Riding royalty

Old-timey British bikes gain traction with locals



Michael Hanlon

Many of us have undoubtedly had visions of speeding down the highway with just two wheels beneath us, the wind charging by as we careen for our destination. In a world of crises and bills and overloaded stress, motorcycles help us connect with the world around us and be the cathartic expression some of us need.

Bikes are popular, but a growing trend in Rochester, with roots dating back to before Harley Davidson became a household name, is the Royal Enfield.

“There’s a cheesy quote about motorcycles,” says Mithun Mukherjee, who owns two Royal Enfields. “‘Four wheels move the body; two wheels move the soul.’ That’s what motorcycling feels like. Folks get into riding for a multitude of reasons—because they grew up around adults who rode, or maybe they discovered motorcycling later in life because a friend rides or because they’re curious. Some enjoy it for the speed; others enjoy it for that simple feeling of the wind in your face. Whatever the reason, once they try it it’s almost like meditation or therapy—you just have to focus your senses on the road when you’re on a bike, so in a sense it is a lot like meditation.”

Mukherjee was born and raised in India as the child of an Army dad before moving to Rochester in 2002 for graduate school. His father was no stranger to the Royal Enfield Bullet, the preferred motorcycle of the Indian Army. “Royal Enfield was like the Harley Davidson of Indian motorcycles in the eighties and nineties. I saw these everywhere around me growing up.”

The company’s first motorbike was crafted in Redditch, England, in 1901, a bicycle with the engine mounted on the front wheel, driving the rear wheel with a belt. It was at that time a part of Enfield Motor Company, after parting from the company to form Royal Enfield in 1910, the creators introduced a motorcycle with a two-and-a-quarter HP V twin engine and continued production through World War I, when motorcycle production elsewhere had slowed down. During World War II, the bike was light enough to parachute into enemy territory, and it grew a reputation as being sleek and tough, even if not always dependable.

Today, Royal Enfield is the oldest global motorcycle in continuous production.

“There is definitely an old-school allure to it that appeals to current hipster culture,” Mukherjee says. “But the older bikes also attract the old motorcycle enthusiasts that like to tinker with motorcycles ... and don’t mind an occasional breakdown that they can fix.

“The newer bikes from Royal Enfield have come a long way in terms of quality and styling, and pricing is targeted with ‘pure motorcycling’ in mind with the goal of attracting millennials and women to motorcycling as the baby boomer motorcycling generation ages. So three years ago when a green military Royal Enfield Bullet was up for sale on Craigslist locally, I jumped on it. It was the color I always wanted, the style I always wanted, and it reminded me of the Indian Army Bullets growing up.”

For Mukherjee, the Royal Enfield hasn’t just been about sticking to his Indian origins—it’s been about entering a culture—a lifestyle—in Rochester that has introduced him to new experiences, people, and places. “Obviously I have this nostalgic, sentimental attachment to the brand and the motorcycle, given my Indian roots. My wife and son have also become big motorcycling and Royal Enfield fans. In the three years since I’ve owned this motorcycle and returned to motorcycling, I’ve made so many friends locally in Rochester who enjoy riding and motorcycles as much as I do. I’ve enjoyed learning more about the nuts and bolts and inner workings of motorcycle maintenance and am always learning but have a long, long way to go. There is a lot of custom motorcycle building talent and passion here locally in Rochester, and the Royal Enfield bike has certainly broadened my social circle and introduced me to folks that share this common passion.

“There is general perception that motorcycling is dangerous and various stereotypes about ‘bikers’ and such. Enjoyed safely and responsibly with an open mind and the right gear, motorcycling can be so much fun and broaden your horizons and help you explore places around you that you never knew existed.”

Not only has owning a Royal Enfield been a way for Mukherjee to dive into his past and also explore a growing culture in the Rochester area, it’s also practical. “I now own a Royal Enfield Bullet as well as a Royal Enfield Himalayan, Royal Enfield’s latest addition to introduce a small displacement ‘adventure bike’ capable of exploring on road and off road.

“We are a single-car family, and I use my motorcycle to commute to work in the spring, summer, and fall. I am hoping to use the Himalayan to explore and experience more of the upstate New York region,” he says.

Mukherjee isn’t the only Royal Enfield superfan around. Scott Wakefield, a dad of three who grew up in East Bethany, New York, has become a huge Royal Enfield supporter. “If you’re looking for a lot of fun without killing your bank account or worrying about maintaining a complex machine, then Royal Enfield has you covered,” Wakefield says. “I think Royal Enfield has captured the very essence of motorcycling.”

Wakefield saw his first Royal Enfield Bullet in Honolulu, Hawaii, in 2004, when he was in the Coast Guard. “I couldn’t get over how cool the bikes looked. The classic lines and simple mechanics had me enthralled. At the time, the bikes were still using old technology, and I loved the idea of getting a brand new ‘classic’ bike. I ended up buying a used 2000 Bullet from New Jersey, which I still have and ride. It sports a kick-start and carburetor and requires routine tinkering. For guys like me who enjoy that stuff, it’s a blast. Now, post-2008 models don’t require much attention; just put gas in and go!

“They are very appealing to an audience that wants simplicity, affordability, reliability, efficiency, and fun. Younger people really like them, but seasoned riders are drawn to them for their manageable weight, maneuverability, reliability, and how they harken back to the post-World War II British bikes—only now they have fuel injection and electric starters.”

While Wakefield may not live in the 585 since moving closer to the Royal Enfield dealer in Buffalo where he works, he still has a connection to the area. “Rochester and 585 are part of our market. The next closest Royal Enfield shop is Albany. We participated in Naan-Tastic’s Grand Opening in Rochester [where there is one on display—with a sidecar], and we have customers around Rochester. The city and Finger Lakes are perfect for Royal Enfields.

For Wakefield, Royal Enfield has embedded itself as a way of life. “Saying that buying a Royal Enfield changed my life might be an overstatement, but I’d probably not be working at a motorcycle shop if I’d purchased something different or no motorcycle at all!

“Royal Enfield owners are a distinctive lot. They don’t want to ride what everyone else is riding. They want to be a little different without being showy, and the classy, uncluttered nature of Royal Enfields appeals to that desire. Royal Enfields have a soul that some other bikes lack. I could go on and on about them.”

The appeal of Royal Enfield is no joke—that much is for sure. With growing popularity in Rochester and the 585, it’s not hard to see why they appeal so much to the growing generation of motorcycle riders. For those looking for a sleek bike that’s affordable and easy to maintain, they just might be that change of life you’re looking for.

 

Chris Stocking is a writer and photographer tucked away in the Park Avenue area of Rochester. When he’s not attempting to entertain his two young children, he’s probably watching Game of Thrones.

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