Jawa, the iconic motorcycle brand is all set to return tomorrow after nearly five decades, courtesy of three men passionate about retro bikes: industrialist Anand Mahindra, entrepreneur Anupam Thareja, and real estate developer Boman Irani.
“Of course, I remember the Jawa,” exclaimed my very au courant 50-something mother upon learning about my travels to Delhi. I was there for a chat with the gentleman who is the driving force behind the revival of one of India’s best-known motorcycle brands.
Anupam Thareja spent nearly half his career as a research analyst working for international banks like ABN, HSBC and CSFB, before shifting gears and joining the corporate sector in 2005. As the Director of Royal Enfield, he was part of the team that helped turn the other iconic Indian bike maker around. After quitting in 2008, he has spent the better part of the last decade running his own company, Phi Capital, an investment firm that specialises in turnarounds.
I meet Thareja at his tastefully decorated office in South Delhi, where over two hours he tells me the story about the Jawa comeback and his role in it. The company that made these iconic bikes in India, Ideal Jawa, later known as Ideal Motors, closed operations in 1996. Thareja and his friend Anand Mahindra, the automobile industry veteran and Chairman of Mahindra & Mahindra, have for long nurtured the dream of relaunching Jawa in a modern avatar. And he could now hardly contain his excitement – the idea is finally coming to fruition this month. The first of the reborn Jawa bikes will roll out of the Mahindra two-wheeler facility in Pithampur, outside Indore, on November 15.
Jawa is a nearly century-old Czech brand owned by Jawa Motorcycle Company, founded in the 1920s by a Prague-based engineer, Frantisek Janecek. He had become famous earlier for his patents in sound recording, and developing a hand grenade that became the standard issue for the then-Czechoslovakia army during the two World Wars. In 1929, he bought the motorcycle division of the famous German manufacturer, Wanderer, which had fallen to bad times in the recession of the 1920s. He thought of the moniker Jawa by combining the first two alphabets of Janecek and Wanderer.
Anupam Thareja photographed on a vintage Jawa bike
With their shift-drives and steel frames the earliest Jawa bikes, across a variety of engine capacities, were an instant hit, first in the founder’s own country and then across Europe. They were a force to reckon with on the international motorcycle racing circuits of the 1950s and ‘60s. Even in the 1970s, Jawa was considered one of the world leaders in the motorcycle industry, with popular bikes like the Pérák and Californian.
Jawa bikes first arrived in India as imports in the 1950s. But they achieved big numbers starting in the early 1960s when they were manufactured locally through a licensed assembly operation in Mysore by two Parsi entrepreneurs, Rustom and Farrokh Irani. Their company, called Ideal Jawa India Ltd, caught the early fancy of the titular Mysore ruler King Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, who was aware of the bikes’ fearsome reputation on international racing circuits. He personally inaugurated the factory in 1961 and helped expand its operations across a 25-acre piece of property on the outskirts of the city. The company, at its peak, employed over 2000 people and made more than 40,000 bikes a year, including the famous Jawa 250 and Jawa 50 Jet ‘A’ Series.
The bikes achieved an even more significant following in the 1970s, under the name of Yezdi. In the early 1970s, when their licensing collaboration with Jawa expired, the Iranis, in keeping with the industrial policy of self-reliance that was in vogue in those days, did not renew it. They were confident of making their own bikes, and began doing so under the new name of Yezdi, after the province in Iran where their forefathers lived. Sold under the advertising strapline of `Forever Bike. Forever Value’, the mostly 250cc Yezdi bikes were a roaring success across India and were exported to more than 60 countries. Models like the Roadking, Classic, CLII, Deluxe and Monarch achieved cult status among young Indians in no time.
The bikes commanded popularity across a cross-section of buyers, ranging from those who used it for the daily commute to racing big shots like Fariborz Irani, CK Chinnappa, Rustom Hormuzdji, BS Shinde and Thirumal Roy. The tales of the bike’s toughness made the news, thanks to the likes of Deepak Kamath and GH Basavaraj, who circumnavigated the globe on a Yezdi Roadking. In the 1970s and the ‘80s, Yezdis were everywhere, including in Bollywood movies. Amitabh Bachchan rode one in Parvarish, while Farooq Shaikh romanced Deepti Naval on a Yezdi in Chashme Baddoor in 1981.
The bike’s dream run, though, lasted less than 15 years. The government’s decision to open up the motorcycle sector to foreign competition in the early 1980s led to the arrival of the likes of Honda and Suzuki into the Indian market, particularly in the commuter segment, the bread and butter for any mass scale bike maker. Ideal Motors stood no chance in the face of the more modern, lightweight and fuel-efficient bikes. Both sales and profitability went into a tailspin, leading to labour problems at the Mysore factory, and the eventual shutting down of production in 1996. The most famous Mumbai showroom on Gunbow Street in the city’s Fort area, which used to be known as Ideal Motors, was turned into a Parsi restaurant called Ideal Corner Café.
The goodwill the company generated, though, never evaporated. A large community of Jawa and Yezdi bike owners across the country clung on to their prized possessions, forming rider’s associations that continue to flourish. According to one estimate, there are as many as 54 of these clubs around the country, with members owning upwards of 10,000 Jawa/Yezdi bikes.
Royal Enfield, Yezdi’s often smaller rival in the 1970s and ‘80s, would have met a similar fate had it not merged with Eicher Motors in the 1990s. Even then, it had a rather uneventful run for close to a decade and was on the verge of being shut down when Eicher founder Vikram Lal’s son Siddhartha Lal took over as CEO in the year 2000. He brought about a remarkable transformation over the next decade, by capitalising on the bike’s retro value, effecting one of the country’s most successful turnaround stories in the world of automobiles. Enfield’s success in the last decade, no doubt, would have been an inspiration for the new owners of the Jawa trade name.
Like thousands of bike-loving young men who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, Anand Mahindra and Anupam Thareja, the two men behind the revival of Jawa, also had genuine connections to the brand. Thareja was always a passionate biker, and the Jawa/Yezdi was for him the ‘coolest’ Indian bike that one aspired for. Mahindra, on the other hand, discovered the ‘coolness’ of the Jawa while in school, as he told Brand Equity recently. “Back when I was in Lawrence School, Lovedale, in the late ‘60s, the coolest person on campus was Morvareez Irani, because she came from the Ideal Jawa family. Everyone wanted to know her so they could get an invite to the factory in Mysore. Believe me, Mahindra was not a brand of any consequence in Lawrence school. It brought me no brownie points whatsoever!”
Mahindra, of course, is no stranger to rejuvenating companies and brands. It was his vision as a young managing director in the 1990s that radically transformed the Mahindra group into the automobile powerhouse it is today. The scale of what he achieved is evident when compared to what happened to contemporary behemoths like Premier Automobiles and Hindustan Motors. Mahindra also combines his very modern zeal for radical change with a deep appreciation for the more exceptional things from the past, as can be seen by his patronage for three of the most important annual cultural festivals on the Indian performance art calendar – the Mahindra Kabira Festival, Mahindra Blues Festival and the Mahindra Excellence in Theatre Awards. This is, in a sense, ties in with his decade-long passion for resurrecting Jawa.
Thareja was a young investment banker starting in his career when he reconnected with Mahindra in the late 1990s. “We’ve been friends since a long time. We re-connected around his 40th birthday, possibly around the time he had just been appointed as managing director [of Mahindra & Mahindra Ltd],” He says. They kept in touch. While Mahindra’s first decisive moment as the MD and Vice-chairman of M&M came in 2002, with the launch of the hugely successful Scorpio SUV, Thareja made an important shift in his career in 2005, when he moved from banking to a full-time role as Director of Royal Enfield, taking on the role of a ‘quasi-entrepreneur’. He helped set up the new management team that turn the company around and made it among the most successful two-wheeler manufacturers in the country. Their winning formula involved combining Royal Enfield’s retro image and feel with technological enhancement at a price that was affordable to the bike-loving young men from India’s newly emerging middle class.
Thareja says Mahindra called him occasionally even while he was at Royal Enfield, asking what his company should be doing in the two-wheeler space. “Those conversations died down but the conversation never really closed there,” he says, “We kept running into each other, and he kept revisiting the same questions. Fast forward to the time he started his own two-wheeler venture in 2008. We had this conversation again over lunch. He said ‘what do we do. It’s such a great space, what can we do about it?’. And I said ‘Jawa’.” That was the first time the duo spoke about the Czech bike brand and its long association with India. However, it would still be a few more years before they would work out a formal plan to join hands to bring the brand back to India.
Thareja quit Royal Enfield in 2008 to strike out on his own as a venture capital investor, around the time M&M got into the two-wheeler segment, when it acquired the Pune-based scooter maker Kinetic Motor Company, renaming it Mahindra Two-Wheelers Ltd. The company got into making motorcycles in a big way in 2012, culminating in the launch of its most premium bike thus far, the 300cc Mahindra Mojo two years later.
Thareja and Mahindra seem to have picked up the thread of their Jawa conversation around this time. It was also a time when M&M was beginning to make significant investments in the two-wheeler arena. It had set up a Rs 100 crore R&D centre in Pune, among the largest in the country, as well as one in Varese in Italy. Mahindra’s intention by then was apparently to turn the group into a serious player in the industry, and not just in India. In 2015, while plans were still being drawn out with Thareja for the new company to make Jawa bikes, the Mahindra group acquired a controlling 51 per cent stake in Peugeot Motocycles, the French maker of scooters and small bikes, which is also the oldest motorised two-wheeler maker in the world. A year later, Classic Legends acquired the BSA brand, another oldtime British motorcycle manufacturer. The Jawa project began taking concrete shape around 2015, and among the first things Thareja and Mahindra did was to reach out to the family of Rustom Irani, the founder of Ideal Jawa. The idea was to buy out whatever interest the family still had in the brand. Rustom Irani’s son, Boman Irani, who has in the last two decades emerged as one of Mumbai’s most successful real estate developers through his company Rustomjee Builders, still owned the Yezdi brand name. “We set up a meeting in Mumbai”, Thareja says, “Boman got all nostalgic. I went there to buy the company. That’s what I do for a living, I find companies and buy them. We started talking for half an hour-45 minutes. In the first meeting, you can’t really begin negotiations. You have to build a rapport first. I was trying to figure out his mind, and then he gets up and says ‘take whatever you want man. But I will be a part of it.’ So, here I am offering this gentleman money, and the gentleman is saying I have money, just take it, and make me a part of what you’re doing. That’s how Boman came on board.”
For Irani, the chance to be involved in the revival of the Jawa brand in India was a big moment. “Jawa is in my blood. Through Jawa 2.0, I want to share the experiences of my youth and the memories of my family,” He says. “I lost my father when I was 19. But I remember the small place in Bombay where the first bikes arrived. I still love the picture of him on the bike with the original logo on it. With what we’re doing now, he will be a proud man somewhere up there. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I feel he’s conveying that to me in his own way. The bike will carry forward his legacy. It might have more power or a lower centre of gravity, but it’s in essence still the same.”
The new company, with the appropriate name of Classic Legends Ltd, was incorporated in late 2015, with M&M as the majority shareholder with a 60 per cent stake, with Thareja and Irani owning the rest. The plan was for the bike to be manufactured at Pithampur in Madhya Pradesh, at M&M’s existing two-wheeler facility. This was essential to cut down both the cost and time involved in getting the bike into the market. The design and testing of the bikes were to be done at M&M’s R&D facilities in Pune, and in Varese in Italy. So everything was now in place. “People call it destiny, people call it fortune, “ Thareja says, “For me, it is one of those moments when the universe conspires to give you something that you’ve really wanted. Very Bollywood-esque. After ten years of running the motorcycle business, everything just fell into place. With Boman, we have the Jawa lineage, and with Anand, we have a ready top-of-the-line manufacturing facility. Everything seems gold plated.”
Even the hunt for a new CEO turned out to easier than expected. Thareja had got in touch with Ashish Joshi, an old colleague from his Royal Enfield days, for help. After a subsequent stint as the managing director of Triumph Motorcycles’ India operations, he was now based in London. “When I called Ashish to ask for suggestions, he put forth himself as a candidate,” Thareja says, “I told him the job is in India, it’s a start-up, the final product is still three years away. That didn’t bother him. He was even ready for a pay cut and move back to India. And the next day, he was here. I had now found my CEO.”
A final market survey to test the bike’s potential turned out to be better than expected. “As promoters of the new company we wanted to stub all doubts about the bike’s appeal beyond the closed circle of nostalgia-minded fanboys of the Jawa / Yezdi clubs. So I instituted a research study,” says Thareja. “It was supposed to go on for six months. But we had to stop within the first 4-5 clinics. Young or old, everybody was like ‘Of course we’ll buy it’. The current age demographic of 23-35 was in their pre-adolescence years at the peak of Jawa’s popularity. [In the survey] they said the cool dudes used to have Jawas. The guy we used to look up to, the guy with an attractive girlfriend, had a Jawa. They said this is a ‘cool’ brand we wanted to own. The moment I realised the bike is parked in the minds of these guys, I stopped the research and got the ball rolling.”
The experience was similar when it came to appointing potential distributors for the bike. “My channel head said that the distributors will need the bike’s specs, pricing, and the sight of the bike itself before they will make a decision. I asked him then why are we relaunching the Jawa brand if we have to do all that”, Thareja says, “I was proved right. We started with 25 cities asking the potential dealers to commit lakhs, perhaps even crores as capital. In no time, my team came back to me saying that the number has gone up to 50, then 75, and we’re approaching 100. People are willing to put down money without the specs or the pricing or even the bike. We’ve collected their deposits, they’ve rented out places and construction is underway.” With the launch just weeks away, the only thing that has been revealed so far about the new bike is the detail about the engine – a four-stroke, 293cc single-cylinder liquid-cooled capable of 27 bhp power with 28Nm torque. Taking a leaf from the Royal Enfield experience, the engine will have an exhaust note that will bear a strong resemblance to the distinct sound of the old Jawa bikes. The company is known to have worked with a team of specialist sound engineers to achieve the effect. Thareja refuses to reveal anything more about the bike, including about its much-anticipated looks, beyond this cryptic statement: “We had two options: either resume from where the bike stopped or make the bike that would have been made today had it never stopped. Of course, the design has moved forward, but it retains a lot from the past.”
The past, in fact, will be a vital element in Thareja’s vision for the company. “This generation is governed by so much noise; they’re just looking for a sweet spot. It’s not just retro. It’s a sweet spot from the past. The vision is to build a lifestyle brand for millennials, who are looking for honest lifestyle options. It’s a cliché, but experiences are becoming very important for them. I want to create a product to build a lifestyle around it. It is such a beautiful thing that your daily rides will become experiences. We’ll do more brands like BSA. We’ll become a house of brands. We’re giving an anchor point to the millennials. You’re looking for something honest in this dishonest world. You are looking to belong. I’m giving you something to belong to.”
On my way back from Delhi to Mumbai after my meeting with Thareja, pangs of nostalgia took me back to an image of a diaper-clad me posing on my dad’s old Yezdi. We sold it to buy a more practical Kinetic scooter. I called my mom to ask where that picture was. Usually, the first thing she asks me is whether I’ve eaten my meals on time, but her first question this time was “When is the new Jawa coming out ?”
THE BRAND CUSTODIANS
A large number of Jawa/Yezdi clubs spread across the country attests to the continuing popularity of the brand, even two decades after the original manufacturer shut shop. At last count, there are as many as 54 of these clubs, with membership exceeding 10,000 bikers. In 2003, a Times of India report declared Pune’s Yezdi/ Jawa Owner’s Club as ‘the largest club of Jawa owners from a single city in the world. “The community looks for support in the long run from the brand,” says entrepreneur Kaustubh ‘KT’ Thengodkar, who is one of the administrators of the Mumbai club, but rides with the Pune gang, because he lives there. “We’ve given them a ready platform. After 20 years of being dead, the bikes are still there. Some credit has to go the ones who have kept it alive,” he adds. So why exactly did the Jawa enthusiasts keep the brand alive? “It’s the only bike that has a single cylinder, dual ports, twin exhausts and kick and gear lever together. Even if the clutch wire breaks, you can still reach your destination without operating the clutch. These features are unique to only the Jawa. That’s why once you ride a Jawa, you’re forever a Jawa rider,” he says.
“It’s not hard to maintain this bike either,” he adds, “Despite no new parts being manufactured, you can find your way around if you know your basics. Electricals are easy; settings are easy. I talk from a functional point of view, and find the Jawa more reliable than even my KTM Duke 390.”
After completing his engineering degree a few years before the ‘club culture’ really picked up in India, KT was an introverted student. He realised his passion for bikes at a young age through his father, who used to take the family out on his Rajdoot back in the day. He saved from his monthly stipend during college and bought his first vintage Jawa for Rs 5,000, in 2001. “It wasn’t that big a collectable item back then,” he says. He now owns half a dozen Jawas and Yezdis.
“Soon, I got to know about a club that goes out for rides. I thought it was an easy way to connect with people. Back then, even riding along with 5 or 6 others gave you a sense of being a biker, because this culture hadn’t blossomed before 2010 or so. This was in Mumbai, and the factions of this club have spread all over the country. Pune gets around 200 participants for Jawa Day now.”
Yes, there’s an actual International Jawa Day that’s celebrated all over the world on the second Sunday of July. The activities of the Bangalore Jawa Yezdi Motorcycle Club (BJYMC) on the occasion have garnered particular attention. “Up to 600-700 bikes participated in the 2018 edition, while the footfall crossed 2,000,” says the administrator Roshan Kamat, a software engineer. He owns 15 bikes and has been riding/collecting them for as many years.
Both Thareja and Classic Legends CEO Joshi recognise the equity that these enthusiasts have lent the brand over the last two decades. “These guys are the real custodians. The people, the stories, the mechanics — they are Jawa. The brand is about conversation. It’s about the community. It’s about like-mindedness.” Thareja says.
Boman Irani’s contribution in keeping the brand alive is no less significant. His slickly done website Yezdi.com details the history of the erstwhile company and the many iconic models it created. Moreover, his long association with the Jawa/Yezdi clubs across the country should be an asset to the new company. “They’ve ridden the bikes back in the ‘60s and ‘70s when roads didn’t even exist in India,” he says, “Neither was the Facebooks or the Instagrams. They caught up over drinks and shared the Jawa chronicles, which have passed on through generations. That’s why the later generations are curious about the brand, too.”