Wheels of Time

A motorcycle club keeps an iconic brand of bikes rolling

Production of Jawa bikes began in Mysore in the early 1960s. divya sreedharan
01 September, 2014

ON THE WINDY SUNDAY MORNING OF 13 JULY, Vivek Kumar—“Roadking” to his friends—wound his way through the streets of Bangalore on a curvy, red motorbike with a glinting chrome fuel tank, a large domed headlight and an exposed, dull-silver engine. He rode at a stately pace into a school ground in the city centre. A crowd of over two hundred people greeted him with cheers and whistles, and heads turned to follow him and his machine—a 1967 Jawa 360—to a corner of the venue. Kumar, a 27-year-old mechanical engineer, parked facing a line of almost a hundred other motorcycles of varied shades and appearances, but all sporting either “Jawa” or “Yezdi” on their fuel tanks. Small groups milled around, photographing the bikes with their phones, and even a handful of policemen posted at the gathering couldn’t help but gawk.

A banner welcomed participants to International Jawa-Yezdi Day on behalf of the Bangalore Jawa-Yezdi Club. Founded in 2007, the club now has 25 registered members, but it often brings together close to three hundred Jawa enthusiasts at its events. Originally designed and built by an eponymous company founded in Czechoslovakia in 1929, the bikes came to India through a licenced local subsidiary, Ideal Jawa, in the early 1960s. That official alliance ended in 1974, but Indian production of Jawa and Jawa-inspired models continued under the Yezdi brand. Today, these motorcycles enjoy cult status among fans across the country, and there are dedicated groups in cities including Pune, Mumbai, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Puducherry and Mysore. There are also clubs in other countries, and every year, on the second Sunday of July, Jawas and Jawa-inspired bikes hit the road all over the world to mark International Jawa Day.

By the banner, I met 32-year-old Amrit Appiah, an IT professional and co-founder of the Bangalore club. Appiah told me he got hooked on Jawas after he first rode one at the age of 11, and related some Indian Jawa history. Mysore became the seat of production in 1961, he said, and the Ideal Jawa factory was innaugurated by the Maharaja of Mysore himself. The facility started out assembling bikes from imported components, but by 1963, after Czechoslovakian engineers had trained local staff, it was producing machines from scratch. The Jawa 250, a 250-cc motorcycle, and the Jet Jawa, a 50-cc moped, were among its earliest models.

Appiah recalled that Jawa-Yezdi bikes, Royal Enfields and Rajdoots formed a triumvirate of motorcycle brands that dominated Indian roads in the 1970s and 1980s. But, he pointed out, Jawa-Yezdi bikes stood apart. “The Jawa bikes had high engine efficiency because of their two-stroke engines,” he said, which are known for their power-to-weight ratios. Another endearing feature “is that a single lever functions as a kicker in one position and a gear-shifter in another.” Other aficionados spoke of the bikes’ durability, and praised the distinctive, rhythmic sound of their engines.

One of the most common bikes at the gathering was the Roadking, a sporty model released under the Yezdi brand. KP Ramanand, a 48-year-old senior manager at a pharmaceutical company and a proud Roadking owner, was happy to show off his machine. When planning a ride through Ladakh in 2012, he said, “I had to prepare myself for months, but my bike needed no preparation at all.” Navigating snow-covered roads and rugged terrain, his Roadking made it almost effortlessly to Khardung La, India’s highest motorable pass, at 5,359 metres above sea level.

Maintaining these bikes has been a challenge since Yezdi stopped production in 1996,but owners have found ways to keep them going. Spares trade online, and are available from a few exclusive dealers. Many enthusiasts have learnt to do routine maintainance and small repairs themselves. For more challenging work, they rely on old-timers such as 65-year-old Ameer Rehman Khan, nicknamed “Jet Jawa Khan,” who worked briefly at the Ideal Jawa factory and now runs a garage in the Majestic area of Bangalore. Khan, who owns a Roadking himself, told me the bikes live up to the slogan they were marketed under in India: “The forever bike, forever value.”

Even when the effects of age do begin to tell, many are happy to spend significant sums to save their machines. Even a simple restoration, Appiah said, can work out to between Rs 30,000 and Rs 60,000. For fanatics such as Kumar, the costs are all worth it. His 1967 Jawa 360, he claimed, is one of only three in India, and after years of meticulous repair and attention is worth over Rs 3 lakh. To his clear delight, his bike was among the star attractions at the Jawa Day celebration. “Most Indians haven’t seen this model before,” he told me. “Jaws literally drop when people see me riding my bike.”