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In conversation with Siddhartha Lal, bossman of Royal Enfield

Royal Enfield

Editorial director Sirish Chandran and RE boss Sid Lal recently rode the Interceptor and the Continental GT 650 in California, USA. Here’s their conversation over the ride

  • Royal Enfield
  • Royal Enfield

The Royal Enfield 650 Twins are all set for launch tomorrow in Goa, India. Recently, ed Sirish Chandran and Royal Enfield boss Sid Lal rode the Interceptor 650 and Continental GT 650 through the mountains of the Redwoods basin and then down the Pacific Coast Highway. Sid talks in detail regarding brand transformation, quality, cost parameters of the Twins and much more. Here is the full interview:

Sirish Chandran: When did the project start?

Siddhartha Lal: In earnest around four years  ago or maybe a bit more because we first started with an Indian concept. The idea was there much before to do a twin engine. But I knew that we didn’t have the understanding and capability for that. We thought we would focus on the single-cylinder engines. The product development was more focused on the Indian market with an opportunistic ability to sell outside of India. The twins from day one were motorcycles that we wanted to sell globally. The program team started off in India and then we hired another team in the UK. The lead program management, lead chassis design and lead engine design was all in the UK. This was the first project that the UK team has got.

SC: You started with 600cc and then the 650cc?

SL: The engine did sort of come first, because engine development takes six months longer than the full vehicle. Typically the engine team starts with an early brief, after which they start some concept work and by the time we start signing off on all our product requirements, they already have some concepts up. We started off as a 600cc, but very soon we found that it was going to be on the borderline of hitting 160kmh, which was certainly one of the pre-requisites because it was going to be a GT/ café racer so it better cross a ton of miles. Because we weren’t confident we said we’ll move up to 650cc.

In any case there was a lot of gravity towards making it just a bit bigger than 600cc. Enthusiasts would say ‘we need to do a 750 or 800.’ We refrained from all of that because then the parts start getting bigger. We would need bigger brakes, bigger suspension systems and a bigger clutch for the extra torque which makes the motorcycle more expensive. It’s tempting when you are doing one project and say ‘screw it let’s just do a bigger one’, but I think we have done the right thing.

SC: Cost was a big target?

SL: Absolutely, our aim was to make this motorcycle an accessible upgrade, the same thing we did with the classic 350 and 500, to have a good step-up motorcycle in the Indian market. It should also be an enormous step up in the performance and other aspects. The cost was certainly an important target but more from an accessibility point of view. Any project has a cost target, I think philosophically, and as you were able to see on the motorcycle, the other idea of the cost perspective was ‘let’s not do things because people demand that or it’s the norm’. It was about doing everything that is really required and nothing that isn’t.

We just wanted to make sure we get the essentials right, such as ABS as standard, the best systems, electronics, fuel injection, engine management so we didn’t skimp on any of those. Wheels, we went for aluminum rims, tyres we went for really good Pirellis, so it’s all best in class. But those are bits and bobs. In terms of bells and whistles some people say we should’ve done this and that, like certain types of lamps or more stuff in the instrumentation, but we didn’t as you can see. It’s not just a cost thing, it’s also philosophical. I do not want people to keep looking at the dials – which happens if you’ve got too much info – as opposed to looking at the road itself. I think we have got the balance right.

SC: You said that there’s one spec for the world?

SL: That was very much part of our brief, and of course it was challenged at some point, but we were very clear that we wanted to make a single spec for the world. First and foremost it meant taking the highest standard required for emission regulations, usage regulations, so we have a single mapping. Everything had to be the same, we still had to have mph in the US and UK and kmph everywhere else, but that’s only a screenprint [on the clocks] which is different, other than that, it’s an identical motorcycle for the world.

“This is our coming out party!”

SC: When did you think of the Interceptor?

SL: At the very start it was meant to be a Continental GT upgrade. Then we were struggling, talking and understanding from consumers what they like and don’t like about the Continental. People really liked the idea of the Continental GT but it was too extreme, in terms of ergos, which kept people out of the market. One idea was to have the Conti GT with more regular handlebars, but that doesn’t work. Then we decided to do a proper roadster from our archives, we thought the Interceptor really fit the bill because it’s the coolest roadster in our portfolio and arguably in the British motorcycling portfolio in the late ‘70s. We said that the roadster version would be a totally separate look and feel, but with the same package. It worked, because it’s not a cruiser, it’s still a roadster, a little bit sporty oriented and not a very laidback ride. It’s just the laidback attitude and idea that the Interceptor is about.

SC: Launching the bikes in the US is a sign of your global ambitions?

SL: Yeah, absolutely. This is our coming out party. For us India is always going be the core of what we do. But we believe that as we started this project with a global audience in mind, we thought we need to do something in that nature. That’s why this launch is also of that caliber, with the kind of interest we got from people and media from around the world, it’s certainly the start of 2.0 for RE.

SC: And it’s also knocking on Harley-Davidson’s door?

SL: Not at all, it’s not meant to be anything of that nature. I believe we are coming in with the Interceptor and the GT in a category that is not really being served today by the more evocative players. We are not trying to go up against anybody. Nobody even has that kind of volumes in the market that interests us. We are really trying to create the market and that’s the beauty of it. In the best case scenario we can create a whole new category in Western markets, which is what we are trying to accomplish.

“We don’t want to set ourselves up, give big numbers, and come shy of that. We’d rather play it organically”

SC: What kind of volume are you looking at?

SL: Certainly we have internal targets but we aren’t sharing them. I’ve seen a lot of companies giving big targets, and if they don’t meet their targets it’s seen as a failure. Of course we would like to sell, but if it doesn’t happen it wouldn’t mean that it’s a bad product, probably that we need to fix it, or the timing wasn’t right. We don’t want to set ourselves up, give big numbers, and come shy of that. We’d rather play it organically. Even the Classic, which has taken us from 50k to a million, took nearly two years to really take off. There’s one in 20 products that are instant successes.

SC: How important was getting the quality right?

SL: For us quality is broken into two parts. The design part comes from our new product introduction process, the right talent, right equipment and huge number of iterations and miles have to be put on because there has to be product maturity to get into market. We have been testing the motorcycles for 18 months, to keep out all the issues and niggles which is the design part.

On the part and manufacturing, we have invested hugely in our parts. For example our frames are made by Thai Summit who is the leader in the world for frames. All our jigs, fixtures and calibration with all the robotics are done in Thailand. Those are brought to India, in precise jig fixtures. Thai Summit does all the child part building next to our facility and we do the final frame welding in-house, the important welds are robotics, to avoid error.

“We have a new Japanese process, 200 per cent inspection for every bike, 1007 items, a book which takes six hours to go through”

On the engine side, we have our pressure die cast dies from Taiwan. A year ago, we were producing these motorcycles at the speed at which they would be produced to make sure that the operators are able to do it at the right speed. We have a new Japanese process, 200 per cent inspection for every bike, 1007 items, a book which takes six hours to go through. Everything is looked at once by an operator, static and dynamic. The next day another person repeats the process. This applies for every single bike that rolls out. The jobs are focused now, someone working on the twins will not work on the Classic. We have the resources and capability to put it in the right place, hopefully the results are showing.

SC: The RE brand has been transformed over the past decade!

SL: We always wanted to make RE relevant to the right audiences. It has to appeal to cross sectional people. You have to appeal to the city crowd first and then the town crowd follows. Two decades ago, Enfield = Bullet = Enfield, there was no distinguishing the two. So we said Bullet must remain its true self, that was its big 19-inch wheels, certain looks, certain monograms, but RE must evolve. So the real big change was the Thunderbird. The Bullet guys hated it but there were other people who came in. With that we added more products such as the Classic, the GT, the Himalayan and now the new twins.

On the brand side it was certainly a concerted effort. First what struck us was to stick to our core, be authentic and focus on the right things. For example our stores were horrible two decades ago, but design wise we kept evolving it. People see the consistency, that the company is not trying too hard. 18 years ago, we stopped giving discounts on motorcycles. We never sold that many motorcycles, but we had the right price and stuck to it. In our brand positioning, we brought the brand to a simple approachable idea. In India where everything is about class, we try to have a brand that has a cross-social strata. We want it to be inclusive, not exclusive and premium.

As told to Sirish Chandran

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