Tora means tiger in Japanese. In 1941, during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese pilots used it as a code word to indicate that complete surprise had been achieved. Now, almost half-a-century later, it might well be brought out of the closet and used again. Just that this time, Indian two-wheeler companies seem to be the dozy targets.
Put another way: The recent ouster of Bajaj Auto, the country’s second largest two-wheeler maker by sales, from the second spot by Honda Motorcycles and Scooters India (HMSI), may just hint at a Japanese offensive. In November last year, for the first time, HMSI surpassed Bajaj Auto sales by volume in the domestic market. The Japanese two-wheeler firm repeated the same feat in the ensuing month as well. In December, HMSI sold 87,164 two-wheelers against Bajaj Auto’s 69,419 units. “The gap is narrowing and the competition level is much higher now,” points out HS Goindi, president (marketing), TVS Motor Company. “The Japanese have been at it for a long time and no one noticed. So, one fine morning, the crossover happened and people were caught napping.” Even TVS wasn’t spared. In December last year, the Chennai-based two-wheeler firm sold 72,355 units — a 13% slide over the corresponding period the previous year. Further, during the April-December period in 2008, all Indian two-wheeler companies, excluding Hero Honda Motors, posted negative growth figures over the corresponding period the previous year. In comparison, their Japanese counterparts, such as HMSI, Suzuki Motorcycle India and India Yamaha Motor, have all done relatively well and managed to garner decent growth figures. So, what worked for the Japanese? To be sure, one of the major contributors to growth for both HMSI and Suzuki continues to be the gearless scooter segment where HMSI is the market leader, with more than 50% marketshare. In December last year, scooters made up around 64% of HMSI’s total sales volume. Atul Gupta, VP, sales & marketing, Suzuki Motorcycle India, points out that this segment has been more or less insulated against the slowdown and has grown considerably year on year. “People usually purchase a scooter with cash. Hence, this segment escaped being butchered by the credit squeeze,” explains Gupta. But industry experts also point out that the future belongs to cutting edge technology. Case in point: India Yamaha Motor’s latest 150cc offerings, the FZ16 and the R15 are arguably the best in their segment as far as product quality and design are concerned. These are the bikes that have single-handedly brought the focus back on Yamaha after the Japanese firm’s incredible lean patch here. But they also come at a cost. The R15 sells for around Rs 1 lakh, almost double the price of an ordinary 150cc motorcycle. Says Sanjay Tripathi, division head (product planning), India Yamaha Motor: “It’s similar to cell phones. The technology that you see in high-end phones finally percolates down after some time. In the case of two-wheelers it’s the same story. Our 150cc bikes borrow technology that is born on the race track, and with time the cost will also come down.” So, does this suggest that Indian two-wheeler makers are low on technology? S Sridhar, CEO (two-wheelers), Bajaj Auto, strongly opposes the thought. “In Bajaj, technology is for daily life. We have a strong R&D focus. We are jointly developing bikes with KTM but even our own boys are good at innovation,” he declares.