Catching up

A few good news stories that got lost in the fog of the last week:

Business Standard interviews Rajiv Bajaj

Rajiv Bajaj, managing director of Bajaj Auto, talks to the Business Standard about his plans for the company, which include a big push in Mexico, cooperation with Kawasaki, and breaking the 200cc barrier. Rajiv practices yoga, runs the company “holistically,” and drools over new technology, yet we sort of miss his Harvard-Business-School, sentimental, right-wing dad Rahul Bajaj (and the Bajaj Chetak).

“LML failed to get any number”

The Islamic Republic News Agency confirmed today what we’ve suspected all spring: Neither LML nor Bajaj exported a single motorscooter in the first quarter of 2006. Bajaj, of course, has been focusing on motorcycles and three-wheelers, and doing rather well on those fronts, but LML’s labor issues have brought their production to a total standstill. While some compromises and investments have been made in recent weeks, there is no indication that LML is, or will soon be, back on line.

Rahul Bajaj elected to Rajya Sabha

Patriarch of the Bajaj family and former Bajaj Auto president, Rahul Bajaj was elected to the Rajya Sabha (Indian Congress) today, taking a seat left empty when Bharatiya Janata Party leader Pramod Mahajan was killed in a family dispute (Bajaj’s own recent family disputes were settled only slightly more discreetly). He had the support of several parties and won with 195 of 288 votes (with three abstaining). Bajaj is well-known as opposing “reservations,” an Indian-government plan to expand hiring and education admission quotas to include more lower-caste Indian citizens. Students and middle-class workers have taken to the streets recently to protest the quotas in recent weeks.

Rahul Bajaj backed for Indian government seat.

Rahul BajajDNA – India reports that Rajul Bajaj has been backed by a coalition of parties for a vacant seat on the Rajya Sabha, the upper legislative house of the Indian government (roughly parallel to the U.S. Senate). Rahul Bajaj is the grandson of Jamnalal Bajaj, a close friend of Ghandi who was active in the fight for Indian independence. Jamnalal Bajaj founded the Bajaj group of companies in the ’30s. Rahul Bajaj became CEO of Bajaj in 1968, passing the title to his son Rajiv in April 2004. Rahul was ranked the 20th richest person in India in 2005, even after the Bajaj empire was split between Rahul and his brother Shishir Bajaj.

LML seeks investors as Bajaj sales soar.

As LML seeks partners to help get back on its feet, (wasn’t Piaggio’s Roberto Colaninno just talking about investing in the Indian market?) Bajaj Auto reported a 37% increase in motorcycle sales this April (“Big deal,” you might say, “it’s spring, of course they sold well,” but that’s 37% over April 2005’s sales). Apparently the 137,858 bikes they sold last month are justification that it was time to ditch the Chetak.

RIP, Bajaj Chetak (1972-2005)

bajchet.jpgThough we reported the end of the Bajaj on April 1, this India Times story from January 2006 (a reprint– the India Times page is popup-tastic, and thanks for the link, Matthew) says production officially stopped at Bajaj’s Akurdi plant on December 31st, 2005. (apparently Maharashtra continued building them from ‘CKD packs’ for three months.) The story is depressing, with chairman Rahul Bajaj citing their importance to Indian Culture (“…marriages did not happen without Chetak. It was a compulsory dowry item,” he says), while his son and Bajaj Managing Director Rajiv Bajaj argues, “Holding on to anything from the past is a sign of weakness.” Even if Rajiv has been reading too many western business management books, his statement that “”Like the Volkswagen Beetle, the product had lost its relevance,” is ridiculous, the redesigned Beetle (and soon Rabbit) thrive on nostalgia. Perhaps, like Costantino Sambuy slamming then embracing the Vespa P-series design, he’ll change his story when a “new” Chetak appears in a year or two. In any case, we still have the LML Star, for the time being, and the new Scooter World 2006 Buyer’s Guide for some reason lists the Chetak and Legend, probably because ArgoUSA still had some ads left in their contract.

Bajaj announces LPG/CNG-powered scooters, fights Chinese imitators

On the heels of the hybrid Vespa prank comes news regarding a real “green” scooter: Bajaj Auto announced today plans are underway to bring a liquid-propane/compressed-natural-gas-powered scooter to the market next year. Bajaj rival Kinetic plans to release two electric scooter models in 2007 (presumably after they get those Dragster 180s on line). Bajaj might look for design inspiration from China’s Chongqing Union Auto Co., who are already selling Bajaj-branded CNG-powered three-wheelers, without permission. Bajaj has promised to challenge Gaongqing, but trademark infringement justice is hard to come by in China.

Bajaj stops production of geared scooters, ArgoUSA future uncertain

Maharashtra Scooters, the factory that produces the Bajaj Chetak, has stopped production of manual-transmission scooters. 2,450 Chetaks remain on the factory floor, and it appears ArgoUSA (formerly Bajaj) isn’t expecting any more: (From their site)

“We are working to solidify relationships with other scooter manufacturers that can provide us with the quality and reliability that is expected by the American scooter rider.”

BajajUSA’s sales message of economy and practicality was ahead of its time in the US, when other importers were pitching scooters as luxury toys to internet millionaires, and $3/gal. gas was unthinkable. A serious blow was dealt by the introuduction of the similar, but trendier—and not-much-more-expensive—Genuine Stella about a year later. The Bajaj featured a more modern and fuel-efficient 4-stroke engine, and owners and dealers gave the Chetak and Legend high marks, but the Stella’s arrival, and a seeming lack of interest in the US market from Bajaj HQ, loomed over BajajUSA for the last couple years. (Another Maharashtra Scooters story)