This is a time to be truthful. We are dazed and confused because what happened today is akin to a slap on the face when we were actually readying ourselves for a punch in the solar plexus. Yesterday when we received an invitation to attend a press conference called by Hero MotoCorp, we were slightly flummoxed. We were wondering what this could be about. The invitation simply talked about unravelling a strategic initiative. We got into a huddle and started discussing scenarios. Nothing seemed realistic and so we went to bed waiting for everything to come out into the open. And then in the afternoon in Delhi, there was heightened anticipation. Is this going to be an announcement of a collaboration or would this be a buy out? Our minds ticked. At the venue there were no Japanese or Korean people, so obviously this was not going to be anything about a buy out of Hyosung or a strategic tie up with Kawasaki (honestly even that thought entered the head of at least one of us. Another one of us even thought of Yamaha originally since they were not getting volumes, so were they entering into a strategic tie up with Hero). But there were many people of European stock. So was this a new collaboration? But with whom?
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Most of Europe’s surviving motorcycle makers were in the Piaggio basket and with Piaggio having just announced intention of launching products in India there was no way this was going to be, Hero-Gilera, Hero-Derbi, Hero-Aprilia, or Hero-Moto Guzzi. Laverda is resting so why would anyone wake Laverda up? Benelli is barely surviving and has no products or technologies worth collaborating or buying out.
There are two iconic Italian brands, one of them definitely struggling and the other one always up for sale. We are talking about MV Auguta and Ducati. Claudio Castiglione’s death has put MV Augusta in a bit of a spot. Harley Davidson bought MV Augusta but hit by recession they promptly handed it back to Claudio Castiglione. Post his death was his son putting up the brand for sale or was it Ducati? Only a couple of days ago we had reported that sale of Ducati rumours were yet again gaining strength. Was Hero MotoCorp buying Ducati? That was very much in the realm of possibility. Inspite of having paid huge royalties to Honda for the Impulse, Ignitor, Passion X Pro and the Maestro, Hero surely has enough capital to pick up Ducati.
But let us face it, what will Hero MotoCorp do with Ducati? Ducati sells about forty thousand motorcycles per year and it does not have small engines in its portfolio so no, it could not be Ducati. The same would be true with MV Augusta which is essentially a two model company. And the only thing distinguishing between both the models is engine capacity and that smaller engine capacity is much bigger than anything Indians can afford to buy. So MV Augusta is out. More head scratching. Is it possible that Hero is renewing ties with BMW? Remember it did sell the BMW F650 Funduro. But then the motorcycle was priced at Rs. 5 lakhs and the by the time the last one was sold, the price dipped down below the Rs. 2 lakh mark. But BMW can make small engines. In fact, Escorts when it was still making motorcycles, toyed with the idea of bringing a 125-150cc capacity scooter with a roof. It was called the C1.
While we were letting our imagination run riot, we also explored the possibility that Hero could be getting into the four wheeler space. The notorious Peugeot came to mind immediately. It pulled out of the World Endurance Championship, citing lack of funds and also rumours about its India project not taking off have been doing the rounds. Some auto journalist with an imagination as fertile as ours even said that Peugeot was scouting for Indian partners. Was Hero that? Peugeot also makes scooters with small engines. So Peugeot? Could be. The anticipation kept building up and we were wondering which of these conjectures could turn out to be true.
When the announcement came we were ready, with our abs tightened waiting for the punch. The punch did come but not into the abs but straight on to the face. Hero MotoCorp had tied up with Erik Buell Racing!!! Those of you who heard of Erik Buell and know about the Buell Motorcycle Company and subsequently Erik Buell will know why we felt the way we did. You will also understand the headline of this article, the bit that talks about strange brew. For those of you who are uninitiated into Erik Buell and his enterprises it is time to tell you a small story.
Erik Buell was an engineer working with the Milwaukee based manufacturer of the famous push rod engined and glorious exhaust sound generating, Harley Davidson. Now everyone knows Harley Davidson. It is the true American icon. At one time the equivalent of our own venerable Bullet, Harley’s were notoriously low tech. Like the Bullet, low tech did not translate into simplicity and ease of maintenance. In fact it was just the opposite. Bullets and Harley Davidsons were special children of their parents. They needed great care. In this company was this man Erik Buell, who loved racing motorcycles. And so he was able to persuade the lethargic American giant to look at least into different frames if not engines. And thus began Harley Davidson’s transformation. Erick Buell’s claim to fame is his use of the frame of the motorcycle as the fuel tank. Fuel stored in the frame meant that he could create a chassis that was nimble and relatively light. Greater centralization of mass produced better and lower centre of gravity.
Harley Davidson like Erik Buell. So they even indulged him by letting him create his own brand of motorcycles. Thus the Buell marque was born. It stayed alive till the recession hit the US of A and Harley closed down this division when it also handed MV Augusta back to Claudio Castiglione. Erik Buell was back in the wilderness. And with no disrespect meant to him we can tell you that Buell is not John Britten. The New Zealander Britten could build a whole bike in his garage. Not so with Erik Buell. Buell could not do his own engines. But he is a racer and wants to go racing. So he looks to Rotax in Austria for engines. Rotax is a well known builder of engines both four stroke and two strokes. At some point in its history it was taken over by the Bombardier Corporation of Canada. Please don’t smirk. The Canadians are good entrepreneurs. You don’t have to take our word. Ask the people at Spice Jet. They use Bombardier turbo prop aircraft for smaller towns and cities, the ones that were once serviced by Vayudoot (no relation of Rajdoot) which used tiny Dornier aircraft. The point is Rotax builds engines for some Bombardier aircraft. We talked about the F650 Funduro right? Well BMW got engines for it from Rotax. In fact Rotax built the bikes that were marketed by BMW.
So Erik Buell uses Rotax engines in his motorcycles now. Eric Buell also does not make his own suspension components. He gets them from the Swedish suspension specialists Ohlins. Don’t laugh please. Even Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Aprilia, BMW and all those who race, get their suspensions for Ohlins. These suspensions are literally worth their weight in gold. No, no, don’t take our word. Ask Alan Cathcart who writes for Business Standard Motoring will vouch for that. Gold is used in Ohlins’ suspension components. Not by the kilograms s but in milligrams. Eric Buell makes an ECM but that cannot be customised. It has to be used in its standard settings.
By now the perspicacious among you may have got the drift of this article. What has Hero MotoCorp have to gain with this strategic tie up. I can tell you what Erik Buell Racing can gain. Money to run its teams in AMA Superbike racing. But Hero? Let us try the elimination method.
1. Hero MotoCorp will get visibility in USA because AMA is an all American racing series. The question is what will this exposure translate into? There is not market in the USA for the bikes that Hero makes. That does not seem to be the case then.
2. Hero MotoCorp will get access to cutting edge racing technology. The question then is for what? Hero does not have and more importantly does not need a racing programme. Cross this out as well.
3. Hero will get to know how to use fuel injection technologies and the like. Er, why don’t they go straight to Rotax or to Rotax’s Austrian neighbour, AVL Technologies. We are pretty sure that is a more economical and less complicated way to doing things.
4. It is not suspension technology either. Hero can go to Ohlins but for the record, Hero has its own suspension company called Munjal Showa. Therefore this is not the reason then.
5. So ladies and gentlemen, that leaves us with only one thing. Hero is going to Erik Buell Racing to get access to the technology of using the motorcycle frame as a fuel tank. Now the thing is why is this so important. We can’t figure that out.
We have scratched our heads so much that almost all of us in the team have gone bald. The editor has had a wild thought. Did Hero get conned into something that is of no use to them? That you decide or time will unravel everything. Pawan Kant Munjal has made things even more difficult by saying that the Leap scooter has some Erik Buell technology. That can only be the ECM and as far as our knowledge goes, Buell has no known expertise in electric/hybrid vehicle technology. Or is it that Erik Buell holds a key to something that nobody is telling us about at this point.
Now you understand the slap bit? Do you also understand the reason why we have generously borrowed a line from the classic rock band Cream. The line is from their song, Strange Brew. Yeah we are looking at what is inside this seemingly strange brew. And the honest answer is we cannot see a thing. But then that could be our problem not Hero MotoCorp’s.