Mahindra aims neo retro
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Mahindra aims neo retro

Adil Jal Darukhanawala

There is a time tested saying that try, try and try till you succeed and maybe that is an idiom that Mahindra 2Wheelers has factored in relentlessly in its short marque-infested run till date. The news that it has bought a sizeable controlling stake in Classic Legends Pvt Ltd of the UK is one more name in the roster of brands that Mahindra & Mahindra is calling on to make a name for itself in its motorcycling ambitions.

Classic Legends Pvt Ltd has been the custodian of the BSA brand name for a considerable amount of time but as is well known in the world of motorcycling, and also cars mind you, is that if a halcyon brand name is available, many people want to own it if only to make a killing. In fact, apart from a rebirth of Triumph by that messiah named John Bloor and also Royal Enfield by that young Siddharth Lal, no other British motorcycle marque has been given the care and attention to carve a position for itself among the pantheon of present day bike makers. There has been Norton that perennially tries to make a comeback (which I am ashamed to say does disservice to what was once the greatest name in British biking) and there has been Ariel and AJS whose names have been leant to small cheap Chinese imports that fell apart within months.

On the face of Mahindra acquiring a controlling stake in Classic Legends of the UK who own the BSA trademark and brand name there is a certain different reason for adopting this method to fuel its maker’s motorcycling madness. First things first and that is the brand name BSA cannot be used – as yet – in India because it has been licensed to another two-wheeler company – TI Cycles who continue to make the BSA brand of bicycles. But then given that the bikes are yet a couple of years away, there could be time for negotiations.

To understand why Mahindra & Mahindra have decided to plump for resurrecting an old and very successful motorcycling brand name is to try and give its own global motorcycling ambitions the gravitas it needs with a well-known iconic name and badge. India’s only motorcycle maker with a presence in World Championship motorcycle road racing is something of an enigma when it comes to the type of products it makes and sells in India, and certainly tiddlers and scooters and weird-hued attempts to try and be different haven’t got it the results naturally in the Indian market.

However, the grand strategy is of course to leverage Mahindra Racing’s state-of-the-art engineering, design and prototyping facilities in Besozo, Italy where the firm designs, develops and builds its MGP030 Moto3 Grand Prix bikes. A range of sporty bikes, whether pure street-oriented or with genuine dual purpose on-off road capability is something the engineers and designers at Besozo have been wanting to strike out for long even though they aren’t admitting it. On the bedrock of the successes achieved so far by the MGP030 in Moto3 in 2016, I think that a proper range of sporty high performance machines are just a step away. And this is where an iconic brand name such as BSA could be the ticket for Mahindra to rise (pun is purely coincidental!) among the global motorcycling community.

One might argue that Mahindra already has Peugeot in its kitty of brand names and also a functioning design, development and manufacturing facility in Europe, so why BSA? The answer to that is Peugeot never got its big bike sporty motorcycle range going after World War II while BSA did more than that. It was a maker of a load of great machines but it never realized the challenge from the Orient and was sidestepped into oblivion, as was the entire British motorcycle industry with inaction and lack of foresight tinged with arrogance.

I can see there is a great opportunity for the BSA brand to burst back into the reckoning but it will have to be nuanced and very well attempted. There can’t be Stallios and Mojos to experiment with like Mahindra has done in India but to think like how John Bloor resurrected Triumph to make it one of the most outstanding names to blast back from the past and stand firmly on its own as a worthwhile manufacturer who ranks among the best in the world today. This is also something Siddharth Lal is attempting to do with Royal Enfield, and I am sure that with a profusion of new models and better engineering depth and technology, especially in production engineering, it will get there. And that’s what makes it so exciting for me to think about yet another Indian manufacturer attempting to resurrect a former British brand back to life.

It is early days but much will depend on how Mahindra learns about heritage management and the need to evolve modern day products with a synergistic link to the iconic BSA motorcycles of the past. BSA motorcycles, mopeds and scooters used to be sold in large numbers in India even after independence with bikes being sold to commoners and enthusiasts, as well as to military and police forces plus also utilities like the PWD, electricity boards and such. In fact, so important was the Indian market that in the late 1940s, the entire 1950s and the first two years of the 1960s, BSA had its own factory racing team here in India.

However, it is to create bikes for the global market that Mahindra would have to evolve the right platforms and powerpacks. I think that it would do well to let motorcyclists and those steeped in motorcycles handle operations with respect to strategy, positioning and marketing, rather then having car guys trying to muscle their way into a new operation. Also while we are at it, design and style is key to a motorcycle’s acceptance and so getting a proper motorcycle designer and/or designers to attempt it is the way to go. I say this because it would be most easy for someone somewhere in the Mahindra empire to suggest that Pininfarina take a shot at designing and styling the new BSAs. History shows that every car designer and design studio that attempted motorcycles had failed and failed miserably, Pininfarina included!

On the engineering front, I don’t have any issues because the guys at Besozo know their marbles and so performance and dynamics would be well sorted out given their handiwork with the MGP030. But then Classic Legends or BSA or for that matter Mahindra cannot afford another Stallio or Mojo! I mean it, not in a disparaging way, but genuinely wish this because Mahindra needs to be rewarded for employing motorcycle racing as the means to perfect its tech and standing. I will not attempt to suggest what sort of motorcycle could come out from BSA, but I do know that a twin and a triple have to be in the product portfolio and as Triumph have shown maturity and smart thought in employing modular design for its engines, one could make any configuration from parallel twins to triples and fours as well! And of course, a large single would be just the right ticket for a growing market, which needs simplicity with reliability and just the right punch. To create a modern day Gold Star would be just the right ticket and perhaps devise a modern day Goldie with on-off road ambitions, as the history books would show BSA Gold Stars won a host of World 500cc MX Championships in the ‘50s and ‘60s!

There’s one other challenge that I can foresee and one where Mahindra management needs to be careful is in the way the brand is handled by remnants of the past. I have seen many card sharp holders of brands who did many things and more to milk the heritage using dubious means and this is why one of Mahindra’s own needs to take custody of brand rights and decision-making. Heck in the 1980s if one can remember, the BSA name was seen on a 50cc two-stroke bike made and marketed by Brooke Bond in India, known first as the BSA GT50 and then as the Bond GT50! It was a great bike on paper and had the looks but it was fragile and poorly engineered and I rest my case there.

Getting back to the rich assortment of motorcycle brands in its fold, Mahindra is also trying to take another crack at the domestic market by invoking the Jawa name back into the reckoning! The company has licensed the Jawa brand for its domestic range of motorcycles going forward. In a way this would be a blessing because it could erase any throwback to the early disasters and enable the firm to start afresh. Jawa in its country of origin – the Czech Republic, is itself in a precarious state and hasn’t got to grips with a changing scenario after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It soldiered on with archaic two-strokes and then started making bikes with engines brought in from Yamaha and others losing its prized standing in the minds of enthusiasts the world over.

Here again trying to make a fuel-efficient commuter badged as a Jawa won’t do and how the product planners and the marketing teams go about this delicate aspect would determine how successful or otherwise Mahindra could be with its new motorcycle branding business plan.

I end this as I began and that is to say in keeping with its Rise philosophy, Mahindra is leaving no stone unturned to make its two-wheeler business gain both critical mass as well as credibility. It is trying with great brand names from the past and an all-new approach to not doing everything the rest of the world does. Maybe its salvation and its resultant success starts here!

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