When Royal Enfield decided it was time to invade the American motorcycle market, the company had several potential locations to plant their corporate flag. It’d be fair to expect the minds behind the historic British bike brand to head for warm-weather, automotive-friendly enclaves such as California, Florida, Arizona or Texas. Instead, in 2016, they chose to park their U.S. headquarters in Milwaukee — on the home turf of America’s most famous motorcycle maker, Harley-Davidson.
According to Krishnan Ramaswamy, president and business head of Royal Enfield’s Americas Region, Milwaukee’s history in motorcycle culture made it an appealing choice.
“Choosing Milwaukee was more by default than design,” Ramaswamy says. “It just so happened the initial team we put together was mostly former Harley executives who happened to be based in and around Milwaukee. However, over the years, our team in North America has grown significantly as a diverse set of passionate motorcyclists based in many different parts of the country handling sales, after sales, marketing and operations.”
Regardless of how the new HQ came to be, Milwaukee is a long way from Royal Enfield’s ancestral home in Redditch, U.K. Founded in 1901 (a couple years before the bar and shield kicked off in the Beer Capital of the World), the company went through multiple ownership and manufacturing phases. Its most enduring image comes from its World War II builds: small, light but rugged bikes that combat messengers rode to get urgent orders to and from the front.
Built for more of a purist riding experience, a modern Royal Enfield two-wheeler strips away some of the comfort and convenience features of bigger, bespoke American motorcycles from Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle. The “cars on two wheels” rumbling out of Milwaukee and Spirit Lake, Iowa arrive with touchscreen navigation, satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivity, massive stereo systems and other amenities. You can imagine a WWII messenger hustling a communiqué to Central Command on his rugged, stripped-down bike looking at today’s comfort-centric rides and wondering why modern bikers don’t just stay at home and have a cup of tea.
The Royal Enfield rider looks down on a digital fuel gauge, a speedometer, an odometer — the essentials. The attention is directed to the road and the riding experience.
Nathan Kolbe, head of marketing for Royal Enfield’s Americas Region, says the company takes on the challenge of bringing a foreign brand to the States by stressing its history as the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in continuous production.
“Our major milestones touch many parts of the world,” Kolbe says. “Our British roots remain a major ingredient in the Royal Enfield design formula, but we also take cues from modern trends into a well-balanced blend of retro-cool authenticity.”
While their work in engineering and performance evolved over the decades, the creators of Royal Enfield motorcycles maintain a clearly identifiable design language to this day. While Harley and Indian lean hard into big, high-end rides laden with leather and chrome, the plucky Brits keep their rides on the smaller cafe racer and street cruiser side. They’re light, maneuverable and manageable, while retaining a classic styling that keeps that “messenger bike” feeling alive.
“Our core philosophy is to keep motorcycling pure and accessible,” Ramaswamy explains. “We focus on the midsize market in order to cater to the needs of both the entry-level and the experienced rider with our retro roadsters, adventure bikes and top-end cruisers.”
Keeping their builds on the smaller side has the natural side effect of keeping their prices down. While those ruling American machines can run up to $30,000 (depending on bells and whistles), you won’t find a Royal Enfield model for more than about $7,000.
“Our design and manufacturing facilities in both the U.K. and India enable us to create motorcycles that have everything you need and nothing you don’t,” Ramaswamy adds. “With sustained growth globally and economies of scale all around, our bikes will continue to be extremely affordable and accessible to keep motorcycling pure and simple all around the world.”
Kolbe says the size and affordability of Royal Enfield makes them a strong choice for the urban and potentially younger rider looking for a manageable price.
“In the U.S., we find that Royal Enfield motorcycles appeal to a broad range of individuals who are first drawn to the retro styling, then are impressed by the quality of the fit and finish in-person — and finally are blown away by the price points after taking a test ride,” he says. “Almost half of our bikes are sold to first-time riders who find our motorcycles to be lightweight, easy to handle and uncomplicated fun on the roads.”
Both Ramaswamy and Kolbe acknowledge that younger prospective buyers may not currently be riders or have a motorcycle license for a number of reasons.
“They might be thinking, ‘I don’t know if I fit in with the ‘motorcycle crowd,’ or ‘I’m not sure I am confident in my ability to ride a motorcycle,’” Kolbe says. “They might believe motorcycles are too expensive, but Royal Enfield does not just hope more people choose motorcycling in the future, but we offer pure motorcycling experiences to address those concerns.”
Along those lines, the Hunter 350 is one of the company’s newest editions, launched in April of this year. An urban cruiser, it starts at just $3,999, making it less expensive than higher-end e-bikes and electric scooters, while packing more visual appeal.
Still, Kolbe insists it’s not all young riders of more limited means coming to Royal Enfield. The company’s data and customer feedback reveal that its motorcycles are often purchased by customers as an additional bike in their garage due to the affordable price and smaller profile.
Gearheads and bikers know the Royal Enfield name and 122-year history. However, the name doesn’t carry the same pop-culture impact of Harley-Davidson, Honda, Yamaha, BMW and other motorcycle makers with a bigger slice of the U.S. market. While Royal Enfield pushed its way into a global expansion in recent years, Kolbe reports the company had to embrace a mission to make motorcycling more accessible to a wider pool of would-be riders.
“We have begun with ground-level activations with riding communities and dealers that allow riders to experience the approachability and affordability of Royal Enfield’s pure motorcycling experience,” he explains. “Royal Enfield’s ‘Build.Train.Race’ program is the first of its kind working to introduce more female riders into motorcycling. As a member of Build.Train.Race., female riders build their own race bike, receive training from racing legends, and compete on pro circuits.”
To tell their brand story, Royal Enfield also offers their Experience Center in downtown Milwaukee’s Third Ward — with the “one-of-one” Royal Enfield Project Origin 1901 motor bicycle on the showroom floor.
While the company works to establish its past and present, the future of motorcycles looks to be electric. With an eye toward competing in that market, Ramaswamy insists his company wants to create something unique and true to the brand.
“As the electrification of motorcycles continued to evolve, Royal Enfield has always been of the belief that we wanted to create something that was special and could bring about a complete paradigm shift in the electric bike category,” he says. “Doing something like that takes time. We have been at peace with not being first to market if it means we can produce something truly extraordinary.”
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