Atlas Cycles - a name that was once a synonym for bicycles in India - shut its last manufacturing unit in Sahibabad, just outside the national capital, citing lack of funds, on 3 June, which ironically also happened to be World Bicycle Day.
What a tragic end for a brand that from the 1950s till the mid 1980s was the undisputed numero uno of the Indian bicycle market, till Hero Cycles gradually inched ahead of it. The 80s and the 90s saw heated competition between them. By the early 2000s, Hero had gone far far ahead, leaving Atlas a distant No. 2 and a laggard in the market.
The Atlas brand was handled by Contract Advertising for many years. And they did a pretty good job by the client. I met Rajiv Kapur, one of the younger scions of the Atlas family on a flight. I think it was 1995. We got chatting, and got friendly. He invited me home for lunch with his uncles, brothers and cousins. They used to have a massive bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi, in one of those lanes next to the Claridges Hotel. I was branch manager of Rediffusion Delhi those days. The lunch resulted in an invite for a presentation on the Atlas business, which was under tremendous pressure especially from Hero Cycles. My old partner, Gullu Sen, the creative genius, and our new biz chief Rajendra Gupta accompanied me for the presentation which lasted long enough for us to be invited to stay back for dinner! And a lot of Punjabi hospitality. The Atlas account changed hands over dessert.
One of the creative ideas we had presented during the pitch was about a new millennial bike to be called The Iron Horse. The concept had been ideated by the legendary Kamlesh Pandey and everyone at Atlas loved it. The elevation of the humble cycle to an ‘iron horse’ was beautifully picturised by Gullu into a stunning campaign. Atlas had for years advertised the vanilla black-bicycle and had been kind of left behind in the emerging new segments of fashionable bicycles for urban kids. The Iron Horse targeted young teenagers with the appeal of almost a trip through the Wild West on way to school every morning.
Atlas Cycles was set up in Sonepat (then in undivided Punjab, now Haryana) by Janki Das Kapur in post partition India in 1950. A modest beginning was made in an improvised shed. This was transformed into a 25 acre factory complex in a record period of 12 months in 1951. In the very first year of operation, 12000 Atlas Cycles rolled out of the plant. By 1958 Atlas had started exporting bicycles. By 1965, Atlas had emerged as India's largest cycle manufacturer, pipping to the post established brands like Raleigh and Hercules who had been around much longer. Much of the newer competition now came from the industrial town of Ludhiana, home to brands like Hero, Avon, Alka and Roadmaster (also known as RMI). Of course, there was still a lot of manufacturing in the South where BSA remained a preferred brand.
Janki Das Kapur passed away in 1967. His three sons, BD Kapur, Jaidev Kapur and Jagdish Kapur took over. Slowly their sons also joined the business. But in 2002, there was a big family feud wherein Arun Kapur, son of BD Kapur was thrown out from the family business. That family fight was the trigger for the decline of the company and the brand. I too kind of lost touch with the client and the brand after that.
Call it nostalgia. Call it old loyalties. I feel a lump in my throat every time a brand that I have worked with in the past, dies. It is almost as if an old friend has kind of moved on.
25 years ago, Atlas Cycles had what financial guys categorise as ‘too big to fail’ status. Their Sonepat factory alone was spread over 25 lakh square feet. And there were many more factories that came later.
Why do brands die? Various reasons. But not planning for obsolescence is a prime reason most times. Atlas was market leader for at least 20 years. Then a fierce No. 2 for another 10 years. But its focus remained the bottom-of-the-pyramid black junta bicycle. No substantial R&D, no real marketing, ever went into developing and selling more evolved products. They had the opportunity, they had a huge market, they had the distribution, they had the manufacturing infrastructure … but they just didn’t have the imagination or the ambition to drive the market. Netherlands has 1100 bicycles per thousand of population, Denmark 830, Germany 700, Japan 700, Sweden 670 … China 360 … India 90. This, when India actually being a poor country should have many many more bicycles to ride on. Atlas, despite their early start and towering lead in the market, could never propel the cycle category to become a far larger universe.
The demise of the brand may have eventually been catalysed by management fall-outs and not marketing failures, but whatever be the reasons, it is sad to see Atlas shuttered.
Goodbye, old friend!