To New Delhi-based motorcycle restoration expert Bobbee Singh, the Royal Enfield motorcycle is far more than just a means of transport. It’s an icon of India, a symbol of the legacy of colonialism, and a lifelong passion.
“The first time you ride a Royal Enfield, you’re f***ed for life,” says Singh. “They have this magical quality that gets under your skin.”
The Royal Enfield was brought to the subcontinent from England in the days of the British Raj, and, to Singh and a growing circle of vintage Enfield enthusiasts, the bike embodies all the power and romance of this bygone era.
“Our fathers and grandfathers would tell us stories of how the British in their cantonments would polish their imported motorcycles every Sunday until they gleamed. And when they rode through the streets, the loud thump of the engine would make everyone look around and ask, ‘Oh, who’s that?’ It was the sound of authority,” he says.
“We appreciate what the British did here, building the railway, the beautiful buildings … maybe it’s just our generation, as we didn’t go through all the s*** [of colonialism and partition], but we have no resentment. To us, the British Raj seems so clean and structured. They lived in the same style as our maharajas – the only difference is they drank tea and ate fish.”
Singh is now reviving the nostalgic glamour of yesteryear in the form of gorgeously restored vintage Enfields. While Royal Enfields came to India with British colonists sometime in the early 1900s, they have been sold in India since 1949. In 1955, the British company, which since 1893 was based in Redditch, England, partnered with Madras Motors in India and formed Enfield India. In the 1960s, the influx of more affordable Japanese motorbikes brought the once-mighty British motorcycle industry to its knees. Royal Enfield UK closed in 1971. Since then, the Royal Enfield motorcycle has been manufactured only in India.
Considered by many to be the world’s longest-running motorcycle brand, Royal Enfield has in recent years gone from strength to strength, boosted by a rapidly expanding middle class in India and a growing presence overseas. Royal Enfield’s classic model, the Bullet, probably the world’s oldest motorcycle still in production, has a months-long waiting list for new buyers in India.
But Singh isn’t interested in new machines.
His network of “informants” scours India’s villages for old Enfields rusting in sheds or for young men willing to sell their father’s bikes for the sort of prices big-city buyers are willing to pay. The bikes are taken on trucks to Delhi, where Singh and his Old Delhi Motorcycles restoration outfit brings them back to life. He restores and customises them into shining works of vintage-inspired art.
“The classic beauty and simplicity of the past is missing from all the mass-produced products of today,” he says.
Singh, who was last year named Delhi’s most stylish man by India’s biggest newspaper, the Hindustan Times, has been customising Enfields professionally for more than a decade. But his passion for chrome and engine oil stretches back to his childhood. As a boy, he learned motorcycle mechanics from his uncle.
“I used to sit with my uncle while he worked on his motorbike. I liked to pretend I was helping him. I even smeared grease on my face and hands so I looked the part,” he says with a chuckle.
On seeing his love for these machines and how they work, Singh’s mother had an inkling of what his future might hold. “My mother used to tease me that I would be a mechanic when I grew up. I said, ‘No way,’ as in India you’re looked down on for having such a job. You have to become a lawyer or a doctor to gain respect here. But here I am, making motorcycles for a living – my mother was right all along.”
Singh is now bombarded with orders and ships his modified vintage Enfields all over the world. While he does have Indian customers, most of his clients are expats, who fall in love with the Royal Enfield while in India and take a customised vintage model home with them.
Singh works closely with each client, meeting them face-to-face whenever possible to get a sense of their personality and style. He makes suggestions, but the choice of colour, fittings, and other personal touches is bespoke.
Once the specifications are set, Singh calls on the men he calls “maestros”: metalsmiths, leather workers, painters and mechanics whose skills have been passed down through apprenticeships stretching back to the time of the Raj. These artisans ply their crafts in the bleak, industrial areas of Jhandewalan, Karol Bagh and the Trans-Yamuna areas of Delhi – a world away from the streets of Paris, Sydney, London and Cape Town where the motorcycles will be ridden.
Singh feels it’s important that these artisans’ skills are not lost. “Many of the men I work with have been taught by their fathers, who were taught by their fathers,” he says. “These skills are priceless. I want India’s motorcycle artisans to have better working conditions, and the regard they deserve.”
Pawan Kumar Billtoria is one of Singh’s maestros. He spray paints petrol tanks and mudguards by hand in his messy yard in west Delhi’s industrial Mayapuri district. The yard is stacked with old bits of machinery and a rusting car that is sinking slowly into the ground. It’s also the range of his fighting cocks.
“Others have weaknesses like alcohol or nicotine, but I have my cocks,” says Billtoria.
When the mudguard or petrol tank is covered in a silky film of turquoise or British racing green, he hangs it to dry in his shed, above his chicken coops and piles of old motorcycle parts.
In his mid-50s, Billtoria’s eyes are permanently bloodshot from decades of exposure to paint. He shrugs this off: painting motorcycles is what he loves. When customers come to him offering him good money to paint their scooters, he refuses.
“I tell them it’s not about the money. I only paint Bullets. I’ve been painting them since 1976 and I haven’t had a free day so far,” he says.
The reverence in which Royal Enfields are held goes back to the time of the Raj, but their status was reconfirmed after independence. In 1955, India ordered a batch of 800 Royal Enfield 350cc Bullet motorcycles for its police and army. Known more for sturdiness than precision – to this day Enfield riders lovingly joke about the way the motorcycles leaks oil – the bike was well suited to rough roads and made a good workhorse for India’s officers. Being ridden by these new figures of authority, the motorcycles became further imbued with a sense of power.
“If you saw a civilian riding a Royal Enfield, he was for sure a special guy, a gangster or a jamidar – a landowner,” says Singh. “When a landowner inspected his fields, he would often circumnavigate the borders of his property on his bike, like a tiger marking his territory. Riding a Royal Enfield was a way to signal where you were in the social hierarchy.”
Riders of Singh’s restored Enfields are not likely to use them to inspect their fields. But the bikes are a way for vintage motorcycle aficionados to mark their personal taste and indulge in an expensive hobby. The motorcycles also keep the rich legacy of what Singh calls a “true Indian sweetheart” very much alive.