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Bajaj - king of motorcycle universe?

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With the introduction of a 375cc motorcycle, and the help of his technology partners, Rajiv Bajaj wants to revolutionise Indian motorcycles again and dominate all its categories.

Despite decades of socialism during which there was no access to products available in international markets, India has had its fair share of legendary motorcycles, from the iconic home-grown Enfield Bullet, to the Czech-engineered, twin-exhaust Yezdi Roadking. However, the two bikes that set a new bar for performance, in the 1980s and early 90s were Yamaha’s RX 100 — a stylish, hi-rev two-stroke thoroughbred — and its 350cc older brother, the astonishingly quick and powerful RD 350. Owning — or even just riding — either gave you an instant cool factor. Both eventually had their engines made in India in a joint venture with Escorts, and both left their competition far behind, in the dust.

No manufacturer was able to come up with anything completely indigenous on two wheels that truly floored the motorcycling community like the above two. That is, until Rajiv Bajaj came out with the Pulsar.

 

BAJAJ'S BRANDS Pulsar (5 models)
Race-inspired, performance-oriented brand, promoted for the young
  Discover (4 models)
Promoted as a sober brand for the fuel conscious customer with added extra styling
  Platina (entry-level commuter)
Ageing model, designed to please the fuel conscious customer, basic styling
  Avenger (cruiser)
India's only affordable cruiser but ageing with no competition
 

 

 

The Pulsar — both the 150cc and the 180cc versions — quite simply blew the competition away. Prior to it, the motorcycle community in India had, by and large, preferred fuel-efficient, smaller bikes. Suddenly, here were two stylish, state-of-the-art Indian motorcycles with disc brakes — unheard of at the time — and plenty of pep. The bar had been raised to a new high, but, this time by an Indian company.

 

 

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The next big bet

Today, nearly five million Pulsars have hit Indian roads but Rajiv Bajaj, managing director, Bajaj Auto, is itching to kickstart yet another revolution in Indian motorcycling. His research and development (R&D) centre at Akurdi, Pune is working at a furious pace to dominate a lucrative, if lower-volume segment in the market in which it doesn’t yet feature the 350cc-and-beyond category. Bajaj’s most powerful model presently is the 220cc Pulsar.

With it, the company aims to rule the universe of Indian motorcycles, from the entry-level with Discover to the premium-performance segment like with in-development 375cc Pulsar. But, is there a market for such premium bikes in India, where more than half of the 13.4 million sales last year came from bikes having engines lower than 125cc? RUNNING WITH THE HEAVYWEIGHTS
Unit sales, 250cc and above Company 2009-10 2010-11 2011-12 Royal Enfield 50,098 54,475 78,546 Honda 6 32 15,206 Yamaha 35 59 102 Bajaj* - - 128 Harley Davidson - - 716 Total 50,139 54,566 94,698

Bajaj says there is no point in figuring out what the customer wants. “Till you do it, you will never know. So, the reality is that only God knows the future and nobody else,” says Rajiv Bajaj. “Yes, we are taking a chance else you cannot push the envelope. So, we don’t have to worry if there is a market there or not — if it is not there, it will get there,” he adds.

Bajaj is onto something. According to data provided by the Society of Indian Automobile Manufacturers (Siam), the motorcycle segment with engine capacity above 250cc, last year grew 74 per cent to 94,698 units, against 54,566 units sold in 2010-11. However, 83 per cent of the total sales in this segment belonged to Chennai-based Royal Enfield, whose Classic series of retro-styled 350cc and 500cc bikes have started a mini revolution of their own. Honda, Harley Davidson, Suzuki and Yamaha make up the rest.

This time around, Bajaj has equipped himself with two heavyweights in the motorcycling world: Austrian company KTM, famous for its Paris-Dakar traversing dual-sports bikes, in which Bajaj currently holds 47 per cent stake; and Kawasaki, which arguably has the most famous brand of motorcycle in the world — the Ninja — and with which Bajaj has a 28-year-old partnership. Design and styling details from KTM and technology assistance from Japan’s Kawasaki are fuelling the futuristic-looking motorcycle concepts made by young Bajaj engineers.

 

 

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The 'K' effect

According to KTM’s annual report, in addition to the new 375cc bike that the Indian and Austrian companies are developing, the two are also trying to bring back the glory of twin-cylinder technology, which was a rage in the 1970s, but was subsequently phased out, due to the invasion of cheaper and more fuel-efficient bikes. Besides being visually attractive, an additional cylinder, arranged at some angle to the other — and usually patented — provides a big boost in torque. Harley Davidson’s motorcycles, for instance, have twin cylinders placed at 45-degree angles to each other. Could Bajaj join the ranks of legendary motorcycle manufacturers around the world – such as Ducati, Aprilia, Harley Davidson, Triumph, BMW, Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki? That depends on how the 375cc bike turns out, to begin with.

So far, tapping into a three-way alliance for design and technology has been a smart move. The recently launched Pulsar 200NS from Bajaj Auto shares most its components and specifications with KTM Duke 200, including the engine platform, however, both remain distinctly different in performance and handling. Another version of the Duke, strapped with a smaller 125cc engine, goes to the export markets in Europe.

Here’s how important a strong alliance with a world- class bike maker can help: Only last month, an engineering team at the Pune-headquartered company ran into some technical glitches over the development of one of its bikes. A call to Kawasaki later led to a dispatch of a Japanese team comprising engineers who flew down to Akurdi to troubleshoot the problem in no time.

“At Bajaj Auto, we have been very fortunate to have partners like KTM and Kawasaki,” says Bajaj.

“A lot of people think we have invested in KTM for their technology and I have always said that’s not the truth. We have invested in KTM from the marketing point of view. From the east, where we have Kawasaki, we are benefitting from stuff like Kaizen, product development and how to achieve lower PPM (parts per million). The Japanese are masters of this, it is in their culture,” he adds.

The heat is on

Bajaj isn’t the only one in a hurry to up the ante with new motorcycles. Hero MotoCorp, for instance, is desperate to boost its back-end operations like product development, technology and other R&D, ever since it ended its partnership with technology-leader Honda. While Hero — which has more than double Bajaj’s market share in motorcycles, at 55.7 per cent — is not known for its technology (as most of it has been sourced from Honda), what works for it is its brand image of being a maker of fuel-efficient bikes such as Splendor and Passion.

Yet, it too, has decided to gravitate towards making performance bikes by joining hands with Erik Buell Racing, an all-American, road-racing company. The partnership will produce high-performance, large-capacity motorcycles, an area completely alien to Hero as of today. In order to do so, Hero is setting up a Rs 400-crore integrated R&D centre in Jaipur, which includes labs for components, engine and vehicle testing, a design studio and test tracks. The company claims this centre will be the largest in India amongst two-wheelers, with 500-plus engineers.

With the Apache 180cc being the biggest bike in its line-up, Chennai-based TVS Motors is also keen on moving up the value chain and is exploring a partnership with German company BMW for a technology alliance which could be along the lines of the Bajaj-Kawasaki tie-up. Both Hero and TVS are sure to give Bajaj a run for his money.

Missteps?

For all that Rajiv Bajaj has accomplished, many say that in the race to achieve supremacy in the bike segment, he has completely ignored the fastest- growing market in two-wheelers today – scooters. Ironically, it was Bajaj that rode the demand wave for scooters in the 1980s and 1990s, with geared scooters such as the iconic Chetak and Priya. Today, Honda commands the lion’s share of the domestic gearless scooter segment which saw sales of 2.5 million units last year. Bajaj has consistently maintained it does not see itself as a scooter manufacturer and would instead channel its energies to motorcycles.

This may well be the right strategy. Being a jack-of-all-trades doesn’t necessarily work to your advantage. Abdul Majeed, analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers, said, “It is better to concentrate on one segment and build your brand than trying to cater to every segment. Bajaj’s strategy has been a success with the motorcycles and of course, a company can always come back to scooters”.

Knowing Bajaj, he may just do so in order to reinvent himself, yet again.