Is a Tuk Tuk Auto Rickshaws Just An Overgrown Scooter?

Tuk Tuk Auto Rickshaw
Tuk Tuk Bangkok, 2003

I’m expecting to get a lot of flack for posting a Tuk Tuk from Thailand in the blog. Scooter purists will say, “Hey, it’s got three wheels, it’s enclosed, its’s bigger and on and on”.  But here me out, when I first got to Thailand about 15 years ago, I thought the same.  My first impression upon riding in a Tuk Tuk … wow, loud, smokey and the driver is bat shit crazy.  Weaving in and out of traffic, sometimes feeling like its on two wheels … it this a Bond Movie?  But on closer inspection I started to notice some similarities.   In appearance the front has that pregnant scooter look, you know it like it’s been stretched about 1 foot on each side.  When I looked at the front I automatically think scooter, the handlebar controlled front wheel, twist grip throttle, it  especially looks like the earlier models of Vespa and Lamberetta.


Piaggio Vespa Apecar
Vespa Apecar

Actually, most of the founding scooter manufactures evolved into designing utility transport vehicle or auto rickshaws from the basis of their scooter designs. As a matter of fact, in 1947, Corradino D’Ascanio, an aircraft designer at Piaggio and inventor of the Vespa, came up with the idea of building a light three-wheeled commercial vehicle to power Italy’s post-war economic reconstruction. The Piaggio Ape followed suit, also known as Apecar, Ape Car or just Ape.



Daihatsu Midget
Daihatsu Midget

Japan exported three-wheelers to Thailand since 1934. Moreover, The Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications of Japan donated about 20,000 used three-wheelers to Southeast Asia. In Japan, three-wheelers went out of use in the latter half of the 1960s.  Auto rickshaws in Southeast Asia started from the knockdown production of the Daihatsu Midget which was introduced in 1957.



An Ape C (1956–1967)
An Ape C (1956–1967)

In Italy, auto rickshaws have been commonly used since the late 1940s, providing a low-cost means of transportation in the post-World-War-II years when the country was short of economic resources. The Piaggio Ape (Tukxi), designed by Vespa creator Corradino D’Ascanio and first manufactured in 1948 by the Italian company Piaggio, though primarily designed for carrying freight has also been widely used as an auto rickshaw. It is still extremely popular throughout the country, being particularly useful in the narrow streets found in the center of many little towns in central and southern Italy. Though it no longer has a key role in transportation, Piaggio Ape is still used as a minitaxi in some areas such as the islands of Ischia and Stromboli (on Stromboli no cars are allowed). It has recently been re-launched as a trendy-ecological means of transportation, or, relying on the role the Ape played in the history of Italian design, as a promotional tool.  Most Apes are produced in India by Piaggio India, and a similar vehicle is manufactured by Bajaj Auto. In India the Ape is most commonly found in the form of an autorickshaw. A relatively small number of Apes are still made in Italy. On October 16, 2013, Piaggio announced that the production of Ape would be completely shut down in Italy and entirely moved to India.


Tuk Tuk Police Vehicle
Tuk Tuk Police Vehicle

In Thailand, the auto rickshaw, is called a tuk-tuk (pronounced “took-took”) or sam-lor (meaning “three-wheeler”), it is a widely used form of urban transport in Bangkok and other Thai cities. The Thai name is onomatopoeic, mimicking the sound of a small (often two-cycle) engine. An equivalent English term would be “putt-putt.” It is particularly popular where traffic congestion is a major problem, such as in Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima. Drivers may also use their tuk-tuks to transport fresh produce around the city in absence of passengers (actually, this is such an understament, drivers of Tuk Tuk will load anything they can fit, stack, tie-down or squeeze into the vehicle, sometimes you can not see what the actual vehicle is it is piled so high).

Bangkok and other cities in Thailand have many tuk-tuks which are a more open variation on the Indian auto rickshaw. There are no meters, and fares are negotiated in advance. Bangkok fares have risen to nearly equal normal taxis due to uninformed foreigners willing to pay the asking price, but leaves passengers more exposed to environmental pollution than taxis. The solid roof is so low that the tuk-tuk is an inapt touring vehicle (if you are a “westerner, you will need to slouch in your seat to be comfortable and have head room). Today few locals take one unless they are burdened with packages or travelling in a big group for short distances.

Row of Tuk-Tuks in Maha Rat St., Bangkok, Thailand.
Tuk-Tuks in Bangkok

Many Thai tuk-tuk manufacturers now produce low-emission vehicles, while old tuk-tuks can be fitted with new engines along with LPG conversions. Newer tuk-tuks also have wet weather side curtains to keep passengers and drivers dry.

Thai auto rickshaw manufacturers are, Monika Motors Ltd., TukTuk (Thailand) Co., Ltd., TukTuk Forwerder Co., Ltd. Bangkok and MMW Tuk-Tuks Co.,Ltd. in Hua Hin. Smaller manufacturers are the Chinnaraje Co., Ltd. in Chiang Mai and Expertise Co., Ltd. in Chonburi which manufactures its models in Komaki, Japan, also.


Xe lam in Vietnam (2006) with the Lambretta mark still visible
Vietnam, Lambretta mark still visible

In Vietnam, auto rickshaws are known locally as xe lam, the vernacular pronunciation of the Lambro from the Lambretta line by Innocenti of Italy, these vehicles were very popular in the 1960s and 1970s, especially the urban centers of South Vietnam. Over time the authorities have moved to limit their use.  Xe lam with 1-wheel forward and 2-aft were designed to carry passengers whereas other variants with 2-forward and 1-aft, used mostly to transport goods are known as Xe ba gác máy. The motorized version of cycle rickshaw is the Xích lô máy is of the same design.


So, as you can see, the Auto Rickshaw, Tuk Tuk, The Ape, three-wheel transports all share an unique and historic story which evolved from scooters, whether it was the Vespa or the early models from Japan.  The history is interesting, but even more interesting is actually riding in a Tuk Tuk or Auto Rickshaw.  My first ride was in an area of Bangkok’s Khao San Road, we wanted to visit the Reclining Buddha which was in the same area.  Unable to hail a Taxi Cab we opted for a short ride in a Tuk Tuk, it was exciting and memorable to say the least.  This was the first Tuk Tuk ride of many to follow over the years and numerous trips to Asia.  I heartily recommend, especially as many countries are evolving into more modern forms of transit, Tuk Tuks may soon pass into history like the Penny Farthling.

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The Mods, Vespa Scooters and the Sixties

Mods riding a tricked out Vespa Scooter.Vespa clubs popped up throughout Europe, and by 1952, worldwide Vespa Club membership had surpassed 50,000. By the mid-1950s, Vespas were being manufactured under licence in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Spain; in the 1960s, production was started in India, Brazil and Indonesia.  Soon Vespa clubs expanded throughout Europe driven by the popularity of Vespas and Lambretta Scooters.

Mod is a subculture that began in 1960s Britain and spread, in varying degrees, to other countries and continues today on a smaller scale. Focused on music and fashion, the subculture has its roots in a small group of London-based stylish young men in the late 1950s who were termed modernists because they listened to modern jazz, although the subculture expanded to include women.

Many mods drove motor scooters, usually Vespas or Lambrettas. Scooters were a practical and affordable form of transportation for 1960s teens and young adults, and in the early 1970s, public transport stopped relatively early in the night. For teens with low-paying jobs, scooters were cheaper and easier to park than cars, and they could be bought through newly-available hire purchase plans.

Mod Club Meet-up. Scooters on display.Mods also treated scooters as a fashion accessory. Italian scooters were preferred due to their clean-lined, curving shapes and gleaming chrome. For young mods, Italian scooters were the “embodiment of continental style and a way to escape the working-class row houses of their upbringing”. Mods customised their scooters by painting them in “two-tone and candyflake and overaccessorized with luggage racks, crash bars, and scores of mirrors and fog lights”. Some mods added four, ten, or as many as 30 mirrors to their scooters. They often put their names on the small windscreen. They sometimes took their engine side panels and front bumpers to electroplating shops to get them covered in highly reflective chrome.

Hard mods (who later evolved into the skinheads) began riding scooters more for practical reasons. Their scooters were either unmodified or cutdown, which was nicknamed a “skelly”. Lambrettas were cutdown to the bare frame, and the unibody (monocoque)-design Vespas had their body panels slimmed down or reshaped.

Royal Air Force roundel, a mod symbolAfter the seaside resort brawls, the media began to associate Italian scooters with violent mods. The media described groups of mods riding scooters together as a “menacing symbol of group solidarity” that was “converted into a weapon”. With events like the November 6, 1966, “scooter charge” on Buckingham Palace, the scooter, along with the mods’ short hair and suits, began to be seen as a symbol of subversion.

As many British rock bands of the mid-1960s began to adopt a mod look and following, the scope of the subculture grew beyond its original confines and the focus began to change. By the summer of 1966, the proletarian aspects of the scene in London had waned, as the more fashion and pop-culture elements continued to grow, not only in England, but elsewhere. This period, portrayed in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 film Blowup, was typified by pop art, Carnaby Street boutiques, live music, and discothèques. Many associate this era with fashion model Twiggy, miniskirts, and bold geometrical patterns on brightly coloured clothes. It would exert a considerable influence on the worldwide spread of mod, particularly in the United States.[

As mod was going through transformation in England, it became all the rage in the United States and around the world, as many young people adopted its look. However, the worldwide experience differed from that of the early scene in London in that it was based mainly on the pop culture aspect, influenced by British rock musicians. By now, mod was thought of more as a general youth-culture style rather than as a separate subgroup among different contentious factions. Countless American musicians, in the wake of the British Invasion, would adopt the look of mod clothes, longer hair, and Beatle boots. The exploitation documentary, Mondo Mod, provides a glimpse at mod’s influence on the Sunset Strip and West Hollywood scene of late 1966. Mod would become increasingly associated with psychedelic rock and the early hippie movement, by 1967, when more exotic looks, such as Nehru jackets and love beads came into vogue. Its trappings were reflected on popular TV shows such as Laugh-In and The Mod Squad.

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Vespa Scooter History 1946 to 1970

Once upon a time …  Enrico Piaggio, the son of Piaggio’s  founder Rinaldo Piaggio (Piaggio, built aircraft during WWII), decided to  address Italy’s urgent need for a modern and affordable mode of transportation for the masses.  Upon seeing the MP6 prototype for the first time, Enrico Piaggio exclaimed: “Sembra una vespa!” (“It resembles a wasp!”) Piaggio effectively named his new scooter on the spot. Vespa is both Latin and Italian for wasp—derived from the vehicle’s body shape: The thicker rear part connected to the front part by a narrow waist, and the steering rod resembled antennae.

The Vespa scooter was formally unveiled to the press at Rome Golf Club, reports suggest journalists were apparently mystified by the strange, pastel coloured, toy-like machine on display, many asked “is it a motorcycle? is it a bicycle?.  However,  the road tests demonstrations were encouraging, and even with no rear suspension the machine was easily maneuvered and seemed to be more comfortable to ride than a traditional motorcycle.

Following its public debut at the 1946 Milan Fair, the first fifty sold slowly, however, the company soon introduced a payment plan with installments, sales took off.  Piaggio sold some 2,500 Vespas in 1947, over 10,000 in 1948, 20,000 in 1949, and over 60,000 in 1950.

The biggest sales promotion ever was by Hollywood and well known movie stars. In 1952, Audrey Hepburn side-saddled Gregory Peck’s Vespa in the feature film Roman Holiday for a ride through Rome, resulting in over 100,000 sales. In 1956, John Wayne dismounted his horse in favor of the two-wheel Vespa scooter to get between takes on sets, as well as Marlon Brando, Dean Martin, and the entertainer Abbe Lane had become Vespa owners. William Wyler filmed Ben Hur in Rome in 1959, allowing Charlton Heston to abandon horse and chariot between takes to take a spin on the Vespa.  It seemed everyone in Hollywood had been bitten by the Vespa Bug.

Vespa clubs popped up throughout Europe, and by 1952, worldwide Vespa Club membership had surpassed 50,000. By the mid-1950s, Vespas were being manufactured under licence in Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium and Spain; in the 1960s, production was started in India, Brazil and Indonesia. By 1956, one million had been sold, then two million by 1960. By the 1960s, the Vespa—originally conceived as a utility vehicle—had come to symbolize freedom and imagination, and resulted in further sales boosts: four million by 1970, and ten million by the late 1980s.

Improvements were made to the original design and new models were introduced. The 1948 Vespa 125 had rear suspension for a smoother ride and a bigger engine. The headlamp was moved up to the handlebars in 1953, and had more engine power and a restyled rear fairing. A cheaper spartan version was also available. One of the best-loved models was the Vespa 150 GS introduced in 1955 with a 150 cc engine, a long saddle, and the faired handlebar-headlamp unit. Then came the 50 cc of 1963, and in 1968 Vespa 125 Primavera became one of the most durable of all.

Vespas came in two sizes, referred to as “largeframe” and “smallframe”. The smallframe scooters came in 50 cc, 90 cc, 100 cc, and 125 cc versions, all using an engine derived from the 50 cc model of 1963, and the largeframe scooters in 125 cc, 150 cc, 160 cc, 180 cc, and 200 cc displacements using engines derived from the redesigned 125 cc engine from the late 1950s.

The largeframe Vespa evolved into the PX range in the late 1970s and was produced in 125, 150 and 200 cc versions until July 2007. Starting in 1981, an 80cc version was available as well. After production of the PX ceased, sales of the LML Star, an Indian-made copy of the PX, soared. Piaggio then reintroduced the PX 125 and 200 models in 2010.

The smallframe evolved into the PK range in the early 1980s, although some vintage-styled smallframes were produced for the Japanese market as late as the mid-1990s.


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