MUMBAI - William Harley and Arthur Davidson could have hardly imagined juicy
mangoes cracking open doors for their iconic motorcycles to enter India, the
world's second largest two-wheeler market.
But mangoes did just that, the belated offshoot being 25 Harley-Davidsons
rumbling through rain-drenched New Delhi roads on August 27. The brand, among
the last of the great names in American popular culture, has received an
overdue Indian visa, and the bikes are expected to go on sale early next year.
"Mango-for-motorcycle" trade negotiations in 2007 led to the Indian government
grandly allowing Harley-Davidsons to sell in
India in exchange for its US counterpart allowing imports of Alphonsos, the
mango variety popularly crowned the "king of fruits".
Given what India generally does to "Indianize" foreign invaders, as interesting
what Harley-Davidson does in India may be what India does to the
Harley-Davidson cult and its classic products such as "Fat Boy", "V-Rod" and
No easy cruise is guaranteed for any motorcycle maharajah in India, with
challenges that include bumpy roads and competition from the Japanese
heavyweight motorcycle quartet of Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki and Kawasaki.
Ironically, Harley-Davidson's earliest and strongest competitor in the United
States was the legendary "Indian" motorcycles that hit American roads in 1901,
becoming for a time a bestseller worldwide.
This "Indian" product is yet to arrive in India - the motorcycle "Indian" brand
of course refers to the "Red Indians" of North America, who in turn were
mistakenly called Indians by Italian explorer Christopher Columbus who thought
he had achieved his goal of finding a sea route to India.
Harley-Davidson inaugurated its India ride from the landmark India Gate, the
large stone archway in the heart of New Delhi, 106 years after Harley and the
Davidson brothers (Walter was the other) strapped an engine onto a bicycle
frame in a rickety wooden shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The New Delhi ride ended nearly two years of Harley-Davidson haggling with the
Indian government to reduce its 110% import duties. Nothing doing, said the
government and so entry-level Harleys will be US$14,000 for Indian road users
to hear the distinctive "pop-pop-pause-pop-pop" of the Harley exhaust.
But Indian city roads celebrate sufficient bedlam already to drown this
much-hyped signature roar of the Harley-Davidson engine. "The sound is
unmistakable," gushes the Harley-Davidson Motor Co about its engine. "It grabs
your heart and makes it pump faster, showing you a new world with every beat.
Pumping. Throbbing. Its power enlivens you. Churning. Burning. Its torque
"Bakwas", down-to-earth Mumbai reidents might snort in response, the colorful
local equivalent of verbal bull droppings. The Harley-Davidson company, of
course, does not tom-tom the fact of its engine also being heard globally as
"potato-potato-potato". This in India risks the mighty Harley-Ds earning the
less than spectacular moniker of "batata bikes", following the Mumbai lingo and
love for potatoes.
For now, the Harley-Davidson team sounds pleased with their India debut.
"Unforgettable", said Amanda Lee, Communications Manager at the Harley-Davidson
Motor Company, nearly a fortnight after 25 Harley-Davidson riders revved up
from India Gate.
"We had a wonderful time on the Founders' Ride," Lee and Matthew Levatich,
president of Harley-Davidson's motorcycle division, told Asia Times Online. "It
was great to ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles through the streets of New
Their company has chosen a propitious time, with India planning to invest US$70
billion in improving roads in the next three years. So the Harley-Davidson
India experience may yet escape being ruthlessly bumped through bone-rattling
Still, a growing economy is also helping to drive up sales of rivals. Suzuki
Motorcycle India reported last month a 17.68% growth in sales for August
compared with a year earlier - to 13,030 units.
It's an intriguing cocktail anyway, involving one of the world's oldest and
most famous motorbikes, the second largest bike market, and the free-spirited
mindset of motorbike lovers worldwide.
Even so, the estimated seven million unit size of India's two wheeler market,
the second-largest after China, indicates a tendency for users to be more
concerned with the functional use of motorized two-wheelers, than for the
classic motorbike rider feeling of having man, machine and nature dissolving
into one single throbbing, racing, exhilarating, wind-lashed entity on the
"Unlike in the US, where motorbike users mostly buy their machines for the love
of the experience, in India it is largely a issue of cheaper, convenient,
transport," said Ralph Pais, general manager of the Statesman newspaper. He has
been a die-hard motorbike rider since he sneaked rides on his uncle's Triumph
at the age of 14. A former bass guitarist of the "Savages" - one of India's
reasonably successful rock bands of the 1960s - Ralph and his equally
bike-hooked son Johan own a Honda CB 400N and a Yamaha R15.
This top-end clan of motorbike aficionados are also corporate chieftains in
India who continue to yearn for the open-air, heady freedom on two wheels that
motorcycle fans crave; a temporary re-discovery of one of the most primeval and
strongest of human emotions: the pining for lost freedom.
Girish Rangan also belongs to this culture club of heavyweight motorcycle
addicts and big bosses in love with liberation on two wheels. A former director
and chief executive officer of companies such as Warner Lambert, BPL Mobile,
Wockhardt and Parke Davis, Rangan relishes his 400-kilometer weekly rides on
his Honda 1000cc Varadero.
"Harley-Davidson coming here is an exciting happening for India," Rangan told
Asia Times Online. "There is a pent-up demand here for such big bikes, but the
question is sustainability of the initial demand after three years, and how
Harley-Davidson would adapt to tough Indian road conditions."
Rangan, who now runs his own management consultancy firm, also expects India's
few known motorbike groupies such as "Inddiethumpers" to dump their ancient
Royal Enfield Bullets and take to the Harleys. Some of India's more famous
owners, including sports idols and movie stars, have been lured into building
collections of bikes.
India's cricket team captain, Mahendra Singh Dhohi, one of Asia's top-earning
sportsman at over $10 million per annum according to Forbes, is known to own
over a dozen bikes including a 1500cc Harley Davidson, a Kawasaki Ninja, a
Royal Enfield Machismo 350cc and a Yamaha 650cc sports bike.
As India continues to grow its economy and its influence as a global leader,
there is a growing demand for products and experiences that express the
increasingly confident spirit of 21st century India, according to Matthew
Levatich, president of Harley-Davidson's main motorcycle division.
The Harley team hopes to have "a leading role in helping to define a new era of
motorcycling in India". There won't the shortage of choice either, with
Harley-Davidson offering nearly 30 models in 2010 alone.
Harley-Davidson officially starting to sell in India puts another finishing
paragraph to decades of times when foreign goods, from soaps, chocolates and
music systems, were smuggled past greedy custom officials into the country that
allowed only a few dollars of foreign travel allowance three decades ago.
Popular tricks to own a foreign motorbike in India in the 1970s included buying
from a visiting sailor. The "shippie" who would then grant power of attorney
for five years to "look after" the motorcycle, the period beyond which foreign
bikes could be bought without the import duties of over 300%.
Company managers told Asia Times Online that they sold 25,249 motorcycles in
the Asia Pacific region in 2008. Now that India has joined the Harley-Davidson
club of 70 countries, it will be interesting to see whether the country's
embrace of the culture changes America's oldest surviving motoring icons.