Royal Enfield goes back to the future

Royal Enfield, the cult motorcycle brand, launched its all-new Classic model in India Wednesday, aimed at consigning its "looks good, leaks a bit" image to history.

After producing variations on what is essentially the same iconic "Bullet" model for more than 50 years, the 500cc Classic, is made to look older than any of them.

The target year for the styling of the new retro-look, single-cylinder bike was 1951, but "we wanted it to be timeless", said Siddartha Lal, chief executive of Eicher Motors, which took over Royal Enfield in 1994.

The modernisation drive has gone into the engine.

While the bike retains the "thumper" sound of the traditional single-cylinder, the previously separated engine and transmission have been combined in a single unit, with an electronic fuel-injection system and electric starting.

Eicher hopes the changes will widen the Enfield's appeal beyond its niche market of passionate bikers who were willing to put up with oil leaks, faulty clutch cables and dodgy brakes for a chance to own a piece of design history.

The original British manufacturer unveiled the first "Bullet" in 1932 and Enfield India was formed in 1955 to make civilian and military models under license.

Bullet production in England ended in 1962, but Enfield India kept rolling them out and began exporting to Europe in the 1980s.

The new Classic model was launched in Europe in late 2008 and in the US market a few months later, to generally very favourable reviews in the trade press.

Some 2,000 units have so far been sold overseas, but the company's main market has always been India, which accounts for more than 90 percent of total sales.

Lal admits that the company's niche market has always been dominated by 50-year-old "been there, done that" bikers, but hopes the new model will bring in younger buyers.

"It's unique, so we're not in competition with other bike brands. Our competition is for disposable income, so what we're really up against is a holiday or a flat-screen television."

In India the 500cc Classic will retail for around 125,000 rupees (2,650 dollars), with a 350cc version selling for 98,000 rupees (2,100 dollars).

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