Let us try and understand what TVS two wheelers mean to people. If you ask anyone as to what they think of TVS their choice of words to describe the company and their products, they would be solid, reliable and some may even say staid. Now let us start with the staid bit. Usually that word gets associated with dull, boring, lacking in flair and and if you take the politically correct way of putting things it would be inoffensive, conservative and not exciting enough. However, if you look at the most successful auto and two wheeler makers coming out of Japan you can say with confidence that they too would be called staid. Apart from a design like the MR2 or the Celica/Supra of the 1980s can you think of any Toyota which is not staid? Similarly even with its luxury brand Lexus, to which model can you attribute qualities such as ‘gets your adrenaline pumping’ or ‘sets your pulse racing’? Same with Honda, both for its cars and its motorcycles. Except the NSX car and maybe the the occasional CB/CBR motorcycles which Honda gets you jumping with joy and shouting over roof tops? Nothing really comes straight to your mind, right? Yet you can see that both Honda and Toyota are best sellers, in markets where you have the choice of Italian design flair and the combination of German solidity and the occasional evocative design. So why are they so successful? Why do they outsell most of their rivals?
The answer is clear. They are solid engineering companies which manufacture motorcycles and cars with bullet proof engines and suspension aggregates that make a car go on and on without ever causing anxiety to their owners about reliability and high maintenance costs. So you see being called staid is not a bad thing at all. Very much to the contrary it even seems to be a good thing. The other words that are used to describe TVS products – solid and reliable do not need to be qualified. Who does not want something solid and reliable? Even a cursory look back at the history of the TVS Motor Company from the days when it was Sundaram Clayton and was manufacturing the TVS 50 moped to what it is today, one finds a continuous underlying theme. Solidity of engineering. When the TVS50 moped was launched it went up against established competition from Kinetic Engineering’s Luna which had killed off competition from Suvega (a Mopeds India Limited product made in collaboration with a French company called Moto Becane) which was till then ruling the roost. The Luna was better than the Suvega which howled like a banshee. But when the TVS50 emerged on the scene it went on to claim leadership in the market displacing the Luna50 from its pedestal and killing of various attempts at moped making which appeared under brands such as Nisuki (they actually had Feroz Khan the Bollywood star endorsing them) and Pizzazz. Kinetic tried to retaliate with products like the Swift, Spark and King only to see that there were not too many takers for their products. TVS on the other hand was going from strength to strength. They launched variants like the XL, the one time favourite with girls, the TVS Champ and the TVS Astra. The Champ and the Astra died after TVS launched its Scooty a brand that is ultra successful. The Scooty was launched in the market while the Bajaj Sunny was already in the market and Kinetic were just introducing the Pride. Bajaj tried to dethrone the Scooty which became a best seller in no time with attempts such as the Sunny Spice and the Spirit and Kinetic Engineering with the Style after the Scooty had pushed the Sunny and the Pride out of the market place. Let me get straight to the point now. TVS is the only company today that still makes mopeds and the Scooty is going from strength to strength while Bajaj has had to vacate the segment and later the entire scooter market. Kinetic Engineering sold out to Mahindra who set up Mahindra2Wheelers. What then are the reasons behind the phenomenal success of the TVS moped and the Scooty range now including the Pep+ and the Streak? Simple -solidity, reliability and inexpensive to maintain.
That should give you a good idea about the engineering capabilities of TVS. Since we are already on the subject of scooterettes let us now move to scooters. At one time TVS had great ambitions of dominating the scooter market as well. They came out with the Spectra, a 150cc geared four stroke scooter which was introduced to the world by none other than the great Fellini himself. I have driven the Spectra a few times. I know people who still own Spectra scooters. The scooter bombed in the market place but that was due to the fact that the bottom had fallen of the scooter market. The Spectra’s failure was all about timing. You can put it as a little too late or if you wish you can put it as a little too early. The late part can be justified by the fact that TVS in order to perfect its scooter took a long while and in this time a paradigm shift had occurred in the Indian two wheeler market. People were preferring motorcycles which are always better at delivering better fuel consumption figures. The scooter preferring markets up north were put off by the styling of the Spectra which was something like the Kinetic Honda (it was not a replica of the Kinetic Honda but the grammar of the design language was similar) and the Kinetic Honda was considered to be a bike for the sissies, one that women would ride (market perceptions in the northern part of the country). Four stroke 150cc with four manually changed gears was ahead of its time. What remained of the scooter market was ultra-conservative and preferred two stroke Chetaks or LML 150NVs. But the Spectras that were bought still run wonderfully with nary a problem. After the failure of the Spectra TVS decided to concentrate on the Scooty which ultimately turned four stroke and on its range of motorcycles.
Let us now look at TVS’ track record as a motorcycle manufacturer. It all started as the Ind-Suzuki AX 100 which sold well enough to drive out Ideal Jawa the manufacturers of the Yezdi brand of motorcycles from the market and made sure that the Rajdoot was sold only in a couple of states in the northern part of the country. In fact, it was the AX100 that started the process of attracting the traditional scooter buyer to motorcycles. Its very big achievement was that it widened the motorcycle market which sadly turned out to be of greater advantage to Hero Honda first and Bajaj later. The AX100 was a brilliant product and pristine examples of the 1985 model year can still be found. When competition came into this widened motorcycle space it came from two flanks, as far as TVS was concerned. One was from the commuter who wanted maximum bang for his buck and that the Hero Honda CD100 did much better than the two stroke AX100 in the fuel efficiency stakes. On the performance front it got hit by the Yamaha RX100. The power output of the AX100 was a modest 8.25 PS while the RX 100 was offering 11PS. It was more fuel efficient than the RX100 but its 50+kmpl was no match to the 65+ kmpl of the CD100. Those who wanted power did not mind the 35+ kmpl that the RX100 offered. Somewhere along the way came the KB 100 from Kawasaki Bajaj and offered a plethora of features and 10.5 PS. Though the first iteration was a non-seller, the second as the KB100RTZ and Delta Super tuned engine became a serious enough seller. But more importantly the cash rich Bajaj also turned to making the four stroke 4S.
TVS was a relatively small company with fewer resources at its disposal. So unlike Bajaj it decided to stay with the two stroke engine from the AX100 and started, with minimal inputs from partner Suzuki, to upgrade the engine. First came the Supra featuring dual tone colours and bikini fairing at the back and power out put went to 9.65 PS. TVS also started giving a new form of test ride. You could show a valid driving licence, leave your existing motorcycle at the TVS dealership and take a Supra home and drive it around for two days. That was the level of confidence that TVS had in its product. While the Supra started selling in good numbers it was still not good enough. And that was when TVS decided to invest in motorsport, the ultimate testing ground for new technologies. The company had Arvind Padgaonkar heading the motorsport division and since in the 1980s and 1990s the only real motorsport was motocross, TVS started fielding its official teams in these events. TVS was initially competing against itself because most other entries were privateer entries which had minimally modified and tuned production motorcycles. Later the RX100 from Yamaha entered the fray officially but was never able to displace TVS from its perch.
All the lessons that TVS learnt on the motocross track it took to its production motorcycles. It decided on a marketing strategy that had two prongs. One model for the enthusiast and the other for the commuter. It also decided that it should just use the Suzuki name on the products so as to take on the challenge of Honda and Yamaha. The commuter came in the form of the Samurai bike that had lesser power than the Supra but had good mileage. TVS positioned this as the “NO Problem” bike. It even had a TVC featuring a Japanese gentleman saying “NO Problem”. It clicked with the people. This motorcycle was cheaper than the Hero Honda products, had decent fuel economy and kept its promise of being a no problem motorcycle. The other prong saw it go for the jugular of the Yamaha. This motorcycle called the Shogun developed 14 PS of power and till date is the most potent 100cc motorcycle built in India. There are Shoguns still running about just as there are RX100s. And no, the owner will give up his life but not sell the bike. This two pronged strategy worked well for TVS. It created for itself a space between the miserly four strokes and the powerful two strokes.
TVS still kept going with the motorsport programme. And out of this came another motorcycle called the Shaolin. The Shaolin had power comparable to the KB100 and the RX100 but featured a five speed gear box. This maybe an appropriate time to mention that TVS was following a strategy that was the complete opposite of what was being done by Hero Honda. Hero Honda had one engine and built different body styles around it with CD100, the CD100SS, the Sleek and the Splendor. TVS on the other hand had one body style and built three different types of engines (though derived from the same AX100 unit) in the form of the Samurai, Shaolin and the top of the line Shogun. This strategy worked just as Hero Honda’s did. But when the emission norms kicked in it meant that the death knell had been sounded for the two strokes and therefore TVS’ two strokes slipped quietly into history. But not the company. The company launched a four stroke 150cc in collaboration with Suzuki called the Fiero. The styling was odd ball but the motorcycle like all TVS bikes was bullet proof. In order to set things right TVS worked on the styling of the motorcycle and introduced for the first time ever two engine mappings, one for economy and the other for power. The rider had to just operate a button to choose the mapping he wanted. The Fiero’s success in all its various avatars was tepid but TVS’ motorsport programme ensure that it was doing something with the Fiero and that manifested itself as the Apache. But before that TVS had already replaced the Samurai with a new brand which it called the Victor , a 110 cc four stroke motorcycle. The Victor did very well indeed and to me it is still a mystery as to why the brand was killed by TVS. However, this year’s Auto Expo brings the good news that by the end of the year, the Victor brand will resurface in India. TVS also made a 125cc variant of the Victor and along with the Max100, still the closest living relative of the original AX100 it continues to sell in international markets. Go to the official TVS website to see the Victor 110 and the Victor125 along with the two stroke Max in markets other than India.
At every Auto Expo TVS shows new concepts and new technologies. One of the new technologies that it showed in the previous Expos was one that featured two spark plugs (a system that Bajaj used on a small capacity engine for the first time in India and created a patent for that!!!!- what kind of antiquated patent laws do we have really?) and three valves instead of the traditional two. This technology manifest itself on the Flame a motorcycle that had design flair too (along with the Apace the Flame started the trend of well designed motorcycles from TVS) . But the protracted legal tussle with Bajaj killed the product even though TVS won the case. TVS also showed its indigenously worked out fuel injection system from the time that it was making two stroke engines at various auto shows and this ultimately found way on to the Apace 160 Fi. The Apache also became the show case for ABS that TVS developed and displayed at the previous editions of the Expo and is now available on the RTR 180 variant. RTR or racing throttle response is again something that TVS developed due to its involvement in motorsport, a commitment that has never flinched. At this Expo another motorcycle called the Radeon was shown and it seems as if it is of 125cc engine capacity because it had 125cc DX written on it.
At the Expo TVS also displayed the Tormax, an underbone chassis bike which is a big success in the Indonesian market. The underbone chassis bikes are called ‘babeck’ in Indonesia (meaning duck) since they resemble ducks. This bike is based on the the TVS Neo and the Rockz which sell in the crowded South East Asian markets and take on the various Hondas there. It is to take on the Honda underbone bikes that TVS developed the clutchless (our automatic clutch) rotary gearbox system which we first saw in India on the non selling Hero Honda Street. This technology found its way on to the TVS Jive. TVS saw that Indians did not like the underbone chassis but may not mind the auto clutch rotary system on a traditional looking motorcycle. Thus the Jive was born and positioned as the No Tension bike and the Radeon looked remarkably like the Jive. At this Expo TVS also showed a new automatic transmission that is easy and inexpensive to put on a scooter or a motorcycle but will be reliable and convenient. This technology is likely to debut on its up coming 125cc scooter. The engine was mounted on a chassis which could be clothed and this could become the 125cc automatic transmission scooter.
Now coming back to scooters, TVS showed off the Qube electric scooter in the Expo of 2010 and at this year’s Expo it showed a near production version of the Qube. The difference is that it will be hybrid, featuring a 100cc internal combustion engine and DC electric motors. It can run on just electric power or just the IC engine if the charge runs out. This scooter is supposed to bring down emission levels and also decrease consumption of petrol. Scooters have been the area that TVS has been growing despite the Spectra debacle. The Wego is one scooter which has taken the battle to Honda in India. Featuring 12 inch wheels and a compact body, the Wego offers better balance and is easy to drive. It does not feel top heavy like the Honda Activa and Access from Suzuki. It has well and truly taken the battle to Honda something that can be seen in the increased sale of the Wego. One would imagine that the 125cc scooter will retain all the virtues of the Wego and give us a bigger engine to boot. The Expo has shown that TVS has many new things coming our way, and as usual they will be technology intensive. The 250cc RTR FX displayed at this year’s Expo is a motocross motorcycle. But any day it can turn into a regular road motorcycle, something which will happen given the move to higher capacity engines by almost all players in the market. TVS has always been a low profile company which lets its products do the talking. It has turned several corners under the able stewardship of Venu Srinivasan who is himself an engineer. And this year’s Expo has demonstrated that engineering will drive TVS forward but ominously it also seems that there will be design flair added to engineering excellence.