A former Harley-Davidson exec is creating a new brand of motorcycles in the United States

Rod Copes cut his teeth as an executive at Harley-Davidson, the motorcycle company synonymous with freedom-seeking two-wheeled Americanness.

But now he runs the North American operations of Royal Enfield, a manufacturer born in 1901 that sells hugely popular bicycles in India. Hardly anyone in the United States who wasn’t a motorcycle had heard of the brand, which entered the US market in 2015 and now has 90 dealerships, with headquarters in Milwaukee, Harley’s home territory.

“It’s hard for a brand to come to the United States without a legacy,” he conceded in an interview with Business Insider. “It’s really difficult.”

But Royal Enfield has a strategy, and it’s not following the leader. Copes spent 20 years with Harley, so he knows what makes it such a dominant brand – but he also knows that motorcycle sales in the United States have declined and Harley is struggling to find new riders. Of course, selling expensive bikes to older, well-heeled customers means the company can continue to make money. But the demographics suggest a long-term challenge.

“Every motorcycle company in the United States has been chasing the big guys,” Copes said.

But the United States is the opposite of every other market in the world, he pointed out. Expensive, big-bore bikes dominate the road here, and even Japanese manufacturers have been beefing up their offerings of powerful cruisers and sportbikes.

Don’t run after the big guys

A Royal Enfield Classic 500.

Matthieu DeBord/BI

But elsewhere in the world, motorcycles are a cheaper form of urban transport. It is also the main means of getting around, whereas in the United States it is a hobby.

Royal Enfield sells middleweight motorcycles in the United States and has expanded its model line to four bikes. The Interceptor GT and Continental GT cost less than $6,000, and the smaller Classic costs around $5,000. That’s thousands less than the cheapest Harleys, and Royal Enfield’s bikes feature a retro style that would be considered vintage or heritage – except the designs have been consistent for decades.

The company’s significant economies of scale in India give it a major price advantage (total production runs into 1 million). And for the American market, Royal Enfield has style to burn, along with straightforward engineering and a fun spirit that’s less of a leather biker vest wearer and more of an intrepid explorer of local roads. These are the kind of bikes that are made for riders who don’t want to roar around town or dress like a shiny superhero while crumpled up on a sport bike.

“There is a need,” Copes said. “People are interested if you offer them the right product at the right price.”