, in the country after nearly five decades.

Two classic motorcycle brands in two days. Bikers in India couldn’t keep calm. But with competition in the world’s biggest two-wheeler market heating up, motorcycle manufacturers are revving up to grab a larger slice of the pie. Both Eicher Motors and Mahindra are pitted against each other in the race for the premium motorcycle segment in the two-wheeler market of 20 million a year. It’s almost like a clash of the classics: Both the Jawa and the Bullet have a great deal of nostalgia attached to them. Who can forget Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan and Vinod Khanna riding the much-loved Jawa motorcycle in the 1977 hit, Parvarish? And many young Indians still tear up as they remember the Bullet as the bike of their fathers. “Nostalgia is always a big draw in motorcycling. The Triumphs and the Harley-Davidsons of the world have shown that there are enough customers if the motorcycles are refreshed to sport modern technology,” says Adil Jal Darukhanawala, editor, Fast Bikes India, a popular magazine.

In the 1970s, when both brands were last pitted against each other, Enfield’s Bullet was considered macho while the Jawa Yezdi was known for its cool quotient. The Bullet was popular in Punjab and Kerala as it was the choice of the sons of landowners while hip motorcycle-loving Parsis bought the Jawa mostly in Mumbai, Bengaluru, and Pune. Those were the days of the so-called licence raj and production was limited to just a few thousand bikes a year, resulting in long waiting periods.

 Eicher sold over 800,000 Bullets in India last year.
Eicher sold over 800,000 Bullets in India last year.
Image : Courtesy of Royal Enfield

Today, the wait might be shorter, but demand is still big. Hours after the Enfield launch, the company had received more than 1,000 bookings for the new bikes. Many present at the Jawa launch also wanted to buy the bikes—which draw heavily from the old Jawa styling—on the spot. The Jawa is already racing ahead: Classic Legends recently announced that its entire production for a year has been sold out. Anand Mahindra, chairman of the $20 billion Mahindra Group (part-owner of Classic Legends), tweeted that Jawa was among the most searched brands online.

It’s hardly surprising. The 12.3 million motorcycle market in India is growing at a rate of 13.9% annually. The bulk of the sales are in the more affordable 100cc-125cc category priced up to ₹70,000. The market for over 300cc bikes is still small with annual demand of about 950,000, but sales of large bikes are growing rapidly, especially among bikers looking for bragging rights. In the past three years, a few players have entered this space: TVS has tied up with BMW and launched two bikes; Bajaj launched Dominar last year and it has a few bikes under the brand name KTM.

Pricing holds the key to make these premium segment bikes affordable for the average Indian. Royal Enfield—which has more than 10 models including the Thunderbird and Himalayan—controlled 90% of this market as its products were priced lower than its Japanese competition. “We have a loyal user base which wants to upgrade to bigger and faster bikes. Our entire focus is to keep up the experience of Royal Enfield at an affordable price,” says Siddhartha Lal, managing director and CEO, Eicher Motors.

 Eicher Motors,under the leadership of Siddhartha Lal, became India’s most valuable two wheeler company,riding high on the success of Royal Enfield. 
Eicher Motors,under the leadership of Siddhartha Lal, became India’s most valuable two wheeler company,riding high on the success of Royal Enfield. 
Image : Courtesy of Royal Enfield

Enfield’s models begin at ₹1.4 lakh and go up to ₹2.10 lakh compared to ₹4 lakh onwards for large Japanese bikes such as the Suzuki V-Strom and Kawasaki Ninja. But the Jawa at a starting price of ₹1.55 lakh is squarely in Enfield’s territory and is already giving it some serious competition. Market reports say Royal Enfield’s sales dropped 14% in December, their first fall in seven years. “Jawa motorcycles have enjoyed a huge fan following and generations have relished riding these iconic motorcycles,” says Anupam Thareja, founder of Classic Legends.

Enfield’s runaway success in the country has prompted global biggies to re-think their India strategy. British bike maker Triumph is collaborating with Pune-based two-wheeler maker Bajaj Auto to develop a more affordable bike. The iconic American manufacturer, Harley-Davidson, too, is working on a similar range of specially designed motorcycles for the Indian market as it looks to boost its overseas sales in the face of dropping sales at home.

But for now the big clash is between the Royal Enfield and the Jawa in the premium segment. Eicher Motors, under the leadership of Lal, unveiled two new bikes, the 650cc Interceptor and the Continental GT, at an event in Goa in November. The two models came after four years of research by India’s most valuable twowheeler company with a market capitalisation of ₹85,500 crore. Classic Legends, on the other hand, unveiled three retro-looking bikes—the Jawa, Jawa Forty Two, and Perak. Thareja says the company will make bikes for millennials and not just for those who want one for old times’ sake. “I almost get offended when people say Jawa died and you are resurrecting it. Legends don’t die,” Thareja said at the launch. “We are not making bikes for people who already love Jawa. The new customer is a millennial who wants to be distinctive and wants to belong somewhere.”

Originally, Jawa was a Czech brand made under licence by Ideal Motors in India. After the licence expired, Ideal Motors continued making and selling it under its own brand Yezdi until the company shut due to losses following an onslaught from cheaper and more efficient Japanese motorcycles in the mid-1990s.

 Anand Mahindra during the launch of the Jawa in Mumbai.  
Anand Mahindra during the launch of the Jawa in Mumbai.  
Image : Dinesh Parab

On the other hand, Enfield India, which was acquired by Eicher, chugged along slowly though it kept making losses. Despite its antiquated technology and poor quality, it was the only cheap alternative for people who wanted bigger motorcycles instead of the scrappy 100cc Japanese ones. It used to produce and sell 25,000 bikes annually.

Eicher Motors nearly sold off Enfield because of its mounting losses until Lal decided to give it another shot. Interestingly, Anand Mahindra had shown interest in buying the company, but with Lal in the saddle, it remained just a wish. Similarly, around eight years ago, Lal too had the opportunity to buy Jawa but he decided against it as he wanted to focus on the Enfield. It didn’t occur to him that for ₹50 crore he could’ve killed the competition.

Lal grew up riding a Royal Enfield bike to college in Delhi and always felt that the problem was not in the brand but in the way the company was being run. “Even in its bad days, the Bullet had a brand aura that its competition did not have and I was always confident we could really get the business going,” says Lal.

In a way, for Lal, the Bullet’s dream success that followed was serendipity. Last year, the company sold over 800,000 Bullets and Eicher Motors became India’s third most valuable automobile company after Maruti Suzuki and M&M; Tata Motors slid to No. 4 position due to escalating problems at its U.K. company, Jaguar Land Rover.

In the initial days of the Japanese motorcycle onslaught, there was pent-up demand for good quality and fuel-efficient machines. Companies like Hero Honda, TVS Suzuki, and Bajaj, which tied up with Kawasaki, started ramping up sales. Their bikes initially catered to customers who wanted to use them as their basic transportation vehicle. They sold millions of these motorcycles and even today, 80% of all bikes sold in the country fall in the 100-150cc category.

But as the two-wheeler market grew, so did the demand for more powerful motorcycles. MTV Roadies, one of the longest running Indian reality TV shows, popularised the bike culture in India, to some extent. The increasing popularity of riding culture is also translating into more sales of heavy bikes. Not just for road trips or off-road drives, in a recent trend, newly-wed couples are also planning their honeymoon trip on bikes, mostly heavy motorcycles. And it’s not just the man who is passionate about his machine, there are a few women bikers clubs in the country, too. Last year, Rider Mania, an annual event organised by Royal Enfield for customers, drew over 8,000 bikers from across the country.

When Lal took charge of the company in 2005 and until three years ago, the Bullet was the only alternative for an increasing set of customers who could afford larger and more powerful motorcycles. It was a big draw among fitness instructors who felt Japanese bikes were too small for them. Today, it is also the motorcycle of choice among software engineers in Bengaluru who think the Bullet lends itself better to long weekend rides than other bikes.

But not everybody is convinced about the clash between Royal Enfield and Jawa. Sridhar V., partner, Grant Thornton India, says that the comparison between Royal Enfield and Jawa is not a fair one: “The current generation has been seeing the Royal Enfield through their lives. Jawa, even for people from the midsixties to nineties… we’ve seen it as a brand and we saw it go out of existence in the 1990s.” He says that adding the right combination in terms of design, power, and pricing can help the Jawa roar ahead in the market. Either way, people who were born to be wild are looking forward to the road ahead.

(This story was originally published in the January 2019 issue of the magazine)

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