Bajaj, KTM & Kawasaki in India

You think the headline is strange?  Let me assure it is not.  If one were to see the activity at Bajaj Auto in 2012 starting with the Auto Expo till the launch of the Pulsar 200NS, there are some interesting things that come to the fore.  Bajaj did not participate at the Auto Expo with its two wheelers.  It only showed the RE60, a strange contraption on four wheels.  There may be more to this thing than just the strange looks but that is a subject for another article, which you can expect very soon.  Rajiv Bajaj who likes to project himself as a maverick declared at the launch of the RE60 that Bajaj was anti-car company and therefore was not interested in building cars.  Yet he wanted to “concentrate” on showing the four wheeled RE60 to the world (technically the RE60 is a four wheeler on a three wheeler platform which itself is a derivation of a two wheeler platform.  But then like I said that is a subject for another post, so for now just hold your horses).  Bajaj had two spectacles to show in the month of January but held them back till after the show.  One was the KTM Duke 200, which unfortunately became only half a spectacle thanks to innumerable “spy pics” of the KTM Duke 200 circulating on the various auto webzines for months and months.  The real interest was the price, which was a killer at less than Rs. 1,20,000/-.  The second spectacle was the launch of the Pulsar 200NS, a bike carefully hidden from prying cameras and revealed in full to an ecstatic bike enthusiastic population with information that it will be prices at less than Rs.1,00,00.

So when Bajaj had this much to say and show to the world why did it skip the Expo with its two wheelers.  The most common reason that is being inferred by bike enthusiasts is that Bajaj did not want to dilute the importance of both the launches at a venue where there are many other things happening.  Logical?.  Maybe, maybe not.  If you see the buzz that Honda generated at the Expo by announcing the launch of the CBR150R and the updated Dio apart from several other things, it is clear that the typical auto enthusiast is a glutton whose appetite for information (including pics) of all things auto is insatiable.  And for the focussed enthusiast, the search for something to excite his/her imagination is ongoing thing that will not be distracted by lesser things (in his/her mind).  So the explanation that Bajaj feared the dilution of its important product launches in a big Expo to my mind are not necessarily logical.  However, as an explanation I will not rule it out.  But then could there be any other reason to why Bajaj may have decided not participate in the Expo?  I think yes and I think that has something to do with Bajaj’s old partner and teacher in making motorcycles (as per Rajiv Bajaj’s own admission), Kawasaki.  And in all editions of the Expo where Bajaj participated there was a dedicated Kawasaki corner telling people to “Let the good times roll”.

Before proceeding further with this line of thinking, it maybe useful to take a look at the relationship that Bajaj and Kawasaki shared.  For that we have travel back into the 1980s.  When the first phase of liberalization of the Indian economy happened it included in it the two wheeler sector and foreign technological collaboration and equity participation were both allowed with the rider that the foreign partner’s equity could not exceed at any point 49% of the total investment.  When the doors were thus opened another condition was placed and that had something to do with various fiscal concessions if the motorcycles/scooters were below the 100cc capacity.  Bajaj was practically NUMBER ONE in a field of ONE.  Various Bajaj scooters (with the Chetak at the top of the heap) commanded premiums since waiting lists stretched to decades.  Automotive Products of India or API only made Lambretta scooters of the 1940s and 1950s and even though these scooters also commanded a waiting period of up to 12 years, that phase ended in the early 1970s due to the indifference of the manufacturer to the market which was a controlled market.  Then Mrs. Indira Gandhi’s brand of socialism wanted the participation of the Indian State in the manufacturing sector and so when the original makers of the Lambretta, Innocenti Scooters, went kaput in Italy, Mrs. Gandhi wasted no time in purchasing the manufacturing assets and the intellectual property of the company.  Thus in 1974-75 Scooters India was created as a public sector undertaking.

Staying in line with the rhetoric of her general politics Mrs. Gandhi made sure that the brand of scooter to emerge from the newly created Scooters India Ltd would be given an Indian name and thus the then latest model Lambretta 150 was called Vijay Deluxe.  The members of the Indian Hockey team which won the World Championship under the captaincy of Ajit Pal Singh were all gifted with this scooter for their considerable achievement.  Mrs. Gandhi continuing her thinking even allowed various State Governments such as the Govt of Andhra Pradesh and the Government of Karnataka to make the same scooter under different brand names.  The former called the scooter Vijay Pushpak and the latter Falcon.  Since this scooter was built by State undertakings there was no effort to even sell the scooters leave alone things such as marketing.  Though technically all these scooters were available not too many wanted them.  Motorcycles of that period were mainly three.  The Enfield Bullet, the Yezdi (which started as a Jawa) and the Rajdoot were the available brands.  All of them suffered from various types of problems, such as reliability, no ease of service, expensive spares, oil leaks but most importantly they lacked the one feature that was of greatest importance to the then Indian two wheeler user, a stepny tyre (Rajdoot tried  fit a stepny tyre to the engine cradle at the rear of the front wheel but that compromised the steering of the bike so it was hastily given up).  It was most important because punctures were an everyday occurrence thanks to poor roads but it also had something to do with the utilitarian bent of mind.  Scooters offered storage place with bags being attached to the rear side of the front apron and in the case of the Vespa derived Bajaj scooters a lockable box on the left side panel, something that no other scooter had.  Maybe difficult to believe, but that lockable box may have been one of the most important reasons for success of the Bajaj scooters.

1986 Bajaj Chetak

Other scooter brands and motorcycles  just languished while Bajaj minted money with its Bajaj 150 first and later with the Chetak, Super, Priya (in collaboration with Maharashtra Scooters which had an equity participation by the Govt of Maharashtra) and later the Cub as well.  So when the liberalization happened new players tried to enter the market and go for Bajaj’s jugular.  And what better way to do it than collaborating with Bajaj’s old partner Piaggio, the maker of Vespa scooters.  So there was Lohia Machines Limited and the public sector undertaking Andhra Pradesh scooters who found collaborations with Piaggio.

Typically Andhra Pradesh Scooters messed up with the technically very sound Vespa PL170 scooter, while Lohia Machines Limited (later to become LML Limited) tasted success initially with the 100cc Vespa XE and later the Vespa 150.  This success was very limited and again the lockable side box played a big role in the limiting of success.  The Vespa scooters emerging from LML had placed the spare wheel under the left side panel, thereby eliminating the possibility of a lockable storage box.  Despite LML’s concerted efforts to tell people that their arrangement improved the balance of the scooter not too many were convinced.  Hence LML ultimately shifted the stepny to the rear of the scooter and created a lockable space at the left. However, this did not really hurt Bajaj since it was a bit late in the day to make the change and also because LML went into management problems and changed hands from the Lohia family to the Singhania family.  As is usually the case such transitions set companies back by years.

Meanwhile other entrants into the two wheeler market decided not to go headlong in competition with Bajaj and therefore they took another route, a route that changed the face of the Indian two wheeler landscape radically.  They decided to go into the under utilized and under exploited motorcycle segment.  TVS took the lead.  It created a new company called India Motorcycles Limited and collaborated with the Japanese Suzuki company.  TVS looked to Japan because it knew that Japanese companies had decimated European two wheeler makers in all markets including the European markets.  But Suzuki was a strange choice.  There are reasons for that yet again.  Escorts India, the makers of the venerable Rajdoot, had in the very early 1980s (before the liberalization process began) collaborated with Yamaha to bring out the wonderful RD350 a bike that was too ahead of its times and since it was race derived it was expensive and returned poor fuel consumption figures.  But the collaboration was there and so was the bike, though it sold in minuscule numbers.  Honda wanted to come into India but its first choice was Bajaj.  Honda always wants to be numero uno and a collaboration with Bajaj would have ensured that.  So negotiations were on between the two companies.  So TVS went to the third biggest Japanese bike maker Suzuki and launched the first Indo-Japanese 100cc motorcycle, the Ind-Suzuki AX100 and it tasted success with it.

Meanwhile, negotiations between Honda and Bajaj broke down.  Bajaj knew that it was big in India on a monetary scale due to its near monopoly for decades and only wanted a technical collaboration (the kind it had with Piaggio) while Honda wanted equity in the company since it wanted a foothold in the Indian market.  With neither side refusing to budge there was no prospect of any collaboration.  Therefore, Honda scouted for new partners.  Honda even at that time was world number one in motorcycles and scooters and wanted a partner who would be at its bidding rather than the other way round.  If TVS (Sundaram Clayton) makers of TVS mopeds could go to making bikes with Suzuki, Kinetic Engineering (makers of the Luna mopeds) wanted to get into scooter making.  Arun Firodia the head of Kinetic was prone to doing things differently so he tied up with Honda to make gear less hundred cc scooters, a first for the Indian market.  Everyone who knows Honda also knows that Honda is as much about marketing brilliance as it is about technological superiority.  Hence Honda did not want to place all its Indian eggs in the Kinetic basket.  While it agreed to enter into a joint venture to produce two stroke scooters with Kinetic it also entered into a joint venture with the Hero group who were till then making cycles and yes, mopeds under the Hero Majestic brand.  The Hero group was not technology savvy nor were they so big that they could resist Honda’s domination, so they were the perfect partner for Honda.  Honda decided to make motorcycles with Hero and make four stroke motorcycles at that, a domain that was till then the exclusive prerogative of the Enfield Bullet.  But this is not a story about Honda, so lets get back to Bajaj.

Now where did these developments leave Bajaj?  Its traditional bastion, scooters, was being attacked by not one but many players, and one of the many was Honda.  At that time Rahul Bajaj famously said”Honda is serious competition for me, I just cannot sit around doing nothing”.  So what was the option for Bajaj?  In scooters the only manufacturer of consequence from Europe was Piaggio and Bajaj did not end its collaboration with the Italian company too well.  Also Piaggio tied up with not one but two manufacturers, so that was a closed road.  All motorcycle manufacturers in Europe had shut shop or were in the process of shutting down and the ones that survived made big and ungainly motorcycles that would not fit the 100cc norm.  Bajaj therefore had to look east. Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki were taken.  Only Kawasaki was left.  Though in its history as a two wheeler maker, Kawasaki did build scooters, they were not known for them.  Though they were smaller than Bajaj in output, they were pretty good technologically.  Something that was to Bajaj’s liking. So Bajaj inks a deal to make motorcycles for the first time through a technical collaboration with Kawasaki.  Kawasaki was happy enough to get royalties for its technology.

Kawasaki Bajaj KB 100

Bajaj chose the KE series from the Kawasaki range, a range comprising of motorcycles with small engine capacity and the relatively low tech and easy to maintain two stroke engines (what a lovely place the world was before it went politically and environmentally correct).  Bajaj picked up a model that was a scaled down version of Kawasaki’s wonderfully styled GPz500 from the late 1970s.  As opposed to the other Indo-Japanese bikes the KB 100 that came out of the Bajaj stable had pleasing styling cues and it came with all the bells and whistles that were possible at that time.  A dashboard that featured a tachometer, fuel gauge, speedometer, tell tale warning lights, a rear fairing, a concealed carburetor, single ignition and handle bar key and lock, thumb operated choke on the left hand side of the handle bar, solidly built foot rests and the best electricals (it was the first motorcycle to feature 12 volt electricals while all others had 6 volt electricals) in the market then were standard on the KB100.  It also had the best handling chassis (I am willing to join issue about this with any die hard Yamaha RX 100 fan) with ideal front and back end weight distribution and an engine that could rev happily till 10, 500 RPM and put out only .5 PS less than the RX 100.  It was also the cheapest bike, despite featuring saree guards, crash guards and rear view mirrors on both sides as standard fitments while most other manufacturers sold all those as extras. The bike was a recipe for huge success.

Kawasaki Bajaj KB100 in Blue

When launched in the Indian two wheeler market, the bike bombed, in spectacular style.  While people were fighting for Hero Honda motorcycles and buying the TVS-Suzuki and Yamahas in decent numbers, they did not want anything to do with the KB100. So what went wrong.  It was not one thing, but a combination of many things.  First factor was that Bajaj, a company used to selling scooters to people who were waiting for decades, did not know anything about marketing products and did not even have a marketing division.  Second, the dealers of Bajaj scooters knew nothing about motorcycles and since they were also used to customers falling at their feet for Bajaj scooters, they knew nothing about customer service.  Then there were mechanics who did not know a thing about servicing and repairing motorcycles.  Most could not even find the correct clutch and carburetor settings.  Due to the existence of a rear fairing the seat on the KB100 was relatively cramped, and the rear end did not have a carrier (of the cycle variety) and the pillion rider foot rests did not have a separate sub-frame (like the RX100 did) and were welded to the swing arm itself.

The Indian buyer used the idea of utilitarian modes of transport did not give two hoots to styling, tachometer and other such things.  What he wanted was a seat that could three comfortably (while the KB100 barely seated two in comfort, though young boys who had girl friends appreciated the seat tremendously), did not have the rear carrier and due to the indifference of dealers, motorcycles that were never serviced properly gave bad fuel efficiency figures.  The younger lot while appreciating the seat did not understand motorcycle dynamics too well.  They fell in love with the RX100 since it had a long seat and a light front end and that combination (especially with pillion riders sitting) produced effortless wheelies and most believed that it was an indication of the “brute power” of the motorcycle.  I must say here that many were terribly miffed when I pulled effortless wheelies on a 1971 model Vespa 150 made by Bajaj.  The heavier front end of the KB100 due to good weight distribution would not levitate easily.  The benefit of this was that braking was phenomenal on the KB100 and it also did not change its handling with a pillion on board.

The resounding failure of the KB100 galvanized Bajaj into action.  It set up a marketing department.  It started getting tough with the lax dealers.  It lengthened the seat on the KB100 by shortening the rear fairing, changed the front chain sprocket’s number of teeth from 14 to 13, added a sub frame for the rear footrests, increased the power to 11PS and added RTZ and Delta Super tuned to the KB100 name.  But the more important thing was that it decided to go head on with Hero Honda and set to work on the BR100 project that launched the 4s motorcycle, unimaginatively named the 4s for four stroke.  The 4s was smaller and lighter than the KB100 and was de specced completely.  The tachometer was gone along with the ignition/handle bar lock, the seat became longer and ended with a carrier, choke went to the now exposed side draft carburetor but the motorcycle gained bragging rights over fuel efficiency.  Thus Bajaj joined battle with Honda.

The engine on the 4s continues till date with some very minor modifications on the Platina just like the Honda motor that continues almost unchanged on the Hero Honda CD 100 and Splendor.  With the 4s under the tutelage of Kawasaki, Bajaj learnt the art of making motorcycles and selling them.  That was till the turn of the century, when Rajiv Bajaj decided that the way to go was to start developing its own products.  This became especially important with the scooter market dwindling and only supporting the twist and go scooters.  The legendary Chetak had to be laid to rest and newer scooters that Bajaj developed on its own such as the Sapphire, Wave, Sunny, Spice, Spirit and Kristal (the last of the scooters that Bajaj made) also quietly lay down and died.   The M80 and the ahead of its time big wheeled Rave scooter based on the M80 mechanicals also vanished.  Bajaj had started making the Pulsar and I don’t need to tell you the success story of the range.  But other bikes spawned by the 4s such as the Boxer (not the new BN150 but the old AT, CT), Caliber (in all its avatars such as the Chroma and the 115 aka hoodibaba), the CT 100 all disappeared.  The Discover in its first 125cc iteration found very limited success and the 110cc Discover fell like a stone to earth and the Platina sold in reasonable numbers (enough to keep the hopes of the company alive) but the 100cc Discover kick started good numbers again.  At this time Bajaj started slowly buying into specialist European manufacturer KTM who has had tremendous success in the Dakar.  Bajaj slowly took its stake to nearly 40% in KTM, thereby getting Rajiv Bajaj a crucial position on the Board of Directors of the company.  This is crucial because it this that started this new synergy between the two companies that came to the fore with the launch of the KTM Duke 125 in different markets but made in India followed by the launch of the KTM Duke 200 in select markets including India.  More importantly Bajaj will manufacture bikes for KTM in cubic capacities up to 350.  To facilitate all this the Bajaj Probiking showrooms which were distributing the Kawasaki Ninja 250R and the Ninja650R have been rebranded as KTM dealerships. So now comes the question where does this leave Kawasaki?

Before the KTM effort Kawasaki and Bajaj forged synergies by distributing each other’s products in markets where they had dealer and distribution networks. Bajaj even made small capacity motorcycles such as the Wind 125 for Kawasaki.  It was this that brought Kawasaki to India to distribute its made in Thailand/Japan Ninja250R and the Ninja650R through the Bajaj Probiking network.  The Ninja250R was atrociously overpriced and old rival Honda cocked a snook at Bajaj by making an affordable 250cc for half its price. Now Bajaj has tried to get back by launching the KTM Duke 200 at even lower price but with better specs.  Good for Bajaj, good for KTM, but hey where is Kawasaki in this?

In spite of Bajaj saying that it will sell the Ninjas through the KTM network, it does not look convincing that Kawasaki will put its hugely overpriced and underselling products in KTM showrooms and get salt and spices rubbed into its wounds.  More importantly even if they do put their bikes there who is going to push them and who is going to buy them?  I therefore am sure that Bajaj’s two wheeler no show at the Expo had something to do with this imbroglio. It is difficult to believe Rajiv Bajaj’s proclamations that they kept the two wheelers out of the Expo to concentrate on the RE60.  Some months ago Rajiv Bajaj when questioned about Kawasaki in the context of KTM had said that it was up to Kawasaki to decide the way forward.  Kawasaki set up India Kawasaki Motors Ltd but no one knows if this entity exists still or where from it functions and what it actually does.  There is no address, no website, nothing.  So here comes the painful question.  Have we seen the last of Kawasaki in India?  I am not sure, but don’t be surprised if the answer turns out to be a yes.