Iconic moments in the history of Indian Two-wheeler industry

India is the largest market of two-wheelers in the world! Considering the fact that the Indian two-wheeler industry is just about 70 odd years old it is a fantastic achievement. While motorcycles had been invented way back in 1870s, India saw its first motorcycles production only after 1950s. Even though the British Raj saw its share of imported motorcycles but they were only restricted to the British officers and were largely a novelty for the general Indian public. Post independence, the Indian motorcycling industry truly started to thrive and there were some iconic moments which played a huge role in transforming the Indian biking circuit. Here is my humble attempt at listing the iconic moments in the history of the Indian Two-Wheeler industry.

1950s – API Lambrettas / Bajaj Vespa – The first two-wheelers to be produced in India were the Lambrettas by the Automobile Products of India (API). It was about the same time when Bajaj (then known as M/s Bachraj Trading Corporation Private Limited) used to import the Vespa from Italy and sell it in large numbers. This was the stepping stone of the Indian two-wheeler industry.


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1954 – The Birth of the Bullets – This was a very important year in the history of Indian two-wheeler industry when the Indian government ordered 800 Royal Enfield Bullets from England to patrol the Indo-Pakistan border. The legendary company soon got their foothold in the country and started producing 350cc and 500cc bullets. Both “Royal Enfield” and “Bullet” never looked back since then and became the most iconic motorcycle company and the most iconic motorcycle brand of the country.


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1960s – Jawa-Yezdi – For almost half a decade the Bullet had monopoly over the Indian motorcycle market. In came the Yezdi motorcycles manufactured by Ideal Jawa India Limited. Yezdi roadking was particularly the most famous model from the house of Jawa; it had a 250cc engine and the first bike to have twin exhausts and a semi automatic clutch. The Roadking went on to win several rallies of its time and became an iconic model.


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1964 – Rajdoot – The Rajdoot Excel T was the first of the many bikes from the Escorts Group which manufactured all Rajdoot models. The Excel T was a 173cc mill which caught the fancy of the average Indian since it was much more affordable as compared to the Bullet and the Yezdi. The company also roped in the original Indian He-Man Dharmendra to promote their bikes and they became a runaway success. However, the best from the “Rajdoot” brand was yet to come.


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1972 – Bajaj Chetak – The Chetak is without a doubt the most popular scooter of our country. Named after the legendary horse of the Indian warrior Maharana Pratap, it was a household name and affordable means for transport for the average Indian family for close to three decades. The iconic “hamara bajaj” phrase was popularised by the Chetak. Initially, the Chetak was based on the Vespa Sprint but later on after Vespa and Bajaj parted ways the Chetak got its recognised two seater design with a spare wheel acting as a back rest for the pillion and a basket in front. My first memory of a two-wheeler ride is that of standing on the space between the basket and the seat of my Dad’s Chetak and that is perhaps where it has all started for me.


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1983 – Yamaha RD 350 – The Yamaha and Rajdoot collaboration is probably the best collaboration in the history of Indian motorcycling industry. The motorcycle was based on the popular Yamaha 350 but was manufactured by Escorts Group under the name Rajdoot 350 or RD 350 where RD stood for Race Developed. The 347cc mill powered by two stroke parallel engine, Yamaha’s patented “Torque Induction System” and 6 six speed transmission produced a whooping 31 BHP and could do 0-100 kms in 6 seconds with a top speed of 165 kmph! The RD 350 was without a doubt the first “superbike” of our country and a dream come true for every speed lover. Unfortunately, the bike was way ahead of its time and Indian market was not ready for such kind of a performance bike. With a top speed of 165 kmph and just drum brakes and a fuel efficiency of about 22 kmpl, the RD 350 would not be a runaway success even in today’s market. Regardless, the RD350 was one of the most iconic bikes to have left its tyre marks on our country.


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1984 – Yamaha RX 100 – The 1980s were exciting times for the biking industry. If the RD 350 was the big daddy of superbikes of our country, the RX 100 made up at all the places where the RD 350 lacked. Even though it did not have the beastly acceleration and top speed like that of the RD 350, the RX 100 was a very balanced bike for its time and had something for everyone. It was a peppy and fast bike with a style statement for the youth and a reliable commuter for the middle aged family man. No wonder it was the most successful Yamaha model back then.


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1985 – Hero Honda CD 100 – In three successive years the Indian motorcycling industry saw three iconic launches. After the superfast RD 350 and the well balanced RX 100 the country saw the launch of the Hero Honda CD 100, the first 4 stroke bike of our country. With excellent fuel efficiency, lightweight design, electronic ignition system and a four speed gear box, the CD 100 transformed Indian biking forever. The CD 100 might not have been the bike every Indian wanted, but it definitely turned out to be the bike that every Indian needed.


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1980s – Maut Ka Kuan – Here I would like to reiterate the fact that this article speaks about the iconic “moments” of Indian biking and not just iconic Indian bike launches. Therefore it is only appropriate to mention “Maut ka Kuan”, the original stunt arena for Indian bikers. The term “Maut ka Kuan” (The Well of Death) might be new to many readers. But I am sure that anyone born in a middle class family of the late 80s or the 90s will know what this means. The “Maut Ka Kuan” used to form as one of the most important acts of The Great Indian Circus of the 1980s and the 1990s. It basically comprises of a large sphere like structure where daredevils used to ride their automobiles and entertain an audience by defying various principles of physics like gravity, inertia, momentum, speed and distance. With the whole “circus culture” is at a decline, the “Maut ka Kuan” act has also been restricted to only small cities and towns now. But that does not take away the fact that this is where the seeds of the Indian Stunting scene were sown and that is precisely the reason why it deserves a worthy mention in this list.


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1986 – M80 – This might come as a surprise to many but if one goes and sees the villages, which form the heart of India, then they will realize that the M80 has been the most useful two-wheeler produced for them. A 75cc two wheeler which can carry a rider, a pillion and a hefty load equivalent to that of around 200 kgs in total and still return a mileage of around 70 kmpl at a very affordable price deserves to be in this list. The fact that there are people who have ridden the M80 for more than a lakh kms; and to the high mountains of Leh-Ladakh proves that it is one the most underrated yet iconic two wheelers of our country.


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1988 – Motor Vehicles Act – The year 1988 should definitely be considered as an iconic year in the history of automobile industry in India both for two and four wheelers. It was during this year that the old and rusted motor vehicles act of 1938 was replaced by the new Act. If I speak specifically about motorcycling then there are several sections under this act which has, since its inception, strived to make motorcycling safer in India. Some of those sections includes section 129 which states that every person riding a two-wheeler (or travelling as a pillion) must wear a helmet or section 185 which prohibits driving in a drunken state or section 112 which prescribes the maximum speed of each motor vehicle. I accept that even after 27 years since the formation of the act, we need to go a very long way to implement all these section throughout our vast country. But one cannot simply ignore the fact that it is perhaps because of this act and the unappreciated hard work of thousands of policeman that we have been able to save countless lives in our country and we will continue to do so every day. Therefore it will be very unfair to not include this moment in this list of most iconic moments of Indian motorcycling history.


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1990s – First motorcycles to ride to Ladakh – For decades, the land of Leh-Ladakh had been closed to the general public. But in the late 1970s, the government opened Ladakh for tourists. However, it was only in the 1990s that the government made and opened several routes in North India including the now famous Chandigarh-Manali-Rohtang-Leh-Srinagar-Amritsar route. What followed was a revolution, as the region saw scores of bikers riding to what was then considered as the “top of the world”. This gave birth to the now thriving culture of long distance motorcycle touring and that indeed qualifies itself as one of the most iconic moment of Indian motorcycling.


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1994 – Hero Honda Splendor – This is one bike which every Indian should be proud about. For starters, it was only a 100cc motorcycle offering the most basic features for its users and I am sure that very few in the management of Hero Honda in 1994 would have thought that the Splendor would go on to achieve what it did. The bike was heavily based on its predecessor the CD 100, but unlike the CD 100 the Splendor managed to strike the right chords with the consumers for more than two decades when the Indian economy saw a phenomenal growth giving every Indian person an opportunity to own it, resulting in the fact that the Splendor became the most selling motorcycle in the history of not just India but also the history of the world!


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1999 – Hero Honda CBZ – For close to 15 years, after the launch of Yamaha RX 100, the Indian motorcycling scene did not see an exciting motorcycle which would appeal to the youth of the country. The success of CD 100 resulted in every company manufacturing affordable 100cc mills giving exceptional fuel efficiency for the average middle aged Indian biker. Then came the Hero Honda CBZ in the year 1999. With a 150cc engine, aggressive styling and a popular TV advertisement campaign, the CBZ soon became a favourite among the college goers and the adults alike. The fact that CBZ broke the lull in Indian biking after about 15 long years is the main reason why it features in this list.


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2000 – Bajaj Pulsar – If the bullet is the most iconic motorcycle model in the history of Indian biking then the Bajaj Pulsar is definitely the most iconic motorcycle of recent times. Launched in the year 2000, when the market desperately needed a street racer bike, the Pulsar became a favourite within a span of just days after its launch. The aggressive marketing campaign entitling the pulsar to be “definitely male” helped it to achieve staggering number. 15 years down the line, it is still one of the most loved motorcycles of our country.


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2003 – Hero Honda Karizma – For decades, long distance touring was primarily done on bullets and other models of the Royal Enfields. With the launch of the Karizma, the Indian tourer found a bike with a much more reliable 223cc engine with excellent handling and a very comfortable riding posture. It soon became a favourite among tourers across the country. Popular motorcycle themed reality show “Roadies” on MTV used the Karizma for its rides and that multiplied its popularity, giving it a status of being an iconic bike of recent times.


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2008 – Yamaha R15 – The most technologically advanced motorcycle of its time, the R15 was a dream come true for every track racer of our country. Liquid cooling, four valves, rear disc brakes, mono shocks were terms which were perhaps being used for the first time with an Indian manufactured bike. A 150cc bike which could easily achieve a top speed of around 135-140 kmph could well be considered as one of the best, if not the best 150cc bikes of the world. Most Indians learnt how to scrap knees and footpegs on the R15.


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2012 – KTM Duke 200 – Many of you would like to debate the fact that I have chosen the smaller Duke 200 over the mighty Duke 390 or the recently launched RC 390. I accept that both the 390 and the RC 390 are exceptional machines but when it comes to achieving an iconic status, the Duke 200 takes the crown of being the newest icon in the Indian biking scene simply because of the fact it brought the competitive and competent KTM into the Indian market and became a runaway hit soon after its launch, Just like the R15, the KTM Duke 200 won hearts of the Indian bikers thanks to its technological breakthroughs. The fact that the 200cc liquid cooled engine produced 25 BHP and yet weighed a mere 136 kgs is staggering! Add to that the sleek styling, the revolutionary console, the strong chasis and the super affordable pricing and we had a clear winner at our hands. The precise reason why the KTM Duke 200 is an icon is because it paved way for the 390 and the RC series and made the rest of the manufacturers sit back and think as to how to beat what KTM has to offer.


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[Special mention] 2015 – C. S. Santosh Participating and completing the Dakar rally – It might be a tad too early to to add this moment into a list of “most iconic moments in the history of Indian two-wheeler industry”, hence the special mention. However, I must admit that C. S. Santosh has managed to make every Indian motorcycle enthusiast proud of his achievement. I sincerely hope that C. S. Santosh will inspire thousands of Indian bikers to take part and excel in “professional racing” of various kinds.


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What will be the next iconic moment in the history of Indian Two-Wheeler industry? Only time will tell.

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  • Tuhin

    Excellent article. Very informative. This article connects very well and we all can really learn and educate ourselves from the information provided. I think Ramneek would go a long way if he continues to chase his passion and dreams.
    This website is excellent and makes us all feel to go for a ride now!
    It also makes me feel after reading the travel logs in the website that if you really want you can do almost anything that you want. Ramneek took his Pulsar 135 and was normal college goer and even traveled half of India in his bike.
    Cheers to Ramneek and to his passion of traveling, it true opens horizon and perhaps makes to see, explore, learn and be more enlightened than being narrow and succumbed to your daily affairs.

    Good Luck!

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