Hero vs. Honda: Battle of the Titans (starring Erik Buell)
By Mike Hanlon
February 18, 2014
When Hero MotoCorp Managing Director Pawan Munjal pronounced "the dawn of a new era" at a press conference prior to the opening of Auto Expo in New Delhi last week, his words meant much more than customary auto company MD rhetoric. When Honda and Hero decided to part company in December 2010, with Honda’s long term agreement to provide technology to the Hero Honda company until the end of 2014 looming, Hero faced the seemingly insurmountable task of replacing Honda's world-leading motorcycle designs inside exactly four years.
Whether it liked it or not, Hero MotoCorp has been entering a new era since it agreed to pay Honda US$1,000,000,000 for its 25 percent share of the publicly listed Hero Honda, (a company with 50 percent market share of Indian motorcycle sales) and then face its former partner, the world’s undisputed heavyweight champion manufacturer of two-wheelers, as a direct and determined competitor.
The battle is now on for market leadership in the world’s biggest motorcycle and scooter market, with battles that will impact markets globally soon to follow.
After three years of Hero MotoCorp preparing for the end of 2014, the critically important 2014 Indian Auto Expo was “show time” in more ways than one. It was the final opportunity to deliver a convincing new range at India’s most important auto show before it becomes entirely reliant on its own resources.
Cometh the hour, cometh the company
Munjal summed up the Hero vision when he said: “Being the global leader in two-wheelers, we have been challenging the routine and the conventional. Our new motto is to drive change through path-breaking innovations. With our finger on the pulse of the youth, we are therefore developing products that will cater to customers around the world, both in the near- and long-term. We have now successfully developed an ecosystem of technology research and development that is designed to think beyond the obvious and deliver future-ready mobility solutions.”
Over the course of the Auto Expo, Hero delivered on that vision with a broad range of new motorcycles and scooters and several convincing prototypes and pre-production models that demonstrated just what can be achieved with two wheels when you really think about it.
We’ve already covered Hero’s ingenious RNT turbo-diesel-electric utility concept, but there were a number of other bikes shown in New Delhi that demonstrate entirely new thought. Hero’s next-generation range includes the predictable slew of traditional scooters, plus more than a few new prototypes that indicate what more mature markets will see when Hero arrives, which it most certainly will: the 620 cc Hastur lightweight streetfighter; the new 250 cc HX250R single cylinder sports bike; the futuristic ion fuel-cell motorcycle with Lithium-air batteries; the featherweight next generation electric SimplECity; the Zir Superscooter; and the Serial Hybrid ‘LEAP’ Scooter. Full rundowns on all of those bikes are deeper into this article, but first the background on one of the most intriguing stories in automotive history.
The catalyst for Hero MotoCorp's new era: the Hero Honda Divorce Settlement
Hero MotoCorp is India’s largest motorcycle manufacturer and as a stand-alone company, the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer too. Dr. Brijmohan Lall Munjal began the family business in 1956, manufacturing bicycles in Amritsar – the company was named Hero Cycles.
As India's massive population needed transport, the company's bicycle manufacturing business grew every year, becoming the largest bicycle manufacturer in the world during the early 1980s. Hero Cycles’ founder Dr. Brijmohan Lall Munjal is now the Chairman of a board of 11 which includes three other directors with the surname Munjal. It may be a publicly listed company, but it is still very much a family company in many respects.
Using the cash generated by the bicycle business, Hero Cycles partnered with Honda to create Hero Honda in 1984. The partnership has been very successful with well publicized sponsorships and corporate citizenship efforts and a dealership network of 7000 touchpoints that have made it a very visible company that India is proud of – a national icon of Indian business success.
Using Honda technology and Hero’s deep rooted local knowledge of the vast and complex country’s transportation needs, Hero Honda achieved double digit growth every year to become the world’s largest single manufacturer of two-wheelers, driven by a dominant share of the Indian two-wheeler market, which overtook China to become the largest motorcycle market in the world in 2012.
Though the Indian economy is somewhat sluggish at present, and the country’s roads choked by the growing number of cars, the health of the motorcycle industry is largely assured as two wheels is the only way to avoid the endless traffic jams. India is also projected by the UN to become the world’s most populous country just 14 years from now, so for personal transport, motorcycles and scooters are the only viable game in town.
China was the world’s largest domestic motorcycle market until recently, peaking at 19 million units in 2009, then declining every year since to 13.9 million units in 2013 when brutal emission regulations were introduced in cities to tackle the country's rampant pollution, and internal combustion engined motorcycles were banned in many such cities.
The Chinese market is also far less accessible to manufacturers than India’s, and considerably more fragmented with more than one hundred motorcycle manufacturers scraping out an existence. No less than 29 Chinese motorcycle manufacturers posted a loss in this highly competitive marketplace in 2013, and the remorseless laws of economics are inducing a natural cull of the weakest.
Predictably, the world's largest motorcycle markets are now highly populous countries with emerging economies – India, China, Indonesia, Brazil, Thailand and Vietnam. Myanmar will be next.
It was in late 2010 that Hero Honda’s major partners agreed to split.
Honda already had an independent manufacturing and distribution company in India, named Honda Motorcycle and Scooter India (HMSI), with two production plants and expansion plans, and the Hero Honda partnership restricted the company’s sales footprint to within India. Selling half a million motorcycles a month had whetted the appetite of the Munjal family to expand its horizons beyond India’s borders, just as it had whetted Honda’s appetite to dominate the gargantuan Indian marketplace as it dominates all other major markets.
While Hero can claim to be the world’s biggest single motorcycle company, combining all Honda motorcycle companies around the world gives it roughly three times the global sales of Hero – 17.2 million sales in 2013, with year-on-year growth of 8.5 percent over 2012. Honda holds a 30 percent share of the global market
Wikipedia’s explanation of the irreconcilable differences which led to the relationship breakdown covers some of the key points, but we all know there are many complex factors in any relationship, and they take on more complexity when billions of dollars are at stake. Honda agreed to sell its shares in Hero Honda to the Munjal family at a discount, so it obviously wanted out of the relationship more than the Munjal family. Regardless, the once happy couple split and Hero Honda became Hero MotoCorp.
Neither party has wasted any time in getting on with life after the divorce either. Honda last week announced yet another new production plant to built in India – the new Gujarat plant will come on line next year with an initial annual production capacity of 1.2 million units. That’s on top of existing plants in Haryana (1.6 million motorcycles a year), Rajastha (1.2 million motorcycles a year), and another plant at Karnataka (1.8 million motorcycles a year) which has been announced and built since the split. Honda will soon have the production capacity to match Hero within India alone – it is also ramping up its dealership network.
Honda is going after Hero’s dominant Indian market share, and Hero, knowing its near 50 percent share of the world’s largest market will be difficult to defend in the face of massively increased competition, is expanding into new markets.
Initially, Hero will target developing countries where the two-wheelers it is crafting for its home market needs will be considered most desirable – the developing markets of Africa, South America and Asia. Countries slated for initial Hero motorcycle distribution include Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Uganda, Mozambique, Peru, Nepal, Mozambique, Kenya, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Guatemala, Salvador, Egypt, Ecuador, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burkina Faso and Angola.
Hero is standing strong at present, with only minor sales erosion in its home market to date. Honda’s concerted push for market leadership is hurting the former number two market share holder Bajaj much more than it is hurting Hero. Honda moved into second place in the market during 2013 and by December, had increased its margin over Bajaj considerably.
In December 2013, Bajaj sold 260,645 bikes, Honda sold 296,144 and Hero sold 524,990. By comparison, in December 2012, Bajaj sold 298,350, Honda sold 217,498 and Hero sold 541,615. That’s 12.6 percent down for Bajaj, 3.0 percent down for Hero and 54 percent up for Honda. All the other major manufacturers grew year-on-year in December, with Yamaha 13 percent up, TVS up 2 percent, Suzuki up 10 percent and Mahindra up 267 percent.
In January 2014, Hero MotoCorp sold 489,322 two-wheelers (494,109 in January 2013 so down 1 percent), Bajaj sold 167,869 (196,023 in January 2013 so down 14.4 percent), and Honda sold 153,930 (105,968 in January 2013 so up 45.2 percent), in a market which grew to by 8.85 percent to 1,313,796 units from 1,206,931 in the January, 2013.
Clearly, the mother of all battles is shaping up between the former partners, not just in India, but also on the global stage.
Many believed Hero would falter in the absence of Honda, particularly so given that it’s former partner was focused on becoming a fierce competitor, but Hero’s sales have largely continued to grow during the period it has been acquiring its own technology.
Last August when the company delivered its 50 millionth motorcycle to the Indian-only marketplace in just 29 years, plans were announced for international distribution of Hero’s bikes into 50 countries with 20 new manufacturing facilities across the globe and a target of the next 50 million motorcycle sales within seven years.
Last October (2013), Hero sold a record 625,000 motorcycles in India alone – that’s one every four seconds, including a single day on October 21, 2013 when it sold 110,000 motorcycles. Most countries don’t see that many motorcycles sold in a year, with all marques combined. With a still dominant market share of motorcycle sales to India’s immense population, Hero has an economy of scale almost beyond comprehension, and that in developing and owning its own technology, it can apply its massive manufacturing scale and low-cost workforce to supply motorcycles worldwide.
Hero briefly flirted with purchasing Ducati but passed on the opportunity and is now well down the road of replacing Honda's designs with its own, blending the expertise of technology partners with its own capabilities to produce new motorcycles that it believes will suit the developing world even more. In September 20013, Hero announced the creation of a US$73 million Hero Centre of Global Innovation and Research & Design at Kukas, near Jaipur in Rajasthan.
Replacing Honda's technology
Replacing Honda's vast design and proprietary technological resource was obviously a herculean task, perhaps one of the industrial world's greatest ever challenges. After 30 years of having its designs delivered from Japan, the company had four years to completely replace the expertise of the world's most technologically advanced motorcycle company – from scratch.
The job of replacing Honda’s not inconsiderable expertise fell to Hero MotoCorp’s CEO and Managing Director Pawan Munjal, the hands-on representative of the Munjal family which controls the majority shareholding of Hero MotoCorp.
The strategy is to develop its own technologies and partner with the right companies to develop the expertise it needs quickly, and to have those partners work with Hero at the Hero Centre of Global Innovation and R&D (GIRD).
Hero has quickly scaled up its in-house R&D and design facilities and in December announced it has over 400 engineers working on the future product line-up. The company’s current R&D centers in Gurgaon and Dharuhera will relocate to the GIRD on the outskirts of Jaipur when it is completed, thus creating a nucleus for the development of key technological functions and reducing dependence on external vendors.
To date, four major technology partnerships have been struck over recent years involving EBR of America, Engines Engineering of Italy, Magneti Marelli of Italy and AVL of Austria.
Magneti Marelli Joint Venture
A Joint Venture between Hero MotoCorp and Italy's Magneti Marelli was announced in December 2013 and it’s very significant for both companies, despite the equally impressive size of the Italian technology specialist (37,000 employees, 83 production facilities, 12 R&D centers and 26 application centers in 19 countries). Magneti Marelli is at the forefront of development of many automotive technologies, with its advanced fuel, ignition, suspension, powertrain and exhaust technologies on display in many of the race machines in F1, MotoGP, WSBK and WRC events.
The intention is for the Hero-MM joint venture to develop its own autonomous R&D center. As Hero expands its global footprint at a fast pace, this will enable the company to develop products featuring appropriate technology for different customers in geographies across the world.
The Hero-MM joint venture will focus on the development of specialized electronic fuel injection systems to improve engine performance, fuel efficiency and emission reduction, particularly in the different climates, altitudes and with the fuel peculiarities that occur in the developing markets Hero is initially targeting. In many countries, motorcycles need to be able to run on multiple and continuously varying fuel blends, even from one gas station to the next. With the advance of digital technology into every aspect of engine management systems, MM’s expertise in this area will expedite R&D efforts dramatically.
Close ties with MM will also bring valuable knowledge to many areas of functionality of motorcycles in the future, with obvious benefits in the development of motorcycle-smartphone communications, telematics, immobilisers, traction control, electronically-controlled suspension systems, ad infinitum. Almost certainly many of the technologies on show in the astonishing Hero ion concept bike (discussed below) involved delving into Magneti Marelli R&D’s bag of tricks.
The Bologna-based firm has worked with many motorcycle companies, including major players such as Yamaha, Benelli and Gilera. The company was responsible for the styling of the Yamaha MT-03 and XT660Z (pictured above) plus the aggressive TNT (also pictured above) and scooters too numerous to mention for many brands (including the Yamaha Majesty) and has also done extensive aerodynamic development for Grand Prix teams for many years.
AVL is the world's largest independent specialist in the development of internal combustion engine powertrain systems, though a look through the group’s companies indicates that almost any advanced technology can quickly be brought to any project.
The scope of the partnership has been summarized as the development of powertrain systems, simulation, and engine instrumentation and test systems. Numerous AVL facilities and offices throughout India, including a test center in New Delhi are obvious benefits to close cooperation with Hero.
Erik Buell Racing – the X-factor
Engine Engineering, AVL and Magneti Marelli make their income from providing their expertise to the automotive trade to make better cars and motorcycles, so it’s fair to say that none of them can replace the expertise which walked out the door with Honda. Honda has spent between 7.5 percent and 10 percent of its annual turnover on R&D since it began, and that’s one of the reasons it dominates global motorcycle sales – it owns so many patents and has created so much valuable IP, that no matter how much money Hero pours on the problem, it won’t catch up and surpass Honda’s technological leadership the traditional way.
Hence the introduction by friends of Erik Buell to Hero MD/CEO Pawan Munjal at the Daytona races in March, 2011 might be considered a highly fortuitous moment for both parties and is already beginning to have global repercussions.
Longtime motorcycle hall-of-fame designer Erik Buell is one of that rare breed of engineers that has raced at the highest level and the combination of the two normally exclusive qualities offers an insight which engineers just don't normally have.
Buell built and raced numerous race bikes (see gallery section), but it was his development of the Harley-Davidson-engined Buell Motorcycle which gave him international acclaim as a motorcycle designer with true flair.
The innovative design of bikes which bore the Buell brand name have significantly influenced sports bike design globally.
Buell pioneered the whole mass centralization movement in sports motorcycles with his designs, and influenced a generation of motorcycle sports design with his ideas.
This article about Erik Buell and the Buell Lightning from Gizmag in 2004 explains the ideas behind his mass centralization concept, but to precis the idea: The center of gravity of a motorcycle is just the average location of the mass. One of the main reasons big touring bikes wallow and yaw on undulating and bumpy roads at speed is the amount of weight they carry at a distance from the center of gravity – panniers, a heavy fairing, a top box and bulky mufflers all contribute to the shimmy and yaw to warn the rider that the motorcycle is getting ready to samba out of control.
Buell designs every component on his motorcycles to be as close to the center of gravity as possible in order to reduce the moment of inertia in pitch, roll and yaw. The gas tank went inside the frame, the oil tank in the swing-arm, the muffler is tucked under the bike – resulting in bikes devoid of bad handling behavior.
Erik is now building a second company, Erik Buell Racing (EBR) after his first company (Buell) was purchased outright by Harley-Davidson in 2003 and closed during the financial crisis in 2009. Buell Motorcycles sold 130,000 bikes before it was closed and sports riders everywhere mourned its passing. Though his contract with Harley-Davidson included a strict non-competition clause, Harley waived the clause to allow Erik to continue his life's work of driving innovation and change, saying as much about Harley's sense of fair play as it does of the affection Buell engenders.
This time, Buell and his commando team of engineers won't be just working on the sports and racing motorcycles he has become known for, as that chance meeting at Daytona spawned a development relationship for EBR which now promises to elevate Buell to a global player with gravitas.
"I was introduced to Pawan at Daytona Speed Week in March 2011 and we had a really interesting chat,” said Buell in an interview with Gizmag.com in October, 2013. We've included some excerpts from that interview below because it gives a clear picture of the passion and methodology of the man who appears to have become one of Hero's greatest assets.
“We talked about the motorcycle industry and what it might look like five, ten and twenty years from now, and we really resonated", said Buell.
"He was quite candid in saying that the person he met didn't really fit the reputation I had in the marketplace, and that my approach to motorcycle design was far broader than being a specialist sports bike designer."
"Over the next few months we met and spoke several times, and then when Hero wanted a show bike designed and constructed for the 2012 Delhi Auto Expo, Pawan asked me if we'd be interested in creating a message for the future, something modern and futuristic and very practical – a hybrid scooter. I said, ‘we’d love to do something for you’ and we grasped the opportunity and turned it around very quickly, and the relationship evolved from there."
"It was very funny at first because I walked in to our design studio and said to the guys, 'we've just got our first job from Hero – it's a hybrid scooter and the target market is women, oh ... and it needs to be finished and running ten weeks from now.'
"At first they weren't sure if I was joking but they pretty soon got their head around it because we're always discussing and exploring alternative powertrains and energy sources and we have a lot of people on the team who are fanatically green, so it didn't take long for us to get into it, and ten weeks later we had a functional, rideable, hybrid scooter.
"People see EBR at the racetrack and I suppose it's natural that they would see us as a racing or niche sports motorcycle producer, but we’re far more than a racing company. We do that because we love racing. It’s an emotionally engaging fun sport, and a great venue to showcase our skills. EBR is an engineering and technology development company and we do a lot more than just motorcycles."
I asked about the other types of projects the company has been working on and Erik cited numerous projects as diverse as the design of an advanced shipping container through to redesigning a whisky bottle.
"My goal is to do product development in a really rational way. Everything I do I want to be activatable, not just a concept – I want it to be real. If we build a show bike, it will be a working bike, not a dummy made up to look like a working motorcycle."
It was when the discussion turned to hybrids that I felt the temperature begin to rise and his enthusiasm for clever but logical engineering solutions began to show.
"When you do the full math on all aspects of the battery-electric drive train, and you identify the various strengths and weaknesses, the big weakness for EVs, is the range.
"When you look at fitting those strengths and weakness into different market segments, in some areas the pure EV fits and some it doesn’t.
“So that was how we came up with the serial hybrid scooter to address the range issue and our solution to that was to utilize the fuel more efficiently … gasoline is the densest energy source available but unfortunately we waste it in the way internal combustion engines are built and used. Electric is good for some things, and weak in others and we coupled the strengths of both energy storage systems … that’s why we did it that way.
“So the LEAP Serial Hybrid Scooter was born and it was a huge hit at the Auto Expo in 2012 and it confirmed to Pawan and to his whole group, what he already believed – that we were more than just a high performance, internal combustion engine, race bike company. So out of that came quite a few projects and … we do lots of projects for lots of companies, but we only work with one motorcycle company and that’s Hero, mainly because we’re totally consumed by and committed to Hero and where it is going.
“Motorcycles are vitally important transportation devices for the planet. I’m a huge believer in independent personal transportation and I’m also a huge believer in doing things the leanest possible way. I hate waste.
“There are times when you need to move nine or ten people and for that you need a bus, but nearly all the transportation that happens in the world is done for one or two people, and the stuff they’re taking to the office, or the stuff they’re taking to the market in Africa. A single track two-wheeled vehicle is wonderful for that. It can go on just about any track no matter how narrow or badly surfaced it is, it’s lightweight, it consumes a fraction of the energy of a car to make it or use it, it produces less noxious gas and it doesn’t cause traffic congestion because it has such a small footprint.
“You think of all the roads in India for instance. If you replaced all the motorcycles in India with cars it'd be gridlock … one giant carpark. Two wheels is a better way. I want to do personal transportation that is economical and innovative and socially responsible and fun. For me, as a designer, two wheels makes more sense.”
I commented that he obviously seemed to be enjoying the new challenges at Hero.
“For different markets and different cultures and people with different needs, it’s a different product every time, so there is no single solution. There are always many solutions, but they all should focus on being as lean and green as possible, using just what you need to achieve your goals, and no more.
“Our new superbike is very pretty, and it makes 185 horsepower and people seem to like it, but what I’m most proud of is that it’s very light, without spending lots of money on expensive technology – it’s not full of magnesium and titanium to make it light. We did it with conventional technology and good design, so it can be mass produced efficiently using inexpensive materials. It also gets 51 mpg on the highway in the United States EPA test cycle. It makes only 25 percent of the hydrocarbons and nitrous oxide tailpipe emissions and 6 percent of the carbon dioxide. Those are staggering numbers for an internal combustion engine, particularly a large bore high performance engine.
"That’s what we’re about at EBR. We want to be green without taking the fun away. If somebody wants a superbike, that’s cool. I’m not going to say ‘shame on you’ for wasting resources. Our job is to make it as green as we possibly can. Make it from materials that are good. Let’s tool it as effectively as possible."
“Ooh, no! I like single track vehicles. I like the slimness and the small footprint, and all the benefits that come from that in terms of parking and getting traffic to flow better and being able to go down narrow roads. It’s also not hard to ride a motorcycle. Everyone in the world knows how to ride a bicycle, so let's make motorcycles that are light and low. Two wheels make sense. Building something for personal transport that only ever gets used for one or two people and weighs thousands of kilos doesn't make sense to me."
The bad news for the competition is that Buell is far from a one-trick-pony and the Hero relationship seems certain to give his design genius many more blank canvasses upon which to paint many more masterpieces.
Having access to such a remarkable mind, I was attempting to get his ideas on the future shape of motorcycles, and the technologies we’d see in the future. “Two-wheel drive?”, I asked.
“There do appear to be demonstrable benefits for driving the front wheel of a motorcycle in addition to powering the rear wheel, particularly when it’s wet and slippery.” Buell’s answer was surprisingly non-committal, no doubt because the RNT and ion concept bikes we saw last week were already on the drawing boards.
“We’ve had many thoughts about that, and we’ve been having them for many years. There are a lot of positives to doing that and a lot of complexity as well, but I think there might be a place for that in the future, in the right configuration. There’s positives and negatives for everything, but there are some types of motorcycle and some markets where I can see a viable case for the front wheel being driven."
“What’s your ideal powerplant?” I asked next. “Is it the v-twin?”
“It depends on the market and the customer and what they want. There is no ultimate configuration for me, because it’s ALL about the customer. We’re working on quite a few different power-trains right now and they are all different because it depends on what the customer needs and wants.
“Don’t get me wrong, v-twins are cool, and there’s certainly a market for them, but they have strengths and weaknesses and in some markets the weaknesses outweigh the strengths and we opt for a different configuration because that’s best suited for a particular purpose.
“I’m not at all bonded to any engine configuration. For a high horsepower superbike like the EBR 1190RX, a twin is very nice. We have some patented technology in the cylinder head which led to those great emissions numbers. What we’ve done with the cylinder head is an electronically-controlled boost port and what we’ve done with the exhaust system gives us huge mid-range, which is inherent with a v-twin anyway, but as you push a v-twin towards superbike level horsepower, it starts acting more like an inline four. And that’s what we were trying to address with the design. Let’s get the midrange strong, and get that drivability back so that it has a very wide smooth predictable powerband and has no surprises for the rider. So for that reason, the twin is a really nice package.
“There are also many other factors … in the world we’re talking about, sports motorcycles are a very emotional product and big v-twins sound cool. I don’t mean just Harley’s 45 degree twin, but a high revving racing v-twin is a spectacular sounding engine, and sound is a key part of the experience for the rider.
“We selected the 72 degree angle for our bike based on the fact that it’s a factor of the 360 degree or 720 degree four-stroke engine cycle. When we were trying to select the best angle for the engine we decided that 60 degrees was too narrow and we needed to open the cylinder angle up more to allow for the intake ports
“It could have been any angle and in trying to find the best angle, we set up a computer simulation so that it could simulate the sound that the engine would make at high revs for each of the various v-twin engine angles under consideration and we sat around and listened to them and … you know I’m a bit of a hack musician and the sound is important to me … and when we heard 72 degrees at high revs, it was a very sweet number, and it sounded really cool. Then we realized that 72 is a key factor of 720 degrees – ten times 72 is the full four-stroke-engine cycle.
“Does that matter to the guy in Africa who wants a super-fuel-efficient bike with high carrying capacity so he can get his stuff to market? No, not at all. Does it matter to a guy buying a superbike? You bet it does!"
What will the future Erik Buell Racing production motorcycle look like? What elements will you carry forward into the future?
"You’ve seen the new 1190 RX which is a lovely motorcycle. Sports motorcycles cover a wide range. The idea for me is the production of bespoke sports motorcycles. It’s something we really want to pursue at EBR at some time in the future, but for me, I don’t want to ever be building bikes that aren’t athletic.
"To me, a moto-cross bike is a sports bike. There’s sports touring bikes and there’s adventure touring bikes, there’s middleweight sports bikes. I’ll build any bike that’s light and nimble that’s not the two-wheeled equivalent of a car – I want to build bikes that the rider controls, rather than being taken for a ride on.
"A cruiser is a different type of bike and some people really like them but for me, I like sporting bikes and I think there’s a big enough market that if I can stay focused. I always want my guys focused on designing light, nimble, fuel-efficient, cost-efficient, energy-efficient anything. We’re an engineering firm and all those things are important to us, and when you add all those things together, you get very rider friendly characteristics.
"We’re working on a lot of two-wheelers for the future at the moment, and they’re all a little bit different depending on the market they’re for and the rider they are intended for. For us, there is no perfect motorcycle for everyone, but there is a perfect motorcycle for each person who wants a bike in a particular segment depending on what they want to do with it, and we’ll know we have achieved that when we see them grinning from ear-to-ear.
"The reaction I want to achieve as a designer and constructors is for them to step off it and say, “oh man, this is it!” and I’m very aware that those are different people with every project.
“I’m very customer-driven but I’m not about marketing. I don’t say to myself, I’ve gotta run my marketing right to appeal to that customer. For me, it’s about making my product right for that customer.”
“We’re a motorcycle company but we’re very much, at heart, an engineering company. There are some motorcycle companies that at their soul, are manufacturing companies. That’s what they do best. They are really efficient at manufacturing.”
“There are other motorcycle companies that are really marketing companies and they do that well. For us, we’re engineers and we want to come up with innovative solutions, we want to make things better for our customer.”
So if having fun is what counts most, is Erik having fun?
“I am having so much fun I can’t believe it. Now I’m in a place that really appeals to my soul. You know, we did some neat bikes with Buell and I’m so happy that Harley-Davidson believed in us enough for us to grow to that point, but our dreams are so much more than that now.
“The things we want to be able to do … to me, having this broader opportunity is so much more fun. Working on motorcycles for people in vastly different situations and markets across the globe is really great fun. It’s so challenging. It’s really wild. All we have to remember is that we want to make a motorcycle that makes doing whatever the customer wants to do fun … we want our customers to smile when they use our product.
“I love building bikes that delight people. I love building a bike for someone like Geoff May to ride. Here’s a top level, elite racer and he comes into the pits and says “this is awesome, this thing handles so well. It needs more horsepower, but this handling is incredible. It’s got no front-end chatter, it doesn’t have all these issues I’ve got to ride around on another bike."
“And it’s quite similar to go to a show and have someone see the concept machine you have produced and say to you, 'this is an awesome product – if you make this, I will buy it because it is exactly what I need' and when those words are coming from a young woman in India who hasn’t ridden before, that’s really cool too, I can tell you. It means we're making a difference.”
Buell is Hero’s X-factor. Big companies invariably develop procedures and methodologies and put teams together that are the antithesis of the lone entrepreneur. Big companies design their products with committees, and committees make safe decisions. Committees launder risk, but they also launder passion and genius and bold ideas in the process.
It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the world in a similar position in a major company with the ingenuity, knowledge, expertise and passion, with a team around him that is empowered to think the same way, that does have as much influence on the products we’ll invariably see in the future.
The peculiar circumstance of the Honda-Hero divorce might one day become a chapter in business school text books, themed along the lines of how adversity creates the opportunity to do things a better way.
EBR is far from playing a lone hand in the design of future Hero machinery, but it’s worth noting that of the 19 new bikes that Hero displayed at Auto Expo, 13 came off the Buell drawing boards, and this article was half written, with those exact bikes the subject, before we could confirm that they all came from EBR engineers. Buell's designs stand out as being relevant, and hence it's little wonder that Pawan Munjal brought him into the fold.
Yet another strength of the growing ties between Hero and Buell is the EBR 1190RX (and future derivatives) and the EBR race team. In purchasing 49.2 percent of Erik Buell Racing, Hero not just obtained some remarkable design expertise, but a share in the likely success of the EBR 1190 range, a very credible range-topping machine and a ready-made race team with global aspirations beyond the American Motorcycle Association Pro Racing Superbike Championships it had been competing in.
In the next few days, Hero MotoCorp will become known to the world outside India as EBR begins competing in the World Superbike Championships. Superbikes are particularly relevant to motorcycle enthusiasts worldwide, as they are souped up versions of showroom motorcycles. Hero MotoCorp's brand recognition will take a quantum leap forward over the next eight months as motorcycle enthusiasts everywhere watch the team's quest against the likes of Kawasaki, Honda, Suzuki, Yamaha, Aprilia, Ducati and BMW. Hero and EBR look set to have a long and fruitful relationship. Hero has pledged to allow Erik to keep control of his company, where he remains chairman and majority owner.
The new bikes
Hastur – lightweight, 620cc street-fighter
The Hastur is the first example of an Indian motorcycle (from the country India, not the recently revived Indian motorcycle brand) that will appeal to western two-wheeled enthusiasts. The name derives from the Japanese word for "demon," seemingly appropriate given that the motorcycle is an aggressive design even for the street-fighter category where testosterone and a hard edge to its character are mandatory.
The engine also seems perfect for the category as the over-square, liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, 80 hp parallel-twin appears to have been designed so it looks good naked, wrapped in a Ducati-style trellis chassis of which it is the key (stressed) component. One of the most evident themes of the bike, reinforced in the press hand-outs, is “mass centralization” and coming from the design stable of EBR, it’s very likely that the Hastur will be equally precise in its roadholding as the bike that has ruled the middleweight street-fighter class over recent years, Triumph’s 675 Street Triple.
Technologically, the Hastur bristles with innovative thought, and the engine is a prime example, being very light and compact, and using a controlled swirl injection (CSI) cylinder head which is claimed to improve mid-range power delivery, produce better fuel economy and reduce emissions. The counter-rotating crankshaft uses natural inertial forces to reduce gyroscopic effect to make it easier to tip it into a corner, increasing handling quickness, and it also features a racing-type cartridge gearbox.
The Hastur’s 80 hp motor gives away a lot of horsepower to the Triumph’s 106 hp though, and when compared to the street-fighter ratpack’s other recent additions such as Kawasaki’s Z800 and Yamaha’s brilliant new MT-09, BMW’s F800R, it gives away similar quantum lumps.
At 620cc though, it slips in underneath these bikes by a fair margin in engine capacity, fuel economy, and when the real world price tag gets hung on the bars, it will most likely undercut the market average in cost too. Hero will not be aiming its pricing at the likes of the Triumph Street Triple, Yamaha MT-09 or BMW F800R when it reaches western markets – it will be priced at a significant discount as one of Hero’s great strengths is its ability to manufacture motorcycles very cost-efficiently.
For riding around town, the natural habitat of the street-fighter breed, ride-ability and practicality is the key. On a racetrack, horsepower would be the key variable in this equation, but the whole street-fighter “resistance movement” grew from all those riders who questioned the relevance of the racetrack focus which had enveloped motorcycle road design, and all the boy racers who slipped on their racing suits to pop down to the local milkbar. Street riding in urban environments is not about horsepower, but mid-range acceleration and low speed nimbleness.
What the Hastur gives away in horsepower to the Triumph, Kawasaki, et al., it will more than make up with less weight and more torque at accessible engine speeds. The Hastur tips the scales at 160 kg, a full 21 kg less than the Street Triple, and despite giving away 55cc to the Triumph, it produces 72 Nm @ 7750 rpm – the Street Triple punches out 69 Nm @ 9100 rpm. Though these are manufacturer claims, manufacturers are these days more accountable, so we can reasonably assume that the Hastur is both much lighter and has more torque lower down the range than its contemporaries. It looks, on paper at least, a far more practical street-fighter.
SimplECity – featherweight next generation electric motorcycle
The SimplECity is an electric two-wheeler conceived as an efficient, reliable, practical urban commuter, and is hence not built to withstand the higher speeds and different operational need of motorcycles designed to be comfortable in urban, freeway and rural environs.
Even the press material elucidates something never before seen from a motorcycle or car manufacturer, but which is unerringly true – the acknowledgement that power usage increases exponentially with speed. Manufacturers don’t usually promote this aspect because they are building motorcycles designed to withstand two and three times the legal speed limits and building a motorcycle to those design criteria comes with some ridiculous overheads in cost, weight, fuel economy, wear-and-tear and a host of other compromises and downsides which are counterproductive to its performance in the real world.
One of the themes evident across the range new machines that have come from EBR’s design studios is the infusion of a healthy dose of realism and real world practicality.
Existing manufacturers have legacy dealer networks, spare parts warehouses and supply chains that must have continued lifeblood – if you replace all that with two-wheelers that are so light that they reduce the consumption of consumables and spare parts, don’t require servicing nearly as often, can have any illnesses diagnosed downloading an app and plugging in the smartphone in your pocket, you’ll disrupt the old world order. Hero has many advantages in starting from scratch in setting up a new global dealer network, and it is to be hoped that it leverages the new technologies available in everyone’s pocket (the smartphone) to the maximum to enable things that existing dealership networks cannot.
The SimplECity is elegant and lightweight and has the potential to provide urban transport at a fraction of the cost of existing commuter machinery powered by the infernal internal combustion engine. The big difference is however, that the Japanese are tentative in ever releasing the designs they have created for fear of cruelling existing marketplaces.
Hero will not be nearly as reticent to get its new creations to market as the Japanese powers as it has a whole new range to produce and the rapid design-test-produce pipeline that has been created for the new range is now in place, and the promise of the machinery created by this new thought process has already shown that it has
Without the additional power required for sustained freeway speeds, (or two or more times those speeds as with most Japanese and European commuter motorcycles) the SimplECity has been constructed far lighter than traditional motorcycles and tips the scales at just 35 kg.
Many ideas previously seen in Japanese prototype electric bikes are evident on the SimplECity, such as the use of the rider’s smartphone mounted on the handlebars as a dashboard, which is achieved by a “Hero SimplECity” smartphone app which we don’t know much about at this stage.
Hero ion – two-wheel-drive, hubless, hydrogen fuel cell prototype with advanced telematics
The ion is a futuristic technological smorgasbord in every respect, and by far the most forward-looking transportation design on display at Auto Expo. Indeed, the bike’s weight of just 100 kg belies its technological content.
The ion employs a hydrogen fuel cell to produce electrical power, which is stored in Li Air batteries and supercapacitors, then transferred to the hubless, zero-friction maglev wheels.
Other futuristic technologies employed in the ion include:
- A Vehicle Control Module: The vehicle is controlled by light finger touches controls built in the handle grips. Commands from the fingertips are sent to VCM (Vehicle Control Module) where they are converted to drive signals to PBS (power, braking and steering) systems.
- Ride by Wire: This integrates multiple on-board electronic traffic sensors for collision detection and avoidance. Variable two wheel steering works in synergy with the rider driving style and vehicle dynamics in order to optimize handling. VSA system (vehicle situational awareness) keep tracks of the surrounding traffic flow and make corrections to the PBS systems as needed. VSA system overrides any lower priority communications when traffic density becomes significant.
- Hubless Wheels: The airy, open wheels contain electrical windings in the inside that act as a stator. The tire is mounted on a hidden magnetic wheel that acts as a rotor which floats on the stator ring with magnetic levitation technology that works with zero friction. These hubless electric traction motor also double up as brakes.
- Rider information: Core basic vehicle information is available in the compact instrument cluster, but full information and communication is transmitted to the rider’s helmet.
- M-Link: An advanced anthropomorphic linkage suspension technology that provides incredible control of the road and an exhilarating driving experience. It features an electronic force mapping through sensors that manage all suspension components. These sensors continuously vary the power of electromagnet that controls the damping characteristics of the suspension in real time. It seamlessly integrates with other vehicle systems including the Ride by Wire steering to provide user profiled ride characteristics with road vision controlled damping.
- Flex Axis Steering: ion steers through rotating the front and rear wheel and suspension systems around the pivots on the center power module. The multi-axis gyros and accelerometers keep stability at all times. It works in conjunction with the Ride by Wire and M-Link, sensing rider position and steering inputs to properly position the motorcycle in the optimal position for previously impossible vehicle maneuvers.
- Li – Air Batteries: The Lithium-air battery is the lightest and highest energy density battery ever produced. Ion has the energy storage density of 12 kW·h/kg (comparable to gasoline). The technology uses oxidation of lithium with oxygen molecules in the air and a revolutionary new cathode that uses carbon nano tubes infused with a platinum and rhodium catalyst using a process which creates extremely high surface area per unit volume.
HX250R - all-new 250-cc Sports Bike
It’s not surprising that in preparing itself to make an impact on the established motorcycle world beyond its borders, Hero should tackle the 250cc class first, and indeed, the bike will use the first in-house motor designed and constructed by Hero. In terms of traditional motorcycles, the 250 class in many countries constitutes the entry-level market for sports bikes. In others, it is the largest motorcycle you can buy. It is the point where a brand aiming for a long term relationship with a customer, will have its first encounter. Honda’s CBR250R, Kawasaki’s Ninja 250, Suzuki’s Inazuma 250 and Yamaha R15 (though the R15 engine displaces only 150cc) are top sellers the world over, and hence Hero is tackling the most lucrative, long-term-relationship-building market first up.
Invariably, bikes in this category are styled similarly to each company’s top-of-range sports bikes, and the HX250R is no exception, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the new 1190RX from Hero’s closest partner, Erik Buell Racing.
Based on the specifications released, the HX250R looks more than capable of matching this highly competitive foursome.
For starters, it has a kerb weight of just 139 kg – in a comparable “ready to roll” condition, Honda’s best-selling CBR250R weighs 157 kg fully fueled, the Kawasaki Ninja tips the scales at 170 kg the Suzuki Inazuma at 183 kg. A 20 kg advantage over the Honda translates to a massive difference in usability, braking, roadholding and all-round performance, particularly for the novice riders who will purchase a 250 sports bike. In comparison to the Ninja, that translates to roughly 31 kg difference and more than 20 percent more weight. The Suzuki weighs roughly 30 percent more, and given Hero’s mass centralization theme, it will probably feel like a lot more than that to the person that counts – the rider.
All the key boxes seem ticked with the HX250R – a new, liquid-cooled, balanced, single cylinder motor fed by multi-sensor electronic fuel injection, feeding power via a six-speed transmission is just part of the package. The motor is a stressed member of the geodesic tubular chassis. Beyond its much lighter weight, stopping the HX250R should be even easier thanks to the Brembo designed calipers and linked, anti-lock braking system which couples the 300 mm front and 220 mm rear rotors.
While Hero touted that the bike has a motor with five more horsepower than the Honda CBR250R, Honda has a lot more horsepower available from its CBR250R motor and in some markets the same bike produces considerably more horsepower. Let’s hope this doesn’t lead to a horsepower war as horsepower proliferation is not good for the market or for the safety of its consumers.
ZIR - European 150cc Superscooter
Hero’s first European-style scooter range is a break from its traditional scooter designs and will go under the name ZIR, with two variants – a flat floorboard model and a step-thru model. Both use a liquid-cooled, two-valve, 150cc OHC engine producing 10.5 kW and 12.7 Nm, and have a top speed of just over 110 km/h (68 mph). Like many two-wheelers on the sub-continent, the bike will see usage as the family vehicle, so the added safety of an integrated braking system that links the front and rear hydraulic discs will be welcomed by many. In scooter terms, the ZIR’s 9 liter fuel tank is very large, offering a long distance between fills. One of the ZIR’s standard features is a mobile phone charging socket. The connection with the mobile phone indicates yet another new direction for the company which clearly intends to leverage the mobile computer in everyone’s pocket. Though details are still scarce, the mobile phone will link to the engine management system to offer the rider an array of both engine and riding via a “Ride-Stat” app.
LEAP serial hybrid (and the world’s most economical scooter)
The LEAP might well turn out to be one of the most significant two-wheelers of all-time, as it’s the bike which ultimately brought Erik Buell together with Hero MotoCorp.
The first prototype of the LEAP was shown at Auto Expo two years ago and when EBR provided a working prototype ready for the show in just ten weeks, it was the proof that Pawan Munjal needed to bless a long term relationship with Buell.
So let’s look at the LEAP for a moment and see just what the benefits are of the serial hybrid scooter layout.
Hero claims the bike has a range of around 340 km (211 mi) on a fully charged set of lithium-ion batteries and with the three liter gas tank full. It also claims the range-extending motor offers four times the range of batteries alone.
Do the math and that means the Leap gets an extra 85 km (53 mi) from the power produced on each liter of petrol. Hence, in effect, the Leap delivers 200 mpg (U.S.) or 240 mpg (imperial).
Those figures are significantly better than any other gas-engined personal transport of any type in the marketplace, even before you count the purely battery-electric side of the scooter, where recharging for the last 85 km of the range on electrical power is even cheaper because it can be done from any domestic powerpoint.
The Leap electric-serial-hybrid scooter returned to Auto Expo two years after its first appearance in pre-production form, with a purpose-built 124 cc range-extender engine and lithium-ion batteries and an 8 kW electric motor.
It's slightly heavier than your average scooter at 140 kg, but it's small and low and users will not suffer from the range-anxiety familiar to most EV users, and it won't take nearly as much time to "refuel" because gas stations are never all that far away.
The 8 kW permanent magnet AC (PMAC) traction motor delivers maximum torque of more than 60 Nm from standstill, driving the rear wheel via a toothed-belt to a top speed of 100 km/h (62 mph) when running with the range extender.
This is the battle for the heavyweight world motorcycle manufacturers title, and there are only two credible contenders, and they both want this title much more than a MotoGP championship. Racing means different things to different factions of the two-wheel industry, and the respective boards of Hero MotoCorp and Honda would much rather be able to proclaim the organization they control as the world’s best-selling motorcycle company than anything else, even over more profitability.
In the carnivorous environs of the boardroom, such frivolous activities as racing is a marketing activity and little more. If it doesn’t provide an adequate return on investment, it will quickly earn itself a red line on the balance sheet as we have seen many times in global motorsport. It's unlikely to happen with either of these companies from this point forward.
We are seeing the emergence of a new world order in the motorcycle industry. Most major automotive and motorcycle manufacturers have built their companies selling product to their home market initially to build scale, but none have ever entered the global market with the economies of scale enjoyed by Hero Motocorp.
Nor have they entered the global market with three decades of experience building the most advanced designs possible, to Honda exacting standards.
This is indeed going to be a clash of the Titans, and the winner will be the public as margins are honed and markets are analyzed so that needs can be better catered to.
It's a match that will be worth watching.
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