Discuss: China or India?

India and China ARE destined to be future leaders of motorcycle production, says Visordown’s industry expert, who in his own interest cannot be named. The only question is, which will get there first?

DURING most of the 1960s Japanese bikes were seen as cheap transport and widely scoffed at by many European and American riders – confident that these little upstarts could never challenge the dominance of their home-grown brands.

They showed some innovation here and there, and even had some success in racing, but if you asked the average early-1960s rider whether he’d entertain the idea of a Honda in his garage the answer would likely have been a pretty swift ‘No.’ A decade later, with the CB750 (swiftly followed by similar machines from Honda’s Japanese rivals) establishing itself as a world-beater in performance, reliability and technology, it became clear to everyone that the sheer muscle of these now-huge companies was going to be hard for the more traditional bike firms to compete with.

Where am I going with this? Well, over the last few weeks and months we’ve seen a creeping trend from both India and China, with firms from both revealing larger bikes and massively improved styling. Just check out the likes of the Hero Hastur 620 from India and the Chinese-originating Benelli BN 600 (and its near-identical Keeway RK6, Qianjian QJ600 and Generic/KSR-Moto GSR600 siblings), as well as slightly smaller bikes like Bajaj’s new 400SS and 400CS. These are proper-looking motorcycles, and while there are still plenty who are happy to write them off as poor-quality imitations of ‘real’ big bikes, they’re generating plenty of fans.

What’s next is surely going to be the Chinese or Indian equivalent of the CB750. A bike from one of these ‘new’ manufacturers that either rivals the established Western market leaders in terms of performance and quality while massively undercutting them on price, or matches them on price and beats them for performance/quality/technology. The questions is, will it be China or India that spawns such a machine?

Both have fast-growing economies with massive (and growing) industrial and manufacturing capacities. At the moment, companies in both countries are spending most of their efforts satisfying home-grown demand, so have relatively low profiles in the ‘established’ luxury bike markets of Europe and America. But firms in both lands are already perfectly aware of the demands of the Western markets when it comes to quality and reliability, thanks to their involvement with cars; Jaguar and Land Rover have been Indian-owned for years now, and done very well on the back of it, while China is snapping up the likes of Volvo and also pushing brand-new companies into the European and American markets, particularly Qoros (a firm that’s getting its styling from an ex-BMW man and that’s blown away quality and safety stereotypes by making the best-scoring car in European-standard NCAP tests). These guys have seen what’s being made elsewhere and they’re serious about competing. Japan used to have a price advantage thanks to brand-new production facilities and relatively cheap workforces back in the 1960s; China and India have the same things today.

On the downside, just as early Japanese bikes (and even more so, their cars) often struggled when it came to styling, all too often featuring shapes and proportions that looked wrong to Western eyes, both the Chinese and Indian machines made so far have often fallen short in the looks department. In China, the response has been unashamed copying of well-received designs, while India appears to still be ploughing its own furrow but is now increasingly turning to established Western designers and engineers.

The reputation for poor quality materials and workmanship is also not without foundation, but don’t for a minute believe this is something the firms involved aren’t well aware of.

For me, perhaps thanks to a recent influx of impressive designs and the fact that firms like Triumph, Harley and Ducati are all establishing their own manufacturing facilities over there, I’m erring toward saying that India, not China, is best positioned to become the ‘next Japan’ in bike manufacturing. Firms over there already seem to be engaging with the West and showing a level of enthusiasm for motorcycles that appears lacking in Chinese companies – which sometimes give the impression they’d just as happily be making cars, washing machines or flat-screen TVs if that’s where the money was. As the Chinese people become richer, it seems many who used bikes as transport are aspiring to cars, while in India there appears to be real enthusiasm for motorcycles, something that won’t be stemmed by increasing wealth.

But this is up for discussion. Where would you put your bet? China or India? Just don’t say neither.