'Compared to Chinese OEMs, Indian bikemakers understand branding better.'

In a candid conversation, motorcycle design legend Glynn Kerr opens up about his own impressions of the Indian two-wheeler canvas. Excerpts from an interview by Amit Panday.

Autocar Pro News Desk By Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 06 Mar 2015 Views icon22784 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp

In a candid conversation, motorcycle design legend Glynn Kerr opens up about his own impressions of the Indian two-wheeler canvas. Excerpts from an interview by Amit Panday.

Can you tell us about your association with India?

I started working with Bajaj Auto in 1991-92. Initially, I visited India only once or twice in a year for several years but later when Bajaj Auto opened its R&D division, of which I was a part right from the outset, I came more frequently. I was associated with them until three years ago.

You have seen Bajaj Auto grow over the years in terms of focus on bikes, design and development, market acceptance. Now it is growing in terms of engine displacement, thanks to its interest in the Austrian bike maker, KTM Sportmotorcycle. What do you think is the direction the company is headed for?

Rajiv Bajaj really was a leading figure in this. The company had to become a design-led company, and move forward from being a licenced manufacturer of Vespas into something really meaningful and outstanding. I think at that time (1990s and early 2000s), the motorcycle part of the business was building up, so he had put in a lot of efforts into that. But his vision really was that Bajaj Auto has to be a design-led company, and should form a strong corporate identity. A corporate identity is not only the badges, logos and colour, but the identity of a product comes from the actual visual language of the product itself. So we tried to develop a corporate identity that you could instantly recognise a Bajaj vehicle.

In the same way is a BMW car, for example, you can recognise it from any angle. It doesn’t matter if it is a 3-series or a 7-series, it has a similar design language. So we developed that and I was an integral part of the whole process. It got to a point when they wanted someone here on a permanent basis leading that team, and I wasn’t able to do that at that time because I had just moved to the US, had remarried and was getting my green card.

However, Bajaj Auto got a friend of mine, Edgar Heinrich from BMW Motorrad (known to be associated with the designs of adventure tourers like the R1200GS and others) to be in charge of the design and development team. He did a very good job, probably better than what I could have done. He managed to inject some good design management inputs into the team to take things further forward.

How much of a design influence do you see Bajaj bikes are getting from their KTM counterparts?

If you take the Pulsar 200NS as an example, that was led under Edgar while I had some initial inputs into that project. In fact, there is only one line that is absolutely my original line, and that’s the line that Edgar says he doesn’t like in the whole bike (chuckles).

This is the line you see on this model on the side panels, under the seat. We took this from the previous Pulsars to incorporate some continuity going through. However, I don’t necessarily see a lot of KTM influence in that except may be from that European design thinking, which is more complex, more aggressive than the typical Indian (motorcycle) design language has been.

I do see a big difference between the KTM and the Pulsar range. Where I think they may be having a problem as in why Pulsars, which I think are great designs, are not selling as much as they could is may be because the customers see Bajaj and KTM very well linked.

If you get a customer who thinks ‘Should I buy a KTM or should I buy a Pulsar?’, then you are wasting a customer. You should be taking a customer from another brand.

What are the new changes you see on Indian roads?

There seems to be a lot of development in cars and I see a number of SUVs now on roads but I don’t see anything new in bikes. There are new KTMs, which are now starting. But I do not see any new bikes. For example, Yamaha, which had a width which you could recognise earlier on its models (FZ series, Fazer), continues to have the same models but with new colours and graphics; the bodywork though remains the same.

Also, I feel that there is some confusion in the market. For example Hero MotoCorp has a lot of products in the market, which again seem to be competing with each other. In India, 100cc and 110cc is considered to be a huge difference. The vehicles don’t seem to have unique identities.

I believe that one thing that the Indian bike makers do understand is branding. Having worked in China for a couple of years, I feel disappointed for the complete lack of understanding and corporate identity. They make anything that sells – there would be three different bikes with the same name or three different names on the same bike. So the customer can’t understand the products completely. Someone sets up a factory and then someone else will set up another factory across the road and will make exactly the same products.

You have to make a statement and evaluate what your image is as a brand. All vehicles from European brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz have a clear identity.

Indian companies understand branding but maybe they do not understand the importance of coherence and integrity. For instance Mahindra Two Wheelers’  Centuro and the upcoming midsized bike Mojo – one is very typical commuter and you have to look on the tank to figure out what brand it is for it looks like any Indian product from 10 years ago. Alongside is the Mojo, which is actually a 15-year-old Malaguti bike. It went nowhere. The Malaguti bike was never designed for India; it was designed for the Italian market. When you see the two (Centuro and Mojo) together, there is no coherence. The company has a  racing connection, which is very good and very positive. But I do not see any connect between the two.

So while some companies understand branding here, they do not understand the necessity for the model pallet to fit together, and the coherence along with the product identity. Bajaj Auto is, perhaps, the best that way. Honda is also good.

Talking about corporate identity, even BMW Motorrad is developing small-capacity bikes for emerging markets like India. Will European big bike brands be able to maintain their brand identities when they shed weight and power to roll out smaller bikes?

I think even Triumph is doing the same. It makes a lot of sense. We have a problem of mathematics in Europe. We have very high labour rates, so it does not make sense to manufacture cheap products. So it makes sense for the Europeans to be the manufacturers of the higher-end stuff, and sub-contract or put out the manufacture of smaller-capacity bikes to India or China. India again has a better reputation in terms of quality than China. It makes sense because you can ship those products back to Europe having made them in a cost effective way, and also expand the emerging markets like India.

It is interesting to see in India how powerful these bikes should ideally be, considering the maneuverability in traffic and fuel efficiency, which lot of customers here measure a bike by. These companies can, maybe, push the envelope around the aspirations of the middle class and go by what ambitious products they want. A premium bike customer is someone who already has a car or a vehicle for basic city commuting.

What kind of motorcycles do you see suiting the most to Indian conditions?

I have been pushing for off-road bikes here, which can come maybe with supermoto tyres and long travel suspension systems. Hero’s Impulse was a good product but unfortunately they did not do the product in the right way; it lacked power and a lot many things. Unfortunately, it might make them think that there is no market for those kinds of bikes but I think it just wasn’t done in the right way. I think there is a huge market for this category of bikes here.

Remember bikes like Suzuki Van Van and the Yamaha TW125? They have balloon tyres and with the right engine output, these bikes would be ideal for Indian conditions. Other bikes like supermotards would also work because these are essentially off-road bikes with street tyres.

So basically bikes that will work here would be the ones with simple technology like single-cylinder, robust and sturdy so that nothing breaks from it, wide handlebars for good maneuverability, long travel suspension for absorbing the bumps from potholes, and high ground clearance. The problem will possibly be the seat height, that’s what an issue is here in India.

What is your impression of the Royal Enfield bikes? Do you think design-wise they are heading in the right direction?

Currently they are in a very good position. However, I am a bit confused about the bikes as they have modernised it but not really modernised it. So I guess in that respect they have kept their identity strong, but I think they could have easily taken it further.

The Continental GT was an obvious direction to go. They have a nice design barring some bits which weren’t too good. For example, the height versus length proportion could have been better. I think it’s a good direction but I don’t know how big a seller that model would be because the enthusiasts would buy that. But once they have bought it then that’s it. I think that model may have a limited market.

One Enfield model that they really must change (design-wise) is the Thunderbird. Because they have just stuck high handlebars on a regular bike, they think they have a cruiser. No, they don’t. You have a regular Bullet with high handlebars. They haven’t even changed the rear rim. It doesn’t give you the language of a custom bike.

What would be the ideal design changes you would like to give to the Royal Enfield Thunderbird models?

Better proportions, probably a little longer, push the front tyre because I think the front forks are too vertical.

The growing midsized bike segment (250cc-850cc) in India is witnessing changes. As commuter bike makers move higher up towards the premium segment, big bike makers are shedding weight and engine displacement to explore smaller territories. Where is motorcycle design going in the middle of this number game?

This depends on individual companies. Harley-Davidson would have a very different answer to where they are going as will Triumph or Ducati. I think each company will strive to maintain its corporate identity, which is going to be difficult for companies which are known for making big bikes. The major challenge will be how they keep their image going.

The scooter market in India is growing and OEMs are shifting gears towards bigger, bulbous, European- style scooters (Hero ZIR, Honda PCX) in the near future. Do you see that Indian riders will accept bigger scooters?

I think it is going to be a limited market because again as these scooters become bigger and heavier, they will lose maneuverability and fuel efficiency. But there is also the confidence of comfort, like a huge Goldwing with small wheels having huge comfy seats. I can imagine looking at that and think I would like to be on this rather than on the little Vespa or Activa. I can definitely see the appeal of an armchair with wheels. However, vehicles have a very hard life in India.
I somehow can’t see bigger scooters (600cc, 800cc) for India. I think one of the things that might really change the two-wheeler demand pattern further in India is if high-displacement motorcycles/scooters are allowed on the highways. 

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