NEW DELHI – A year ago, in a mangos-for-hogs trade swap, Harley-Davidson won the right to sell motorcycles in India and the U.S. agreed for the first time to allow in imported Indian mangos.

But while Americans feast on India’s famed Alphonso mangos, India’s highways have yet to resound with the thrum of Harleys. That’s largely because heavy import duties on the U.S.-made bikes mean they cost nearly double in India what they do in the United States. That has delayed imports and put the iconic American road bikes beyond the reach of all but the richest Indians.

But in this land of a billion people and seemingly nearly that many motorcycles, there are other key obstacles to a Harley invasion, among them the local competition: India’s own iconic road cruiser, the Royal Enfield.

The hefty motorcycle, developed in Britain and now manufactured only in India, has been the subcontinent’s favored cruising bike for most of the last half-century.

In a country that snaps up more than 6 million new motorcycles a year, the bikes are still only a tiny portion of a market dominated by fast, lightweight Japanese bikes that are the nation’s workhorses, ferrying families of four or five to work and school each day. Hero Honda, the country’s most popular manufacturer, last year sold more than 3 million motorcycles.

But the sleek Royal Enfield, with an engine typically three times the size of a Honda’s, retains a certain cachet among wealthier Indians. And now the older Enfield bikes that government bureaucrats once relied on to traverse the country’s tortuous roads are being rounded up and brought to Delhi for restoration.

At the tiny Gurdial Auto Engineers shop in New Delhi’s Karol Bagh neighborhood, three generations of the Singh family – the grandfather fled Lahore, Pakistan, at the time of India and Pakistan’s partition – rebuild 1960s vintage Royal Enfields, a few at a time.

“You can find parts for this motorbike all over India,” said Gurmeet Singh Chauhan, the grandson.

The trick, they say, is that parts built by India’s Royal Enfield factory in 2000 fit the 1960s bikes almost perfectly, so without much effort the Singhs can turn a rusted, sputtering hulk into a classic bike that “is only looking old, but the system is like a new model,” said Gurmeet Singh Chauhan, the grandson.

Like older Harleys, the powerful bikes have a limited market, not least because Indians tend to prefer new bikes and most struggle to afford even a working bicycle, much less a hefty motorcycle.

But they’ve won a following among expatriates in New Delhi, who line up to order custom-rebuilt bikes, many of which end up in the United States, Canada and Britain.

Kevin Kelpin, a Canadian development consultant who fell in love with the throaty motorcycles while working in rural India in the early 1990s, recently ordered a $3,000 custom bike from the Singhs.

“Harleys are better built than the Enfield, but the Enfield isn’t hugely expensive, and I like the way it sounds and looks,” said Kelpin, who lives and works in New Delhi.

The old bikes can’t handle much more than 60 miles an hour, he said, but at 45 miles an hour “it can go forever.”

Like Harleys, Royal Enfields face an uncertain future in an era where gasoline in India, as in the United States, now costs more than $4 a gallon. India also will introduce, later this year, a revolutionary $2,500 family car – the Nano – designed to get big families off motorcycles and into the safer confines of an automobile.

But Singh predicts the classic bikes will hold their own, even if Harleys eventually roar into the market.

In India, Royal Enfields “are better than Harleys,” he said. “You can find parts for this motorbike all over India.”

(c) 2008, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): INDIA-MOTORCYCLES

AP-NY-07-06-08 0801EDT

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