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Demise of scooter emblematic of India’s rise

It was a purchase to be remembered.
Soon, the Bajaj scooter will be the province of secondhand dealers and sidewalk mechanics.
Soon, the Bajaj scooter will be the province of secondhand dealers and sidewalk mechanics.Manish Swarup / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was a purchase to be remembered.

There was the years-long waiting list to buy it and the jealous stares once you finally got it home. There was the pride of that first ride when, weaving through the streets, you knew that you'd finally — finally! — made it to the middle class.

Outwardly it was just a scooter, a spluttering two-stroke Indian-made Bajaj with three gears. All too often, it came painted a sickly avocado-green.

But in a time of empty shops and a hobbled economy, it was success.

"This was something big," said Yash Tekwani, a well-to-do New Delhi businessman who can still picture the day in the early 1970s when his father, who ran a tobacco shop, drove home a blue Bajaj. In a working-class neighborhood where most people had only bicycles, the neighbors turned out to gawk. "It was a joyous occasion."

The joy, though, is ending.

Later this month, Bajaj's last scooter factory will roll out its last scooter, ending an era in India's transition from dreary socialist behemoth into a consumerist powerhouse. And those one-time icons of middle-class achievement will be left to secondhand dealers and armies of sidewalk mechanics.

Because in modern India, modest dependability just isn't enough.

"People have more money to spend today," said Pradeep Tyagi. He sells used motorcycles in the New Delhi neighborhood of Karol Bagh, where dozens of used-car and motorcycle dealers — and a handful of scooter shops — are jammed into a few narrow lanes. "No one wants to spend that money on a scooter."

Wander among the neighborhood's tiny, dusty shops and it becomes clear how India's aspirations have changed.

Because while India still has desperate poverty — more than one-third of the population lives on less than $1 per day — it has also become a nation of fierce consumers, its buying habits nurtured by a growing economy, easier loans and relentless advertising. In places like Karol Bagh, that means people who once would have aspired to scooters now want motorcycles. And everyone dreams of cars.

Just ask Maug Lal. On a recent morning, the 32-year-old garbage collector was outside a Karol Bagh shop, staring longingly at a Honda motorcycle. The bike was red, streaked with racing decals and only slightly used.

He had come to look at scooters. Instead, he found himself among the motorcycles. He couldn't afford one — a low-end used model costs $350; a decent used scooter costs less than half that — but he mumbled that eventually he would be able to save up the money. It would only take four years.

Lal kept his fingers resting on the Honda as a friend spoke up for him. "The motorcycle is a real man's vehicle," said Mohammed Tajuddin Khan. "When you sit on it you look strong."

It wasn't always like this.

Thirty years ago, India's economy was mired in central planning and government regulations, back when foreign companies were largely frozen out of the Indian market and only a handful of people could afford anything more than a bicycle.

Enter the Bajaj family, owners of a business empire with roots in cotton, steel mills and the beginnings of the scooter business.

Bajaj brought mobility to the Indian masses, making a clunky, affordable machine that, with a little squeezing, could carry an entire family. That image — dad driving with one child standing between his knees, while mom rides behind him holding the baby — became emblematic of India's slow move into modernity.

It seemed like a miracle. And one where only the driver had to wear a helmet.

At one point, the best-selling Bajaj model, the Chetak, was selling 100,000 units per month. The waiting list could last a decade and desperate buyers would pay huge premiums above the list price to get one. For a time, Bajaj was the world's largest scooter manufacturer.

Its 1980s sales campaign, an ode to patriotism and nascent consumerism, became iconic on its own, with TV ads showing young boys clutching Indian flags and happy families gathering around scooters.

"The Bajaj is ours," the jingle said, ignoring the fact that the design was largely borrowed from the Italian Vespa.

So when Bajaj announced late last year it was discontinuing its scooter business to concentrate on motorcycles, the news set off a wave of hand-wringing: Indian newspaper editorials bemoaned the changing times; Old Bajaj scooter ads became TV and Internet sensations.

"Exit an icon," the Statesman newspaper declared. "Salute the scooter."

Bajaj, though, wasn't thinking about icons when it made its decision. Scooter sales have plummeted in this decade as motorcycle sales have boomed. Bajaj stopped most scooter production four years ago.

"We too feel nostalgic about how dear Bajaj scooters have been to the Indian middle class," Milind Bade, a top Bajaj official told reporters. "But the business has to move on."

In many ways, Bajaj was simply moving with the Indian economy, which has blossomed since it was opened to outside investment in the late 1980s.

By conservative estimates, the Indian middle class is now thought to number about 50 million people, more than five times as many as the early 1970s. More generous estimates put the middle class as high as 250 million — roughly a quarter of the population.

They are desperate to buy. The avalanche of advertising — for TVs, apartment complexes, cars, cell phones, sex therapists, silk suits and saris — can make this country look like another America, a place where buying is a sport and a pastime.

Along the way, Bajaj has also changed. First it modernized its scooters for increasingly finicky buyers, and then shifted decisively to motorcycles. Its last scooter, the Kristal, sells for about $750 — compared to nearly $2,000 for its best-selling Pulsar motorcycle.

Despite the price difference, motorcycle sales reached almost 220,000 in December, an 86 percent increase compared to the same month one year earlier. Only a few hundred scooters were sold.

And cars? They are now the new middle-class aspiration. Car sales reached almost 154,000 in February — the highest-selling month ever, and 33 percent more than one year earlier. Last year the Indian-made Tata Nano went on sale at around $2,400, making headlines with its claim to be the world's cheapest car. While not yet in full production and fairly uncommon on Indian roads, analysts expect the Nano to soon become ubiquitous.

If this can make India seem like a place where those clunky Bajaj scooters will soon be forgotten, Neeraj Marwah will make sure that won't happen.

He is an often-scowling man with a scraggly three-day beard whose family has been selling used scooters for two generations. He works out of a concrete store the size of a garage, sitting behind a desk that looks ready to collapse.

Young people prefer motorcycles these days, he admits, but there are still millions of Indians out there yearning for their first Bajaj scooter. The are cheap, dependable and easy to repair. Marwah says he'll be fixing them up and selling them for decades.

"Every day I sell at least one of these things," he said, shrugging. "Bajaj can shut down, but I'll still be selling them. People will always want them, and I'll always have some to sell."