The Auto Expo which happens once in two years is usually something that everybody looks forward to with great anticipation. Fans of different brands of cars and two wheelers salivate in anticipation of what their favourite manufacturers have in store for the future. This edition of the Expo had Yamaha fans waiting in nervous anticipation for what Yamaha could be showing. There has been talk of scooters from Yamaha doing the rounds with Yamaha personnel making suitably vague statements about an impending launch of an India specific scooter and also an electric scooter. The rumour mills were also working overtime and saying that Yamaha would surprise everyone with not just scooters but also a new motorcycle which would most probably be of 250cc capacity. It was even being called the Fazer 250 with some enthusiastic webzines even “previewing” pictures of the said motorcycle.
Yamaha did surprise everyone. All the saliva that was dribbling from the enthusiasts mouths in anticipation just evaporated and they were left stunned and speechless. The most charitable way to describe Yamaha’s approach to the Expo would be to call it lackadaisical. Yeah, yeah they showed the new R1, the new FZ1, the new MT-01, the new V Max and the R15 Version 2 and the usual array of its existing FZ-16, FZ-S, Fazer and one concept scooter aimed at women riders which was called the Ray. Yamaha explained that this was still a concept and not the production version and that the production version would be different from the one on display. There is no doubt that the big capacity Yamahas are exciting, Jorge Lorenzo’s M1 from 2011 was simply awesome but come on how many of us general people from the aam aadmi category are ever going to find the money to buy these big capacity and big price beasts?
The Ray and the proclamation that went with it (that it was aimed at women riders) may or may not have excited women riders. I am yet to see women going ooh and aah over scooters meant for them like they do when they see a hint of John Abraham’s butt and now that we have mentioned the individual’s name we may as well go whole hog and say that he seemed to be the only star attraction at the Yamaha display, and for petrol heads that is not saying much. For the young male motorcycle anorak this was a big blow to the assiduously and painstakingly built six pack abs. All that working out in the gym only to take blows and not getting a chance to use the powerful biceps and triceps to control a new beastly motorcycle has pushed many young boys deep into depths of depression. We hear psychiatrists are doing very good business since the Expo all over the country and the profile of the new patient is “depressed performance biker”.
Yamaha in India is now a matter of concern. Every now and then we read in business newspapers that Yamaha is on the verge of increasing capacity and are considering new locations for new plants and that a certain amount of money will be invested in the Indian venture and these statements were made vaguely again during the Expo. But sceptics like me have been asking ourselves as to what Yamaha would do with new factories, increased production and greater investments when they have not announced any new products except for the Ray, which again is a concept and primarily aimed at women. I somehow cannot see women in the millions rushing to Yamaha dealerships to buy the scooter aimed at them and this necessitating increased everything. Let us look at some cold and hard figures. Hero MotoCorp has been selling something like five lakh motorcycles per month, while Bajaj has been selling anywhere between 2.5 to 3 lakh units per month with Honda edging towards the 2 lakh per month mark (including their scooters) and TVS also being there and there about (including scooters). Yamaha on the other hand has been averaging between thirty and thirty five thousand motorcycles per month as their sales. Even Suzuki is threatening to overtake Yamaha and the only company that looks like it will stay below Yamaha is Mahindra2Wheelers. Yamaha is a globally recognized performance brand, the second largest Japanese two wheeler maker behind Honda but in India it seems to be able to do nothing at the hustings.
Yamaha’s Indian foray has been chequered. They first came in as technology suppliers to Escorts the makers of the venerable Rajdoot. Escorts in the 1980s were an ambitious company. They not only wanted to make the famed RD350 from the Yamaha stables but also wanted to get a licence to make the Citroen 2CV for India. The licence Raj ensured that the latter did not happen but the former did happen. The RD 350 came with Rajdoot branding on the tank, something that could not be digested by the Indian public. For the Indians, especially in northern parts, the Rajdoot was the mule that did all the hard work. Having come to India through Eastern European channels, the bike which was originally a DKW featured an antiquated 175cc engine, had a nightmare of a gearbox but its suspension especially the Earls type in the front was rugged. So in the rural north it sold in decent numbers. The bike was never a city slicker though. Escorts tried to change that and also wanted to give the stepny loving Indians a spare wheel by creating a motorcycle on small wheels. The Model was called the GTS 175 and it was first featured in the hit film Bobby and therefore earned the sobriquet Bobby Rajdoot. The success of this model was limited.
So when a performance oriented, race track derived, twin cylinder 350cc motorcycle from Yamaha was sold as a Rajdoot, it made little sense to people. Traditional Rajdoot lovers could not digest the RD 350 and Yamaha fans could not bear this fire spitting Yamaha being called a Rajdoot. What united everybody against it was its steep asking price and petrol consumption that was reportedly around 18 to 20 kpl mainly because mechanics did not know how to tune it and anyone who bought the bike was not going to ride this thoroughbred like a mule. In those days, the 1980s that is, there was quite a bit of motorsport and all of it was in the form of rallies. Both cars and bikes rallied together. The cars of choice were Premier Padminis with souped up engines and suspensions, military Jongas and later the ubiquitous tool for rallying the Maruti Gypsy. Of course, if you were Rajeev Khanna then you would be driving an imported car.
The two wheeler riders choice was usually limited to the Yezdi. The nightmares associated with changing punctured tyres and legendary engine unreliability ensured that very rarely was the Enfield Bullet even considered for rallying. The Rajdoot (not the RD 350) could go on and on perhaps but progress would be very slow due to lack of adequate power, speed and false neutrals in the gearbox that would emerge out of nowhere. So the RD 350 was manna from heaven for the rallyist. Souped versions used by Jagat and Anita Nanjappa and Thirumal Roy went like stink and motorcycle rallying found a new love. But this romance had a slightly brief history. Lack of regular sales and the consequent lack of spares meant that the RD famed and loved as it was as a tool of rallying had to make way and it did. But it made way for another Yamaha, the RX100.
Escorts learnt from their mistakes with the RD 350 and so when they launched a 100cc they put the Yamaha name on the tank, the engine, the speedometer console and everywhere else. This new motorcycle was advertised as “Authentic Yamaha”, and for a 100cc engine, it had good performance. More importantly it was affordable. There was an instance transference of emotions to the RX100. Everyone who loved the RD 350 but could not buy one, went and bought an RX100. It became the bike of choice for rally riders. The word performance got associated with Yamaha and the RX100 just as fuel efficiency got associated with the Hero Honda CD100. These glory days lasted a long while till a politically correct government decided to introduce limits on how much a vehicle could pollute. The wonderfully sonorous two strokes such as the RX100 did not meet the pollution norms. Yamaha decided to increase the cubic capacity to 135cc and decreased performance in the interests of cleaner emissions. They also changed the name of the motorcycle to RXG where the G stood for green.
One could hear the collective groan of the RX loving bikers when the RXG hit the roads. Sales took an instant hit. Nobody wanted this non performing RX. So Yamaha reacted by changing the name to RX135 and tried to bring some zing back into performance by introducing a stylish RX-Z but to no avail. Escorts by not looking at the future was left standing still. Bajaj which made a disastrous debut into motorcycling saw the future better and by going the four stroke way it became the second biggest motorcycle manufacturer in India. Escorts were clueless and sold their motorcycle manufacturing division to Yamaha who made this their full subsidiary. They then introduced the YBX 125 four stroke motorcycle which was a good handler and had reasonable performance but aesthetics were lacking and all those who associated Yamaha with the RX100 could not digest the YBX 125. Thus troubled times set in for Yamaha in India. Something from which the famed manufacturer did not recover even now.
However, Yamaha has managed to pull itself back from what seemed like certain closure of its India operations. Instead of offering commuter motorcycles such as the Libero (first with a reptilian head look alike head lamp and then later with anonymous styling with a 106cc engine and the last of them was called the G5 signifying that there were five iterations of the Libero), the Crux an even more utilitarian style less motorcycle meant for the rural folk with same 106 engine and the Fazer 125cc with a grasshopper face like headlamp which was then replaced by the Gladiator, which was alright to look at and good to drive but nothing spectacular, Yamaha decided the time was ripe to reclaim its legacy as the performance and sporty motorcycle builder.
This led to a change of strategy. The son of the legendary R1, the R15 was created. It had a delta frame, forged metal pistons and amazing handling with a reasonable dose of power. But the technology made it expensive. Yamaha was clear that the 150cc liquid cooled, R15 would be used to showcase its performance potential and that the look alike of the FZ1000 called the FZ16 would do the business for it. The FZ16 featured the same styling cues as the bigger FZ1000. It had a sculpted tank, a fat rear tyre, an adequately performing air cooled version of the R15’s engine and overall looked futuristic. Yamaha launched a slightly more sporty looking version and called it the FZ-S. This found acceptance and this emboldened Yamaha to re-launch the Fazer with half a fairing a la Hero Honda Karizma and the Bajaj Pulsar 22o. It too found acceptance but not in sufficiently big numbers. Yamaha’s performance has been improving but only in very small numbers. All its products have now been in the market place for a while and the Version 2 of the R15 is not much of paradigm shift from the Version 1.
Yet again Yamaha seems to be standing still. Honda has upped the ante as has Bajaj. Honda has announced its intention of launching the CBR150R in a short while and if the pricing of the CBR250R is anything to go by, it would be priced pretty close to the R15. Honda has better brand recall in India and is a huge threat. On the other flank the KTM Duke 200 from Bajaj has been priced dangerously close to the R15 and it outperforms the R15 in all departments. As if that is not enough Bajaj has unveiled the brand new Pulsar 200NS with a promise of better performance than the R15 and at a price substantially lower than the R15 and dangerously close to the Fazer. Yamaha seems to be back at the cross roads and its Expo display did not show that it is prepared to repel this impending onslaught. However, it could be hedging its bets and sand bagging by keeping its cards close to its heart. Maybe it has plans that it does not want to divulge yet. I would like to believe that, but there are some good reasons to believe that it has nothing in reserve.
The first of the main worries is that Yamaha is feeling the effects of the economic recession, the tsunami in Japan more than Honda because its operations globally are not on the same scale so as to make up from one region when another is hit. The second pertains to the complex and secretive structure of management of India Yamaha Motors. It is actually a consortium of various Japanese corporations one of which is the enormous Mitsui Corporation. Japanese corporations are bureaucracies in their own right and the involvement of too many of them slows the decision making process. I suspect that is what is happening to Yamaha in India. It is perhaps standing still yet again. It is well known that Honda is experiencing capacity crunch for its scooters. An international giant like Yamaha should have pounced on the opportunity to break into the scooter market, but it did not thus far. Suzuki acted better with the Access scooter and TVS with the Wego to make in roads into the Activa space. And with TVS and Suzuki showing newer intentions and products at the Expo, Yamaha is in great danger of falling out of sight of the Indian biker. So what is the prognosis for Yamaha in India. Well it went from critical into remission but all signs suggest that the malady has begun to come back again. Yamaha could turn critical again. I would hate that as would many like me. So we cross our fingers and hope for the best.