It has been a while since I deliberately kicked a hornets’ nest. For some time now, I have tried, and to an extent succeeded, to behave myself and not make waves. As someone whose job is to see flaws and resolve them, I’m not an easy guy to be around. Two successive Mrs. Kerrs would no doubt testify. When ex-Ducati design chief Pierre Terblanche quit Royal Enfield, it was paradoxically both a surprise and a given. Shortly before, he had resigned from Confederate, after only a year with the extrovert Alabama constructor. Before that, he had spent an even shorter spell at the helm of Norton, which prompted me to suggest he might be going for the “World’s Longest CV Award.” Terblanche failed to see the humor and promptly unfriended me—not just on Facebook. But that’s all water under the Bridgestones now. The latest drama involves the product he no doubt helped kick off at Royal Enfield, the Interceptor 650.
My introduction to the Interceptor was via LinkedIn, when an ex-colleague, now at Royal Enfi eld, stated how the latest computer technology had helped the company achieve new design heights. I looked from his comment to the photo and back to the comment, then back to the photo. It was the most predictable piece of design I’d seen in years, yet everyone was acting as if it was something more. Unfortunately, for their new UK R&D center, manned by 240 mostly-Europeans, it seemed to fall short by a wide margin. It made me wonder what the other 239 were doing the whole time. Don’t get me wrong, from a marketing viewpoint, the new Enfi eld twins are absolutely what the company needs to expand. Without moving outside the established brand, it’s all done with little to no risk. Their domestic Indian market is intensely patriotic, and with an expanding middle class, huge sales of a new all-metal icon from the most authentic of Indian manufacturers are guaranteed. The fact that it has been entirely designed and developed in the UK is unlikely to dilute the enthusiasm. And why should it? It didn’t put anyone off the original Bullet. The title Interceptor, while authentic to Enfield UK’s last production model, and a twin at that, has since been taken for Honda’s US model VF750/800F (along with a British grand touring car in the 1960s), so the legal implications might be interesting. In India, the new twins will be considered high-performance superbikes. Conversely, they’ll be unintimidating entry-level midsize models in developed markets, where 100 mph performance has been commonplace for decades.
Whatever their stance, everyone will love it. Describing it as “a poor copy of a 20-year-old Triumph” may have been an unfair taunt, but it certainly got the attention of the design team. What started as curiosity ended as pure sport, as tempers rose, but I’m still curious to know how the folks at Triumph perceive it. Reflecting on my 33 years in the motorcycle business, the opportunity to make real advances in design seems to have declined exponentially. In the early 1980s, we were all struggling to understand the rules of what a modern motorcycle should be. There were plenty of false directions before everything settled down. The freedoms, along with the responsibility to get it right, were terrifying. Over the years, those rules have become so well established that the challenge has become how to break away from them. Some companies take on that challenge. They are driven to improve the product and advance the industry, with a longer-term outlook than just instant profit. I have acknowledged before that Honda and BMW lead the way in terms of innovative technology and styling, both helped no doubt by the technical and financial might of their automotive divisions. Even so, they take risks, and accept a certain percentage of failure as an inevitable byproduct. Even Yamaha, historically famous for its wise fiscal policy of deliberately coming in second to Honda, has introduced plenty of innovative products.
The new three-wheeled Niken, which appeared in prototype form at EICMA, represents a huge leap of faith that the concept will appeal to consumers. Urban scooter riders, who have already embraced three-wheelers like Yamaha’s Tricity or the Piaggio MP3, are an entirely different species. Smaller companies like KTM and Husqvarna have also been pushing the envelope within their budget limits, with fresh new designs that challenge our preconceptions and move the industry forwards. Advances are still being made, but not every manufacturer is equal in this regard. Many companies, especially in East Asian markets, want short-term rewards with zero risk, which is hardly challenging creatively. In purely fi nancial terms, that logic makes perfect sense. But the policy exploits the industry, rather than contributing to it. We’ve seen recently how every manufacturer in China can turn out cafe racers and scramblers with minimal effort, tacking clip-ons and exhaust-wrap onto low-tech commuter bikes to create instant personality. It looks cool, but nostalgia is a finite market that draws from past glories and exhibits zero vision. If a company only achieves the same result as any owner in their garage with a few tools and an accessories catalog, it doesn’t bode well for the future of motorcycling. Fortunately, a few visionaries give others a path to follow, eventually. Enfield’s biggest success story has been the production leap from a quoted 32,000 units in 2006 to a projected 900,000 in 2018. Even that figure lies well behind Hero’s target of 10 million units, though Enfield’s higher price points to higher profitability per unit. In the short term, Enfield’s market is very clearly defined. From a marketing viewpoint, it would be an unnecessary venture into the unknown for them to deviate too far from proven success. In sales terms, the company has hit the nail on the head with the 650 and it will no doubt find a ready market, but a design marvel it isn’t. The visual balance is better than its predecessors, but the visible rear sub-frame behind the seat hump on the cafe racer is still an eyesore. Company executives are assured to become even wealthier, but instead of beating their chests, the UK development team should take the money and slip quietly out the back door.
Like many enthusiasts, I have waited a long time for the next generation of Royal Enfield motorcycles. This could have been a milestone product, while still ticking all the boxes. Instead, the utter predictability of the design is a huge disappointment. If the Continental GT saw Enfield screaming into the 1960s, the Interceptor has catapulted them squarely into the 1970s. That’s probably enough for the Indian market, which will make huge allowances for a traditional domestic motorcycle. But to anyone with an understanding of the international motorcycle industry, it could have been so much more.