Royal Enfield’s Vision For The Future Of American Motorcycling

North America’s president, Rod Copes, on the future of the brand and how to get butts on seats

2018 Royal Enfield Himalayan
The 2018 Royal Enfield Himalayan, a motorcycle Copes calls “a new branch off the tree,” referring to the way it takes the brand in a new direction while still staying true to Royal Enfield’s core identity.Royal Enfield North America

The night before I swung a leg over the 2018 Royal Enfield Himalayan in Texas, the Milwaukee-based subsidiary of the Indian marque threw a cocktail party for the assembled media. I was drinking a Shiner Bock (there wasn't any Lone Star, sadly) and talking with one of my colleagues with whom I've been on several press launches when a really nice guy from Royal Enfield North America joined our conversation. This guy was enthusiastic and down to earth and he seemed to know a lot about the brand. Before too long, I pieced together that I was talking to Rod Copes, the president of Royal Enfield North America. Cool guy, as it turns out.

The next day, I sat down with Copes, a former executive at Harley-Davidson, and talked about the state of the motorcycle industry and Royal Enfield's place in the market.

Rod Copes
Royal Enfield North America President Rod Copes.Royal Enfield North America

“The fundamental concern about the United States motorcycle industry,” Copes begins, “is the upside-down pyramid: 75 percent of bikes are heavyweights, 15–20 percent middleweight, and a handful are lightweight. And that’s great when there’s a lot of existing motorcycle riders upgrading, but when you have a generational switch—[and rider] changeover—it’s a flaw in the system. And I think we’re at a crossroads. Obviously, it’s not going to fall off, but we’ve got five to 10 years to really recreate the base of this pyramid so we can continue to fund a vibrant motorcycle culture in the United States. That’s why I believe the middleweight segment is perfect.”

Even calling the 411cc single-cylinder Himalayan a middleweight represents a paradigm shift to many American motorcyclists. Heck, when I think "middleweight," I think of my old Suzuki GSX-R750.

Copes continues, “The beauty of our story is it’s yet to be written. We are the only motorcycle company that has a blank canvas in North America because nobody knows us. We want to create a brand position that is accessible, easy, simple, fun—back to what we call ‘pure motorcycling.’ ”

While many OEMs are clued in to the fact that attracting a new audience may start with building inexpensive, laid-back motorcycles, Royal Enfield has an identity that can only be described as postmodern. Here's a company that sold 850,000 motorcycles in India last year but remains a niche brand in the States. For some context, 487,000 motorcycles from all brands were sold in the US in 2016.

“Just being at the International Motorcycle Shows and having people come up and saying one of two statements: ‘Wow, I didn’t know they’re still making those’—that’s the old vintage guy who’s got a picture of one in his wallet, and he’ll spend an hour there. Or it’s the 20-year-old saying, ‘That’s pretty damn cool. What is it?’ And you know what? Both extremes are like, ‘Where’s it made?’ It’s got English roots, an Indian soul, and it’s in the US. [They say,] ‘That’s pretty global. I’m okay with that.’”

By all indications, Royal Enfield’s unique global identity and storied past is matched by its vision for the future.

Siddartha Lal
Royal Enfield CEO Siddartha Lal.Royal Enfield North America

Copes says, “When I was hired by Siddartha Lal, the CEO of Royal Enfield, he said, ‘One caveat: You cannot come in and just do the motorcycle or powersports recipe book. We want to be different, but we want to be different for all the right reasons. Let’s reinvent it. Let’s not be disruptive for [the sake of being disruptive], but let’s do it different.’ ”

Since Copes was hired in 2015 to found Royal Enfield North America, he has strategically established the back end of the company in order to lay a groundwork for future success. For Royal Enfield, it’s about the long game.

“Our CEO looks at the time in decades, not in quarters. He said, ‘I’m looking 10 to 20 years out. It’s that important that we are the leaders in the middleweight segment in the United States because they’re such an influential market around the world.’ That’s a strategy and a vision that I would never guess would come out of someone in the motorcycle industry.

“The bottom line,” Copes adds, “is the motorcycle market is evolving. So we as leaders need to evolve our strategies as well.”

Royal Enfield North America
Royal Enfield North America’s flagship dealership in Milwaukee.Royal Enfield North America

With the initial stages of founding Royal Enfield North America complete, the real fun, Copes insists, is about to begin. The Himalayan is the first of many new motorcycles to come from the Chennai-based mothership.

“It’s amazing being on the ground floor of a company that was built in 1901,” Copes says. “It’s the chance of a lifetime.”