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Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Royal Enfield: English or Indian? Or both?

Royal Enfields are made in India using international technology to create motorcycles in a style akin to the 1955 British design originally produced by the Indian company.

That's my answer to a question that appeared on the Internet recently. The other answers offered, including the one chosen as "Best Answer," went astray, in my opinion.

Sure, it's a confusing history, stretching from the beginning in Redditch, England, in 1901, to Chennai, India in 2010. But there is no doubt that today's Royal Enfield motorcycle owes its existence and its (Brit inspired) design to India.

The Indian company is not a branch of the English oak. The English oak just provided the acorn.

The engineering in the modern Royal Enfields may not be cutting edge, but it is world class. Neither Britain nor India can take credit for all the knowledge that goes into a Royal Enfield motorcycle today, but it's India that is making use of it.

The answers offered recently on Yahoo Answers credit India too little, or too much.

Here's the question that was asked, by Sachin: "Did the Royal Enfield use indigenous technology for its motorcycles right from the start? Who started the RE Company, an English or an Indian?"

Best Answer, chosen by the asker, came from Banger: "A duo of Englishmen named Robert Walker Smith and Albert Eadie started Enfield Manufacturing Co., Ltd. in Redditch, Worcestershire, England in 1893. The original company went defunct in 1971, and was later bought by Indian interests who appreciated the Enfields for their ruggedness (as seen in their service as transportation for the Indian military)."

Banger probably knows what he means to say, but as written he wrongly implies that India didn't begin making Enfield motorcycles until the 1970s.

Philip P provided a longer answer, stressing that Enfield motorcycles first appeared in India in CKD form (Completely Knocked Down kits), to be assembled there. Although interesting, that early period was surely insignificant compared to the half-century of full-scale, assembly line production in Chennai.

A user who signed himself The Freak Show said: "The old school Royal Enfield was a nearly direct copy of a '50s British bike. The new ones are much improved and use what could be called indigenous technology since it was developed by the current company." Not a bad answer, but today's Royal Enfield uses technologies Honda would recognize; they are not unique to India.

Charliehorse said: "The company was originally a British company and they built a plant in India which has been building a good bike with the old technology ever since." Not exactly wrong, but this answer, too, does not feel precisely correct. India wanted to build the motorcycles; the plant didn't represent an expansion of production from England.

Michael fired this in: "I'm not sure what 'indigenous technology' means, but RE Bullet have remained unchanged for decades after the company closed in 1971. Sounds like Brit technology, to me."

He's right and he's wrong. Like the air, technology goes where the winds blow. Did Enfield India use indigenous technology in 1955? No, they did not reinvent the wheel, or brakes, or neutral finders. They built Bullet motorcycles, bless 'em, but they could have built something else.

By the way, here's the answer to the question, from the web site of Royal Enfield, apparently drawing from Gordon May's book, The Legend Rides On:

"In the early 1950s, K.R. Sundaram Iyer and his nephew K. Eswaran established The Madras Motors Pvt. Ltd. to import British motorcycles to India. In 1953, the company was asked to provide the Indian Army with 800 of the 350 cc Bullets. Partnering the Redditch facility, Madras Motors delivered the motorcycles and thus began a decade-long Royal Enfield Britain-India relationship (till the collapse of the overseas company in 1967). In 1955, Iyer floated Enfield India Ltd. to manufacture Royal Enfields under license from the British company."

Anyway, I still like my answer best. What's your opinion?

3 comments:

  1. I ended up with two thoughts on this one. The first is that the person asking the question might have needed a simpler answer. For example; RE Man.co. existed in england from X to Y. RE products have been built in indian from z to now. They were also built in canada from m to n. There are similarities and difference.

    The second thought, and this is where a lot of confusion seems to lie (at least it was for me), is that "Ford" is an american car company regardless of where the mustang is built. If it is assumed the RE england and RE india relationship is the same as for to the mustang then people will think it is an english bike regardless of the pedigree of the parts.

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  2. Eswaran and Sundaram had been involved with Royal Enfields since the late 1920's at least. They certainly serviced them and probably imported them on a case by case basis. After the war Enfield UK (and the whole British industry) paid more systematic attention to exports and Eswaran and Sundaram became "official" importers with the name Madras Motors. There have been Royal Enfields in India since the 1910's, one won the Bombay TT in 1913. Unfortunately there is very little information out there on this early period of the brand in India.

    As for "indigenous technologies", the new engine was validated by Dr. Stuart McGuigan, formerly of Cranfield University in the UK and Ricardo PLC, a consulting firm from the UK. The design team collaborated with Xenophya Design, UK. The chasis was developed by Vepro in the UK and Engines Engineering of Italy (owned now by Mahindra & Mahindra of India). The fuel injection was developed by Keihin in Japan. So I'd say it is an indigenous product with a lot of international consulting.

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