The global debut of the Benelli BN600, manufactured in China by the historic Italian marque's owner Qianjiang (pronounced "Chin-jung," but called simply QJ by all its staff), has finally kicked off the long-awaited revival of Italy's oldest motorcycle company that celebrated its 100th birthday in 2011. But as the first-ever four-cylinder bike made in China, albeit designed and developed in Italy, it marks a significant landmark in the evolution of the Chinese motorcycle industry, and is certain to be the forerunner of an increasingly irresistible attack on Western markets by manufacturers from the People's Republic.
Since purchasing Benelli in December 2005, QJ's ambitious plans to relaunch the brand had stalled in the face of uncertainty caused by the global economic downturn. But the ongoing slump in the Chinese home market, caused by the ban on any non-electric motorcycle being ridden in all but one of China's 167 largest cities, saw QJ's 5500 employees build "just" 800,000 motorcycles and scooters last year. This represents a significant drop from the 1.5 million units produced three years ago by its then 8000-strong workforce. And, like many of its Chinese rivals, it's caused QJ to pay increased attention to export sales - an area where many of them are struggling to compete against the single-cylinder products of Indian manufacturers, which are more closely focused on quality than their Chinese rivals, while still sharply priced.
The decision to develop the BN600 was one of the first made by its president Lin Hua Zhong, as part of his strategy to position QJ as a contender in the global marketplace by acquiring an existing Western two-wheeled brand. The plan was to then use its product development expertise to produce a technically and stylistically more sophisticated range of motorcycles to be manufactured in China. So, as Benelli's chief engineer Stefano Michelotti confirms, this meant that when the project kicked off in 2006, the BN600 was designed and initially developed in Italy in collaboration with QJ engineers - then transferred to China for final pre-production development. This meant that Benelli tester Gianluca Galasso covered countless test miles riding the prototype bike in the open on public roads, carefully disguised as a well-worn Honda Hornet that nobody would give a second look.
"To begin with, it was difficult to work with Chinese engineers, not only with the language difficulties, but also because we were each accustomed to pursuing different objectives in creating a new design," says Michelotti. "But little by little we understood each other's strengths, and now the collaboration is fantastic. It bodes well for the future, with other projects."
So in finally following Lin's strategy, QJ has now exploited the crucial advantage this has yielded it versus its Chinese rivals, in terms of the technical expertise needed to develop a four-cylinder motorcycle that allows it to compete directly on the world stage with Japanese and European products - but with a crucial edge on price.
The BN600 is the first product QJ has built that's over 250cc in capacity, and the Italian company's female CEO Yan Haimei has confirmed this to be the first of several new models bearing the Benelli badge. All of them will be engineered jointly by QJ and Benelli technicians, then manufactured in China to reduce costs. This results in a prestige model for developing markets - including China itself, where 3000 examples of the BN600 have already been sold since its home market debut one year ago - before it's upgraded with European hardware in Benelli's Pesaro factory to meet the demands of customers in more mature markets, while remaining affordable.