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Benelli’s Owners Ready to Take On the World

Since their purchase of Benelli last year, Chinese motorcycle/scooter manufacturer Qianjiang has made it clear that they plan to rapidly and aggressively expand Benelli’s product line-up, moving into every market segment that they feel is or soon will be experiencing significant growth.

They’ve also made it clear that they have the money to back up these plans – the first steps are already underway, with a brand-new factory currently under construction (near the current Benelli factory in Pesaro, Italy) which is planned to have the capacity to manufacture more than 30,000 units per year. The current factory will soon house an expensive rapid-prototyping facility that will allow Benelli’s engineers to hit the fast-forward button on new model development cycles, getting prototypes on the road for development purposes much more rapidly than was previously possible.

The three bikes Benelli showed at the recent Intermot show provide a preview of at least part of their expansion plans. First up is the 49X, a 49cc urban scooter which seems to have been developed in close co-ordination with the scooter experts at Qianjiang. Of course, most motorcycle enthusiasts won’t get too excited about a 49cc scooter, but building small, inexpensive scooters can be an excellent base for a motorcycle brand. Cheaper bikes appeal to a wider market, making it easy to develop a dealer network and get the Benelli name out there among young people, many of whom will grow up to be prospective customers for the company’s larger models. Not only that, but building a successful market base selling scooters allows a company more freedom to take risks with their larger models, since they always have a solid, profitable business (their scooters) to fall back on. In Europe, the Piaggio group has already shown the efficiency of this model, and few would argue Benelli’s decision to follow their lead.

Next on the line is the BX concept, a 449cc motocross machine, which provides a visual mission statement to Benelli’s stated plan to begin producing four-stroke MX machines (in both 250cc and 450cc capacity). The versatility of these bikes is a big benefit, as the same basic chassis and motor can be used to produce an MX racer, a more trail/enduro-focused machine, and even a Supermoto – a model that has worked well enough for KTM, apparently. Benelli’s appeal in this market will likely be due more to their ‘exotic’ nature than their ability to build better MXers than the Japanese or KTM, but I would expect good sales all the same – especially considering that a tiny slice of the motocross/off-road market would go a long way towards meeting the 30,000 bikes/year goal.

Finally we have the Due, a 756cc naked parallel twin which is the first in a line of parallel twins whose motor is basically two cylinders chopped off Benelli’s existing 1130cc triple. The mid-size market is growing worldwide, and the Due seems to be aimed at bikes like the Ducati Monster 695, new Kawasaki Z750 (expected soon), Yamaha FZ6 Fazer, and even the new BMW F800. As I said, this motor is expected to form the building block for a broad range of mid-size models; possibilities include a supermoto-style machine (a la KTM Duke and Ducati’s forthcoming Hypermotard), a ‘trailie’ (Suzuki V-Strom 650, etc), mid-size sport-tourer, and possibly even a faired sportbike. By using the same basic architecture for a wide range of models, the Chinese-owned Italian manufacturer can minimize costs while maximizing market coverage.

Of course, Benelli will continue to produce their current line of 900cc and 1130cc triples, including the Tornado sportbike and TnT naked bike, along with the new Tre-K roadster. Other rumors say that a line of cruisers is coming, aimed at the (bigger is better) US market, and powered by a 2400cc V-Six motor built by joining two of the 1130cc triples to a common crank!

It almost seems impossible that one company could take on so many challenges in such a short period of time, and it is possible that Qianjiang and Benelli are “biting off more than they can chew”. Then again, Qianjiang didn’t become the largest scooter manufacturer in China (valued at over a billion dollars) by making bad business decisions, and from the evidence we’ve seen so far, they seem to have the resources (both financial and human) to back up their ambitions. A Benelli is currently a rare beast in the US, but if the company’s new owners get their way, we’ll be looking at a distinctly different market picture five years from now.