In India, the decline of a middle-class icon

For decades, scooters carried everything from families to appliances. But sales are down, as young, affluent Indians opt for motorcycles.

For nearly half a century, the Indian motorscooter was king of the road. With its broad front panel and spare tire on the back, it was a symbol of arrival, as much an icon of the Indian middle class as the wood-panel station wagon once was in the US.

Young college grads would buy them and keep them for decades, often carting around a growing family. Sundays, office workers can be seen loading up for a weekend outing: one child on the floorboards in front, dad at the handlebars, and mom seated sidesaddle with an infant in her lap.

But as the Indian economy has grown, more and more young Indians are dumping what they consider a passé mode of transport in favor of something with more zip: motorcycles.

A recent stroll through the trendy Vasant Lok shopping district finds the parking lot almost full. There's not a single scooter in sight.

"I think scooters are part of our tradition, but as new things come up, we have to go with new things," says Gagan Singla, a software developer who rides a red Hero Honda motorcycle. "I think scooters will be more of a museum piece than a part of real life."

With higher-paying jobs, India's 150-million strong middle class has greater spending power than ever before, along with a wider variety of choices available in the recently liberalized Indian marketplace.

The long, steady demise of the indigenous scooter, copied from cheap Italian Vespas mass-produced after World War II, has some scooter enthusiasts sniffing. For them, scooters were almost family.

One top scooter manufacturer, Bajaj, capitalized on this sentiment for years with a popular ad campaign of Humara Bajaj, or "Our Bajaj."

Not everyone is nostalgic, however. "As a student, I thought very poorly of scooters," says Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a prominent chronicler of the Indian middle class. "Motorcycles were heavier, stronger, more stable. But we students liked them for the obvious reasons. They were more masculine. They made more noise."

And Dr. Gupta adds, while scooters may be cheaper - they cost one-third to one-half as much as motorcycles - they are also lighter and less safe on India's notoriously potholed roads.

Certainly, a drive down any metropolitan street here wouldn't indicate that scooters are in immediate danger of extinction. At red lights, scooters still weave their way forward among cars, buses, and donkey carts. Deliverymen use them to carry massive metal cans of milk, crates of live poultry, and the odd kitchen appliance.

But statistics tell a different story. Three years ago, scooter sales were comfortably ahead of motorcycle sales, at 1.26 million rupees ($27,000) and 1.13 million rupees ($24,000) respectively. Last year, motorcycle sales left scooters in the dust, taking in 1.8 million rupees ($38,000) compared with 1.25 million rupees ($26,000) for scooters.

Back at the Vasant Lok parking lot, Vishal Sharma and his friend Swati Chopra have just arrived aboard a thunderous black 350cc Royal Enfield Bullet. The Enfield's sound is decidedly gut-rattling, and Mr. Sharma likes it that way. "It's like a Harley Davidson - once you've ridden one, you wouldn't ride anything else," he says. "My dad started out with this same bike. Then he sold it for a [smaller] 250cc, and then as his family grew, he got a scooter and he's been there ever since," he laughs. "Ride a bike while you can."

As afternoon turns to dusk, Prashant Narula drives up on a Bajaj scooter. Does he prefer it? "In fact, even I was thinking of getting a motorcycle soon."

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