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‘Man’s best friend’ — cult Czech classic bike Jawa is back because the brand never died

After two decades, the sturdy, beautifully designed race-track favourite is back in Indian markets. But its fans say Jawa never really went away.

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New Delhi: “Man’s best friend
That’s what they call me,
Perhaps it’s because I’m always around when he wants,
To get some place in a hurry. 
Or maybe it’s my sleek well-built
body that he’s so fond of,
Or the fact that I serve him day
after day and don’t expect
much attention in return. 
Wouldn’t you, too, like to have a
Jawa motorcycle at your service?”

This rather creative, albeit somewhat sexual, copy from an old print advertisement sums up what the classic bike company Jawa specialised in making — a simple, steady and sturdy two-wheeled companion.

Just over a week ago, 23 October marked 90 years since the first motorcycle, Jawa, was produced in Czechoslovakia. The celebrations held in India were doubly special, as the brand has been relaunched here nearly 23 years after its original India partner, the Parsi-run Ideal Jawa, shut shop in 1996. At the end of 2018, Jawa announced its comeback, this time partnering with the Mahindra Group, Classic Legends and Boman R Irani, chairman and managing director of the Rustomjee Group.

ThePrint takes a look at the history of the company, what made its India run so special, and what it means for the bike to be back to the contemporary market.

A Parsi-Czech connection and royal nod from Mysore

The company was first founded by František Janeček, a Czechoslovakian student of mechanics who had served during World War 1. During his time in the war, he developed and patented several different inventions, but in 1929, he purchased a motorcycle business from German manufacturer Winklhofer & Jaenicke. Combining the name of the company “Wanderer” with Jaenick, the name of the manufacturer, he conceived the first model of his new venture — the Jawa 500 OHV.

From being further developed and innovated upon in secret during the Nazi regime, to becoming a race-track favourite, Jawa went on to roar through the decades. The people-friendly, economical and lightweight bike was eventually nationalised under the communist regime and began to be widely exported to many third-world countries. It was then that Jawa entered India in 1960, in partnership with Rustom and Farrokh Irani, who formed Ideal Jawa Limited and began importing the bikes into India.

“There were no swanky bikes at that time. There was only the Rajdoot, the Bullet and the Jawa. And of the three, the Jawa was the most exciting,” remembers Adil Darukhanawala, an author and prominent auto journalist, who learnt how to ride on a Rajdoot but insists the Jawa is what he grew up on.

Darukhanawala, whose friendship with the Irani family goes back generations in Pune, tells ThePrint that the Iranis owned a large plot of land in the now-posh area of Kalyani Nagar in Pune, so it seemed natural that they would set up the Jawa factory in their home city.

The Iranis were already importing BSAs and BMWs in the late 1930-50s, and were among the privileged few to acquire a manufacturing licence under the then-socialist government. But it turned out that no city was allowed to have more than one two-wheeler company, and Bajaj Motors had already called dibs on Pune, he explains.

Farrokh Irani, who was part of Mysore’s social circles, having set up industries there, happened to then meet Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar and tell him about Ideal Jawa’s woes. The Maharaja of Mysore, who was also the governor, was very pro-industry and was keen on modernising the region. He offered Farrokh some land and told him they could set up shop in Mysore, and then “one thing led to another,” says Darukhanwala.

The four Irani brothers behind Ideal Jawa owned 20 per cent equity of the company each, and the remaining 20 was given to the Maharaja. Although he was offered the post of Chairman, he declined, and chose to never hold an executive position but still give his support to the company.

“He was a real force behind the scenes to help,” says Darukhanawala.

Also read: Bajaj Tempo Matador: The camper van with a cult following

A racer’s delight

Jawa, and later Yezdi, which was manufactured post 1971 when Ideal Jawa’s Czech partnership had ended, came to be known as simple, yet indestructible bikes of their time. But like its Czech counterpart, India’s Jawa also came to be synonymous with racing — so much so that it became it became the company’s selling point.

“Jawa never believed in doing any advertisements. Jawa always went to the race track once a year to prove their bikes on race track. That was advertisement enough for them,” explains Darukhanawala. The racetrack is where Jawa built its brand. “They always said that the racetrack was the best sort of place to ensure that the bike was proven beyond belief. They invested in racing. ‘Race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ was the American saying. That’s what they believed in.”

Inspired by Europe’s racing scene, the Jawa 250 doubled up as a commuter as well as racer favourite. Individuals like Fariborz Irani, CK Chinappa and Somendar Singh became household names, famous for riding their Jawas over all kinds of terrain across the country.

The company owners themselves were huge fans of racing. Darukhanawala, who “virtually grew up with” Rustom and Farrokh, remembers his youth driving around Pune and racing with them in Sholavaram — the only motorcycle racing venue in India at the time. The Jawa factory had a race team of its own, and he and his friends would often race against them. “There was no money in it at the time. It was just about the sheer joy of riding and racing against each other.”

A modern classic comes back to the market

Jawa’s relaunch in the Indian market has been welcomed by old-school bike enthusiasts and vintage collectors, as well as millennials. Ujjwal Chhotani, a 28-year-old fitness professional who has been interested in bikes since he was eight years old, was excited about the launch online and immediately urged one of his friends to invest in one. He himself owns a Triumph superbike, but confesses to be a lover of all things vintage and appreciates the new Jawa for how it “looks old school, but is modern”.

Darukhanawala, who was commissioned by Boman Irani to write a book on Jawa’s history ahead of the launch, also feels the “modern classic” has unquestionable appeal. “Today there is a massive massive motorcycle market for nostalgia. Otherwise Royal Enfield and Harley Davidson would have never faced so much success,” he says, explaining how nostalgia as a marketing tool caters to quite a big segment in the motorcycle community.

Chhotani understands this as both his parents own Bullets, with his mother belonging to a New Delhi-based bike group called Rods. A big fan of how the new bikes combine classic design and modern technology, he feels they are “crazy reasonable” for the kind of engine and power they have to offer. He believes even younger generations, who may not know about Jawa’s history, will be interested in the bikes, as it is a direct competitor to the Royal Enfield Bullet.

But Darukhanawala, who also belongs to a motorcycling family (his uncle was a collector and his great-uncle brought the first motorcycle to India in 1903), feels the excitement for the brand never died. “It was missing in action from Indian roads for 23 years, but there are 20-25,000 dedicated enthusiasts who have kept the brand alive.”

Also read: Lambretta: The Italian two-wheeler that became a ‘dad scooter’ for the big Indian family


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