Bajaj and the fuss about quadricycles

There are a lot of things that are admirable about Bajaj Auto Ltd, one of India’s most advanced two wheeler manufacturers. From its catchy “hamara bajaj” tagline that tugs at your heart, to its proud Indian roots, its blunt and bold CEO in Rajiv Bajaj who is not averse to stoke controversies, to its Pulsars, Bajaj is a company that is aggressive and restless. Both are exemplary qualities.

Its latest attempt at making a quadricycle however, is anything but admirable. And I am not talking about the product here as nobody has driven it and hence nobody has the right to say anything on it. What irks me however is the way the company has hijacked the issue of formulating rules for quadricycles as a special segment of vehicles.

The genesis of Bajaj’s version of a quadricycle–the RE60– is as muddled as the product itself. Initially, the Pune based firm wanted to make a low cost car using its expertise as a proficient two and three wheeler manufacturer. Those were the days when Tata was finalising the Nano and the world was hopeful about the prospect of frugal functional four wheelers.

That is what lured the Franco-Japanese alliance of Renault Nissan to tie up with Bajaj promising to bear the cost of sales and marketing. On paper, it looked like a win-win situation. Since the Nano was made here, it was logical that a similar car can emanate from India alone. Nobody would have thought Bajaj, a rank outsider to making cars, can do what so many including Suzuki, Hyundai and General Motors had flatly refused to. Yet, Renault-Nissan’s association raised hopes that this was something more serious than what it looked like.

The fact that it was not, became clear eventually. Bajaj first showcased a concept version that was nothing more than a skeleton. A poor copy from various small cars already on the road, the company did not let anybody get near the car for fear of somebody clicking pictures of the engine and reverse engineering it. In reality, it never had an engine.

Then the project started getting delayed and a shadow war commenced between Rajiv Bajaj and Renault Nissan Chairman Carlos Ghosn over its pricing. While Ghosn wanted a car at $ 2500, Bajaj often refused to play ball reiterating that he was looking at fuel economy and not price while making this car. That continued for several years and finally it was clear that the partnership was all but over.

Bajaj eventually showed what it actually designed and developed, last year in January. What we saw then was a joke in the name of a car. The company itself admitted it wasn’t really one but a four wheeler intended to replace the 5 million odd three wheelers on the road. Clearly, the attempt to make a car had come a cropper and what remained was an afterthought now being pushed as a revolutionary modern day quadricycle.

There is a tinge of irony when Bajaj goes about lobbying for its labour of love to be treated not like a car but as a quadricycle. A decade ago, when another Indian two wheeler maker TVS wanted to make quadricycles, Bajaj was one of its foremost opponents.

As the debate raged, the car companies were pissed. They wanted for RE60 to either meet all the legislations of a car including safety and fuel efficiency norms or not be sold as a private vehicle at all. Bajaj on its part has been going all out trying to convince anybody willing to listen that this vehicle is an innovative masterpiece. IIT professors have written papers on how safe and environment friendly this vehicle would be while sundry experts are gushing about the functionality of the vehicle. I doubt if any of them have actually driven the vehicle.

The problem is not to make a path breaking vehicle and then lobby hard to get rules formulated to assimilate it. The issue is when one tries to hijack a subject just to make a particular vehicle digestible. Agreed that four wheels is safer than three and that is exactly what Bajaj intends to do with the RE60 – prompt three wheeler owners to upgrade to a safer and more modern four wheeler.

In that case then, it should not resent if the government does not allow it to sell to individual consumers. After all, no individual today would buy a three wheeler as a personal mode of transportation. And at the same time, it would do Bajaj’s image a whole lot of good if it proactively decides to stop making three wheelers itself. As it stands, Bajaj is the largest three wheeler manufacturer in the world and its three wheels bring more profits than two. I am not sure, the company would do that.

It is also ironical, that this discussion is happening at such a late stage. Ideally, should someone aspire to make a vehicle a definition for which is not available, it should lobby to get the rules framed first before investing crores and making the vehicle. Sadly, it has happened the other way round. As a result, all efforts are now being made to ensure that at least the RE60 cuts the ice as far as a quadricycle is concerned. No benchmarks are being looked at, no other markets studied, no clarifications sought.

To define a new segment only to cater to one product itself makes this whole exercise meaningless. But since you and I won’t even get to drive it, why should we care.

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