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For Bajaj and TVS, European allies are the best bet

Murali Gopalan | Updated on April 30, 2020 Published on April 30, 2020

A Norton Dominator motorcycle

Be it KTM, Triumph, Motorrad or Norton, these brands promise plenty after past flings with the Japanese

TVS Motor Company’s recent acquisition of Norton Motorcycles is significant for a host of reasons.

More than the obvious benefits of accessing markets like North America and Europe with a renowned British brand, it marks the coming of age for Indian two-wheeler makers. It is also reflective of a huge evolution from the time they tied up with stronger Japanese counterparts in the 1980s before coming into their own. The next step of the growth phase has seen these Indian companies play a key role in the growth script for big European brands.

TVS, for instance, got into an equity alliance with Suzuki over three decades ago, when the Japanese came calling. Till then, the company had been experimenting in the two-wheeler space with its mopeds (which still continue to be a part of the Indian landscape) and the Suzuki partnership helped it get a foothold into the larger and more attractive motorcycle arena.

By 2001, TVS had called it quits with Suzuki and had simultaneously made a strong statement in the market with its own 110cc Victor motorcycle, which was the first serious challenger to the supremacy of Hero Honda. In the following years, as TVS strove to make its presence felt with a mix of successes and failures, it eventually emerged a lot stronger.

This paved the way for a partnership with BMW Motorrad of Germany, wherein the two collaborated on manufacturing 300cc plus motorcycles. Norton has been the next step of this growth story for TVS as it now looks at new markets in the West with an iconic brand.

Looking back, it has been a remarkable ride for TVS, from the time it ventured into mopeds and then navigated a challenging partnership with Suzuki. The company then coped with stronger headwinds in the market when it went out on its own. It was not easy going but it hung in there and fought it out with successful products like the Jupiter and Apache.

From a journey with the Japanese to teaming up with BMW Motorrad to buying out Norton, it has been an interesting ride for TVS Motor. To diehard nationalists, this will seem like the resurgence of the native vis-à-vis his erstwhile white rulers but this analogy borders on needless hysteria. It is, on the other hand, a tribute to Indian competencies and the desire by companies to go global.

Most successful partnership

This is precisely what Bajaj Auto has scripted over the last 12 years with KTM of Austria. What began as picking up a 14 per cent stake in 2007 has now grown to 48 per cent but, most importantly, delivered a knockout punch in signalling the most successful two-wheeler partnership by an Indian manufacturer.

As officials of both companies have constantly reiterated, the Bajaj-KTM alliance goes beyond mere ownership control to one of complete trust and transparency. It is a triumph of bridging cultural differences and bringing to the fore a robust business plan which has walked the talk over the past decade.

KTM has farmed out production of lower engine displacement (up to 400cc) motorcycles to India and today, the Bajaj Auto plant at Chakan near Pune is a veritable manufacturing powerhouse.

In India, KTM is now a well established brand where the access factor has become better thanks to the launch of products like the 125 Duke. Beyond this, customers now have a range of preferences in the Duke family ranging from the 200 and 250 to the 390 and the all-powerful 790 Duke.

Bajaj has now gone to the next stage of its motorcycle journey by teaming up with Triumph of the UK. This partnership will see midsize motorcycles in the 350-700cc range produced at Chakan and exported to markets in Europe and ASEAN. For the moment, this is a marketing pact but there is no telling what might happen in the future with equity entering the picture along with a stronger ownership business model.

KTM was constantly kept in the loop when Bajaj and Triumph were working out the modalities of their alliance and it is quite likely that there could be a deeper partnership emerging among the trio. This could well be in the form of an all-new platform for initiatives like electric motorcycles.

The other brand in this kitty, which has tremendous potential, is Husqvarna. This Swedish motorcycle brand, whose origins go back to over a hundred years, was acquired by KTM (from BMW Motorrad) in 2013. Bajaj Auto will now manufacture Husqvarna bikes at its Chakan plant which will also be home to the future Triumph product line-up.

As in the case of TVS Motor, Bajaj had its share of a Japanese ally in the form of Kawasaki. Both Bajaj and Kawasaki worked well together in new products and markets but clearly the big bang growth story came from KTM, with Triumph now promising the moon if the script goes according to plan.

On the subject of British legacy brands like Norton and Triumph, the other big draw is Royal Enfield, which has emerged more than a force to reckon with over the years. When the Eicher group took over the beleaguered company two decades earlier, only a diehard optimist would have given a chance of survival to the iconic Bullet motorcycle manufacturer.

It is to the credit of the leadership team at Royal Enfield that they believed this was possible and pulled out all the stops to make things happen at an ageing plant in Tiruvottiyur, north of Chennai. As things gradually began to fall into place aided by the spectacular market response to the Classic brand, Royal Enfield had more than proved a point.

Today, it has added state-of-the art facilities near Chennai to take the story forward while drawing up an overseas roadmap.

It is quite clear that European brands are now the gateway for Indian two-wheeler markets into new geographies. Quite unlike the Japanese, they bring to the table added competencies in styling, design, engineering and access to markets in the West.

Till a couple of years ago, it was rumoured that Ducati was on the block with its owner, Volkswagen, keen on divesting it from its portfolio. This led to speculation that a host of Indian companies were keen on snapping it up.

VW called off the deal subsequently and Ducati continues to be a standalone Italian brand. Perhaps it will come on offer again with an Indian company ready to acquire it but for now this does not seem like happening any time soon.

Another Italian two-wheeler brand that has tremendous brand power is Vespa, which is part of the Piaggio portfolio. In the past, it has had its share of the Indian manufacturing pie, with Bajaj and, later, LML, before Piaggio, decided to go on its own and produce the iconic scooter at its Baramati plant in Maharashtra.

Vespa has little to show in terms of numbers thus far even while Piaggio is betting big on another brand, Aprilia, that is also part of its global line-up. Moto Guzzi is yet another draw in its stable and it remains to be seen if Piaggio contemplates a revival plan for its brands in tandem with an Indian manufacturer.

 

Even while this looks absolutely remote at this point in time, surprises can be thrown up, especially in a post-Covid world, where companies will be hard pressed to generate revenue. Vespa is a legacy brand and is best suited to complement something similar in India. Whether this will happen is a million dollar question but there is no question that Indian two-wheeler manufacturers are now leading the way globally with their European allies.

Published on April 30, 2020

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