RL Ravichandran is an unabashed admirer of the late Rahul Bajaj and makes no bones about the fact that the former Chairman of Bajaj Auto had been a tremendous influence on him.
RLR, as he is more popularly known, was part of the leadership team at Bajaj Auto between 1998 and 2005 and played a big role in steering the company’s foray into motorcycles when it was breaking out of the mould of a geared scooter manufacturer.
It was also among his most challenging tenures in the two-wheeler arena — prior to this, RLR had spent valuable years with TVS Motor Company while his next move after Bajaj Auto would be to spearhead the historic turnaround of Royal Enfield.
While reminiscing at his Chennai home about the wonderful moments spent with Rahul Bajaj, RLR’s mind goes back to Hamara Bajaj where the memorable campaign of 1989 “touched millions of hearts” in India. “Riding a Chetak was the ultimate dream for anyone across the country,” he says.
These were the halcyon days of the geared scooter where Bajaj was a part of every household in India. Everyone wanted a share of the brand and were willing to wait for years to own one. Yet, dark clouds were looming on the horizon in the form of the motorcycle revolution. Japanese manufacturers were setting up shop in India and there was change in the air with top brands typing up with local manufacturers.
This was the time RLR had come onboard Bajaj Auto and knew that change was in the air with the diehard scooter manufacturer poised to shift loyalties to motorcycles. It was also time for a new campaign since “we were shifting focus from scooters to modern bikes”. The company had a technical tie-up with Kawasaki and, as in the case of other Indo-Japanese alliances in the two-wheeler space, was keen on wooing customers into its fold.
“There was a need to do a new Hamara Bajaj. Sure, we were still selling scooters at that time but were also also beginning to make a mark in motorcycles,” he recalls. This was the time “we felt the strong need to make every rider to stop, look at the bike and feel an overwhelming desire” to own one.
The new approach worked and the Caliber turned out to be a success as buyers queued up for the motorcycle. “Yet, we were still not toppers. So we took the route that would make our biking community take a relook at Bajaj Auto with renewed inspiration,” says RLR.
The only way was to create a bike that was a “head-turner”, something that offered a unique level of “riding pleasure” along with top-class fit and finish. “Our team led by Rajiv (Bajaj) had met Kawasaki in Japan and we looked at many options before finally zeroing in on the Eliminator,” he adds.
The die was cast and it was decided that the bike would be brought into India as a completely built unit (CBU). In the process, it ended up sporting a high price tag but, as RLR continues, the effort was worth its while. “We achieved our objective and gained new respect.”
While this was welcome news, the leadership team was only too aware that the pricing issue had to be fixed since the CBU route could not be a permanent solution for a price-sensitive marker like India.
“This option went beyond India’s price acceptability levels. This is when we came up with the plan of assembling complete bike parts in the Waluj plant at Aurangabad,” says RLR. It was only the engine which would be imported from Kawasaki.
The ultimate objective was to offer a “tempting” price and the Eliminator was priced at around Rs 1 lakh. This meant that margins would be wafer thin in the process but “the earlier we made the bikes the better would be the margin”.
Everyone was onboard with the strategy and the next task on hand was to convince Rahul Bajaj. As RLR recalls, he “was quite ok” with the idea of making the bike affordable. But there was more to come. The Bajaj Auto team wanted to badge it Kawasaki Eliminator and that was something the Chairman was not willing to digest.
“He made no bones about the fact that this was an unacceptable proposition while we continued to vehemently defend our stand saying that this was the best way forward in the brand-building effort,” narrates RLR. After all, it was an affordable Kawasaki Eliminator being retailed in India by Bajaj Auto.
Distinctive service showrooms
Rahul Bajaj finally agreed and the plan was put into place. Distinctive service showrooms were created in main high streets measuring 500 square feet. In a sense, these were the first digital showrooms even before the term has become more fashionable in recent times thanks largely to the pandemic.
As RLR explains, “The concept was vertical and we had hydraulic-assisted service space with the branding as Kawasaki Eliminator. The idea was to sell the latest service process without any sales showroom as an accompaniment.” Customers loved the idea and revelled in the fact that everything was automatic.
The strategy worked like a dream and the Eliminator pretty much “sold by itself” without any serious sales efforts. Many bikers were keen to get quicker deliveries of this motorcycle which was assembled in Aurangabad and literally a mirror image of the imported Kawasaki.
The more important thing, from Bajaj Auto’s point of view, was that there was price stability which would help attract more buyers and create for itself the image of a “respected bike maker”. The next step now was to create a new Hamara Bajaj.
“The Chairman gave the go-ahead but was quick to add that the core should not be lost in the process,” says RLR. Lowe Lintas was roped in for the exercise and the idea was to have the new campaign feature a whole lot of bikes including the Eliminator, Pulsar, Caliber as well as the scooter. For the record, the Pulsar recently completed its 20th anniversary and remains the flagship brand of Bajaj Auto.
“My idea was to draw a similarity between our Vande Mataram and the new Vande Mataram,” he recalls. The bottomline was that “you cannot make a mistake” when you made a sequel to Hamara Bajaj. “It was a great story showing the respect Indians displayed to their traditions and customs while respecting faith,” says RLR.
The objective was to reach out to young India and to those who were still in love with scooters. The team involved with this campaign included the legendary Balki and the original tune was adapted while ensuring that the emotion was kept intact. After all, this was Hamara Bajaj by the end of the day.
After the final edit, the commercial needed to be shown to Rahul Bajaj chairman for his approval. The company had its own amphitheatre in the corporate office and the stage was set. “We ran the commercial…once, twice, thrice…while I kept looking at his expressions after each presentation. My eyes were also focused on Rajiv and Sanjiv (Bajaj) as well as other senior executives,” says RLR.
It was quite obvious that everyone liked what they saw but the bigger verdict was more important. Finally, the Chairman stood up and the tension was palpable. “He then asked me ‘Ravi, when can you start running it?’ He then applauded the efforts of everyone involved in this exercise and praised them for maintaining the thread and link without missing the core,” he recalls with nostalgia.
That was the beginning of the new Hamara Bajaj and RLR was clearly delighted to be part of this historic journey which he describes as a fascinating experience. More importantly was the fact that the Chairman loved it too which only showed that he could easily connect with the youth of the country.
“There will never be another Rahul Bajaj again. I consider it my biggest privilege and honour to have worked with such a remarkable individual,” says RLR who was as broken as everyone across India when he got the news of the great man’s passing.
Yet, it is memories like these which bring a smile to his face thinking of a glorious era. The fact that the Chetak has now been resurrected with the Akurdi plant now being home to the new era of electric mobility is the best homage payable to Rahul Bajaj’s legacy.
(This article appears in the March 1, 2022 edition of Autocar Professional)