Bajaj Returns to the U.S. Scooter Market

PART I by Bryan Bedell

Bryan Noise is the publisher of 2strokeBuzz and an avid scooterist during the month-or-so a year he can keep his Vespa running.

There are clear signs of an upcoming motorscooter boom in the United States, and dozens of the world's scooter manufacturers are racing to get their feet in the door. Honda and Yamaha, the only two companies with a nationwide presence through the eighties and nineties, are finally updating their plastic automatics to compete with newly-available exotic designs from Italjet, Piaggio, and Aprilia. These European marques are finally establishing dealerships and supplying U.S. dealers with a reasonable stream of product. Meanwhile, several brands of inexpensive Asian scooters are appearing as beach rentals and delivery vehicles. For once, there are real choices in the scooter market; models ranging in size from 50cc to 250cc, in design from vintage to futuristic, and in price from $1500 to over $5000.

While that might seem like good news to long-time scooterists, it hasn't changed things that much, other than driving prices of used Vespas and Lambrettas through the roof. While sellers can look forward to a hefty profit, now is a bad time for people looking to expand their collection or for those looking to get into the rally scene. Most affordable plastic 50s are unable to keep up with the speed or the style of vintage machines, and some high-end European models are as expensive as motorcycles. While there are a couple "twist & gos" available for under $2000, there's not much worth mentioning to fans of classic scooters.

That might be about to change, as Indian manufacturer Bajaj Auto Ltd. is poised to re-enter the marketplace with three scooters under $2000. Two of these scooters, the Chetak and the Legend, feature a steel frame in the style of the Vespa, but feature modern 145cc 4-speed 4-stroke engines. The third is the modern-styled 90cc Saffire 4-stroke automatic.

Above, a Bajaj worker removes a freshly-stamped cowl from the metal press. Below, assembly-line workers put together 2-stroke scooter engines. Photos on this page are courtesy of David McCabe.

Bajaj was formed in 1945 by Jamnalal Bajaj, a follower and friend of Mahatma Ghandi. Bajaj imported Italian-made Vespas from Piaggio starting in 1948, and produced Vespas under license in the 1960s. In 1970, the contract with Piaggio ended, and Bajaj began engineering and designing its own brands of scooters. Bajaj Auto has become the world's largest scooter manufacturer. In 2000, Bajaj sold more than 750,000 Legend/Chetak-type scooters. If you combine all of Bajaj Auto's three-wheeled utility vehicles, motorcycles, and scooters, the company produced nearly a million and a half vehicles last year, sold in India and more than 60 other countries. In India, Bajaj has a reputation equal to that of Piaggio and Innocenti in the 60s, as a builder of affordable, fuel-efficient scooters that run forever.

Bajaj scooters were very briefly imported to the USA in the early 1980s. The most common import was the Chetak model, which was based very closely on the Vespa Sprint design. While it's unclear why imports stopped, it's likely that Bajaj faced the same problems as Piaggio: the tightening of emissions requirements; Honda's widespread advertising of the (at the time) more modern-looking Elite; and a general lack of interest in the scooter market.

This time, Bajaj scooters and three-wheeled utility vehicles are being imported by a new company called Bajaj USA. While Bajaj USA is not a subsidiary of Bajaj Auto Ltd., the American company has a long relationship with the Bajaj family and has surprisingly been allowed to use the Bajaj name. Al Kolvites, the president of Bajaj USA, says, "I have always had a compulsion for things with wheels and wings. At the age of 16, I built a go-cart powered by an Indian motorcycle engine... I scared the hell out of myself a few times and gave it up." He sold and raced small-displacement Bridgestone motorcycles in college, then got involved in engineering, aviation, and consumer product design.

While some makers market their scooters as luxury items, Kolvites shares Bajaj's more down-to-earth approach to selling scooters. "I don't believe that there is ONE target market, but a whole bunch of small target markets," he says, listing college students, commuters, and retirees among potential customers, leaving the dot-com executives and fashion models for the Italians to fight over. While this may sound like commercial suicide in the days of high-concept marketing, one must remember that Vespas and Lambrettas were no luxury in war-torn Italy in the 1940s; they were reliable, inexpensive transportation for the masses. With a possible recession looming, Bajaj just might conquer a utilitarian niche other makers have been ignoring for years. "I do believe that scooters will always be with us for the same reasons that they became popular in the first place," says Kolvites, "low purchase cost, fuel efficient transportation, with minimal storage space required, that's cheap to maintain and repair."

Part two: (About the new Bajaj scooters…)

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