Mahendranagar, 10 September
Companies can survive for eons, but their products are usually ephemeral. Apple may be the world’s most valuable business, yet the Apple II computer and the original Mac that provided the early foundation of its success live in museums, if at all. Apple’s smartphone rival, Samsung, began by selling noodles. Ford’s latest F-150 Lightning electric pickup truck shares little with the Model T except for four wheels. The dictum “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” carries little weight in a world of evolving technologies, business models, and consumer tastes.
Unless, that is, you are Royal Enfield. In 1932 the motorcycle maker, then based in Britain, launched the Bullet. Ninety-one years later the company, in Indian hands since 1994, has unveiled the latest version of the iconic two-wheeler. It looks virtually identical to the original.
Changes have, the company insists, been made to the engine (which boasts just two-thirds of the original’s horsepower), the chassis, and the seat. Yet besides a missing kick-start (which has provoked some grumbling from fans) and an added fuel gauge (which has elicited no comments), these are unnoticeable. Features common on other 21st-century motorbikes, like tachometers or temperature gauges—to say nothing of computer-assisted ride modes for different conditions—are absent. The ride and, as one YouTuber put it, “the sweet crunch sound of exhaust”, are probably much the same as they would have been in the 1930s.
Given that the AK-47 weapon has only been around for 75 years, the Bullet has a good case for being the most stable vehicle in continuous production—and among the most stable items ever created. It is a commercial and cultural phenomenon in India as well. It still outsells the majority of Royal Enfield's other products, including those with more contemporary looks. In June, more than 8,000 of an earlier model were sold. Although it is difficult to estimate, millions of people are probably certainly on India's roads at any given time. And not just among the nation's bikers, few things inspire the same kind of affection.
At least 1,200 passionate riding clubs exist. Specimens with rusty patinas can be seen chugging across Punjabi fields, navigating Ladakh's treacherous mountain slopes, and dodging automobiles and cows on city streets. It is a crucial piece of gear for both Bollywood heroes and villains. The Indian armed forces, who bought 500 two-wheelers in 1949 to patrol the nation's northern frontier and started the Indian Bullet craze, have a stunt team that rides only Bullets. The team, known as the Tornadoes, accomplished a landmark in 2017 by transporting 58 people on a single motorcycle.
All this, plus the fact that the machines never seem to expire and can be fixed anywhere by just about anyone, explains the Bullet’s enduring popularity. For many Indians who can hardly imagine owning a home or even a car, the Bullet is at once aspirational and, at $2,400 a pop, just about obtainable. With such unchanging appeal, who needs change?
- From Economist