Know Your Two-wheeler Brand: Honda India
From forming multiple alliances to being a standalone brand, here’s how Honda made its journey in India
Honda India gave a whole new meaning to reliability and refinement in the Indian two-wheeler industry. Its products - particularly the Activa - turned out to be so popular that they have become household names. From teaming up with multiple Indian brands to being strong enough to function as a standalone manufacturer, here’s how Honda made a name for itself in our market:
In the mid-1980s, the two-wheeler business in India was booming with two-wheelers from diverse companies like TVS-Suzuki and Kawasaki-Bajaj among others. Back then, it was a common trend for many Japanese companies to seek partnership with Indian manufacturers to operate on our shores. The Japanese were quite popular for their sound engineering expertise and the fledgling Indian companies needed their assistance to grow the business. Honda knew there’s a big potential in the country because the growing economy and population meant big capitalistic opportunities.
In 1984, Honda teamed up with Hero MotoCorp, which back then was called Hero Cycles. The new joint venture was called Hero Honda Motors Ltd. The maiden two-wheeler that came out of this marriage was the Hero Honda CD 100. At that time, the CD 100’s reliability and fuel efficiency were ages ahead of its competition because most of the two-wheelers in the market were less advanced two-strokers. Honda’s technological upper hand reflected in the bike’s demand too, as in just two years, Honda managed to make one lakh units!
Honda realised there’s a huge scope of growth in the scooter segment too, which was then dominated by Bajaj Chetak. In 1985, the Japanese brand signed a joint venture agreement with one of the local manufacturers in India - Kinetic Engineering - to make scooters. The first product to come out of this marriage was the KH 100, the first automatic scooter in India. The lack of gears made it considerably more convenient to zip about in the city. For a lot of riders, this aspect alone made it a better proposition than the venerable Chetak. This coupled with the reasonably light-weight design made it a preferable choice for women as well. However, in the late 90s, light-weight, fuel-efficient motorcycles gained popularity and Kinetic simply couldn’t compete in the market. The brand was unable to manufacture a motorcycle with Honda’s help as the Japanese bikemaker already was in ties with Hero to make bikes. Ultimately, Kinetic ended up buying Honda’s stake, and the partnership came to its conclusion in 1998. But in parallel, Honda still continued its business with Hero and the alliance gave rise to a number of motorcycles catering to both commuter and performance segment in the '90s.
The birth of the Activa, Unicorn & CB Shine:
Honda’s alliance with Hero waxed and waned, so in 1999, the Japanese brand set up a wholly-owned subsidiary called Honda Motorcycle And Scooter India. However, the company wasn’t active until the turn of the century. In 2001, its first product, the Activa, rolled out of its factory doors. The Activa’s neutral styling and reliable, refined engine made it an instant hit in the scooter segment. In fact, Honda managed to sell a whopping 55,000 units in the first year! By 2003, the Activa's cumulative sales figure crossed the 5 lakh mark. It was indeed a bold decision for Honda to introduce an automatic scooter in a market that was still dominated by geared scooters and motorcycles.
The following year witnessed the arrival of the Unicorn 150 which marked Honda’s foray into the 150cc segment. The Unicorn too became a favourite amongst commuters thanks to its refined engine and bulletproof build quality. In parallel, the Activa’s demand grew so high that in 2005, the cumulative sales literally doubled, breaching the 10 lakh unit mark!
The product onslaught continued in the following year too, when the Japanese brand entered the 125cc motorcycle segment with the CB Shine. Both the Shine and the Unicorn had a few things in common: conservative design (yet solid build quality), efficiency, reliability, butter-smooth engine and build quality. Even though Honda’s two-wheelers were costlier than the competition, prospective customers knew it was worth shelling out a bit more for top-notch quality. The Shine soon held the major share in the 125cc motorcycle segment and continues its dominance till date!
Parting Ways With Hero:
In the early 2000s, Hero’s dependence on Honda gradually decreased, allegedly over differences in business motives and issues with royalty payouts. The final nail to the coffin was hammered in 2011 when Hero and Honda ended their joint venture. In the same year, Honda forayed into the quarter-litre performance segment with the CBR250R. Its VFR-derived styling made the bike look elegant - appealing to a wide age-group. This coupled with the creamy 250cc liquid-cooled engine made the Honda CBR250R a solid choice for tourers. It was capable of sustaining triple-digit speeds effortlessly and even today, it remains one of the most refined, reliable touring-friendly quarter-litre bikes in the country.
In 2012, Honda launched the CBR150R in a bid to compete with the Yamaha YZF-R15. However, it wasn’t as exciting to ride as the R15 and eventually it ended up being discontinued when India transitioned from BS3 to BS4 emission norms. After the CBR twins, Honda couldn’t really make a lasting impact in the sporty segment except for the CB Hornet 160R which was launched back in 2015. The recently-launched CB300R has been more of a niche offering as the brand decided to bring it to our shores via the CKD (Completely Knocked Down) route in limited numbers. When it comes to big bikes, Honda launched its maiden CKD motorcycle, the CBR650F, in India back in 2015. Now, Honda has six different bikes in its premium portfolio which are sold exclusively through premium Honda BigWing dealerships.
Into the future:
Honda recently unveiled its first BS6-compliant scooter, the 2019 Activa 125. It is also Honda’s first fuel-injected scooter in India. Apart from fuel injection, it gets a number of other segment-first features as well. With this, Honda hopes to crack the 125cc scooter segment which has been ruled by the Suzuki Access 125 for more than a decade. In parallel, the Indian Government is also pushing for Electric Vehicle (EV) growth amidst growing concerns about pollution and fossil fuel depletion. It was recently reported that Honda is willing to work with its competitors for electric infrastructure and battery swapping technology. We believe Honda might have something really interesting in store in the upcoming 2020 Auto Expo!