As soon as you leave the plane in Delhi, you instantly notice that there is smog everywhere. And the infernal traffic noise keeps beating on you with full force. In India, all drivers seem to apply for the title ‘gentleman of the road’: People honk as loud as they can, to let all the others know that they are on the road, too. You’ll find ‘Please honk’ written in large colorful letters on the back of every bus and rickshaw. So people honk, squeak and whistle. Many drivers remove their rear view mirror, because there is no need to see the traffic behind you, as long as you can hear it so well.
Alongside China, India might well be the world’s largest market for motorcycles. About one billion people are living on the subcontinent and the majority of them is still moving by bicycles. The streets are filled with vintage bikes with many passengers and goods on them. But the Indian economy and society are in the middle of a stunning development process and a new social layer emerges: By now, there are many people who cannot yet afford a car, but a scooter or a moped. The statistics on that are breathtaking: Each month, 1 million scooters and mopeds are sold in India! At the moment, India has the world’s second largest bicycle production.
Automobile Products of India (API) started with the production of scooters already back in the 50ies. Enfield manufactured motorcycles. In 1948 Bajaj started to import Vespas and Apes. In 1960 Bajaj built a factory to produce scooters in collaboration with Piaggio. This joint venture ended in 1971.
In the 50ies, also API built (Lambretta) scooters under license. This went on until 1972, when Ferdinando Innocenti was forced to declare bankruptcy in Milan. The Indian government purchased the entire operation through the "Scooter India Ltd." (SIL) and continued to build scooters for the Indian market. By now, this production is expired and SIL only produce Vikram 3-wheelers. SIL also tried a modern kind of Lambretta, without much hope for success. By now, LML is the only company left on the "classic scooter market". Back in the 90ies, they bought one of Piaggio’s production lines for Vespa PX in Pontedera and are now quite successfully producing and selling their ‘Star’ (except for the engine largely identical to the Vespa) in India and Europe. The LML Star’s success might be one of the reasons, why Piaggio launched the production of a new version of the Vespa PX. LML is currently producing a new "Vespa PK", which will be available in 2012.
But also in India, it’s mainly the modern automatic scooters that are responsible for the high production numbers. Honda is the market leader with the "Pleasure" model – as it can’t be its look, it must be the scooter’s price that gives the customers a sense of pleasure. Each month, 30.000 are sold! Piaggio Italy plans to re-enter the Indian market, too. The LX 125 will be available there in 2013.
Personally, I find it fascinating that, despite the huge production flood, the Indian streetscape is still dominated by vintage Bajaj, LML and Lambretta scooters and 3-wheelers. Complete families are transported on them by the proud dad. It is really unbelievable. You’ll find one of those ‘Vespas’ on every corner in Delhi. No illusions: Most of these scooters are only used, because their riders cannot afford a better vehicle. You’ll look in vain for a scooter club in India. No Indian would ever consider a 1960 Bajaj in original paint a rare vintage vehicle. Spare parts need to be cheap. Repairs are only made if absolutely necessary. People rather weld their exhaust for the 100th time at the side of the road, before buying a new ECO exhaust for only a few rupees. Most Indians live on a few dollars a day, so there is no ‘premium’ in their lives. The workshops are usually outdoors, and the mechanics work miracles and construct bikes out of nothing. Thus, one soon becomes a notion why Indian spare parts are the way they are and why it might take years to ensure a high-quality production.
If you are in India, make sure to borrow a Vespa or another scooter. Although this honking chaos seems extremely dangerous (avoiding bored sacred cows in the middle of a downtown intersection is actually quite tricky) this particular perspective will definitely leave an impression. So does the Indians’ calm and friendly manner that they show in every life situation
Check out the pix of my Delhi adventure:
Nov 16 2011, 11:23