Bajaj Pulsar, KTM 390 Duke and Yamaha YZF-R15: Game Changers
I’m not one for dates, heck I can’t even remember the year I got married, but I will never forget January 2002. A black cover with a red bike — it was the first all-bike cover that we did at Overdrive, the training ground and finishing school for most of us automotive magazine editors. A bike cover had never been done. The publishers told Adil, the founding editor, the magazine would not sell. But Adil being Adil, steamrollered the suits — and in those days they did wear suits! — I was dispatched to the studio for a money shot, then road test editor Aspi Bhathena nearly lunched a gearbox sending the front wheel skywards at Bajaj’s Chakan test track, and the December 2001 issue of Overdrive hit the stands screaming INDI-GENIUS above a thrusting Pulsar 180.
The magazine sold out.
The next issue also sold out, but that’s because the model splayed over another Pulsar in the comparison test had a wardrobe malfunction. We kept our jobs. And the Pulsar put Bajaj Auto on track to becoming one of the most profitable bike manufacturers on the planet.
To be clear, the Pulsar was not the first 150, the Hero Honda CBZ came a year prior and Adil had used the word ‘orgasmic’ to describe his ride on it. TVS-Suzuki had their last hurrah in the Fiero. But the Pulsar did a better job of affordable, enthusiastic and stylish biking. While the 150 did the numbers, the 180 made magazine headlines. For its day, it looked mega-handsome. The proportions were spot on, including the tyre width. It sounded gruff. And it went like a street-fighter. Our resident stunter Hrishi Mandke learnt to stunt on one and claims the very first Pulsar was the easiest and most suited to the wheelie. Most of all, it was affordable. I bought one, though Adil insisted I take the blue Pulsar 150 since he was buying a red 180 — at least he got the R&D guys to slap the 180’s one-down-four-up gearbox on my 150. A 150 or even 180 sound like nothing today, but in those days we were firmly in the kitna-deti-hai era. A 125 was considered sporty. Worse, 125s didn’t sell because they were perceived to be sporty. The race was for a CD100 / Splendor rival that eked out a million kilometres to the litre. The Pulsar proved that a little fuel efficiency (not a lot, but a little) could be sacrificed for performance. Not that it was perfect, I sold my Pulsar within six months, but it improved the breed, no question. It was the first step in the liberation from the tyranny of econo-misers. And it was the true successor to the RX-100 that had been guillotined at the altar of emissions and fuel efficiency.
The death of 2-strokes was nearly the death of Yamaha. They did not have a clue in the world. Performance? Efficiency? What the hell should we do? The YBX was a 4-stroke 125 with sporty graphics and a bikini-fairing (for its era) but didn’t find any takers so they stripped it down to the CD-100 level. Of course that didn’t sell either so they gave up on 125s and did the 110cc Crux. Didn’t sell. In between they found time to make the hideous Libero and then had the bright idea of dusting the 125 off the shelf and making the world’s smallest and least desirable cruiser. Net result — you saw more people on one Hero Honda Splendor than in an entire Yamaha dealership.
And then came Nishikawa-san who hit the road, sat down with the editors of all auto magazines, asked us what we really wanted, and a year and a bit later called us to the Chennai race track to get our knee-down on the R15.
They should have given it a bigger engine but the rest of it was perfect. It was the step up in sportiness over the Pulsar that we desperately, desperately wanted. You have to remember that back then there was not one single fully-faired bike that you could (legally) buy in India. The R15, fully-faired, looked like a mini-R1. That itself would have been enough to sell it. But it also went beautifully. It wasn’t very quick but it handled like nothing else. It was the first bike my peers and I got our knee down on. It deserved to be, and I stuck it as the lead on the cover of Overdrive — only the second time after the Pulsar. It also struck a chord with bike enthusiasts, it got Yamaha back into the reckoning, tying in beautifully with their racing heritage. Yamaha took it racing in India, successfully at that. The R15 single-make series was super-popular, giving headquarters confidence in the Indian operations to invest in the much-needed scooters. And then Nishikawa-san’s Indian tenure was up, Bajaj snapped him up when they got a whiff of him not wanting to leave our shores and Yamaha again lost its bearings.
Which brings us back to Bajaj and their foresight. They knew how to work with partners. TVS and Suzuki split. Hero and Honda split. But Bajaj and Kawasaki stuck together for the longest time — Kawasaki even sold Bajaj bikes in international markets, something the Indians in other Indo-Japanese JVs could only dream of, and before they too split, Bajaj sensed an opportunity and parked a modest wad of the mountain of cash they were sitting on with KTM. This was while KTM were a niche brand making very orange motorcycles for mountainous men to conquer the Dakar and other lunatic events that Red Bull would eventually make wildly popular. And Bajaj kept investing, investing, and eventually showed Stefan Pierer the path to becoming Europe’s number one motorcycle brand — by making small KTMs in India.
Today, KTM is the most popular performance biking brand in India and though the 390 Duke contributes very little to actual volumes, in terms of perception and brand image this is why all the enthu-cutlets buy KTMs. The 390 Duke is the reason why the hills outside Pune, Bangalore and all the big biking cities are dyed orange on weekends. I didn’t give it the full cover but when I started evo India the big bike feature in the launch issue was how the 390 Duke was the modern-day RD 350. It is the truth. Like the Pulsar succeeded the RX 100 so too did the 390 Duke finally bring not just RD-matching performance but an RD-matching modicum of fear when you let it properly rip. The updated 390 has much better manners but that original 390 was a bit of a devil. It wanted to bite your head off, just like the RD. It made you grin maniacally, just like the… err… the RD! And we wouldn’t want it any other way. That feisty raucousness is what built a proper foundation to the KTM brand, so much so that exactly 19 years after that Dec 2001 Pulsar cover we are now on the cusp of Bajaj once again transforming the enthusiast biking landscape with KTM’s adventure motorcycles.
That said, 19 years down the line, I wonder what my successors would hail as the game changer — the 390 Adventure or the Chetak?