Motoring

The (almost) return of the Jawa bikes

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The Czech Ambassador in India, along with Classic Legends, marked 90 years of Jawa. But where are the bikes?

The air in the already-quiet diplomatic enclave of Chanakyapuri was quieter still last week — until the distinct exhaust note of a classic two-stroke engine filled the air. This came from one of the few vintage Jawa bikes parked at the Czech Embassy’s courtyard, announcing the start of the evening.

The Embassy was marking the 90th year of the motorbike brand, which had originated in Czechoslovakia and found an almost cult-like following in India since the 1960s. To mark this milestone, they also unveiled a limited 90th Anniversary edition of the bike, from Jawa’s new custodians, Classic Legends, a subsidiary of the Mahindra Group, which relaunched Jawa in the Indian market in November last year.

Earlier that morning, these vintage models had participated in a ride down Rajpath, to celebrate the milestone, which the Czech Ambassador to India, Milan Hovorka, had flagged off. Yezdis, which were manufactured in India with know-how from Jawa, also took part.

Czech Ambassador to India Milan Hovorka, with Anupam Thareja

Czech Ambassador to India Milan Hovorka, with Anupam Thareja   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

 

Family silver

Some of these bikes were passed on from father to son — for instance, 46-year-old Atul Arvind Gokhale from Pune remembers taking the bike he brought to Delhi, on rides as early as when he was just 13 years old. “I never expected my bike [a 1967 Jawa 250 Type 353] to stay with me all this time. It’s a part of my family,” he says.

At the event, Hovorka too recalled the emotion that many back in the Czech Republic hold, of owning a Jawa. “We call this family silver. It has that value.”

Jawa first formally came to India in 1961, imported by a domestic firm called Ideal Jawa, founded by the Parsi businessmen Rustom and Farrokh Irani. Under licence, they also started manufacture of these bikes from their Mysore factory. By 1971, they also started the Yezdi.

Gokhale, who is a service head at Honda Cars based in Pune, is also one of the founding members of the Yezdi Jawa Owners Club (YJOC) of Pune. They had started with just three people in 2001. Today, the club has more than 250 members, with the youngest in their late teens, and the oldest close to 75.

The (almost) return of the Jawa bikes
 

Since the bikemaker officially stopped production in India in the early ’90s, close to 35 groups through the country like the YJOC Pune — including the Roaring Riders, Yezdi & Jawa Club Delhi, Rajasthan Jawa Yezdi Club, Mysuru Jawa Club, Puducherry Jawa Club, the Jawa Yezdi Club of Hyderabad — have only served to cement the cult-like status of the Jawa-Yezdi bikes in India until today.

Zero-maintenance value

“This used to be called the dhoodhwala bike,” says 45-year-old Mandar Phadke, another member of the YJOC. “The idea behind that [expression] is of reliability. I’ve driven mine [a 1950 250cc Perak) for the last 19 years, travelling over 84,000 kilometres, from -7°C to 46°C; it is still 200% reliable.”

Unlike Gokhale, Phadke bought his bike. It’s been 19 years since he did, and as its third owner, he got a bit of it restored. “But most of it is intact still — these spokes are over 70 years old,” he says. “It’s really a zero-maintenance bike.”

The revival

Even before manufacturing began in Mysore, the stage had been set for Jawa’s entry, with collectors transporting small numbers of the bikes into the country even in the 1950s.

The (almost) return of the Jawa bikes
 

This niche established an aspiration, so when the brand formally arrived in India, it could hold its own in the market, which already had the Royal Enfield, and later the Bajaj Chetaks and the Lunas as two-wheeler options. Jawa, like the Enfield, was also the more “masculine” of options.

Last November, investment banker Anupam Thareja, co-founder of Classic Legends, backed by Anand Mahindra and Boman Irani, son of Ideal Jawa’s Rustom Irani, launched with three bikes: Jawa, Jawa Forty Two and Jawa Perak. But one year later, the bikes are not yet a familiar sight on streets in any major city, despite them being pocket-friendly for a leisure motorcycling experience.

So where are the bikes?

“Any relaunch is very difficult,” says Thareja, whose company is manufacturing the units from a factory in Pithampur, Madhya Pradesh. Interestingly, he was also associated with the Royal Enfield turnaround, before he quit the company in 2008 to start his own investment firm. Much like that previous project, the Jawa relaunch too is one that is dipped in the rose-tinted stickiness of nostalgia.

Thareja draws from pop-culture to explain himself: “Anyone who might attempt a remake of Sholay (1975) will feel like a dud,” he says at one instance; “but look how beautifully Batman has evolved to appeal to generations over the years”, at another.

He confirms that one of the contributing factors for this is that their network of dealerships is spread thin, with 81 cities through the country.

 

“The reason we don’t see bikes on the road is because I’m probably supplying two bikes here and six bikes there. In a normal biking scenario, there would be 10 dealerships in a few major locales, a whole lot of bikes sent, [resulting in] seeing the bikes there. But we are across tiers,” he says.

In June, seven months after their launch, the bike makers also explained the delay in order deliveries, saying they were “overwhelmed” with the initial response. Their waiting period now has been brought down from 10 months to about six, says Thareja.

Selling a lifestyle

Industry observers have also noted the risk of people not being entirely convinced with new-age iterations of vehicles that have piggybacked off an old favourite. Contexts change too, and loud decibel levels may not cut it with an environmentally-sensitive post-millennial. Earlier this month, Bajaj relaunched the Chetak in an electric version, in the hope of riding on its nostalgia value.

“We are going to stick to what we think [the Jawa] customer needs and how we think this brand is going to be built over a long period of time,” says Thareja. He aims to do so by organising more rides backed with the philosophy of their Jawa Nomads programme, where the brand encourages participants to give back to the community of the regions through which they ride — they let riders experience local food, be more mindful of the ecology, enforcing a no-plastic policy on their rides. Their Ibex Trail 2019, which ended in the first week of September, saw one such clean-up initiative at the Hanle river bed in Ladakh.

In tandem with the niche clientèle that Jawa appeals to, Thareja hopes to “adopt a sub-culture in music and a sub-culture in sport” by associating non-mainstream artistes and sporting communities. Jazz and folk-fusion over pop; hockey over cricket, he says. “Because if I start selling a motorcycle I lose. If I start selling a lifestyle, maybe I have a chance.”

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2019 1:05:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/life-and-style/motoring/the-almost-return-of-the-jawa-bikes/article29823241.ece

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