Adil Jal Darukhanawala delves deeper into the alliance between Hero MotoCorp and Erik Buell Racing from USA and traces the possibilities that lie ahead for both the entities
As a diehard motorcyclist I welcome the announcement of a bike maker aligning itself with a specialist genius with racing in his DNA. The obvious delight of riding a high performance machine is second to none but the requisite skill and survival sets for the riders to really feast and thrive on the obviously extreme of such bikes is something only a minority can handle, let alone master.
The words Erik Buell makes me drool because here is the Yankee master of the superbiking art. A man who has fused venerable bent twin irons made by Harley-Davidsons into sweet handling chassis meant to propel riders quickly around a race track in time honoured flat out form. It was this American alternative to the Japanese Big Four and the artistically inclined European bike makers, which made Buell distinctive. So much so that while his bikes were no winners in the aesthetic stakes, they were pretty effective around a race track, on their day.
Erik Buell gave new meaning and zing to archaic Harley-Davidsons and America’s long standing bike maker reveled in this new found feeling. However there is only so much you could do with the motor you have and even with innovative chassis and suspension systems plus a whole new approach to the art of the superbike, the entire Buell (Read : History of Erik Buell Racing) superstructure couldn’t quite match the ambitions of Harley-Davidson. I must digress here and state that what Harley-Davidson saw in Buell was good enough for them to buy it lock, stock and barrel. The honeymoon was great and everyone expected the offspring to be even lustier thoroughbreds.
Expectation is one thing and reality is quite another. Of course time is also of the essence and nurturing a brand alien to the parent brand’s DNA takes even more effort. The Buell brand didn’t survive long within Harley-Davidson and more than that it didn’t have the gravitas of other vee-twin engine superbikes the world adores, viz Ducati. Given the fact that there wasn’t much which made sense to the balance sheet, Harley-Davidson just jettisoned Buell in the blink of an eye and while enthusiasts around the world, like yours truly included, were saddened by the treatment and the abrupt manner Erik Buell and his small team were told to pack up, the situation was just about irretrievable. Heck, just think that Harley-Davidson also had picked up none other than another iconic Italian bike maker in the form of MV Agusta and they didn’t have any hesitation to consigning it off when it didn’t make sense.
So what became of Erik Buell one might well ask and the fact is that he went back to his roots – the racetrack. Keeping his 1190RS superbikes (Read : About The Buell 1190RS) , a large shed with a handful of CNC machines and a small staff component, he began to get back to making Harley-engined superbikes on special order. And also to help some of his customers hit the racetracks with them. Once a racer, always a racer, I say.
And that’s where he stood in my mind, a hero of sorts for many who looked at him as a forlorn David taking on the Goliaths of the superbike world. Until today afternoon that is when Hero MotoCorp stunned everyone when they announced “an alliance” with EBR. I don’t know of a marriage or a flirtation that is so skewed but maybe this is the reason why opposites could attract and should have been the catalyst for such an alliance.
The Hero MotoCorp pres note clearly mentions and I quote “HMCL will receive support in terms of cutting-edge technology and design to develop future models from EBR, a firm which specializes in designing and manufacturing powerful and high speed motorcycles.’
All well and good so far and also completely contrary to the “fill it, shut it, forget it” Hero mantra stands for. And what I find even more baffling is the fact that while I hold Erik Buell in very high esteem for what he has done with Harley-engined sports bikes on the racetracks, there never was a bigger racer and racing enthusiast in the two-wheeled world than Soichiro Honda. Wonder why this aspect wasn’t taken cognizance of all these 27 years the Hero-Honda JV was in existence.
Here is where the prudent mantra of horses for courses was so overwhelmingly a Honda strength and approach as also the need to just do what it took and not more to make those cleverly simple bikes that put billions of impoverished Indians on the move. Sad to say this is an area where Buell has next to no experience of. I may be wrong if I have made such a statement but the world hasn’t seen much from Buell on this count. But then the ethos and the essence to do high performance machines is so much an art and a passion as well as a science which is all about high tech engineering, precision craftsmanship and modern technology. In contrast everyone in the automobile world always says that it is easier to do a sports car than a small family hatchback and the same analogy holds good for what we see unfolding here.
My statement can come a cropper though if only for the welcome reason that Hero MotoCorp does intend to make superbikes and if that be the case, they have a modicum of potential to go down this route with Buell. However, the bikes would need to be made in India if they have to be cost effective, not to mention have an aura around them with Hero writ large in the sub-conscious otherwise it will be like Chinese-owned Italian brand Benelli which is floundering.
Hero MotoCorp has the immense foresight to see things through in the period ahead. They have a Honda hand with them till the next year and also the present crop in their portfolio will not be erased for another two to three years at the most. What Hero MotoCorp has in abundance is goodwill and great ambassadors from the billions they have sold in this country and that is something even Honda will give an arm and a leg for. Must make a point of mention here and that is the fact that the billions also owed it to the second part of the manufacturer’s name which read Honda and the Japanese numero uno is not sitting idle, knowing exactly where and which segments to target. Not in a bid to go one up on its former Indian partner but just do what the market needs and expects from the Big H! And when a determined Honda gets going, the results could be painful! Ask Yamaha that, they are still running battle scarred!
However, Hero MotoCorp starts from virtual scratch as regards its own product development capabilities. One cannot buy R&D and the technology needs to be understood and absorbed. You can fast pace this soak-up but you cannot do it overnight. This is the one chink in the armour which everyone realized as also the brave men within Hero MotoCorp themselves. So even when you get an Erik Buell or a Claudio Domenicali on to your side, there will be a certain lead time for both partners to first understand each other and then try to do things what the other wants!
The good thing is that there are no illusions within Hero MotoCorp and that’s the reason their executives have been seen doing the rounds of every decent engineering consultancy the world over trying to shore up agreements and alliances. Nothing wrong in that and also it is the done thing but I am not yet sure and confident of the produce which will result from EBR and Hero MotoCorp getting into a relationship.
After Harley-Davidson pulled the plug on the Buell Motorcycle Company, Erik Buell went back to his roots and his present set-up is all about nimbleness of mind and action. How he can get to do something for Hero MotoCorp in the genre of products the Indian company is known for would be his most challenging project ever. And given the fact that history has shown nothing works more emphatically for the Yanks than the “there’s no substitute for cubic inches” maxim, surely the lack of cubic centimetres could throw up interesting situations for the duo!
Another aspect is Hero MotoCorp’s growing ambitions to flex its production might globally and that is no bad thing. However, when the next set of emission standards progresses from Euro IV to Euro V and Euro VI, the mechanical hardware to meet not just legislation but yet continue to deliver Honda-like “fill it, shut it, forget it” performance will be under tremendous pressure. I hope EBR and Hero can cut it here on this important count.