At the Auto Expo held in January 2012, one of the highlights at the Hero MotoCorp pavilion was a rather unusual two-wheeler concept, targeted primarily at women. Called the Leap, it was an electric scooter which used a small petrol engine as a range extender and to charge the battery. Hardly anyone knew that the scooter concept was conceived and developed in just 10 weeks by a little-known American company which specialises in performance-oriented motorcycles. A month later, Hero MotoCorp made an announcement that it was collaborating with Erik Buell Racing for two-wheeler technology and new product development. It was an unusual tie-up between the world's largest two-wheeler manufacturer and a tiny American firm set up by a motorcycle engineer which makes sporty bikes to order, with ramifications that could have a far-reaching impact on Hero's future.
"You might think, here's this American road racing company, and they're going to design this electric scooter for women in India – how weird is this going to be?" said Erik Buell. He was in conversation with BS Motoring's international two-wheeler contributor Alan Cathcart, in an exclusive interview published in the September issue of the magazine. The engineers at EBR conducted their market research in Delhi and came up with some innovative features in the Leap - some of which have been filed for international patents. Currently, Hero is exploring the possibilities of putting the Leap into production.
The partnership with EBR however is not limited to exploring green technologies for two-wheelers. With EBR's experience in producing high-performance, large-capacity motorcycles, it will help fill a void in Hero's product portfolio and as well change the perception of Hero as a manufacturer of commuter-oriented two-wheelers. "There is a specific interest from Hero in racing technologies because they want to be a part of that and because there is a growing market in India for larger bikes," said Buell. The 220cc Karizma/ZMR is the largest motorcycle in Hero's product line-up currently, a bike that has its roots in an ageing Honda platform. And the sporty segment is dominated by Bajaj Auto which also has KTM and Kawasaki brands to play with.
"The end of the joint venture (with Honda) is a chance for them to start afresh and also focus on different vehicles than those Honda would let them work on and produce, including larger-engined ones that would be of interest to export customers," said Buell. Hero's tie-up with EBR goes beyond technical commitments.
The Indian firm sponsors Buell's American Motorcycle Association Superbike race team and the branding features prominently on the racing bikes' bodywork. In fact, Pawan Munjal, MD & CEO, Hero MotoCorp had earlier expressed interest in bringing superbike racing to India within the next three years. "Our giving them exposure through AMA Superbike is allowing them to project Hero as an export brand." Indeed, during Hero's tie-up with Honda, the former wasn't allowed to export to any market apart from Colombia. This opens the doors for the six million units a year Hero to compete in the global two-wheeler market that is currently pegged at 40 million units a year and is growing fast.
While racing does improve the breed, Hero also needs to shore up its R&D capabilities (the company hired 250 engineers for the same purpose in 2011) and EBR may have more to offer in that regard.
With such a close relationship, does Buell look to offload some stake to Hero? "Maybe somewhere down the line," he said.
Buell is more philosophical about his newfound relationship with the Indian two-wheeler giant. "I have never encountered a large organisation like Hero saying with such real candour, 'we want to totally reinvent ourselves, how do we do it?' And you know what, I think they will."
The full text of the interview can be read in the September issue of BS Motoring magazine, out on stands now.