Indian Brands Prove That They Are Second To None

Murali Gopalan
15 Aug 2023
01:49 PM
4 Min Read

On this 76th anniversary of the country’s Independence, there are quite a number of top Indian automotive brands that have stood out for their resilience and newer-say-die spirit.

Indian OEMs

As India celebrates its 76th year of Independence, its homegrown brands will have every reason to feel proud of themselves.

After all, they have survived the MNC onslaught and shown naysayers what it takes to have grit and determination to take on the best and, in  some cases, even show them their place in this competitive market. The best example that immediately comes to mind is the Tata 407 which, in the 1980s, single-handedly took on the might of the Japanese quartet comprising Toyota, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Mazda. 

Not only did the product emerge tops in the light commercial vehicle (LCV) category but consigned the rest to near oblivion while teaching them a valuable lesson or two on the importance of localisation and after-sales service.

In fact, even prior to the much touted reforms of the early ‘90s, the decade prior had in a way opened the gates to Japanese automakers in the two-wheeler and LCV segments. These took the form of alliances with local players — TVS-Suzuki, Escorts-Yamaha, Bajaj-Kawasaki and Hero-Honda in the two-wheeler space — while the LCV partnerships comprised Eicher-Mitsubishi, DCM-Toyota, Swaraj-Mazda and Allwyn-Nissan.

As already indicated earlier, the Japanese juggernaut was blown away by the Tata 407 while in the case of two-wheelers, the alliance between Bajaj and Kawasaki was the only non-equity model which survives to this day especially in marketing of bikes in specific ASEAN regions. By and large, except for Escorts, the other Indian companies have more than held their own in the world’s largest two-wheeler market. 

Eating Humble Pie

Hero and Honda had a successful partnership for 26 years before they decided to go their separate ways in 2010. The sceptics were ready to write off the Indian company which, in their view, did not stand a chance of survival without its stronger Japanese ally. 

Not only has Hero forced them to eat their words but still remains the leader in the two-wheeler space while Honda has to stay content being its closest challenger. Hero, meanwhile, has forged an alliance with Harley-Davidson for premium motorcycles and it will be interesting to see how the script pans out in the coming months and years. 

TVS, likewise, called it a day with Suzuki in 2001 and went through its share of upheavals even though it started on a strong note with its own offering, the 110cc Victor. However, it could not quite sustain the momentum and faced strong headwinds before bouncing back strongly. With successful brands like the Apache and Jupiter, TVS is now the third biggest player in the domestic market. It bought out Norton Motorcycles of the UK in 2020 and has a partnership going for premium motorcycles with BMW Motorrad. 

TVS was also among the first to announce its intent in electric and has been going flat out in this space even while exploring new mobility options in the global area with e-bicycles. Its former partner, Suzuki, is a marginal player in contrast even while it has had successful products like the Access 125 and is betting big on India for its future growth.

Bajaj was the market leader of the two-wheeler arena for decades with its geared scooter till the motorcycle revolution came along and knocked it off its perch. To its credit, the company hung in there  strongly with Kawasaki as ally before staging a dramatic turnaround with its Pulsar premium motorcycle which continues to remain a robust brand even after two decades.

Manufacturing Powerhouse 

Beyond this, Bajaj has forged a successful partnership with KTM of Austria which began with acquiring a 14% stake in 2007. Over the years, this alliance has strengthened and Bajaj Auto’s Chakan plant near Pune is now a manufacturing powerhouse for KTM and Husqvarna (the Swedish brand acquired by KTM) motorcycles which are sold here and shipped overseas. 

A second plant in Chakan is now home to manufacturing midsize motorcycles for Triumph of the UK and Bajaj is confident of pulling off another successful script like it has with KTM. The company has also resurrected its Chetak brand in an electric scooter avatar keeping in line with the Centre’s vision of electrification. Today, Bajaj is the largest exporter of two-wheelers and ships out nearly 200,000 units each month across the world.

As for the Escorts-Yamaha partnership, the Indian company exited two-wheelers while its former Japanese ally had a hard time putting its India house in order. It is only in recent times that Yamaha has put in place a more robust business model focusing on premium bikes and scooters but it is still a marginal player in a market where its Indian rivals have surged ahead.

The other brand in the two-wheeler space which deserves kudos for its  tremendous comeback is Royal Enfield which is part of the Eicher group. At one point in time, till about two decades ago, it was struggling to produce even 2,000 motorcycles each month. 

Once again, it was perseverance which paid off and once successful products like the Classic caught the eye of the market, Royal Enfield has not looked back since then. Today, it produces one million motorcycles annually and is the champion of the premium motorcycle space with rivals struggling hard to make a dent in its near invincible armour.  

Kinetic was a popular brand when it had a successful partnership with Honda in the ‘80s and ushered in the gearless scooter wave. Once they split, the Pune-based company was not quite the same formidable force again and eventually sold its two-wheeler business to Mahindra & Mahindra. Kinetic is now putting its best foot forward in the electric space with its three-wheelers.

Tata Proves A Point 

While Tata Motors proved a point in the LCV arena and successfully kept the Japanese in check, the company also pulled out all the stops many years later by getting into the car space with its Indica. The sheer pull of the Tata brand was evident at the 1998 Auto Expo in New Delhi when crowds surged to the pavilion to take a look at the car. 

A decade later, Ratan Tata created the same levels of hysteria at the Auto Expo with the Nano and had everyone in a tizzy. Critics will argue that neither model was a success story but there is no question that Tata Motors sent out a strong message to the global automobile community on the importance of frugal engineering and launching a competitively priced car for emerging markets. 

It was a cue that Carlos Ghosn, the former Chairman of Renault-Nissan, picked up and try to pull off something similar in the form of an ultra-low cost car with Bajaj Auto and by resurrecting Datsun with Nissan. Neither worked but it was crystal clear that automakers would now have to pay more focus to markets like India, Brazil, South Africa and ASEAN — regions where affluence levels were not as high as the West but the market potential for competitively priced products was immense.

Mahindra Magic 

Likewise, M&M blazed a new trail with the Scorpio in 2002 even while there was tremendous uncertainty about its outcome. After all, the company was taking a big gamble after parting ways with Ford and chose to build this all-new SUV at an outlay of INR 600 crore. This was a lot of money then but the spectacular showing of the Scorpio was an adrenaline rush which propelled M&M to new heights. 

The company bought out SsangYong Motor of Korea in 2011 while staging a comeback in cars with Renault some years earlier. More recently, it decided to team up with Ford all over again for an aggressive global story but the advent of COVID and the American carmaker’s own priorities led to the shelving of this plan.

Today, M&M has gone back to where it started by focusing on its core business of SUVs and has hit paydirt with brands like the Thar and XUV 700. It remains a market leader in tractors and is in a much stronger position after going asset-light in the aftermath of exiting SsangYong and what it perceives as other pointless forays.

While this essay strives to showcase the success stories of some Indian automakers, there are others which have fallen by the wayside. Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles were legacy players but could not cope with changing times and customer tastes. 

Standard Motors, similarly, shut shop as also LML, the two-wheeler company based in Kanpur and a worthy challenger to Bajaj in the scooter space. LML has now been revived in the electric space and it remains to be seen if its legacy will be good enough to attract customers all over again.

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