Britain's Triumph Motorcycles will start selling its iconic bikes in India on Thursday as it seeks to capture the hearts of wealthy motor heads who ride for passion not function.
Privately held Triumph is following high-end motorcycle makers such as Harley-Davidson Inc and Volkswagen AG's Ducati in entering a market where quick-rising wealth is leading to greater demand for expensive toys.
"The best combination on the road is the bike and the road - they are the only two people who can talk to each other. I think that culture is coming up in India," Triumph India Managing Director Vimal Sumbly told Reuters in an interview on Friday.
Triumph not only has to win over customers, but also has to persuade people to buy touring bikes in a country notorious for poor roads. Its track record for infrastructure development is miserable compared with China and most other emerging economies, and its failure on this score has sapped growth.
Most Indians commute using motorcycles or scooters and it is common to see families of four or five on a single vehicle snaking through heavy traffic or even over pavements escaping jams. As the economy slows, two-wheelers comprise the only category of the auto industry to register growth this year.
Sales of motorcycles with an engine displacement of 350 cubic centimetres or less, which make up the bulk of the market, have risen about 3.5 percent so far this fiscal year, show data from the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (SIAM).
Sales of more powerful bikes, including those from Harley and Eicher Motors Ltd's Royal Enfield, have doubled over the same period. Industry watchers say strong growth is likely to continue in the medium term, as consumers in the luxury segment are not as vulnerable to the impact of a slowing economy.
Still, high-end motorcycles form a miniscule portion of the Indian two-wheeler market, the world's largest by some estimates with sales of nearly 14 million bikes in the last fiscal year.
Harley, which shipped nearly 250,000 motorcycles globally in 2012, sells about 150 bikes a month through its 10 Indian dealers, according to SIAM.
Triumph, which sold more than 50,000 bikes last year, plans to open at least three showrooms by the end of 2013, in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.
The company, which began life as a bicycle manufacturer in 1887, will assemble some models at its new plant in Manesar, northern India, to save on high import taxes and so keep prices down. It also plans to build a factory in the southern state of Karnataka.
As well as Harleys, Triumph's classic cruisers and sports bikes will also compete with offerings from Honda Motor Co Ltd , Yamaha Motor Co Ltd and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG's BMW Motorrad - plus the lower priced bikes of Royal Enfield.
"We will be an aspirational brand for guys who use (Royal Enfield) bikes," said Sumbly, who was previously with Bajaj Auto Ltd, India's second-largest motorcycle maker.
Asked whether Triumph would design an India-specific bike, Sumbly said, "As the market develops and we see the growth, the company will surely invest more and more in India."