Since its entry into the Nepali market in October 2020, Jawa has made the inroads into the hearts of avid bikers as a retro motorcycle brand. Anupam Thareja, co-founder and director of Classic Legends Pvt Ltd, spoke to The Himalayan Times about the journey so far in reviving the iconic brand, the tribulations due to the coronavirus pandemic, future plans, among others.
Is there any special purpose to your visit?
I'm here to go to the Everest Base Camp. I will be trekking to the camp, but unfortunately I will be taking a helicopter to the peak because I don't think I am fit enough to scale the entire mountain.
Also, we launched Jawa two years back, but then the COVID happened. So I could not come to Nepal to meet my distributor - Agni Moto Inc Pvt Ltd.
I also wanted to understand the market here. I wanted to meet everybody so that we could do a proper launch of this bike in Nepal very soon. So, this got combined with the EBC trek and meeting my team in Nepal. It was very last moment. I decided just two days back and managed to wrangle myself on a flight here without a passport. It was almost serendipitous that this has to happen. I missed my Air India flight, by the way, and the Nepal Airlines was kind enough to give me the last seat. The reason I missed the flight was because I forgot my passport, but I had my voter ID and they were nice enough to let me in.
What are the challenges and opportunities for Jawa motorcycles?
The challenges are straightforward - see, there is no reason anybody should launch a motorcycle.
Only a crazy person should think about it, and even a more crazier person should launch it because there are market players who have been there for years - you've got the Japanese, the Indians, the Europeans.
And they have been there for decades and they come up with all types of products for all kinds of markets. If somebody sits down in a very academic way and says, 'Should I enter the two-wheeler market?', I think every guy with a little bit of intelligence will tell him, 'No'. But then, you need a little bit of crazy to change the world, to do some fun stuff. And I don't think we got into two-wheelers, I think these brands forced us to honour them to make a product for them. We are just custodians of these brands. There are some brands, which are larger than anybody. Jawa was started around 100 years back in Czech Republic ... Czechoslovakia at that time. So, first Jawa was owned by somebody, then it was owned by the state, then after it shut down it was owned by nobody. But a brand is much larger than who owns it.
People loved it. Brands are made by the people - the love they have, the memories they create with them, the nostalgia they have with that brand. So I knew there was a residual nostalgia, a residual capital behind these brands - Jawa, Yezdi, BSA (Birmingham Small Arms). We have three brands, by the way. And I have always been a bike enthusiast. As for my day job, the way I make my living is to buy bike companies, turn them around and sell them. But at some point in your life, you have to stop doing that and you buy and make.
And sometimes brands like these come along and give you that opportunity.
And I have had a great opportunity that two of my friends who also believed in this. So, the three of us got together and we did it. We were last in the market, we shouldn't be here. But I think we are here because of the brand and I think we were right because in two years despite the COVID, the way we are selling, the way people are accepting it, we went on a wait list in a market where it is crazy to go on a wait list. I would say it has been an amazing journey. It's unbelievable.
So, you'd say you're happy with the market response?
Extremely. Rather than a 'response', I think it's pure love, it's crazy pure love which we got. And I keep saying we don't sell motorcycles, we sell motorcycling. We want to create communities, we want to create tribes, we want to have accessories, we want to have meetings, we want to have festivals. We want to ride together. So, I cancelled all the programmes lined up since the morning today because I wanted to go on a ride with the people who have bought Jawa. And this morning I went on a ride with around 20 Jawa riders to Nagarkot.
And when are you planning to breathe new life into BSA and Yezdi?
I am wearing a Yezdi t-shirt, which is a sign enough. So, very soon. COV- ID has delayed our plans a bit. But hopefully things are better and there is no third wave and restrictions again. Because we are not a kind of a brand to go on a digital platform and do a virtual launch and then there are thousands of dealerships that will buy. We have to introduce the people to the world of BSA, we have to introduce the people to the world of Yezdi, just like we introduced the people to the world of Jawa. So, we were very uncomfortable doing just a virtual launch and launch it on Insta or somewhere. We were struggling - on one hand we were losing time and on the other hand it didn't feel right. But we are ready, both the brands are ready. Now we are looking for an opportune moment to announce the model lineup.
Will both the brands be launched in India and Nepal simultaneously?
Yes. In fact, we always thought of first launching BSA in Europe. It was the world's largest company, the most popular motorcycle brand in the mid-80s. I think the UK deserves to see the launch of its most iconic engineering product. So, BSA will be launched in the UK first and not India. But when it comes anywhere else, it's not India first and then Nepal. That would be a mistake because Nepal is one of the most beautiful biking countries. And all the people here look so happy. It is so liberating to come out of the lockdown and come to a place like this.
How tough was the pandemic on Classic Legends?
We were just a baby and our systems and processes were not stable when the pandemic hit. We had new vendors, we still had some imported parts coming because we localise after a period of time. So we got hit by disruptions of supply chain, transportation, container availability, of course lockdowns. And since our suppliers are all across the world, someday one country would shut down and the other day another country. Unlike large two-wheeler companies, we did not have multiple suppliers for each part. Thus, we suffered a lot. But we didn't fire anybody.
We said, 'This shall pass'. When you are doing something with so much love and passion, you can't keep the passion for one side of the business and not the other. So we kept our head down, we always paid our suppliers on time. We didn't do any force majeure or take any legal recourse of not paying anybody on time. We never delayed salaries, not even for a month. As a result, of course we suffered. There were no sales in so many months but the costs were there. But frankly speaking, that's alright. We're not here for a year or two or a decade. Now hopefully it's a company that will live beyond us. It was a small price to pay.
Yes, pandemic was tough but it also got the best out of the people that we have. A small team of people did magic. Within this, we got products ready to be launched under the brands of Yezdi and BSA.
Industry experts believe renewable energy will power the future of the auto industry. Will you also be foraying into the electric vehicles market?
Of course. We already have a prototype running. We have an EV centre, which we are working within Europe.
Warwick University is leading that project along with us under BSA. We have six partners. We got grant from the UK government to develop EV technology. So, we have two large EV projects going on - one in Europe and one in India. The Indian prototype is ready. What we are waiting for is the infrastructure to develop. Because we are a niche company - a specialist, premium company - once the EV charging infrastructure, the battery infrastructure, the battery disposable infrastructure, recharge infrastructure, financing and leasing infrastructure come into play, we are ready. So, that is one part of it. But I don't think we'll wait for that. We might come and show off - which is a good thing sometimes - our technology prowess pretty soon. But also remember that even a small bike can go to 80 kmph, but the question is how do you reach that speed, how you feel when you ride that bike? We have worked a lot on our IC (internal combustion) engine, which is very efficient, very friendly to the environment.
We are meeting all the BS- VI and global norms. So it is a very emission- or eco-friendly engine, which gives you a very nice ride.
Thus, the rideability will ensure that premium and classic bikes will always have a market in IC engine. But having said that, it is our responsibility to make sure that we have EV products. And as I've said, we are ready. So, very soon during these launches, you will also have an EV launch as a part of our strategy.
Are you planning to return to Nepal in the near future?
I plan to come back to do a proper trek of at least two weeks, hopefully in March. And we also plan to do a Jawa relaunch and festival in March.
A version of this article appears in the print on October 24, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.