When my father, the ideas man, had first proposed the idea of manufacturing to his siblings back in the early 1950s, they had expressed their reservations. In those days, bicycle parts and components were by and large imported. The supplies were tightly controlled by a cartel, comprising of the old British agency houses, which had been passed on to Indian associates post-Independence. These entities doled out supplies on a quota basis. My uncle Om Prakash remembered having to wait for two whole days at the offices of Dunlop (suppliers of tyres and tubes), just to meet the manager.
My father was persuasive. He was confident that they had the knowhow to manufacture bicycles, but that dream would be stillborn if India’s dependence on imported parts and components continued. He proposed that the brothers manufacture their own. Technology and capital were both scarce, they protested. Even before the karigars (artisans) could get down to making components, tools and dyes would have to be created. Everything would have to be done from scratch, on a shoestring budget.
A brief digression is necessary here. While my uncles Dayanand and Om Prakash were packing up to move to Ludhiana, one of their suppliers, a Muslim by the name of Kareem Deen, was preparing to shift to Pakistan. He manufactured bicycle saddles under a brand name he had created himself. Before he left, Karam Deen went to see his friend Om Prakash Munjal.
What happened next would be a life-changing moment for our family. Uncle Om Prakash asked Kareem Deen whether the Munjals could use that brand name for their business. He agreed. The gesture was typical of the way businesses were run at the time – on reputation, relationships and goodwill. The worth and value of brands and patents were not appreciated or understood. And so, with nothing more than a casual nod, his brand passed to the Munjals.
Yes, dear reader, you guessed correctly. It was “Hero”.
Once my uncles came around to the idea of manufacturing, a confident, “Yeh bhi kar lenge” (We can do this too), resounded around the Munjal residence and workplace. It was, of course, easier said than done.
At the time, there were no manufacturing manuals laying out engineering designs and production processes. The Munjals had to wing it and create their own. My father and uncle Om Prakash would squat in the backyard with the artisans, drawing designs of cycle parts on sheets of paper and discussing ways of implementing them. The end product was assembled by hand and then put through multiple functionality tests. Unknowingly, this bottom-up approach created an advantage of quality and consistency.
Their very first experiment in 1954, was in bicycle forks (which they had been supplying to Atlas), the part that holds the wheel. A small furnace was set up in the backyard of the shop, with two workers and a foreman to oversee the manufacturing process. After several hits and misses, they finally came up with a product that satisfied all the siblings.
But disaster lurked ahead, one that almost cost the Munjals their business. The welding in some of the bicycle forks cracked and the pipes broke off, with the result that the incensed dealers returned all orders and consignments. The siblings pooled their resources and paid back the affected parties, no questions asked. Their reputation survived, but their pockets were almost empty.
The Munjal brothers girded their loins, went back to the design table and perfected the forks. As none of their dealers had suffered any losses, they were willing to take a chance on the forks again and this time round, there were no glitches. The Munjal business had survived by the skin of its teeth.
Satisfied with the fork, my father turned his attention to bicycle handles, which were even harder to come by. SK Rai (who was to join the business in 1983 and become a de facto member of the family), recalls hearing descriptions of just how challenging the scenario was at the time. He spent a lot of time with my father, who would recount stories of those early days of struggle: “After some time, the supplier of bicycle handles started asking for exorbitant prices. He knew, of course, that he enjoyed a monopoly and without his product, there was no bicycle.” My father did not want to be at his mercy!
The Munjal brothers turned to the local community of mistris (technicians), artisans and craftsmen, the Ramgarhias, to untangle their knotty technical problems. Members of the Ramgarhia community weren’t really technically qualified in the formal sense, but were held in high esteem by the entire clan and the workmen. My father, in particular, enjoyed an excellent understanding with these worthies.
He once tried to explain the importance of the Ramgarhia mistris in the Munjal scheme of things: “They are born artisans, and their skills are passed on from generation to generation. They had already started manufacturing certain bicycle parts and when people like us, who could bring them the samples and offer a market, came along – well, it became a very beautiful combination. Their ability to make parts, and our commercial strength.”
When he asked the Ramgarhias to try their hand at making handlebars from scratch, the master craftsmen allowed themselves to be persuaded, due to ties of affection and a respect for my father’s judgement. After the initial hiccups, the experiment was an outstanding success. The handlebars were Munjal-worthy and only the plating had to be outsourced.
Back to the story on bicycle parts. The handlebars were made in Ludhiana; the mudguard came from Bahadurgarh. In the 1950s, uncle Satyanand set up a factory along with my other uncle Sadanand to manufacture bicycles at Bahadurgarh, encouraged by the government to populate this less developed part of Punjab.
After the mudguard came the question of the frame.
My father insisted that the bicycle be designed keeping Indian conditions in mind. It had to be capable of carrying more than two people, plus a heavy load and retail at the lowest possible price, so that it could become the people’s mode of transport. He spoke from firsthand experience – in those early years, all three brothers piled on to a single bicycle to get from their home in Model Town to the shop on Gill Road!
Aesthetics were not important, the Hero cycle had to be a workhorse. The milkman should be able to affix his cans to the carrier, and the farmer his basket of vegetables. Durability was another priority. My father wanted a bicycle that could literally be handed down from one generation to the next. Maintenance and repairs had to be simple and spare parts easily available.
Finally, the brothers were ready to assemble the first 100 per cent Hero-made bicycle. From tip to tail, it would be their baby. Well, almost. The rim was from a company known as Regent, while the tyres and tubes were purchased from Dunlop. My father was in a fever of excitement as the artisans went to work.
A few hours later, there she stood: a vision in chrome and black, her glossy curves an invitation to intrepid travellers: the very first Hero bicycle.
He couldn’t wait to try it out, riding it around the cramped space of the workshop’s backyard. The smooth action of the pedals, the feel of the wheels skimming the ground, responding to the slightest turn of the handlebars, was to stay with him forever. His first thought was to share the joy of that moment with his family. Off he went, pedalling home to his loved ones, over dirt tracks and insufferable roads, by the light of a rising moon.
“Brijmohanji would share that golden moment with me; of riding this bicycle to his home late in the evening, around 8 pm and excitedly presenting it to his family,” recalls Mr Rai.
My father kept that bicycle for a long time. It was his prized possession. That bicycle was in many ways a metaphor for my father’s life. He said: “I have always seen myself as a traveller and an adventurer. My journey has been similar to riding/driving down a road towards a fixed destination. If I came across roadblocks or speed-breakers, I would slow down. If there were rough patches, I shifted to different gears. But I never stopped. I never lost faith.”
Excerpted with permission from The Making Of Hero: Four Brothers, Two Wheels And A Revolution That Shaped India, Sunil Kant Munjal, HarperCollins India.